Tag Archives: Change

“Churches Change the World” ~ But How?

Church

Churches change the world” is the theme for the Pentecost Offering of my denomination this year. This is the special offering that is directed to the support of new church development, and that’s an easy ministry for most of us to support.  Who doesn’t believe that churches are supposed to be spiritually and morally transformative. The only real question, it seems to me, is how?  How does the church actually go about changing the world?

The promotional materials for my denomination’s special offering for new church development this year names the importance of the church speaking to the world about her own faith’s values and convictions as one of the ways that the church goes about changing the world. In fact, this is how being “prophetic” is generally, if not singularly, understood by us “Disciples” these days.  We want to speak our truth to its power.  And so we have gotten pretty good at passing resolutions, and making public statements, and marching for social justice.  And while I certainly don’t discount the necessity or efficacy of the church’s public witness, it seems to me, that an equally important way for the church to go about trying to change the world is by the church speaking its truth to the church!  In fact I would argue that I would argue that this should probably come first.

Michael Horton, the Reformed theologian, has criticized the American Church’s historic failure to condemn slavery before and during the Civil War. And he is very clear that the “the racisms that still haunt our society” — “the New Jim Crow, broken window policing, and discrimination in every way imaginable” (Derrick Holmes) — are all the poisonous fruit from the tree of this historic moral and spiritual failure by the American church.  And at the heart of this failure, he argues, was not just the church’s refusal to speak out clearly against slavery to the State, it was also the result of the church’s refusal to speak out clearly against slavery to the church!  The evil of slavery persisted, he argues, not because the church wouldn’t address it publicly as a political matter, but rather because the church wouldn’t address it with its own members as a faith matter.   He notes, “the church itself was segregated – often more so than society at large.” And he wonders about how this might have been different had the church preached “the whole counsel of God, including his wrath against the sin of slavery” to its own membership?  What would have happened had the church spoken prophetically to the church?

Wouldn’t the members (of that church) been shaped by God’s Word and Spirit to oppose such a horrific evil?   And wouldn’t they do so not only in their extended families but in their towns and cities?  Wouldn’t they carry their convictions to the voting booth as loyal citizens?  Some would even do so as judges, legislators, and generals.  What if the church that nurtured R. L. Dabney (a major American theologian of that era) had denounced slavery with one voice, with all of the spiritual authority in heaven behind it?  Would he have become a notorious defender of racist religion as he preached, wrote, and served as chief of staff to Stonewall Jackson? (https://www.whitehorseinn.org/2013/09/two-kingdoms-and-slavery/)

It’s easy to think that the prophetic work of the church is what happens in the streets on days of protest, but I find that most of the prophetic work that I do as a local church pastor happens in the pews when I preach and preside at the Lord’s Table on Sunday mornings, and in the classrooms where I teach the Faith, and at the dinner tables and in the coffee shops where I talk about our beliefs and their consequences with people who are just trying to be faithful.

In a recent contribution to the “Rhetoric, Race and Religion Blog” at the “Patheos” Website (4/30/17), Derrick Holmes said that after he had participated in a public demonstration against social injustice at a city council meeting, another participant, grateful for his presence there, wanted to know why there weren’t other ministers with him?  And the clear implication was that if a minister wasn’t in the streets with them protesting or at a rally making a public statement, then he or she wasn’t really doing anything “prophetic” for the cause (http://www.patheos.com).

“Where are the pastors?” that essay asked, and my initial response was that where they really need to be is in their churches doing the slow steady work of the moral formation and the spiritual transformation of the people who are entrusted to their care. In my experience there is nothing more “prophetic” than the church preaching the message of God’s inclusive love in Jesus Christ, and then inviting “whosoever” would come to the Table of Remembrance of God’s sacrificial act of redemption and reconciliation in Christ each week  A church that is being consistently and consciously shaped by the Gospel’s word of God’s welcome and the sign of His saving inclusion will be a church that unhesitatingly speaks to the world about the worth of all people and that unambiguously speaks against the sins of prejudice and discrimination.

I understand that the single most transformative thing that I can do as a pastor is to get the people who are in my spiritual care to “to see what the Scripture says” about the big social and moral questions of the day with which we are wrestling, as Scott Cormode of Fuller Theological Seminary puts it  (https://fullerstudio.fuller.edu/one-basic-idea-get-people-see-scripture-says/). He says that for those of us with a high view of Scripture, the task is not to tell our people what we think, but to help them see how the Bible thinks. He explains –

I think it is easier to preach on uncomfortable topics in an evangelical congregation than it is in other kinds of churches. In a liberal congregation, everyone is entitled to an opinion and the preacher’s is just one voice among many. But in a conservative church, we have agreed on a standard. We all appeal to Scripture. In the evangelical churches I have known, we have all agreed that we should change our behavior to conform to Scripture. We may argue about what the Bible means (and, boy, can we argue), but we all come with a common commitment to obeying the voice of God as conveyed in Scripture.

And so the task is to get them to engage with the Scriptures. A Christian with a high view of Scripture who doesn’t know what’s in the Scriptures – like many in the American Church were before and during the Civil War on Slavery – is a menace and a contradiction. And they’re still around today.

In the June 2017 issue of Christianity Today, Mark Galli, its Editor in Chief, wrote about the criticism that white evangelicals are receiving these days for their reported widespread anti-Muslim, anti-refugee, and anti-others-in-dire-straits public attitudes. “You would think that a people steeped in the Bible,” Mark wrote, “would find closing the door to the world’s neediest people repulsive.” But he says that the research clearly shows that white evangelicals, “more than any other religious group, say that illegal immigrants should be identified and summarily deported.” “What’s wrong with these white evangelicals?” Mark Galli asks. “Who’s teaching them these unmerciful attitudes?” he wonders.  And he thinks he’s found the answer, and it’s not the church!

All those surveys that show white evangelicals to be anti-Muslim and anti-refugee also show that those who take these positions tend to be the white evangelicals who do not go to church. When asked by pollsters if they are “born again” and find the Bible to be true and authoritative in what it teaches, they say “yes.”  But when they are asked if they actually go to church, they often say “no.”  And Mark Galli wonders if there is a connection between the “mercy-shaped vacuum within them,” and the fact that they are not hearing “Scripture read and the Word preached, and sharing in the ‘breaking of bread’ and ‘prayer’ (Acts 2:42) – together in church.”   As Mark puts it –

This has been from the beginning the divinely commanded means that enables us to grow into the full stature of Christ (Ephesians 4:13), so that we might become a people who act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8).

Churches change the world. But the kid of churches that change the world are the kind of churches that have first been changed themselves by the very truths that they want to speak to power, and this means that the first place where “prophetic” ministers need to be are in their churches with their people consistently and conscientiously preaching the Word, administering the sacraments, and fueling the vision of God’s coming Kingdom where His will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

DBS +

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“We All Want to Change the World”

AspectsIt’s a single line from Carl F.H. Henry’s 1964 book on Aspects of Christian Social Ethics (Eerdmans) that has been as consequential for my thinking about the social implications of the Gospel as any line from any book written by any theologian/ethicist that I have ever read.  Dr. Henry asked, “In seeking a better social order, to what extent shall we rely on law and to what extend on grace?” And again, “How much shall we trust legislation and how much shall we trust regeneration to change the social setting?” (15).

What holds the greatest promise for the transformation of society? Is it education, legislation, agitation, redemption, or some combination thereof?  Well, Dr. Henry was clear about what he thought.  He argued – “What the social order needs most… are not people with new textbooks and new laws, but people with new hearts” (30).  That’s an affirmation of regeneration over education and legislation as the real key to social change.  Changed hearts change the world.

Now, Dr. Henry was not so spiritually naïve as to think that education and legislation, or even agitation, were completely devoid of value in the process of social change. He knew that they each had a part to play in the cause of change, and he said so.  In fact, Dr. Henry’s most famous book was The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (1947) in which he took to task the social withdrawal of conservative Christians from the pressing social issues of the day.  But he was nevertheless insistent that Biblically, “personal regeneration and redemption are inherent in Christianity’s hope for the social order” (25). This is Christianity’s distinctive contribution to the conversation, if you ask me.

Buddhists and Muslims, Republicans and Democrats, Occupiers and Tea Partiests, Secularists and Socialists all have stakes in the struggle for a better world too, and rightly so. We’re all residents, and so we’ve all got our points of view and our ideas to argue, and in a vigorous democracy like ours, we should be glad for this cacophony of voices. It’s that old “public square” argument — in a marketplace of ideas, everybody needs to be present, and everybody needs to be talking just as clearly and convincingly as they possibly can.   The only question is, what is it that we as Christians should be saying?   What’s our distinctive contribution to the conversation?

Traditionalist Christians have become so identified with Republican politics these days that they are now popularly seen as one of “their” constituency groups, while progressive Christians have been identified with Democrat politics for so long that they are viewed as  one of “their” constituency groups.  But when this happens, what gets lost is what’s most distinctive for us as Christians.  You see, I believe that the real impetus for change is not political argument or social action alone, but an application of the Lordship of Jesus Christ to every sphere of life.  But this is precisely what I find is missing in so many of the arguments that I hear these days about how we as Christians need to change the world.

I hear the case for social change being made and the appeal for social change being issued by Christians without any reference being made to the Gospel at all, to this whole thing being rooted and grounded in the saving work of God in Jesus Christ whose birth, life, death, burial, resurrection, ascension, sending of the Spirit and coming again brings the Kingdom that will finally and fully heal all creation. I’m just not sure that I as a Christian can talk about justice without talking about Jesus.  I don’t think that I can cast a vision for social change as a Christian that is not deeply informed by the person and work of Christ.  He’s just that instrumental to this whole change project for me as a Christian.

Now, let me be absolutely clear this. I want peace.  I want justice.  I want freedom.  I want security. I want equality. I want a healthy environment.  I want compassion.  I want abundance.  I want opportunity. I want reconciliation.  I want healing and wholeness.  I want life, and all human beings to thrive.  I really want the world to change.  It seems to me that it’s really hard to read the Bible, and to believe what the Bible says, and not to be for these things.  As John Killinger put it, when you have heard from God, then –

You want to redesign the world in such a way that people are made to suffer less. You want the hungry to be fed and the infirm to walk. You want the blind to see and the deaf to hear. You want parents to love their children and children to grow up happy and morally committed to the right things.  You yourself become committed to the kingdom humanity has always dreamed of. (Bread for the Wilderness – 115)

The relevant question for me is “how?” How does the world change?  What initiates the introduction of this better social order, and then, what sustains its cultivation over the long haul?  Is it the “Law” that best serves the cause of social change, or is it the Gospel?  For me, this is the question that we who are Christians really need to be thinking about.

Gospel

It was the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther who said that God has only preached two sermons to us – the Law from the top of Mt. Sinai, and the Gospel from the top of Mt. Calvary. Mt. Sinai says: “You must do.” Mt. Calvary says: “Because you couldn’t, Jesus did.” This is a pretty standard division of the content that’s in the Bible.  Simplistically, it’s the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament, although there is Gospel in the Old Testament to be sure, and Law in the New Testament.  When the Bible tells us to do this or that, by Luther’s distinctions, it’s Law.  And when the Bible tells us that God already did this or that for us in Christ, it’s Gospel. As Tim Keller explains, “The Gospel is news about what God has already done for you rather than instruction and advice about what you are to do for God.”

The way that Dr. Henry saw it, most of the appeals for social change that he heard coming from the Christians in his day was being voiced as Law rather than Gospel. It consisted of moral exhortation alone – shouted instructions to do this and to do that – rather than being the cultivated fruit of repentance (Matthew 3:8) and regeneration (Matthew 7:16-20).  The Gospel pattern for change – both personal and social – can be clearly seen in Romans 6:1-11, Ephesians 4:17-32 and Colossians 3:1-17.

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It begins with a change of heart – the death of an old way of being through a personal attachment by faith with the death of Christ, and the resurrection to a new way of being though our personal identification with the resurrection of Christ. All of the appeals for moral change that I find in the New Testament are predicated on the prior saving work of God in Christ that has been personally appropriated by the faith of those to whom the appeal is being addressed.  In other words, the appeal for change is addressed to those who have already been fundamentally and irrevocably changed by their acceptance of Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.  So, if the appeal for moral change gets detached from the experience of regeneration in Christ, is it still Christian?  And how does the appeal for moral change get detached from the experience of regeneration in Christ anyway?  Well, David Gibson says that he thinks he knows how.  He described the process in his article – “Assumed Evangelicalism: Some Reflections En Route to Denying the Gospel” (Sept./Oct. 2007 Vol. 16 No. 5 – 35-39).

“You may have heard the story of the Mennonite Brethren movement. One particular analysis goes like this: the first generation believed and proclaimed the gospel and thought that there were certain social entailments. The next generation assumed the gospel and advocated the entailments. The third generation denied the gospel and all that were left were the entailments.”

And then Todd Pruitt from the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals added his observations on the application of this process to the situation of churches today –

This story has been repeated, to one degree or another, many times over. One thinks of the United Methodist Church, The Disciples of Christ, The PCUSA, The Episcopal Church, The American Baptists… These denominations and others have experienced the devastating spiritual atrophy that comes with moving away from the church’s one essential message. But this is not only a problem with those denominations and groups that are typically considered “liberal.” It can happen to any group of so-called “conservative” Christians who find themselves ignorant of, bored with, or preoccupied with anything more than the Gospel and its concerns. It is not unusual to find legalism, moralism, political activism, and humanistic pop-psychology being proclaimed from “evangelical” pulpits. I would suggest that the enemy of our souls is happy with any preaching, liberal or conservative, that diminishes, misconstrues, or assumes the Gospel. (http://www.alliancenet.org)

If Dr. Henry was right, and I think he was, then the Gospel is instrumental and not incidental to the change that we want for our world. And it seems to me that the failure of Christians to mention the Gospel in their appeals for social action is to ignore the very dynamic that makes social change possible.  To “assume the Gospel” is to bury the lead.  It is to lose the distinctive contribution that we as Christians can make to the conversation.

DBS+

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Changing Laws ~ Changing Hearts

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Dr. Bill Baird, my professor of New Testament at Brite Divinity School, and the reason why I wanted to go to seminary in Ft. Worth in the first place, used to say that our natural reflex is to use Biblical texts as “springboards” to Washington D.C.

What he meant by this was our tendency to move immediately, unhesitatingly and uncritically from Biblical teachings to some specific public policy proposal. We get political in the blink of an eye and become partisan in a heartbeat. Both the Christian right and the Christian left pronounce their particular take on a pressing social issue of the day and leave the distinct impression that it is the only conscientious position that a serious Christian can take.  We call it being “prophetic,” and we think that it’s how we speak truth to power.

As Christians, we use the Bible politically to speak to the world. But when I read my Bible, in context, more often than not, what I encounter is not a word that’s being spoken to the world at large, but a word that’s being spoken instead to the community of faith, both to whole congregations and to individual Christians.  When He was in front of Pontius Pilate, Jesus Christ explicitly disavowed the suspected grab for worldly power through a political strategy that made Him a cause for concern to Rome.   “My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus said (John 18:36).  And when addressing a problem about sexual expression in the Corinthian Church, Paul explained –

9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. 11 But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people. 12 What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? 13 God will judge those outside. [1 Corinthians 5:9-13]

I know, I know, these verses beg many important questions, but for right now try to focus just on the inside/outside distinction that Paul was making here; the difference between what the church is supposed to say to “anyone who claims to be a brother or sister,” and what the church is supposed to say to “the people of this world.”

“What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?” Paul asked, assuming that his readers knew that the answer was “none” — that it’s not our “business” to hold people in the world accountable to the moral and spiritual standards that we who have surrendered to the Lordship of Jesus Christ hold sacred.  “Are you not to judge those inside?” And again, Paul assumed that his readers knew the answer to this rhetorical question as well. “Yes,” we are supposed to hold ourselves accountable to each other within the community of faith for the things that we say we believe are true, and right, and good.

Don’t try to play the trump card of Matthew 7:1-6 here. Even in context, Jesus’ “judge not lest ye be judged” assumes a capacity on our part to be able to identify “specks,” “logs,” “dogs” and “swine.” And within a mere 8 verses of this teaching, Jesus was warning His disciples about “false prophets” and the necessity for His disciples to be able to know who they were by their fruits (Matthew 7:15-20).  The appeal to Matthew 7:1 as a universal prohibition to judging that we like to use to avoid the hard work of getting clarity for ourselves or being challenged by others about what it is that we believe and value ignores what the verse actually says in context and attempts to have it bear more freight than it was designed to hold, which brings us back around to the inside/outside distinction and to the question of who the Bible is talking to?

The reason why we use Biblical texts as springboards to Washington DC is because we think that the primary way that the world will be changed, made more just and compassionate, will be through legislation. And while I’m not unaware of the necessity of political action or unappreciative of the way that good legislation and responsible government can serve the establishment of justice and liberty for all, neither am I naïve.  I’m truly glad that racial segregation and discrimination was officially outlawed in the United States by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but as the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, 50 years later have painfully shown us, it’s one thing to change the law and another thing to change hearts.

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The “takeaway” from Carl F.H. Henry’s 1964 book Aspects of Christian Social Ethics for me was his strong emphasis on Christianity’s “supernatural resources” for social change. This was his restatement of Pietist Christianity’s traditional approach to addressing social problems and fueling social improvement.

The twentieth century has cherished high hopes for socio-politico-economic reconstruction. First it trusted mass education to propound a new vision of society, then domestic legislation and possibly even international jurisprudence, and more recently it has looked to mob pressures and revolutionary techniques to being about rapid social fulfillment. (9)

But the Christian Church ought to rely on the spiritual regeneration of individuals to transform society. (72)

History shows that the thought of Christ on the cross has been more potent than anything else in arousing a compassion for suffering and indignation at injustice. (29)

Supernatural regeneration is the peculiar mainspring for the social metamorphosis latent in the Christian movement… Evangelism and revival remain the original wellsprings of evangelical humanitarianism and social awakening. To ignore or lay aside this chief armor of apostolic Christianity for reliance on other social dynamics means retreat from the peculiar glory of the New Testament to the world-wisdom and world-power of the Greeks and the Romans.  Those who in social agitation sponsor a morality of compulsion, or simply trust the word and will of unregenerate men, thereby betray their skepticism of the adequacy of spiritual reserves latent in the Christian religion. This gnawing doubt is manifest in the notion that social problems are not wholly responsive to spiritual solutions. Consequently, the Church has often turned aside from its evangelistic and missionary priorities, attempting to chart a socio-political thrust alongside rather than in and through the evangelistic thrust. (26-27)

The Gospel of Christ is the Church’s peculiar “dynamis” (power) for facing the entire world. Christian social action condones no social solutions in which personal acceptance of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord is an optional consideration. Personal regeneration and redemption are inherent in its hope for the social order.  (25)

The Gospel is the Church’s distinctive message and its distinctive dynamism for social transformation. (79)

When the New Testament addresses a social issue like slavery in Paul’s letter to Philemon, what it says was not being offered as a plank in the platform of a political party, or as some specific political policy proposal. Rome wasn’t listening.  The Emperor didn’t care.  What the New Testament had to say about social justice was a word that was addressed to the hearts of believers who then as salt and light and leaven would penetrate the world around them.  And my hope as a Christian today for the emergence of a more just and compassionate social order still depends less on the persuasiveness of a political argument and the results of the next election than on the spiritual transformation of people by the power of the living, loving God in their lives through the Word and the Spirit.  As Edward Beecher, Lyman’s son, put it –

Great changes do not begin on the surface of society, but in prepared hearts; in men (and women) who by communion with God, rise above the apathy of the age, and speak with living vital energy, and give life to the community, and tone to the public mind. (Wirt 147)

In closing, I put into evidence in support of this argument a story that J. Mack Stiles told in his book Marks of the Messenger: Knowing, Living and Speaking the Gospel (IVP 2010).

When our missionary friend, Mike McComb, tried to introduce protein into the diets of the largely illiterate Guatemalan farmers, it was a masterful combination of expertise, training, and strategy. He started his work towards the end of the murderous civil war. During that time Mike also faithfully shared the gospel. And Mike noticed it was the gospel that allowed protein to get to the people.

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When the gospel was understood and accepted in villages, Mike reported, men stopped getting drunk and beating their wives. As they attended church, they started to attend to their crops and their children’s education. Tomas, the mayor of Nebaj, told me that it was only when the gospel came to the Ixil lands that real change happened. Mike says that the preaching of the gospel did more to eliminate hunger than fish farms or crop rotation ever did. We must never forget that the Gospel brings more long-term social good than any governmental aid program ever developed.

Changed hearts change the world.  DBS+

 

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The Struggle of Prayer

A Summer in the Psalms

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The very best book on the theology of prayer that I’ve ever read is Donald Bloesch’s The Struggle of Prayer (Harper & Row – 1980).   I’ve got other books in my library that are better on the practice of prayer – Richard Foster’s Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home (HarperSanFrancisco – 1992) for instance.   But Bloesch’s The Struggle of Prayer is hands down the best book on the theology of prayer that I’ve ever come across. In fact, it’s not just on my list of my favorite books about prayer; it’s on my list of my favorite books of all – a top ten volume.

At a time when the contemplative spiritual practices are in rich ascendancy – a move I fully and passionately support and in which I personally participate – Bloesch’s book is a reminder that such practices, while spiritually valid and valuable, are nevertheless not prayer by Biblical definition.  The Bible has category for meditation.  Some of the soundest teaching on meditation by the Biblical standards that’s out there was written by the late Peter Toon, an Anglican priest. Almost all of his books on meditation are available free on-line at http://www.anglicanbooksrevitalized.us.  When you start looking for material on meditation you’ll run across lots of spiritually shaky stuff pretty quickly – we’ve always got to be discerning. This is why I would urge anyone who is interested in exploring Biblical meditation further to go on the journey with a really good guide, and Peter Toon is one of the best.   But even should you take the trip with Peter, when you’ve meditated, you’ve meditated and not prayed.

Meditation is spiritually legitimate and even enjoined by the Scriptures.  But Biblically, prayer is different from meditation, and that’s Donald Bloesch’s big point in The Struggle of Prayer.  He argues that Biblical prayer is not “mystical rapture nor ritual observance nor philosophical reflection,” but rather “the outpouring of the soul before a living God, the crying to God ‘out of the depths” (8).  The image that immediately comes to my mind when I hear this is that of the Patriarch Jacob wrestling with the Angel of the Lord through the long night at fork of the creek named Jabbok (Genesis 32:21-32).  The picture at the beginning of this week’s blog is an artist’s vision of this Biblical moment.  It’s the image of a struggle – painful and laborious – and Biblically it’s an image of prayer. 

 As Donald Bloesch wrote –

True prayer involves… wrestling with God in the darkness.  Wrestling not whining, for it springs from strength, not weakness.  It means refusing to let go of God without a blessing; as Jacob wrestled with the angel of God, so the Christian wrestles with his God in prayer. To be sure,, we also wrestle with the powers of death and hell and the law of sin within us. But at the same time we wrestle with God, as Job persisted in doing: “If he would slay me… I should still argue my cause to his face” (Job 12:15 NEB).  A similar attitude d reflected in Luther’s version of Jeremiah 20:7: “O Lord, thou hast persuaded me against my will, thou art stronger than I.”   The Canaanite woman  who implored Jesus to heal her daughter and who persisted even after he at first refused also exemplifies this theme of striving or wrestling with God (Matthew 15:21-28)…  Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane exemplifies the man of prayer striving with God.  His prayer was “not stoic resignation to the inescapable, but a profound acceptance of the ways of God that are not the ways of man.”  He did not meekly submit, but pleaded for his life.  He surrendered to the will of his Father only after striving to change this will. (76-77)

Striving to change this will?  Do we really wrestle with God in prayer to somehow change His will?  I’m an expert in “struggling” with God in prayer, but mainly because I’m such a slow student.  Paul was talking about me when he said that “we don’t know how to pray as we ought” (Romans 8:26) and that we don’t “naturally” understand the things of the Spirit (I Corinthians 2:14).  Most of my striving with God in prayer is the result of my own failure to apprehend the ways and will of God.   Last Sunday in church our focus was on the seven Penitential Psalms (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 & 143).  These Psalms all assume that the primary problem I have with prayer is me. The rebellion of my sin directly interferes with both my access to and discourse with the God who has made it abundantly clear in His word that He is holy. There is wrestling every time I pray because God has made a commitment in Jesus Christ to pursue and subdue me.  Like a calf roper in the rodeo, every experience of prayer that I have begins with my sense that God has to ride me down and tie me up.  Just like Jacob I can be unruly and need to be hobbled before God can do much with me.  This kind of striving with God in prayer I get.  It’s my experience.   I’m an expert in it.  But Donald Bloesch is pretty adamant that this is just part of the story of the struggle that we have with prayer.

Prayer is not simply petition, but strenuous petition.  It is not just passive surrender but active pleading with God.  It involves not only submission to the will of God but seeking to change his will.  It consists not merely in reflection on the promises of God but in taking hold of those promises (cf. Isaiah 64:7).  It is often said by those who are attracted to mystical or to philosophical prayer that our petitions change our attitude toward God but that they have no real effect upon God, who is unchangeable and impassible.   My contention is that prayer does effect a change in God’s attitude to us and in his dealings with us. Prayer is reciprocal: it has a definite impact on both parties involved.  That God permits prayer to exert an influence on him is attested throughout the Scriptures (Abraham’s bargaining for Sodom – Genesis 18:22-33;  Nineveh’s repentance after Jonah’s preaching – Jonah 3:10; Moses’ intercession after Israel’s idolatry – Psalm 106:2; the staying of the plague when Phinehas prayed – Psalm 106:30; Amos stopping the judgment of God from falling on Israel – Amos 7:1-6).  In this light we can understand Spurgeon’s contention that “prayer is able to prevail with heaven and bend omnipotence to its desires.”  Prayer in the sense of striving with God in order to alter his ways with his people is utter nonsense to the philosopher… Against the philosophical understanding of prayer Karl Barth insisted that real prayer presupposes a living God who hears and acts – “He is not deaf, he listens; more than that, he acts.  He does not act in the same way whether we pray or not.  Prayer exerts an influence upon God’s action, even upon his existence.  This is what the word ‘answer’ means.”  Christian faith, to be sure, affirms the essential trustworthiness of God’s declared will and purpose for the world; God cannot deny or contradict himself.  Yet Scripture makes clear that God has chosen to work out his purposes in cooperation with his children. His ultimate will is inflexible, but the ways by which he seeks to implement this will are flexible.  He does not change his final purpose, but he does alter his methods for realizing this purpose. He is unchangeable in his holiness and righteousness, but changeable in the giving of his grace.  Prayer, as Fosdick observed, cannot change God’s intention, but it can change God’s action. (73-74)

And so, if this right, the struggle of prayer goes two ways.  We wrestle with God and His will, and God wrestles with us and our fervent requests.  When we break the terms of the covenant that we have with God (how God has “structured” our relationship), the penitential Psalms become the script we voice.  They teach us how to say “I’m sorry.”  And when it feels like God is just not keeping up His end of the covenant that we’ve made with Him, a different category of Psalms – the Lament Psalms – provide us with the vocabulary that we need to give voice our deep frustration and disappointment.  They teach us how to say “How long, O Lord,” and to ask the urgent “Why?”  And it is between these two poles of the Psalter – the Penitential Psalms and the Psalms of Lament – that the struggle of our prayer gets waged.  DBS+

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