April 7, 2013
Rev. John Watts
BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR
One of my favorite saints from the distant past is Augustine. One thing I like about him is his honesty. He didn’t always live a saintly life. In fact, in his earlier years he lived a life that was about as far as you could imagine from the life you would expect of a Christian. He didn’t hide this. He didn’t pretend it wasn’t so. Just the opposite. He loved to talk about his years of wild living.
He recalled the time he was first feeling God’s tug upon his heart. He just was starting to feel sorry for his behavior. He was almost ready to let Jesus take control. Almost, but not quite. Because this is what he prayed: “Lord, give me chastity and temperance, but not yet.”
That’s the classic prayer of one torn between wanting a new life and yet enjoying the old life a little too much! Too miserable to be happy. Not miserable enough to change. Now I’m going to give you a little test. We’re going to find out how good a student of human nature you are. Which of those two prayers thatSt. Augustineprayed do you suppose was more likely the one that was answered? The one about “chastity and temperance”? Or the one about “not yet”?
Today we’re going to talk about what Harry Emerson Fosdick called “prayer as dominant desire.” He wrote a whole chapter on this subject in his book, The Meaning of Prayer. What he was saying is that the prayers most likely to be answered are the prayers that express what we really want. What we really desire. What is really in our hearts. We can say all the right things when we pray, all the things we’re sure God loves to hear, but God isn’t fooled. We tend to get what we really want, what our hearts are really set on. (And yes, the answer to the question is thatSt. Augustinedid not likely get the chastity and the temperance he was praying for until he really wanted it.)
We read today from the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you.” Jesus is telling us that God wants to give us all good things. God wants more for us and better for us than we can even imagine. And as James says, often the reason we don’t receive all God wants for us is because we don’t ask. “You do not have because you do not ask” (4:2). That’s true. But it’s also true, as James says in the next verse, “You ask and do not receive because you ask amiss.” That means, you ask with the wrong motives. You’re asking for one thing with your words and for something very different with your heart.
Jesus goes on to illustrate what he is talking about. He gives the example of a father whose son asks for some bread to eat. You would be dealing with a really demented father if he gave his son a stone instead of the bread he was asking for. Or if the son asks for fish to eat and the father says, “Close your eyes and hold out your hands,” and places a writhing snake into those trusting hands. That’s too bizarre to even think about. And so if human parents know how to give their children what they want and what they need, you can count on God to do the same.
So far so good. All that is clear enough. But what if the son asked for a snake and not for a fish? That’s where it gets a little tricky. You might say that God would still give the fish because God loves us and knows what is best for us. The problem is that we human beings are just devious enough and destructive enough that if we really want the snake, not the fish, we will throw the fish down on the ground and find a way to get that snake. If might bite you, its poison might kill you, but if self-destruction is what you are really after, even God is going to have a hard time stopping you.
We hold an Al-Anon meeting here at our church every Monday night. These are the friends and family of alcoholics. They are the ones who can clearly see what the addiction is doing to their loved one. It breaks their hearts. They are the ones who are trying to rescue them before it is too late. And they are the ones who need the support of others who also are coming to discover the painful truth. No alcoholic can be helped who does not want to be helped. No alcoholic can be helped until his or her prayer of dominant desire is to be liberated from the chains of the addiction. If the prayer is, “God, make me sober, but not yet,” it will be the “not yet” part of the prayer, not the sobriety part, that will be answered.
This may be a new way for you to think about prayer. We usually think of prayer as something we consciously take the time to do or that we neglect to do. You know when you’re doing it and you know when you’re not doing it. When we ask you to commit to “pray daily” on the Connection Card, you know by the end of each day whether you have honored that commitment or not. But the way we’re talking about prayer today is broader than that. You are praying every day even on those days when you don’t get around to praying. Because prayer in this sense is whatever it is you most deeply want. Your dominant desire. That’s the prayer we can’t help but pray. That’s the prayer that even people who don’t believe in prayer can’t help but pray. The Bible tells us to “pray without ceasing” (I Thes 5:17). Whether we realize it or not we are all, always praying without ceasing. And our real prayer is not what we say when our heads are bowed and our eyes are closed. It is what we desire in the depth of our being.
Four thoughts on this. First, it’s our inner prayer that is the truest measure of our character. You are what you are thinking about all day long. So what are you thinking about right now? Some of you are thinking about something not particularly related to this sermon! I know, I’ve sat where you’re sitting. I would typically be thinking about lunch. We’ve had all these technological breakthroughs and they just keep coming, but so far we don’t have a way to display your thoughts on a screen for everyone to see. I think they’re working on a smart phone “app” for that. It’s not ready yet. We’re thankful for that. There are some thoughts we would rather not have everyone know about. But here’s the thing: Everyone pretty much does know already! You are what you think about. What you think about reveals your character. And your inner character is not something you are going to be able to keep secret. Not for long. No matter how carefully you work at crafting a particular image for other people to see, they can see right through to the real, inner you.
Second, our inner prayers have an amazing way of coming true. If you really, really want something, you’re going to find a way to get it. You’re going to figure out a way to overcome the obstacles that stand in your way. You are going to persist when others might give up.
I’ll use this church as an example. I wasn’t here when you decided it was time to move out of an old, land-locked building downtown and to build something new on the growing edge of town.
I wasn’t here but I know, this could not have happened without a lot of prayer. Not prayer that was just mouthing the right words, but prayer that was joined with your hearts. When you prayed for this miracle, you really meant it and wanted it and believed in it. That’s the only way you could have possibly persisted through all that stood in your way to make this dream come true.
In this sesqui-centennial year of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, a lot is being written about the events that led to the freeing of the slaves. If there is any single event more important than any other, it just might be that day inNew Orleanswhen a 22-year-old Abe Lincoln was appalled by what he had just witnessed at a slave auction. He watched helplessly as human beings were being bought and sold like cattle. And he is reported to have said, “If I ever get a chance to hit that thing, I’ll hit it hard.” That’s when his dominant desire came into focus. And I would say from that moment on the days remaining for the institution of slavery were numbered.
Many of you have stories I’m sure of the day it became clear to you that something was so important that nothing would keep you from it. You were single-minded. You were bound and determined. It was your inner prayer. And I’m guessing, impossible as it may have seemed when it was just a dream, it happened. That’s the way it works. John Burroughs said, “If you have a thing in mind, it is not long before you have it in hand.”
Third, since our inner prayers have such an amazing way of being answered, be careful what you pray for. As the saying goes, “If we could have half our wishes, we would double our troubles.” We are what we think about. And what we think about tends to come true. So be careful what you think about. There is power there. It’s power that God can use for good. It’s power that can also be misused. It can be used for evil.
Unanswered prayer isn’t usually the problem. Sometimes it’s a blessing that God doesn’t answer our prayers. The problem more often is answered prayer. The problem is when we do get what we want. Especially when what we want is contrary to what God wants. God does not generally intervene and rescue you from yourself. If you really, really want something, God generally lets you have it.
There’s an obscure passage in Psalm 106. “But they had a wanton craving in the wilderness, and put God to the test in the desert. God gave them what they wanted and sent a wasting disease among them” (vs. 14 &15). Here’s the background. You can check it out in Numbers, chapter 11. The children ofIsraelwere in the wilderness. God had miraculously provided for their needs with manna from heaven. Manna is bread. It saved them from starvation. But after awhile they got tired of the manna and started complaining. They wanted meat, not bread. So God gave them meat. He sent them an unlimited supply of quail. And all that quail meat made them terribly sick. They got what they wanted. Their prayer was answered. But as it turned out, they would have been better off if they had been content with the manna.
It’s often that way with us. Our inner prayers get answered. God lets us have what we really want. And then we realize too late that what had seemed such a good idea at the time turns out to be a truly horrible idea.
Which leads to our fourth and final thought for the day. Sincerity. Don’t pray likeSt. Augustinewho prayed for one thing when what he really wanted was something else. Get your will in tune with God’s will and then pray what you mean and mean what you pray. No more playing games with God. There’s that saying, “If you can fake sincerity, you have it made.” But sincerity cannot be faked. Not even with other people, and certainly not with God.
Jesus had a lot to say about sincerity in prayer. He condemned those who made a big show of their public spirituality but who behaved very differently when no one was looking. He said they were like a cup, polished and beautiful on the outside but filled with disgusting filth on the inside. And he commended those who came to God with no airs, no pretenses. They had nothing to offer God but their need and their brokenness and their humble recognition that life was not working out very well for them apart from God. Jesus condemned hypocrisy. Jesus commended sincerity.
How sincere are your prayers? Here’s a test. You are asking God for something and you hear God’s audible voice. God says, “You have prayed a worthy prayer. I do want you to have that. But I’m not going to do it for you. You’re perfectly capable of doing this for yourself. I’ve already given you all that you need. You have my blessing.” Now, here’s the test: Would such a message from God come to you as good news or as bad news?
There’s a term in economics. Effective demand. You know what demand is. It measures those who want the goods and services. It’s always pretty high. Effective demand is always lower. It measures those who not only want the goods and services but who are willing to pay the price that is required to have them. Sincerity in prayer is meaning what you’re telling God and meaning it enough that you are willing to pay whatever the price might be to make that prayer come true.
As it turns out, our friend Augustine eventually did grow up. He was able to pray for a new life, a Godly life, and really mean it. And he went on to become one of the greatest Christians who ever lived.
He said a lot of great things. I think you will recognize these. He said, “God loves each of us as if we were the only one to love.” He said, “Pray as though everything depended on God and work as though everything depended on you.” He prayed that wonderful prayer, “O God, thou hast made us for thyself, and restless are our hearts until they come to rest in thee.” There are many others. But I want to close with just one more.
This one might take a little explanation. Augustine, who started his life so far from God, ended his life getting very close to God. He truly attained what Jesus said we are all to strive for. He loved God with all his heart, all his soul, all his mind, and all his strength. And he reached that point in his spiritual life where he no longer had to agonize over what God did and did not want him to do. So one of his best known sayings and one of my favorites is this: “Love God, and do as you please.”
That’s one you probably shouldn’t try at home. Doing as we please can get us in a lot of trouble. But isn’t what Augustine is saying here what we are all really after? To get so close to God, to love God so much, to be so filled with God’s Spirit, that we no longer have to worry about whether what we really want, that inner prayer, is or is not pleasing to God. To reach that point that what pleases God pleases us and what pleases us pleases God. That’s what I’m after and I hope you are too. To love God so much that God’s will and my will are one.
God, we first need to confess how far we are from loving you that much. And next, to just let you know how much we want to get there. So God, help us to make progress in this time you have given us here on earth. To not slip backward. To not be content standing still. Life is too short for that. By your grace, through the power of our Risen Lord Jesus, help us to advance. Help us to become ever more the women and the men you created us to be. In Christ, Amen.