Showing posts with label Prayer. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Prayer. Show all posts

Friday, November 16, 2018

Penitent & Priest, Confession & Absolution





As I recently reviewed some of the poetry I had written within the past year, I reflected upon the state of Christianity I observe all around me today and the way in which I expressed aspects of it poetically. After stumbling upon a poem about Christian contrition and confession, it dawned on me that confession is an important—indeed essential—sacrament needing reconsideration and retrieval. 

Growing up as a Protestant I was only familiar with the pop-culture view of Catholicism and confession within that Church (you know, the kind that is either still at war with “unbiblical” medieval views, or the kind that treats everything outside their own non-catholic tribe as “superstitious”, "fictitious",  "magical", or "blasphemous"). Today I recalled some conversations I have had with both kinds of protestant diatribalists, about the so-called “unbiblical sacraments”, and none strikes me as being more misunderstood than the sacrament of Confession. 

There are numerous obstacles in the way of maintaining an edifying conversation about that. I would like to cut through the messiness of how such conversations typically begin. Deflecting attention away from the first obstacle, which is even considering Confession as a sacrament, I think that the most important way of helping Protestants recognize the legitimacy and helpfulness of private confession and absolution to a priest or pastor is to see what Catholic confession can and does actually look like today. I mention this because the most common criticism I have come across has to do with the Roman rite of confession. (You know, the kind that sort of, in a crass way, is portrayed as quick and painless: “Bless me Father for I have sinned…yada, yada, yada. Okay, now go out and say five hail Mary’s and two Our Father’s, and you’re good to go.”)

That might be the way Roman (Western) rite confession is practiced. I seriously doubt that it represents the majority. I have not personally been to confession in a Roman Catholic parish, but I have asked a lot of Roman Catholic friends what they’re experiences were like, and have received a lot of positive, detailed feedback that the kind of priests and parishes which tolerate such pathetic, and somewhat comical confessional practices are not popular, and are not common in the northern midwest regions of America (around where we live). But even if the majority of Catholic parishes practiced confession in such a fashion today (and again, admittedly, I don't actually know how the majority of Roman priests practice it), that is not how Catholic confession operates in Eastern rite parishes. And this, I do have experience in practicing. As a Byzantine Greek Catholic who has celebrated with a handful of parishes across the USA, I can actually dispel some of the “superstitious magic” which Protestants imagine the sacrament of Confession to be instilling.

How might I attempt to dispel such prevailing protestant myths of our era?  

The answer: By illustrating the actual rite of confession within Eastern Orthodox and Catholic parishes. 

My hope, again, is to dispel some of the worrisome and comical “fictions” which Protestants imagine are occurring at every confession within the Catholic Church, and to show plainly through the rite itself how “Biblical” it actually is (and should be considered to remain). That should help provide a framework for Protestants to consider, if not rethink altogether, the possibility of private confession to an ordained minister of Jesus Christ as a healthy practice to retrieve (as even the mighty Protestant icon, John Calvin, begrudgingly implied as a theoretical possibility, long ago1). 

Assuming that a man was to receive the sacrament of Confession, here is how it might look in an Eastern parish: 

First, the penitent Christian approaches the iconostasis located in the front of the Church, beyond all the pews, and stands before an icon of Jesus Christ. The priest draws near and says: 
My brother, inasmuch as you have come to God, and to me, do not be ashamed; for you do not speak to me, but to God, before Whom you stand. If you are able, please kneel before Christ our God 

Facing Jesus and looking attentively to Him, the penitent Christian might then begin with a formal and general declaration, such as: “I have sinned, O Lord, forgive me. O God, be merciful to me a sinner”, followed by more specific details.  

*** 

Or the penitent might just speak to Christ, confess sins generally, followed by the priest questioning him to draw out more specific details about specific sins. (It is especially helpful that priests of the Eastern Catholic rite carry on a conversation in a very practical manner, questioning, encouraging, seeking understanding, and challenging the penitent toward serious consideration of the graveness involved, consequently or actually, by the sins committed and confessed.) 

***

When the confession to Jesus is complete, the priest places his stole over the head of the penitent and speaks to the penitent: 

My spiritual child, who have confessed before your humble servant, I, an unworthy sinner, do not have the power on earth to forgive sins. God alone has that power; yet through that divinely spoken word which came to the apostles after the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, saying: “If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of anyone, they are retained,” we too are given boldness to say: Whatever you have said to me, and whatever you have not succeeded in saying, either through ignorance or through forgetfulness, whatever it may be, God alone forgives you in this present world and in that which is to come.  

Or the priest says instead:

O God our Savior, who by Your prophet Nathan granted the repentant David pardon of his transgressions, and accepted Manasseh’s prayers of repentance: In Your customary love toward mankind, accept also this Your servant, who is here before You to repent of the sins which he has committed. Overlook all that he has done, pardon his offenses, and pass by his iniquities. For You have said, O Lord: “I do not desire the death of a sinner, but rather that he should turn from his wickedness and live,” and that “sins should be forgiven seventy times seven.” For Your majesty is beyond compare, and Your mercy is without measure, and if You should mark iniquity, who could stand?  For You are the God of the penitent, and unto You we ascribe glory, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.  

Then the priest makes the sign of the Cross over the penitent, touching his head, saying: 

May God, Who pardoned David through Nathan the prophet when he confessed his sins, and Peter weeping bitterly for his denial, and the sinful woman weeping at His feet, and the publican and the prodigal son, may that same God forgive you all things, through me a sinner, both in this world and in the world to come, and set you uncondemned before His terrible judgment seat. 

And now, having no further anxiety for the sins which you have confessed, go in peace. 

*** 

Also, if time and circumstances allow, it is proper for the penitent to learn the customary prayers of the Church, formulated by the Scriptures, and to respond, facing Jesus, with such prayers as: 

O almighty and merciful God, I truly thank You for the forgiveness of my sins; bless me, O Lord, and help me always, that I may ever do that which is pleasing to You, and sin no more. Amen.  

Or this might be prayed instead: 

O Lord God of my salvation, the Savior and Benefactor of my soul, I am truly sorry for my every transgression, and I firmly resolve never again to offend You by such sins, and sincerely promise to amend my way of life. Implant in me the fear of Your blessed commandments, that I may trample down all carnal appetites and may lead a godly life, both thinking and doing always such things as are pleasing to You. Grant me the strength of Your Holy Spirit, that I may avoid all evil deeds, works, words, and thoughts, and may avoid all snares of the evil one. Shine in my heart with the true Sun of Your righteousness; enlighten my mind and guard all my senses, that walking uprightly in the way of Your statutes, I may attain life eternal. Amen.  

Or the penitent might pray instead: 

O sovereign Master, Who love mankind, lead me in Your way, that I may walk in Your truth. Make glad my heart, that I may fear Your holy name. O Lord, mighty in mercy, gracious in strength, aid and comfort and save me, as I put my trust in Your holy name. Do not rebuke me, O Lord, in Your displeasure, nor punish me in Your wrath, but show me Your great mercy and compassion, O Physician and Healer of my soul. O merciful Savior, blot out all my transgressions, for I am truly sorry for having offended You. Grant me Your grace that I may avoid my previous evil ways. Strengthen me, O mighty One, to withstand those temptations before which I am weak, that I may avoid all future sin. Keep me under Your protection and in the shadow of Your wings, that I may serve You, praise You, and glorify You all the days of my life. Amen. 








1. In his Institutes of the Christian Religion (Book IV, chapters 14 through 17), Calvin presents a scandalous case against the Roman (Western) practice of Confession in his own day, which transitioned from public confessions and absolutions to private ones. In doing so, Calvin was, of course, attempting to distinguish the domineering Roman expression of faith from Christianity altogether. In those three brief chapters (14-17) Calvin attempts to dissuade his audience from believing the long standing doctrine about Confession as a Sacrament (which he, of course, considered to be Divine requirements, and not merely things indifferent). In chapter 14 Calvin admits that he wholeheartedly approves of the ancient practice that required public confession and absolution, but his rationale against the sacrament of private confession to a priest or Bishop is very brief and seems almost entirely anecdotal, overlooking many pertinent counter-rationales from Scripture and history, and all pertaining merely to the Roman rite illustrated within his own era. In other words, even if Calvin was accurate in his reasoning against private confession as a sacrament of Christ's Church, he strangely leaves plenty of room for disagreement, introducing it and dismissing it rather quickly.











Monday, February 29, 2016

God Tests Everyone (A Homily for the 3rd Sunday in Lent, Year C)







Third Sunday in Lent
Year C
Epistle Reading: I Cor. 10:1-13

In a school setting there are different kinds of tests which teachers give their students. Some are written tests were you can answer one of multiple choices, while others are completed in the form of an essay or summary. Tests can also be in the form of activities, like in gym class where you're tested to perform the drills over and over again. In all of these examples, the purpose and goal is not (or shouldn't be, anyway) merely to evaluate who is getting the highest test scores, or even building up the most stamina. Rather, those tests are (or should be) for the maturity and development of the student body.

In the passage today from Paul's letter to the Corinthians, we are reminded that God tests us. Paul says that "We must not put Christ to the test (ἐκπειράζωμεν), as some of them did test (ἐπείρασαν)", and also, "These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us." In other words, the previous examples of God testing Israel are on our exams too, so we would be wise to keep them in mind when we are being tested. 

Paul continues: "So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. No testing (πειρασθῆναι) has overtaken you that is not common to everyone."

God tests everyone. Testing is common to everyone, according to Paul. But this isn't a unique idea of Paul's. It is an overwhelming theme of the Bible. In the wilderness God tested his people:
Then the LORD said to Moses, "Behold, I am about to rain bread from heaven for you, and the people shall go out and gather a day's portion every day, that I may test (πειράσω) them, whether they will walk in my law or not. (Exodus 20:20 LXX) 
Moses said to the people, "Do not fear, for God has come to test (πειράσαι) you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin." (Exodus 16:4 LXX) 
And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” And he cried to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a log, and he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet.There the Lord made for them a statute and a rule, and there he tested (ἐπείρασεν) them (Exodus 15:24-25 LXX) 
Take care lest you forget the LORD your God ...when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them,and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the LORD your God, ...who led you through the great and terrifying wilderness... and thirsty ground where there was no water, who brought you water out of the flinty rock, who fed you in the wilderness with manna that your fathers did not know, that he might humble you and test (ἐκπειράσῃ) you, to do you good in the end. (Deuteronomy 8:11-18 LXX)

God even tests his people individually: In Eden God tested Adam. He tested Cain and Abel and others too. One of the most memorable tests of Scripture which God ever gave was to Abraham:
After these things God tested (ἐπείραζεν) Abraham and said to him, "Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am." The Lord said, "Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you." (Genesis 22:1-2 LXX)

How would you like that to be your test?

Even toward the end of Israel’s history as a nation, in second Chronicles 32:30-31 (LXX), we see another test, and that test also alludes back to the principles we just learned in Deuteronomy 8:11-18 (above) about tests through times of prosperity:
And Hezekiah prospered in all his works. And so in the matter of the princes of Babylon, who had been sent to him to inquire about the sign that had been done in the land, God left him to himself, in order to test (πειράσαι) him and to know all that was in his heart.

There are numerous other passages I could reference, but I think these few illustrate my point. God tests us, and yet, interestingly, in the background of all those passages, God isn't the only one testing us. God's adversary, the devil, and our earthly adversaries take advantage of God's tests, to test us also. Writing to the Bishop of the church in Smyrna, Jesus offers these promises:
I know your tribulation and your poverty and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested (πειρασθῆτε), and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. (Revelation 2:9-10)

Whenever we examine Scripture’s examples of testing, whether those examples are about God testing us or being tested by evil, we are always tested in one common aspect of our lives: our loyalty to God.

I find it interesting that in our lectionary reading from Corinthians, not only are we taught to expect tests, but in all of the examples Paul gives us about how not to respond to those tests, he mentions the people putting God to the test. In other words, when Paul teaches us about the tests of life, he wants to know what our response will be: Will our response be loyal love toward God, or will we side with evil against God? Will we put Him to the test?

One of the most striking examples of testing in the New Testament is with Jesus right after his baptism, where he goes into the wilderness and is confronted by Satan. There, at the very heart of Satan’s test, Jesus is challenged to question his loyalty to God. As we know, Jesus passed the devil's test. However, at the very beginning of that story we are told that it is the Spirit who lead Jesus into the wilderness for testing (Matt. 4:1). Not only did the adversary test Jesus, but God tested His own Son too, according to that story. God tests us and our adversaries test us. It is very possible for God’s adversaries and ours to take advantage of those circumstances—those tests from God--to test our loyalty to God.

And as we were reminded by Paul, there is no testing of man which is uncommonTesting is common to us all. If you think your situation of testing is unique, think again. Even Jesus “had been tested (πεπειρασμένον) in every respect as we are”, yet he endured it all without sin (Hebrews 4:15). It is for that very reason we ought to follow the example of Jesus and pray as He instructed us: "Heavenly Father, lead us not into testing (πειρασμόν) but deliver us from the evil one (τοῦ πονηροῦ)." (Matt. 6:13)

After studying the Lord’s Prayer in detail years ago, and offering some thoughts about it, I concluded that the best translation for Matt. 6:13 was “testing,” not “temptation.” The reasons being, first, that by implication, the phrase “Lead us not into temptation” carries the baggage of God tempting us—even tempting us with evil--which He never does, for He can never be tempted to do evil Himself (James 1:13). Secondarily, and as I have already noted, God does lead us into testing, and because the same word for “temptation” (πειρασμός) used in Matt. 6:13 more often means “testing” throughout Scripture, and also is not a contradiction with James 1:13, that seems to be the only reasonable translation. And with that translation of "testing" comes an important lesson about Christian maturity and development, as any loving teacher should want a student to receive. If translated as “testing,” it turns out that Matt. 6:13 is not about deliverance from God ever testing us to mature and develop in life. It's not a request for God to cancel our tests altogether. Rather, the petition, "Lead us not into testing, but deliver us from the evil one" is a description of abandonment—to not be abandoned to go our own way or to fall by evil. Even the surrounding context of the Lord’s Prayer sheds light on that meaning. 

Immediately before the Lord’s Prayer on the Mount, where do we find Jesus being tested in his loyalty to God? In the wilderness (Matt. 4:1). The geographical description could not be more obvious for those familiar with the exodus typology utilized throughout Scripture. It is in the wilderness with God that the evil one tested Israel. He tested Jesus also; and it is there where the evil one tests us too. The Lord's prayer is for the new Israel, the Church, who desperately needs deliverance from the evil one if left to our own ways in the wilderness of life.

Therefore, when we pray as Jesus taught us to pray, that portion about God not leading us into testing is not a request to never be tested, but an acknowledgment of our vulnerability before Him in the wilderness of life. We are the ones who, when tested, are free to side with evil and even respond by testing Him back, by grumbling, complaining, and by not seeking deliverance from Him. So Paul says, don't do that! Instead, pray to your Heavenly Father who alone can give us courage through trials and also will deliver us when we turn to Him. The Lord's Prayer is for God's mercy to spare us from testing that we cannot handle. "For to Him belongs the kingdom and the power and the glory, now and forever."

To Him belongs the power and glory…so seek Him while He is near.

Paul tells us that God is faithful through every test we endure, and He will not let you be tested beyond your ability. With the testing he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. That’s God’s promise to you. God never puts you in a situation where you must sin. He always gives you the freedom to side with Him. So remain loyal to Him through all the tests of life.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

* * * * * * *

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.




Sunday, February 28, 2016

Players in an Emotivist Drama


The following excerpt is taken from Telford Work's Ain't Too Proud to Beg: Living through the Lord's Prayer1:



    In After Virtue Alasdair MacIntyre describes three indispensable characters of modern society: the aesthete, the manager, and the therapist.2 We all know them well (especially those of us who have or are leaders in the American Church): lampooned in the black humor of The Simpsons, South Park, and Dilbert, these types are ubiquitous and socially indispensable. As characters, they fuse a psychological profile and a social role into one powerful unity that embodies their culture. McIntyre locates these three modern characters within an underlying philosophical culture of emotivism, which reduces moral judgments to the expressions of personal preferences.3 (In the words of Mormon philosopher Napoleon Dynamite, "Just follow your heart. That's what I do.") Emotivism flourishes among the social classes, institutions, and professions whose purposes it serves most naturally and organically.4 These groups benefit from emotivists reduction of ethics to self-expression. Emotivism is a twentieth-century British invention,5 and MacIntyre's characters are also of course the principal authorities in Dalrymple's6 world. They spread its moral ideology among all who entrust themselves to them, catechizing both their cultures' natives and its new arrivals in the dogma that moral truth boils down to authentic self-expression.
    Emotivism is immensely advantageous for powerful classes, institutions, and professions. It goes beyond even the divine right of kings in absolutizing their authority. Cultivated taste, proven effectiveness, and earned credentials are their own justification. However, emotivism pressures the powerless into the role of a very different character: the victim. The moral choices of a victim are radically constrained by the choices of the powerful. It is tempting to consider the victim a fourth character in emotivist culture. After all, what would aesthetes be without vulgar masses, managers without worker-drones, and therapists without patients?
    The greatest comfort to emotivism's elites, the absolute sovereignty of the emotivist self, is the sorest spot for emotivism's victims. You see, if victims are moral agents too, then at least some of their failures should reflect the choices they have made. This is the condition Dalrymple's patients and inmates cannot bring themselves to face. They plead with Dalrymple that they fail because they are too easily led, or feel in with the wrong crowd, or took drugs because they were widely available. They refuse to take the blame for their mistakes. 
They go to some length to provide an answer other than that they like it and found pleasure in doing what they knew they ought not to do. "My grandfather died," or "My girlfriend left me," or "I was in prison": never do they avow a choice or a conscious decision. And yet they know that what they are saying is untrue: for they grasp the point immediately wen I tell them that my grandfather, too, died, yet I do not take heroin, as indeed the great majority of people whose grandfathers have died do not.7


    They grasp Dalrymple's point because they too are players in an emotivist drama. 
    Like yin and yang, a common moral axiom creates emotivism's winners and losers in one stroke and pits them against each other. Each group's existence drives the other to hypocrisy. Elites must pay lip services to the determinism that comforts victims, but they dare not direct it at themselves. Victims can acknowledge the moral agency they share with their successful neighbors and superiors, but they prefer to shift blame to structures both personal and impersonal. 
This is the lie that is at the heart of our society, the lie that encourages every form of destructive self-indulgence to flourish: for while we ascribe our conduct to pressures from without, we obey the whims that well up from within, thereby awarding ourselves carte blanche to behave as we choose. Thus we feel good about behaving badly.8

    Put simply, both sides live a lie.




1. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007, pp. 175-7
2. 2d ed., Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984, p. 30
3. Ibid. pp. 11-12
4. Ibid. p. 29
5. Ibid. p. 14
6. Theodore Dalrymple (the pen name of Anthony Daniels) is a prison doctor in the U.K. and an essayist for the conservative quarterly City Journal
7. Dalrymple, Theodore. Life at the Bottom: The Worldview that Makes the Underclass. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2001, p. 121
8. Ibid. p. 122

Friday, January 2, 2015

Thoughts from morning prayer: Psalm 34:1-7



Today is January 2nd, 2015, and in this post I would like to share some of my thoughts about the assigned Psalm for morning prayer today, Psalm 34. In order to spare my audience from this appearing like a tome, in this post I'm just going to comment on one section of this chapter that stood out to me this morning. I also intend to post more thoughts on other sections in the future.

[A Psalm] Of David. When he pretended to be insane before Abimelek,1 who drove him away, and he left.
1. I will bless Yahweh at all times; His praise shall continually be in my mouth.

2. My soul makes its boast in Yahweh; let the humble hear it and be glad.

3. O magnify Yahweh with me, and let us exalt his name together.
4. I sought Yahweh, and He answered me, and delivered me from all my fears.
5. Look to Him, and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed.
6. This poor soul cried, and was heard by Yahweh, and was saved from every trouble.
7. The Angel of Yahweh encamps around those who fear him, and delivered them.


This section seems to stand out on its own within the Psalm, and also seems to be a personal testimony of David about Yahweh delivering him from troubles in a time of great distress and fear of what Achish, king of the Philistines, could have done to him (I Sam. 21:10-15).2 One of the aspects of this Psalm that interests me is the way David begins to speak. His focus is not entirely upon himself, or even his own joy. It seems as though David considered his own personal praise to be, first and foremost, an inadequate expression of the praise that Yahweh is worthy of. Yahweh delivered him, which is what this Psalm addresses (as the opening title states), but Yahweh's deliverance is worthy of far more praise than he alone--or any single person--can offer. All of God’s people are then encouraged by David to praise Yahweh together. From another angle, it is also true that the people ought to rejoice in David's deliverance because David had become Yahweh's anointed king, Saul's successor, and his deliverance ensured future hope for the kingdom of God.

Even more interesting, perhaps, is the allusion to Moses' encounter with Yahweh at Sinai, whose face became radiant upon His visitation. (I recognize that translations differ in this verse.) Perhaps David's exhortation to "Look to [Yahweh] and be radiant" is a counter example to the shame which Israel encountered as the glory of Yahweh came down Sinai to them (in the face of Moses, to confront them for their sins in worshipping a golden calf). That is, without any further reflection, the first thought which comes to my mind. If this was David's intended allusion, then not only could the people of Israel remember the shame they felt upon seeing Yahweh's radiance in Moses' face, but even more to the point, David would likely be portraying himself as one who, like Moses, was visited by Yahweh and was comforted, not destroyed; one whose face became radiant, and not ashamed; and if Israel would follow after that example of David, as they should have with Moses, not being found committing lawlessness as they were at Sinai, they too could look upon Yahweh's face and be radiant. 


Finally, the promise that the Angel of Yahweh will encamp around "all those who fear Him" is interesting. Upon reading it I was immediately reminded of Yahweh's message to Israel at Sinai in Exodus 23:20 (LXX): 
Behold, I Myself am sending an angel before your face in order to guard you on the way, that He may lead you into the land that I have prepared.
Such an allusion is particularly fitting in David's situation because Yahweh's promise in Exodus 23 referred to Israel's future hope of conquest within the promised land (a conquest which had not been completed until David captured Jerusalem, brought the ark back to Israel, and built a permanent Temple in that city). If David was alluding to Yahweh's promise in Exodus 23, then his message of personal deliverance was also, again, rooted in a concern for the whole kingdom of God's people. His focus was not on God receiving praise from him alone, but rather the praise due to His name, a praise that is offered up by all those who fear Him. And as the next sections of this Psalm show, "fearing" God has less to do with emotions (terror, trembling, awe, reverence. etc.) and more to do with an ethos which pleases God. In the context of this Psalm, those who "fear" God are doing specific things that they know are pleasing to Him (i.e. "keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit. Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it." vv. 13-14). I am personally convinced that David was trying to inspire Israel to good character and good works so that their praise and hope for Yahweh's deliverance would never be in vain.

I will post more of my thoughts on the next section of this Psalm in the future. 






1.  Abimelek was a title among Philistine kings, much like "Pharaoh" was a title among Egyptian kings.

2.  Compare the title of the Psalm with the names mentioned in 1st Samuel 21.







Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Prayer that shapes us





Let’s face it. People pray most often when they either want something from God or when their ritualistic family traditions kick in—like praying before a meal. The way they often pray is also predictable. They express their thanks to God for nice weather, good food, and friends to enjoy it with, and they ask God to bless them with more good things to enjoy, amen. This isn’t automatically a bad thing, nor should it be discouraged. But how and why someone prays is indicative of some thing, and therefore that thing, if it is not good, will need some healthy changes. Let me explain some ways in which these indicators can become more obvious to us.

For the Christian, prayer is not merely a ritual. It is a way of life. It is a tradition that shapes our life, molding the way we think and behave into godliness, working in us to show a greater family resemblance with our Heavenly Father. When the Christian prays for nice weather, good food, and friends to enjoy it with, he (or she) should be doing it as heartfelt communion with and love for their Heavenly Father, who cares about why they enjoy it. It should not be prayer for the sake of prayer, any more than it  should be ritual for the sake of ritual. But often times it is. This is because a life of prayer is unavoidably ritualistic, and some people don't incorporate an appreciation of what God cares about into their daily rituals. Whether they reflect self-consciously upon God's feelings or not, their rituals are shaping their life. Their rituals are shaping their complacency. Their prayer-life is shaping their dependence upon self and their dependence upon God.

Proverbs 28:6-9 speaks a little about this way in God shapes our life, even through prayer: 

A)  Better is a poor man who walks with integrity than a rich man who twists two paths together
  B)  The one who keeps the Law is a discerning son, 
    C)  but a companion of gluttons shames his father.
A')  Whoever augments his wealth by profiteering and exacting interest gathers it up for him who has pity on the poor
   B')  The one who turns away his ear from hearing the Law, 
      C')  even his prayer is completely detestable.

When it says that “Better is a poor man who walks with integrity than a rich man who twists two paths together,” the comparison is between those who are financially poor and those who are wealthy, and Wisdom says one path is better for both of them; and that path is the way of integrity, the way of keeping God's instructions. Only a fool would earnestly desire to become completely impoverished, choosing to sleep on wet sidewalks and beg for crumbs out of dumpsters, especially when given plenty of opportunities to gain an honest amount of wealth through productive labor instead. Therefore the wisdom of this proverb takes for granted that kind of foolishness in order to focus upon what is better for both, whether one is, incidentally, the poorest of beggars or richest of merchants. If the poor man is better for walking with integrity, how much better would a rich man be if he too walked with integrity, keeping God's laws in all of his business? This proverb, therefore, is contrasting more than just a lifestyle of poverty with a lifestyle of riches. It’s contrasting lifestyles which attempt to have fellowship with God. One lifestyle walks self-consciously with integrity in God’s sight, and one does not. One desires to twist two paths together, a path of blessing and wealth with a path of profiteering and usury. One desires to keep God’s instructions, while the other does not.

The parallel between keeping God’s instructions and walking with integrity is even more obvious from the proverbs that follow. The very next proverb refers to a glutton and the fact that such a sinfully selfish disposition is a shame to one’s father, but “the one who keeps the Law is a discerning son” (v. 7). From this we learn that the ritual formality of law-keeping cannot merely be a checklist of commandments to obey or ignore. Rather, it’s a way of thinking about God’s involvement in your life, and His desire for your relationship with Him to be evident in the sight of others who, like you, are also made in God’s image. Otherwise, why would the proverb contrast shaming a father with being a discerning son, or gluttony with law-keeping? It seems that the author of this proverb considered the two parallel illustrations as one unified concept. 


Understanding how to be a son who honors his father comes from learning how to keep the Law as our Heavenly Father intended it to be kept. By learning our Heavenly Father’s Law, we learn how to be a gloriously discerning son—a son who understands the glory of God manifested in honoring one's father. The son who dishonors his father is the glutton. The glutton is the one whose desires are focused upon satisfying the self far more than others. The gluttonous son shames his father because the son’s desire is not to glorify and honor his father; the glutton's desire is to glorify and honor himself, plundering others—even his own father—to fill his own coffers. If the son’s desire were to honor and glorify his father, he would be self-sacrificial and other-oriented in his lifestyle. This is what God’s Law endorses; gluttony is not. 

Since gluttony and plundering the goods of others is not what God’s Law endorses as a way of life, how do you suppose one of those lifestyles would impact one’s prayers? Do you suppose that a life like that—a life of disobedience or neglect of obedience to God—filled with an abundance of traditional prayers at dinner time, is going to please God? The next two verses give us the answer.
Whoever augments his wealth by profiteering and exacting interest gathers it up for him who has pity on the poor. The one who turns away his ear from hearing the Law, even his prayer is completely detestable.

If a Christian multiplies his wealth in a gluttonous manner, that will not keep God from exacting justice for the poor. God will ensure that such sinful deeds  ultimately accumulate toward the greater good of the oppressed. Because gluttonous gain does not honor God, God promises that He will give that wealth to another who will be generous to the poor. The glutton's sinful gain will become the reward of those who pity the poor. God will judge between those who plunder and those who are plundered. 

This revelation of God's character leads us to the sobering reality that even if a Christian were to pray for greater blessings, greater wealth, greater prosperity—as people often do—God promises to shape our lives through such prayers. If they honor their Heavenly Father by hearing and praying according to His Law, those prayers will please Him. But if they turn their ear away from hearing His Law, even their prayers will be detestable in His sight. Either way, God shapes their life through prayer. For many people, a God like this, who detests all haters of His Law but yet allows plundering of others to exist, might seem capricious and ungracious. But for those who take God's holy character seriously, and consider His revelation of wisdom greater than their own, they know that He knows what is best for all men, and they trust in Him when  He speaks to them. They even trust in what He has to say about their prayer life because they want Him to be the one who shapes them through it. They know God's not capricious. They know God is very reliable. That's why they don't want to turn their ears away from hearing His infinitely wise Law--because God has revealed himself as their Father therein, a Father is who is first and foremost merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth (Exodus 34:6). They don't want to turn their ears away from hearing His instructions because in doing so, even their prayers are detestable to His ears.

If you have concerns about your prayer life, and you want to know if some healthy changes need to be made to your prayer life, let me encourage you to consider the following exercise and apply these questions to your own prayers from this past week (or month):

Within the past week (or month) did you ask God to bless you (e.g. your food, your time with friends, your job, etc.)? If so, why did you ask for thatWhat was your motive in desiring his blessing? Did you ask because you always ask for that at prayer-time? Did you put much thought into that request? Did you consider what pleased God before you asked Him for a blessing? 

What about your thankfulness too? Did you thank God in prayer for certain things this week? What were they and why did you thank Him for those specific things? Did you thank Him merely because that’s the ritual you often perform at prayer time? Did you thank Him because without thanking Him you would feel awkward (or selfish) while asking Him for stuff afterward? At any time did you thank Him because His provision helped you serve Him more faithfully? At any time did you thank God for His provision because it helped you glorify Him as you provided for others in need? 

And what about unanswered prayers? Have any of your prayers recently seemed to be unheard by God? At any time did you thank Him for answering prayer by not giving you what you initially wanted? Or have you been presuming that God wants what you want?

As I mentioned at the beginning, the way in which people pray is indicative of some thing, either good or bad, and if that thing is not good, some healthy changes to one's prayer life are unquestionably in order. Thankfully, in Paul’s letter to the Philippian Church, we catch a glimpse of what some healthy habits of change ought to look like. In Philippians 4:6-9 Paul writes: 
Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.

For Paul, prayers and supplications to God are supposed to dwell upon certain things, and by dwelling on certain things and then offering them back up to God in prayers and supplications, our lives are shaped into a vessel fit for his honor and glory. For us to be molded into glorious vessels, we must learn pray in a way that is lawful; and for it to be lawful it has to be thoughtful; and for it to be thoughtful it has to be conditioned through a focus upon what is true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, of good repute, and worthy of praise. Thankfully Scripture is replete with examples of such God-honoring lifestyles of prayer. Paul prayed three times for the Lord to remove a "thorn in his flesh," and he stopped praying for it's removal once he realized the Lord wanted that thorn to remain in order to keep him from exalting himself (II Cor. 12:7-10). Likewise, in Luke 18, Jesus tells a series of parables about prayer, and among them we find a tax collector who humbles himself, and even beats his breast praying, "God be propitious to me, a sinner." Because of his humility, the Lord hears and exalts him (Luke 18:9-14). 

We also find a widow who won't stop petitioning her judge for justice (Luke 18:1-8), and so the judge answers her because of her persistence; and that persistence is likened unto the "elect who cry to God day and night." Such likening with the prayers of the elect is appropriate because it reminds us that God is a judge who listens to our cries because He cares about justice. According to James, God cares about justice so much that when brethren confess their sins toward one another and pray for one another, He brings healing (James 5:16). Have you ever felt miserable because your prayers weren't being answered by God? When was the last time you confessed your sinful, damaging attitude about your brother to your brother? When was the last time you confessed your sins of dishonoring your wife to your wife? In first Peter 3:7, the apostle Peter says that if a husband doesn't dwell with his wife in an understanding way, giving her the honor she deserves, then his prayers will be hindered and God will not hear. And if God does not hear, the husband ought to fear.

The wise life of prayer takes all of this to heart, giving it to our God and Father because, like Paul's example, it is teachable and submissive to the will of the Lord, even when it's not exalted. The wise life of prayer is also persistent like the widow seeking justice, and also confessional, not only with God, but toward their neighbor as well, which openly demonstrates trust in a judge who hates the injustice of sin but is compassionate enough to forgive all those who walk with integrity, keeping His Law. The wise life of prayer is what brings true peace of mind, the kind of peace which the gluttonous heart cannot discern, the kind of peace which surpasses all worldly comprehension. The wise life of prayer is, ultimately, Father-honoring prayer. When wise Christians express their thankfulness to God for the mundane—the nice weather, good food, and friends to enjoy it with—they ask for God's blessing so that they will honor their Heavenly Father. When they pray to enjoy His honor, He remembers and honors their prayers. Amen.