Monday, September 16, 2013

The Cross and the Prayer Life {Reflections on Prayer}

WARNING: Some readers (i.e., me, myself, and I) may find the following paragraphs hazardous to their pride.

King Asa’s biography, given to us in 2 Chronicles 14-16, strikes me as one of the great tragedies of Scripture. At the beginning of his reign, he sought the Lord and commanded the people of Judah to do likewise. Because they sought Him, God gave them peace and prosperity and enabled Asa to fortify their cities and build an army of nearly 600,000 valiant warriors.

After ten years of rest, an Ethiopian army of a million men and 300 chariots came out against them, dwarfing their own sizable force by comparison. “Then Asa called to the LORD his God, and said, LORD, there is no one besides Thee to help in the battle between the powerful and those who have no strength. . .’”(14:11). No strength? No one to help? 580,000 valiant warriors armed to the teeth is “no strength”? He continued, “. . . so help us, O LORD our God, for we trust in Thee, and in Thy name have come against this multitude. O LORD, Thou art our God; let not man prevail against Thee.” Even with a might army under his command, Asa recognized that ultimately his only strength and effectiveness came from the Lord. In fact, his greatest strength lay in seeking God out of weakness.

As a result, the Lord and His army routed, shattered, plundered, destroyed, and despoiled the Ethiopian forces beyond recovery. The chronicler offers no battle tactics or explanation, other than an army seeking God and then following in His wake as He went before them striking fear in the enemies’ hearts.
On the crest of this tremendous victory, the Spirit of the LORD sends Azariah the prophet to Asa. He exhorts the king, “Listen to me, Asa, and all Judah and Benjamin: the LORD is with you when you are with Him. And if you seek Him, He will let you find Him; but if you forsake Him, He will forsake you. And for many days Israel was without the true God and without a teaching priest and without law. But in their distress they turned to the LORD God of Israel, and they sought Him, and He let them find Him” (15:2-4). Huh. Seems like odd timing for such a warning. Isn’t that what they were already doing?

Asa responds, however, by seeking Him all the more earnestly. He removed the abominable idols from the land, even dethroning his own mother and burning her own “horrid image” (an idol, not an ugly photo). He restored the temple and its implements. As went the leader, so went the people. All Judah and Benjamin, along with many who had defected from the ten tribes of the northern kingdom of Israel, “entered into the covenant to seek the LORD God of their fathers with all their heart and soul. . . . And all Judah rejoiced concerning the oath, for they had sworn with their whole heart and had sought Him with their whole desire [NASB, marg.], and He let them find Him” (15:12,15).

After twenty more uninterrupted years of peace, the king of the northern tribes of Israel lay siege against Asa. No problem, right? “The LORD is with you when you are with Him. And if you seek Him, He will let you find Him.” Alas, Asa used the plentiful resources God had supplied to establish a treaty to purchase the assistance of the pagan king who was previously allied with the northern tribes.

The plan works, and the enemy departs, but the Lord sent Hanani the seer to rebuke Asa: “Because you have relied on the king of Aram and have not relied on the LORD you God, therefore the army of the king of Aram has escaped out of your hand. Were not the Ethiopians and the Lubim and immense army with very many chariots and horsemen? Yet, because you relied on the LorD He delivered them into your hand. For the eyes of the LORD move to and from throughout the whole earth that He may strongly support those whose heart is completely His. You have acted foolishly in this. Indeed, from now on you will surely have wars” (16:7-9).

Unshaken in his pride, Asa angrily imprisoned the man of God for his stern counsel, oppressed some of his own people, and died with a disease in his feet. His epitaph chills the heart: “His disease was severe, yet even in his disease he did not seek the LORD, but the physicians” (16:12).

The parallels between our situation and Asa’s are sobering. By His grace, God has blessed us as American Christians with peace and prosperity. Indeed, we have an unparalleled abundance of wealth, education, study resources, . . . and pride. We can do more, faster, and more thoroughly than perhaps any culture in history, so we do just that. We do more, faster, and more thoroughly, but our churches and our individual lives are oddly bankrupt of the power of God.

In a similar situation, ministers in the Church of Scotland in 1651 recognized their sin behind the lack of power and confessed, “Exceeding great selfishness in all that we do, acting from ourselves, for ourselves, and to ourselves. Seldom in secret prayer with God, except to fit for public service; and even then much neglected, or gone about very superficially.”

H. Maynard Smith writes, “There is always something more in your nature which [God] wills to mark with the Cross.” That includes our prayer lives. True prayer marks the pride of my flesh with the cross, calling me to count for nothing all the resources God has provided and cry out to Him in helplessness. In fact, any other kind of work seems easier, because it avoids the call to die. “Recalling strenuous efforts in the secret place, a pastor’s [any Christian’s, actually] flesh begins to make many a falsely pious suggestion when the hour of prayer approaches: fascinate the mind with another chapter of theology; rush off to visit a weak Christian; look through periodicals - to keep abreast of the times, of course – visit a loved bookshop! Anything is easier than an earnest conference with the living God. It will sap energy from self to lay hold upon the Lord until he visit your corner of the vineyard with grace and power” (Walter Chantry, The Shadow of the Cross, 74).

Beloved, we are too easily contented with our gimmicks and gadgets, our programs and popularity ratings. I am becoming convinced that our greatest sin as a people is a prayerless activism that seeks to do the Lord’s work in our own way, making plans and forming strategies and then asking Him to bless our treaty with the king of Aram. We exult in church growth, building blog readership, and growing membership numbers in youth groups and Bible studies, but if we are doing so relying on the power of the flesh, our lives, churches, and blogs will only attract others like us who refuse to die to themselves. Have we forgotten that with all our prosperity, we are helpless: helpless to transform lives, helpless to speak winged arrow-words that pierce hearts, helpless to free men and women from the powers of darkness? Have I yet come to the recognition that it is no longer I, but Christ who lives in me? Can it be truly said of me, “The LORD is with her, because she is with Him”?

Like Asa, we settle for peace from the king of Israel and miss the opportunity for God to deliver Israel and Aram both into our hands. We are content with our own comfort and loathe to forego sleep, food, pleasure, or the mere pride of accomplishment to humble ourselves before the Lord. Far from pointing fingers, I confess my own place as chief of sinners in this matter of laziness in prayer.

God is seeking seekers, those who seek Him with all their hearts. He delights to show forth His strength on their behalf. Let us, then, examine ourselves: are our hearts completely His? Or are we, like Asa, “diseased in our feet”? If the former, let us seek Him all the more earnestly, strengthened in our resolve. If the latter, let us “be zealous therefore, and repent.”

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