January 8, 2017
I have heard many messages on prayer. I have also read a good number of books about prayer. But in the hearing and the reading, I still find that prayer is something that I surely do not fully understand. What I do understand is that pray is a privilege extended to us by God which enables us to talk with him about the things that are so important to our lives. Prayer enables us to talk with God about the things important to him.
Prayer is an activity that we learn about by being participant observers. We learn by doing. And our doing is informed by the Word of God, other mature believers, and our own experience. This week begins our annual week of prayer, and so today, I want for us to think about prayer. In Mark 11:20-25 Jesus gives two essentials for effective prayer.
I. A HEART OF FAITH. Mk.11:20-24
The background of this teaching is found in v.12-14. This is considered to be one of the most difficult miracles of Jesus to interpret. It sounds like Jesus was just out of sorts and not finding figs on the fig tree, even though it was not the season for figs, Jesus cursed the fig tree. What is that all about? Well, the best clue to this event is found in v.15-19, where Jesus cleanses the temple in Jerusalem. Most conservative scholars think that the cursing of the fig tree was an acted out parable that referred to coming judgment on Israel. Israel professed with their lips to honor God as if the nation was like a tree ripe for fruit, but there was no fruit. Their hearts were far from God. The cursing of the fig tree and the cleansing of the temple stand together as a picture of judgment.
The next morning as they passed the fig tree again, they saw that it was withered away to its roots. Peter pointed that out. In v.20-25 Jesus uses the fig tree as an object lesson to give teaching on prayer. When we pray we must have faith in God. In fact, Jesus says that if we have faith without doubting, we can cast down a mountain into the sea. Then he goes on to say that whatever we ask in prayer, if we believe that we have received it, it will be ours. Well this is a pretty amazing teaching. Let’s think about this.
It is very common today for people to say, “You just need to have faith. You need to believe.” And what they often mean is that you have to believe in yourself. An athlete needs to believe, have confidence in him or herself. I can do this. But this is not what Jesus is saying. Rather Jesus makes it clear that our faith must be in God. God is the One who answers prayer. This is not a new revelation for any of us. And yet, when we talk about having faith, it is very easy to begin to think that the amount or intensity of one’s faith is a determining factor. In other words, if I can just work up enough faith, then God will answer my prayer. I don’t know about you, but I have tried to do that. I have tried praying with great fervor in an attempt to work up sufficient faith. But I came to see that that isn’t what Jesus is talking about.
Faith is having confidence in the goodness and power of God do hear and answer prayer according to his loving kindness and good purposes. Contrary to what we might see on T.V. I do not believe that in prayer we tell God what to do. Rather we present our requests before the Lord with thanksgiving.
And we must not doubt. But who doesn’t ever have doubts? When it comes to the realm of faith doubt is never very far away. Sometimes when we pray, we may have a thought or feeling that we’re just talking to ourselves. That is a little bit of doubt creeping in. But followers of Jesus know better than to believe those doubts. Our trust is in God who gives only good gifts to his people.
When Jesus was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, he prayed, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me.” Well, didn’t Jesus know that he would have to go to the cross? Was this a prayer of faith? The rest of the prayer is, “Yet not what I will, but what you will.” Jesus’ faith was in the good will of God.” The cross was overwhelming and he was asking for another way. But on a deeper level he wanted to see God’s will accomplished.
When we pray we bring all sorts of requests to God. We ask for healing, for guidance and wisdom. We ask the Lord to grant us a new job or the new house. We ask God to give safety as we drive and to protect our children while away from us. These are things that we are concerned about. And we trust in the goodness of God. So if something happens that isn’t good, we don’t doubt God. We know that he is working out his good purposes.
But what about this idea of casting a mountain into the sea? Really? Literally? Well, there is no question in my mind that if casting a mountain into the sea was a necessity for God’s good purpose to be accomplished, God could and would do it. Elijah prayed for fire from heaven and the fire fell. But is Jesus telling us that we might need to pray for a mountain to be cast into the sea? I don’t think so. The word, “mountain,” was sometimes used to refer to a big problem. In Zech.4:7, Zerubbabel was encouraged to keep working to rebuild the temple. Any mountain of opposition would be cast down through the power of God.
Now, this week we are entering into our yearly week of prayer in behalf of the church. Let me point out that currently our church is facing some mountains. We have experienced a period of decline as a number of people have moved away and as our congregation is aging. At the same time we are currently paying back the line of credit that was used to build the new addition onto the church building. These are matters of concern. Our church is not the only one experiencing these concerns. Many congregations are experiencing decline. Fewer people are attending church these post Christendom days.
So during this week we want to pray with faith in God, who does all things well. What does God have in store for us? Well, we don’t know. We don’t know what the future holds. But we can bring our requests before the Lord with faith in his goodness. I trust that many of us will participate in this coming week.
II. A HEART OF FORGIVENESS. Mk.11:25
This teaching is found elsewhere in Scripture. In the Lord ’s Prayer Jesus tells us to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” In Eph.4:32, Paul writes, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”
This matter of having a forgiving heart is more of a challenge that we might think. Many of us do not like conflict. Nor do we appreciate being hurt or criticized. If someone, be it a believer or unbeliever, mistreats us in some way few of us desire to do what it takes to bring reconciliation. We don’t want to deal with the person because it is hard. And if we do deal with the person, it is common for us to let that person know that we are hurt, angry, and upset using words that are not always gracious.
I have heard believers say, “I cannot forgive that person.” The word, “cannot” often means “will not.” Some say, “Well I can forgive but not forget.” The statement is probably true for everyone. Few of us can actually forget a hurt. But that statement often seems to imply the idea that, “I will not forget.” Whether the offense occurred in our family or marriage or at work or at church, when we find that we bring up hurts and resentments from years ago, it shows that we have not forgiven, or that we are struggling to really forgive.
So how did God in Christ forgive us? I don’t think that God necessarily forgets our disobedience. He forgets in the sense that he no longer holds it against us. He has let it go. His letting it go is not just a choice that God makes. It is costly. Christ died for our sins. Forgiveness is always costly for the one forgiving. To forgive means that we embrace the hurt and pain, and choose to no longer hold it against the other person.
If we can reconcile with the other person, that is the best. Relationship is restored. But reconciliation is not always possible. If an estranged parent or spouse or child or friend has died, you can’t reconcile. And some people refuse to reconcile. A heart of forgiveness will seek to reconcile. But if that is not possible, having a heart of forgiveness means that we will seek to no longer hold the offense against the other.
When we refuse to forgive we are saying two things. We are saying that our sins were not so bad. It wasn’t as difficult for God to forgive us. In other words we view ourselves as being more righteous than the person who offended us. We are in the right and we have the right to not extend forgiveness. We are also saying that the sins of the offender are too big for God to forgive. What he or she did or said to me, is beyond forgiveness.
Obviously our sins and the sins of our offender are equally heinous before God. Jesus died for you and me as much as he died for the one who has caused offense. If God can forgive you and me, who are we to withhold forgiveness from anyone else?
Now I am not trying to imply that forgiveness is easy. The deeper the wound the more difficult it is to forgive. We may find ourselves struggling in prayer as we seek to forgive. That is an important part of the process of forgiving. Struggle on. To not struggle in prayer to forgive is to give up. As far as I can see, if we are unwilling to forgive that attitude makes it difficult to pray. An unwillingness to forgive is an expression of pride on our part and God is against the haughty.
That said, I must also mention that sometimes the wound is so deep that in order to come to a place of forgiveness, a person may have to face difficult truths with the help of a counselor. Here I am thinking of child sexual abuse and tragedies like occurred on June 17, 2015 at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. When terrible things happen to us the journey to forgiveness is often long and difficult. We may want to forgive but the wound is so deep. It is important to bring these matters to God who also grieves such things.
Many years ago as a congregation we were doing Nancy Leigh DeMoss Wolgemuth’s study called, Seeking Him. There was one week that focused on forgiveness. As I worked through the questions I began to realize that in my heart I was holding something against a person who had hurt me deeply. That person is not in the church. I realized that I had also said things that were hurtful. I knew what I had to do. I called this person up and apologized for the things I said and I extended forgiveness for the things that person said and did to me.
Amazingly, my resentment left. I haven’t forgotten what happened or how deeply hurt I was. The things that happened and were said have implications for our relationship today, but I don’t hold it against the person. In fact, I know that this person desires to honor the Lord and do good. And if I find that those feelings return, I seek to go back to the Lord to let it go. Is there someone that you are struggling to forgive? Don’t let that matter fester. Bring it to the Lord in prayer. Seek to takes steps to reconcile. Keep on it. Don’t let resentment control your life.
Well, again, this week is our annual week of prayer. We want to pray with faith in the goodness of God towards us and his church. We want to pray with hearts that are filled with compassion and forgiveness. I do hope you will try to attend as many of the prayer meetings as is possible for you. Amen.