Tests, Prayer, and What Really Matters

When I was in high school, I had a Latin teacher by the name of Mrs. Hague. She was the classic classicist: older, bookish, spindly, and utterly devoted to learning. She once told me that the real difference in my life would come when I was more concerned about learning something than passing a test. I now believe that you can universalize that statement by changing “passing a test” to “just answering a question.”

We have become the short answer, quick fix society. We are all in a rush; we all want the three things that solve this problem or the five best ways to deal with that issue. But I believe that desire for the easy answer deminishes our ability to learn from living our life. One of the reasons, at least from my perspective, that religious law holds such sway on so many faithful, whether it is in Islam, Judaism, or aspects of Christianity, is that such rules give those who seek that path a set of identifiable parameters to follow. Do this, this, and that and everything will be in order.

Jesus once told the scribes and Pharisees that they lacked something significant. True, he admitted that they kept the easily discerned rules that dealt with tithing, even down to counting a tenth of the extremely small cummin and anise seeds, and Jesus even said they should continue to do that. Where they failed, he told them, was in the spirit of the law, the place where one decides what to do when it isn’t all spelled out one, two, three.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone. Matthew 23:23

Over this year’s Lenten observance, I have learned that prayer is one of those weightier matters. People purchase books or listen to teachers who offer them the one, two, three approach. There were times when I, in frustration, argued with God, saying to Him, “Just tell me what you want me to do!”

The three things that Jesus said the religious men of his day lacked were justice, mercy, and faith. The only one of the three that could even remotely fit the X ways to get right with God approach would be justice. But in the final analysis even justice demands wisdom and the ability to go beyond the letter to the spirit behind it.

We have turned Jesus’ s framework for prayer into a set prayer, but lost its significance when you consider how general it is, rather than being a laundry list of things asked for or noted to be given.

As I grow older I have come to the conclusion that the biblical principal that love cures most problems is more accurate than I previously wanted to admit.

Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law. Romans 13:10

The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Galatians 5:14

If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. James 2:8

But love is not exact. It is discerning (Philippians 1:9-11) but needing discernment means it takes effort to see what is really love versus counterfeits that try to steal our righteousness.

In the same way, prayer is not exact, sometimes requiring the Holy Spirit to groan for us, far from an orderly checklist we so often hear or want to say ourselves.

There is one view of this life that says we are learners on a journey to discover who God is and what he wants from us. It seems to me that God purposely limits the easy answers, preferring that we “puzzle” it out, since engaging in that effort exposes our true heart, our true inclinations.

With that in mind, I pray that God blesses your efforts to meet him and that the peace he offers includes a large measure of patience and humility, so that whatever God gives will be “enough”.

  2 comments for “Tests, Prayer, and What Really Matters

  1. April 26, 2006 at 1:53 pm

    I couldn’t agree with you more on the issue of love and the complexity of discernment. A lot of Christians gloss over the verses you mentioned, simply assuming that love means no accountability, no pressure – essentially just leave people alone. Perhaps thats what you had reacted to when younger, sensing that it was a cop-out answer. True love, as you mentioned, is knowing the right balance between grace, mercy and justice that not only deals with a particular wrong, but heals and strengthens the relationship. It’s not simply condemning, it’s not simply forgiving, it’s not simply… anything. It’s complex.

    The other thing I had to mention, because I’m a Lutheran and love harping on it, is how much this resembles Luther’s distinction of Theologies of glory vs. the Theology of the Cross. The theology of glory tells us that we do a, b, and c and we merit something from God. If we get all of our ducks in a row, then all will be fine. The theology of the Cross reminds us that Jesus specifically said all would not be well with us and that people would hate us. Christ died on a cross while we were his enemies, and we are saved in spite of our efforts, not because of them. Our quest for the simple answer is really a quest for glory, and betrays our assumption that we are capable of knowing enough to make things simple.

    Which brings me to my last comment – I’d love to hear how/if you think this applies to our evangelism. I used to be down on myself when I was first a Christian, because I couldn’t just walk up to someone and give them the Gospel in a 5 minute conversation. I’ve since come to rethink the idea that “Quickievangelism” is what we are meant to do (it may still have its place, but it seems that we have overemphasized it). I’ve had numerous chances to share the Gospel with people with whom I work, because they know me and have come to trust me (and most of the time ask me). The Gospel is so un-simple that it can’t be articulated even over a lifetime, but there is certainly a better chance that I can do it well over lunch with a person who is interested, rather than over 5 minutes with a person who feels confronted.

  2. April 26, 2006 at 4:05 pm

    I had one big long comment, but I think it never made it up due to its size. I’m going to try posting it in chunks:
    I couldn’t agree with you more on the issue of love and the complexity of discernment. A lot of Christians gloss over the verses you mentioned, simply assuming that love means no accountability, no pressure – essentially just leave people alone. Perhaps thats what you had reacted to when younger, sensing that it was a cop-out answer. True love, as you mentioned, is knowing the right balance between grace, mercy and justice that not only deals with a particular wrong, but heals and strengthens the relationship. It’s not simply condemning, it’s not simply forgiving, it’s not simply… anything. It’s complex.

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