Sunday, November 27, 2022

When Is It Wrong to Pray? (1)

True faith is an expression of submission and obedience.

When a person believes on Jesus Christ, he believes on the Lord Jesus Christ. That’s who Jesus is. A believer receives a Lord who saves and a Savior who lords. The person who expresses faith in this way may never understand all that involves. They simply know they are lost, they realize they need salvation, they cry out for mercy and they put their trust in a Lord who saves, with the emphasis (in their minds) on being saved.

However, once they have come to him, they realize they have come to one who not only saves but also rules. He is Lord.

Genuine Faith and Obedience

The measure in which they understand lordship does not alter their salvation if they have truly believed in him, but they will spend a lifetime learning who the Lord Jesus is and what it means to come to the obedience of faith. Rightly understood, faith results in a life of submission and obedience.

Let me make it clear that submission and obedience do not contribute to a person’s salvation. Salvation is not of the Lord in part and of you or me in part; salvation is entirely of the Lord. It does not depend on our obedience or our submission but entirely on his finished work — and that’s a mercy.

Having said that, wherever that faith is genuine, the Spirit of God who comes to live within the believer teaches him to submit and to obey.

An Untrue Truism

Now, bearing all that in mind, when a Christian shares a problem with us, we often give them an answer something like this: “The best thing you can do is to pray about it.” That’s a truism. A truism is a phrase developed from scriptural statements in order to be current. The scripture is used as a basis, but the statement is at least one step removed from scripture, and it may or may not be applicable to every circumstance. “Always pray” is one of these truisms we have developed.

Let me suggest that truism is not always true. It’s a statement we’ve derived from thinking about the importance of prayer in scripture, but there are times when praying is the worst thing you can do.

That might seem rather provocative, and it’s meant to be. I want you to think about it. There are times when it’s wrong to pray; times when you should not be praying, you should be doing something else. Remember, there are two pillars on which the Christian experience is built: one is faith, and the other is obedience.

So when is it best not to pray?

1/ Prayer as a Smokescreen

Firstly, prayer can become a smokescreen and obscure the need for another type of response that we should make. It can be a sort of blanket to cover over every problem and say, “All we have to do is pray about it and God will give us the answer.” Sometimes that’s not quite the way it works. The scripture says, “Ask and you shall receive”, and that’s perfectly true. But there are times when you do not need to ask, when you do not need to seek, when you do not need to knock, because the answer lies in what you already know.

An example: Trevor, who is a Christian, had been married to an ill-tempered shrew of a woman. He divorced her and married an unbeliever. He is earnestly praying for his new wife’s salvation because his second home is not a happy one either. He tends to pull one way; she tends to pull the other. So Trevor has been praying about it.

But there’s something he has to do before he prays. He must first judge what he did. If he hasn’t gotten that right with the Lord, praying will not help him. It isn’t the amount of prayer that’s going to change the situation. What he needs to come to is self-judgment. He has to first judge his sin.

Remember how Joshua tore his clothes and fell to the earth on his face with the elders of Israel, and they put dust on their heads, and he prayed. Here’s a man who’s praying. But what’s he have to do rather than to pray? Look at what the Lord says. “Get up! Why have you fallen on your face?” There’s a priority, Joshua. The reason this has happened is that Israel has sinned. Before you pray, you had better put the sin right. I mustn’t use prayer as a smokescreen to hide what I really ought to be doing, and that is judging where I went wrong.

The scripture says, “If I cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.” That’s speaking to believers. If we leave room for iniquity in our lives, no matter how much we pray, we’re not going to get the answer we want.

Where did Trevor go wrong? Before he prays, he needs to ask himself that. Get up and judge the sin you’ve committed, then the Lord will hear you.

2/ Prayer as a Substitute for Obedience

Secondly, prayer can be a substitute for obeying the clear word of God.

Harry was the son of an elder. He was progressing well, following in his father’s footsteps. But he is being too intimate with a Christian girl. After one steamy session, they agree they must stop behaving like this, so they get down on their knees to pray together.

But how does scripture say you should deal with a situation when you feel the pull of temptation is too strong? Do you pray about it? No. Just run. You have Divine authority for running away from that situation. The scripture says, “Flee youthful passions.” It does not say “Pray about your lust”, especially in the company of the one with whom you find temptation too strong.

I’ve seen that very thing happen. I asked the young man afterwards, “How did it all begin?” He told me when they got down together to pray, the next thing that happened was they found themselves in each other’s arms, and you can guess the rest of the story: they fell into sin. They were disobeying.

Flee. The Bible gives us an illustration of that. You know the story of Joseph, seduced by Potiphar’s wife. What did he do? He got out of there. He ran. That’s not the running of a coward; that’s the running of an obedient servant of God who knows his own weakness. He gets out of the situation, and he obeys the Lord. We must be careful that prayer does not become a substitute for doing what the word of God says.

3/ Prayer as a Substitute for Positive Action

Sometimes people pray for something that is very commendable. I’ve done it myself. They pray for greater godliness. Is there anything wrong with that? Surely to desire greater godliness is not wrong. I want to be more godly, and I suppose there’s nothing wrong in telling the Lord that’s what you want.

But you won’t become more godly simply by praying about it. There’s something you have to do beyond expressing your desire for godliness. Prayer can sometimes become a substitute for the discipline you need to bring into your life. The scripture says you are to “train yourself for godliness.” The Greek word there is gymnaz┼Ź, from which we get “gymnasium”. In a gymnasium, what do you do? You work out. What for? You’ve got a goal in mind: you want to win the race or be more fit. In the spiritual life, you want to be more godly. Don’t just pray about it. The scripture says to discipline yourself. There’s something you can do to answer the desire in your heart — a desire begotten by the Holy Spirit, no doubt — to be more godly.

You say how do I do that? Very simple. Begin with one area of your life. Don’t try to do it all at once. What you need to do is identify one or two things that you are doing wrong, that you need to change if you are going to be godlier. Find a scripture that tells you that action is wrong. It’s not enough to say, “I know that’s wrong.” Why do you know it’s wrong? Pin a scripture on it that tells you it’s wrong. The power is not in being obedient to generalities, but to a specific teaching of scripture. The word of God is the sword of the Spirit. Employ that sword.

I may envy my neighbor’s garden. I think, “What would I do to have a garden like that?” Begin pulling up weeds. That’s not very exciting, but that’s how it begins. Don’t just pray about it, do it. Sometimes prayer can be a substitute for a positive action we need to take.

4/ Prayer as a Substitute for Faith

Sometimes prayer can be a substitute for faith. Now, somebody will raise an objection here: prayer is surely an expression of faith. I mean, when you pray, isn’t that saying, “I believe in God”? Yes, it is. But you may believe in the Lord in a sort of general way without your faith being tested by what you say when you pray.

The official in Capernaum prayed that the Lord would come down and heal his son, for he was at the point of death. Now obviously this is a very poignant situation. The father is in anguish. Then Jesus says to him, “Unless you people see signs and wonders you will not believe.” Why did Jesus say that? I would only be speculating, but let me suggest it was in order to bring out publicly what he knew was in this man’s heart. This man really had faith in the Lord. That’s why he came. And the Lord wanted him to come right out into the open, so Jesus says to him — and here’s the test — “Go; your son will live.”

The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him. How do I know? He went his way. He obeyed the Lord. He believed and he obeyed. You can’t say this person had faith simply because he came to the Lord. That faith would be immature. That faith would not blossom fully unless the Lord spoke to him in such a way as to make him cry out, “Lord, come down before my child dies.” The Lord says to him, in effect, “I don’t need to come down. What you need to do is so completely believe me that you will do what I say. You will act on my word, and if you act on my word, there will be blessing to follow.” The man went down and found that his child had been healed at the very moment the Lord spoke to him.

Prayer can be a substitute for faith. We have to let faith fully develop and obey the Lord. When his word speaks about something, we have to believe it and act upon it as though it had already happened. That’s what this man did. He went because he had the clear word of God that this would be the case and he obeyed it, and God blessed him.

— Colin Anderson, excerpted from “When Not to Pray”, May 2004

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