Christianity Today sent out an email recently about the annual “International Day Of prayer” which is April 23rd of this year. I have to confess that in times past, I’ve not paid much attention to these events.
It’s not that I don’t believe in prayer. It’s just that I don’t always get the concept of “uniting in prayer with everyone around the world.” In reality, what often comes to my mind is a picture of all kinds of people with all kinds of liberal, self-centered or even downright ungodly slants, vaguely praying in hope their prayers might somehow be answered, but not having any grasp of who this God is that they are praying to or how or why He answers prayers, let alone that their prayers shouldn’t really be about them, but about Him.
I’m just being honest here.
And if you’re an evangelical Christian as I am, you might be able to identify with how frustrating that thought can be. How do you come together to pray with people who don’t share anything like a common understanding of who God is? After all, as the bible says, “how can two walk together unless they be agreed?”(Amos 3:3) Can a Christian even unite in prayer with those who don’t know the God of the bible?
But then another thought occurred to me as I read that email.
In a moment, in a flash as I was reading that email, I recalled a story that I read long ago in a book called “Risky Living” by Jamie Buckingham. In that book, Jamie tells the story about how God spoke to him while he was visiting a mainline denominational Christian campground somewhere in New England.
At this point in Jamie’s life, he had been rediscovering God in a whole new way through experiences he had in the charismatic movement. He felt close to God, intimately connected with Him and truly enlightened about who God was – both in the world and also personally in his own life.
And as he had been growing in this new relationship with Jesus, he also felt that there were so many others who had a very cold, distant relationship with the Lord – particularly many of those he had left behind in the denominational church.
But on this particular day, as he was walking across the grass at this campground, he noticed a hill with three large wooden crosses planted at the top. And as he stood there for a moment, looking at those crosses, he started to wonder what it would have been like for his savior to hang upon a cross.
So he walked to the top of that hill, turned his back to cross in the middle, raised his arms and hung his hands over the horizontal beam to hold himself in that place so he could imagine what it was like for Jesus to hang there, bleeding and broken, his life ebbing away and feeling betrayed by His heavenly father.
But as soon as he placed his hands there, he quickly discovered something that was both shocking and revealing.
In that moment, he discovered that the wood on the top of that cross had been worn smooth.
This rough-hewn crucifix had been worn down – almost to a polished finish – by countless others who had done this same thing before he ever did. Those stuffy, liberal Christians from those mainline, denominatiional churches who attended this campgound also wanted to try to imagine what Jesus must have suffered when he hung there, dying in their place, for their sins.
That moment when you suddenly realize just how judgmental you have become….
Jamie realized in an instant that perhaps this “problem” those stuffy, denominational Christians had was not what God was wanting to deal with in that moment. Jamie was suddenly confronted with the reality that God needed to deal with Jamie’s heart about his attitudes. What became clear was the shocking revelation that along with this new-found intimacy with God came a subtle pride about how much more spiritual he had become compared to all those others he had left behind in the denominational church.
And when I read this recent email about the international day of prayer, and then thought of this passage in Jamie’s book, I had my own instant flash of revelation. I had a slightly sickening, uncomfortable moment of self-honesty:
My problem with the international day of prayer is really more of a problem with me.
I’m just being honest here.
The apostle Paul spoke freqently of his heart breaking for the lost; of his heart being joyful when others came to know Jesus; of his heart being burdened in prayer that others would know Jesus as Paul himself did.
I would like to say I’m there with Paul, heart breaking, heart joyful, heart burdened in prayer. But if I’m at all authentic with the God that both I and many others serve, I need to admit that all too often, I have a very cold heart and am all too often filled with a subtle arrogance and pride. And it shows in oh, so many ways.
Let me count the ways.
If I’m honest with myself, I sometimes think of myself as more “in the know” than so many of these other people who are also praying.
Spiritual pride can be such a subtle thing. And one of the ways it can sneak up on you is when you confuse spiritual knowledge with virtue. Peter said,
Spiritual pride creeps up on me when I grow in knowledge of the faith but I forget that knowledge about God is really a means to the end of knowing him better so I can enjoy my relationship with him better and walk more in holiness and humility. As James said, “be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” (James 1:22)
Guilty. It’s so much easier to learn facts than to spend time on my face before God. But time with Him is what I need, and what I am all too often lacking.
And then, there is this problem that Francis Frangipane calls, “the sin of cold love.”
Is your love growing and becoming softer, brighter, more daring and more visible? Or is it becoming more discriminating, more calculating, less vulnerable and less available? This is a very important issue, for your Christianity is only as real as your love. A measurable decrease in your ability to love is evidence that a stronghold of cold love is developing within you….
The measure of one’s love is found in the depth of his or her commitment to others….
Many people will stumble over little faults and human weaknesses. These minor things are quickly pumped up by the enemy into great big problems. Oh, how frail are the excuses people use to justify withdrawing from others. In reality, these problems, often with a church or pastor, are a smokescreen which masks the person’s lack of love.
Too often, I don’t think of the other 6 or 7 billion people on this planet as real people with real hearts that might well also be in tune with the living God.
It is all too easy to confuse culture and taste with the hard realities of how spiritual other people are. I realize that I have all too often looked too easily through culturally colored lenses, confusing what is spiritual with what is worldly, but acceptable because I have become a product of my culture. But when I surround myself with only like-minded people in my little echo chamber, only associating with friends who think and feel like I do, I can start to see those differences as “spiritual inferiority” in others when they might have nothing to do with any level of spirituality at all.
And while I’m so busy focusing on their lack of spirituality, I don’t adequately appreciate God’s heart of passion for these same people to know Him at least as much as I know Him. I don’t feel God’s desire that all these people be pursued and won to Jesus. My heart doesn’t ache for the lost and for their hearts to be made to look like my heavenly Father’s heart.
There is that uncomfortable passage in first John that says, “whoever says he is in the light and yet does not love his brother is still in darkness” (1 John 2:9).
Unfortunately, I realize that in many ways, I’m still the center of my universe.
People are relatively unimportant to me if they don’t play a personal part in my life.
Don’t get me wrong. I realize no one has the capacity to know everyone, or to love everybody perfectly. We are human and limited by time and space.
But it is also human nature to dwell more on what we don’t like about people than on how we are to love them anyway. And while that is human nature, it is human nature that Christ empowers us to overcome.
It’s time for a self-importance purge.
Just being honest here.
I’m going to make an effort this year – a real, honest-to-goodness effort – to pray this year during the international day of prayer. I will determine to pray, not as the one who is at the center of my universe, but as one who chooses to see God in that place, and all the others (of which I am only one) being of equal significance in my savior’s eyes.
Because it’s not about me.
I’m going to make an effort to pray for others who may not know Jesus as lord and savior but who are praying to God as they know Him. And instead of looking down at them for not having the spiritual enlightenment to know Jesus, I will be on my knees in my heart, interceding for them that Jesus would reveal Himself to them too; so that, if they become aware of their sin, arrogance and pride, and drop to their knees seeking His face for forgiveness, I will already be on my knees there beside them, having waited for them to show up.
I’m going to pray as one who likely has far more needs than I am aware of, in all those places where I’m probably too self-absorbed to even look, asking God to teach me – about who He is, about how much I need him and about what he wants to change in me.
And if one of those stuffy, old, denominational Christians shows up praying shallow prayers with very little understanding of who God is for them, then I pray that my heart will not be one of subtle arrogance and pride for how much more enlightened I am than they are. I will pray that my heart will be filled with joy that they’re trying as best they can; that God will give them light as He has given me; that they will all be able to find God as He is, and not merely as they want Him to be.
I will try to have an attitude that J. I. Packer speaks of in his book, “Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God.” I don’t want to be, or to even mistakenly come across as the person who is superior and shining my infinite light and wisdom for all to see. I want to more consciously walk with a simple attitude of one beggar showing other beggars where he found bread.
And if, on the other hand, one of those old, denominational Christians shows up with a depth of relationship with the God that I know and love, with a thing or two to teach me, with insights into the spiritual realm that I don’t yet have, then I pray that I will be open enough to sense God in their words and in their heart, and that I will have the humility to learn what God may want to use them to teach me.
I can see the need for the international day of prayer in my life, if for no other reason than to fix MY heart and reign in MY ego and pride.
I’m just being honest here. And I pray above all, that everyone who prays on that day will get a gift of honesty from the Lord, no matter how much it hurts, for how it will change them; and by that, change the world for God and for His glory.