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Playing Games With God

By Robert M. Smith


 

Playing Games With God

By Robert M. Smith

 

 
CHAPTER EIGHT

 

The Prayer Game
 

 

 

 

By far, this is probably the most notorious and the most sensitive area that we shall be assessing in this book. Since it is so intensely personal, indicating that there might be irreverence and error involved in one’s prayer life is anathematic to the vast majority of Christians. From time to time we can endure reading and hearing about the positive aspects of prayer – the why’s, the where-for’s and the how-to’s – but start quoting Jesus on the problems within prayer and a lynch mob is likely to start forming within a congregation. Every true Christian prays in some fashion and every Christian is absolutely convinced that the way he/she prays is perfectly fine with God. As we shall see in Scripture however, that is simply not so.

 

Reading further about this might require a good deal of intestinal fortitude for we shall be entering areas where few dare to tread. But know this: when it is understood that most of the comments and most of the perspectives delivered within the next few pages originated with Jesus Christ we ought to be able to carry on with greater confidence. He does not simply pass over difficult matters and, if the church is to actually grow and strengthen in these last days, we ought to be found doing the same

 

Way back in the 70’s, during my Bible School years, my wife and I were living in a small apartment complex located next door to a Baptist church in Edmonton, Alberta. For some long-since forgotten reason we became acquainted with the young Pastor of this church gathering and his wife. We did not attend the church but we were made aware of some of its activities and its concerns, one of which was the establishment of a “prayer chain”. This group of Christians dedicated themselves to praying 24/7 for the salvation of Premiere Peter Lougheed [of Alberta] and for the salvation of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau [of Canada]. To be sure, this seemed like a good idea at the time and, from some scriptural standpoints, quite honourable. This team was not going to stop until these prayers were answered affirmatively. Unfortunately, this entire matter did not “sit well” with me. There was just something a little “off” about it, though I could not put my finger on it at the time. Years later, through a thorough and exegetical look at Zechariah chapter 7, as we shall see in this chapter, I found out what that little, nagging “something” might have been.

 

Once again, I would like to indicate that a game can be a very serious affair and that a cavalier attitude is not the only one in which misuse takes place. With that in mind let us establish how and why prayer can become a game.

 

For initial consideration, we can see that both Christians and non Christians fall into a trap when thinking about the value and the use of prayer. Within our culture prayer is seen as a last resort/feel good element of religious observance. It is utilized only when all other options have been exhausted, taking for its standard that old colloquialism “God helps them that help themselves”! Under this premise the humanistic “never give up and never give in” displaces the divine call of “seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness”. Far too many of us see prayer as a desperate measure where, when all else fails, we relent to it. But God wants His children to commune with Him, like any good father would. He doesn’t appreciate hearing from us only when we want the keys to the car or as a bail-out from self-induced struggles.

 

In addition to this we have the “vending machine” approach to prayer. The “name and claim it” mentality has taken over in many evangelical circles in the twenty-first century. A sanctified form of selfishness has gripped the North American church in our time. If we can’t justify ourselves with a Clairol attitude [“I’m worth it!’] or lotto-fever [the prosperity gospel], we will attempt to paint God into a corner by proclaiming, to His face, “You promised such and such … and now You have to deliver!” This is not faith; this is demonic arrogance! As Harry Emerson Fosdick wrote “… this use of prayer as merely a spasmodic cry out of an occasional crisis, makes it utterly selfish. We think of God solely with reference to our own emergencies. We never remember the Most High except when we wish Him to run an errand for us. Our prayer does not concern itself with the fulfillment of His great purposes in us and in the world, and does not relate itself to a life devoted to His will. In utter selfishness we forget God until it occurs to us that we may get something from Him.”[1] Further to this, Fosdick uncovers the true nature of this mentality upon writing, “The baneful effect of this spasmodic use of prayer is easily seen. For one thing it utterly neglects all Christian conceptions of God and goes back to the pagan thought of Him. God becomes nothing more than a power to be occasionally called in to our help.”[2]

 

On the other side of the scale we must consider the merely cosmetic use of prayer in the church. Here is one particular example: As church polity would have it, so many evangelical church gatherings pray at the outset of a “service” on Sunday morning for God’s presence and God’s voice to be heard. Congregants add their “Amen” to these ritualistic prayers in polite response – by rote primarily – but there is no expectation, no true desire to actually hear from God. We claim to be the sheep of God’s pasture and that we recognize His voice, as John 10:4-5 states, but we so often testify to the opposite when the message does not meet with our approval. We fail to comprehend that the anxious pleading of our Lord Jesus Christ in Revealtion 3:20 [“Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me.” NASB] for anyone’s attention, is not a message to the unsaved world … it is a solemn message to unresponsive, pampered, self-indulgent, spiritually vacant believers; to those who claim to be rich and strong and in need of nothing (Rev 3:17). Christians of this nature do not want God to show up and do not want God to speak unless it is on their own terms. As such, prayer becomes hollowed instead of hallowed or as Stuart Barton Babbage writes, “subsidized hypocrisy”.[3]

 

There are many examples of prayer – both good and bad – in the Bible. Let’s look at a couple.

 

Now in the fourth year of King Darius it came to pass that the word of the LORD came to Zechariah, on the fourth day of the ninth month, Chislev, when the people sent Sherezer, with Regem-Melech and his men, to the house of God, to pray before the LORD, and to ask the priests who were in the house of the LORD of hosts, and the prophets, saying, “Should I weep in the fifth month and fast as I have done for so many years?”

Then the word of the LORD of hosts came to me, saying, “Say to all the people of the land, and to the priests: ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months during those seventy years, did you really fast for Me—for Me? When you eat and when you drink, do you not eat and drink for yourselves? Should you not have obeyed the words which the LORD proclaimed through the former prophets when Jerusalem and the cities around it were inhabited and prosperous, and the South and the Lowland were inhabited?’”

Then the word of the LORD came to Zechariah, saying, “Thus says the LORD of hosts:

          ‘Execute true justice,

          Show mercy and compassion

          Everyone to his brother.

          Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless,

          The alien or the poor.

          Let none of you plan evil in his heart

          Against his brother.’

But they refused to heed, shrugged their shoulders, and stopped their ears so that they could not hear. Yes, they made their hearts like flint, refusing to hear the law and the words which the LORD of hosts had sent by His Spirit through the former prophets. Thus great wrath came from the LORD of hosts. Therefore it happened, that just as He proclaimed and they would not hear, so they called out and I would not listen,” says the LORD of hosts. “But I scattered them with a whirlwind among all the nations which they had not known. Thus the land became desolate after them, so that no one passed through or returned; for they made the pleasant land desolate.” (Zech 7:1-14 NKJV)

 

To summarize the gist of this Old Testament passage I’d state that it shows the fatuity of prayer and fasting which is not first sanctioned by God. Further to this, it was not God’s intention to have prayer abused … and abused prayer is not heard by Him. The leaders in this account, and the people that followed their example, were doing things that many of us would commend: for 70 years they fasted twice a year; for 70 years they mourned and prayed. That’s dedication! But it was dedication to a faulty cause … thus making it futile dedication.

 

A number of things had happened here; none of which had God or His intentions in mind. These people had turned their time of dedication into the real issue. Anytime we do this we are headed in the wrong direction, as Oswald Chambers points out: “Watch how God will upset our programmes if we are in danger of making our little Christian habits our god. Whenever we begin to worship our habit of prayer or of Bible reading, God will break up that time. We say – ‘I cannot do this, I am praying; it is my hour with God.’ No, it is our hour with our habit; we pray to a habit of prayer.”[4]

 

 Representatives of the people [Sherezer and Regem-Melech] were sent to the priests of Israel in search of validation … after ignoring the judgment of God through the Babylonian captivity and praying in contradiction to that judgment, they wanted to now know if God was on their side. They did not ask God’s direction prior to the 70 years of fasting and praying during a time that they had established. Their selfishness in this endeavor was uncovered in the rebuke that God leveled at them through Zechariah (verses 5-7). They were actually lamenting over their lot and were longing for the way things used to be in Israel. They longed for the prosperity of “the good old days” to be reestablished in the land while turning a blind eye to what God was doing at the moment! They were not longing for God nor were they listening to Him in His judgments, so He concludes with a tremendous statement that all mankind should pay attention to: since the people refused to listen to Him, God did not listen to them (verses 11-13)! Is this an isolated incident that I may be pulling out of context? No, for there are other passages of Scripture that back this up: Isa 1:14-15; Isa 59:2; Jer 7:16; Jer 11:11; Jer 11:14; Jer 14:12; Ezek 9:18; Amos 5:21-23; Hab 1:2.

 

You’ve heard that God answers every prayer with a “yes”, “no” or “wait”? As we have seen above, that’s not true according to Scripture … and, furthermore, God is not obligated to answer in the affirmative either! The (un)spiritual arrogance of many North American Christians is no different than that of the people that Sherezer and Regem-Melech represented … and the outcome will be the same as well. Who do we think we are, that God should stoop and bend to our wishes?!

 

You might contend that the people in this account weren’t “Christians” or “believers”. I would point out, however, two simple things to get you off that impoverished track: 1) there were a lot of answered prayers in the Old Testament … many of which were not offered by “Christians” or “believers” according to our terminology, so don’t try to use that as a “cop out”; 2) equally important is the fact that these people thought they were right with God and proceeded from that premise. Just as those who – in Matt 7:21-23 – thought they were not only right with God, but doing His will also, the perception of these Israelites should be a warning to us, not an excuse to “bow out” of the lesson provided here!

 

In James 4:3 (“You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures.”) we find that selfish prayers are rejected by God. Bathing something in prayer will not necessarily obtain God’s approval and appending a prayer with the words “in Jesus’ Name” does not suddenly make it acceptable. When Jesus told His followers to pray in His Name (Jn 16:23-24) He meant more than simply adding that phrase to the end of a request. We have conveniently forgotten the fundamental meaning of prayer as the New Testament explains it: When we come to God the Father in “Jesus’ Name” we must be coming to God the Father in Jesus’ will. Without this ambassadorial aspect of prayer the whole affair becomes little more than an ineffective mental/psychological composition … and there are far too many doing this. Just as kings of the ancient world had envoys to carry their edicts and expectations throughout their lands, and into other lands, we have been called upon to make the will of our King our top priority; being what He wants us to be and saying what He wants us to say. Without this vital aspect of prayer – namely, the will of God - we are simply talking to the air [a little more on this in a moment]. We must realize that there is indeed tremendous power in the Name of Jesus Christ. The Scriptures tell us how powerful:
 

“Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil 2:9-11 RSV)

 

The mere utterance of the Name of Jesus can bring everything to a standstill. We must see, however, that the power is not in the words … it is always what is behind the words … what that Name represents … Who that Name represents. It is not an incantation regardless of how often we use it as such. Jesus is not the genie of Aladdin’s lamp! And to mistreat His Name by neglecting the proper spiritual balance between Jesus’ Name and Jesus’ will we could find ourselves misrepresenting Christ or even taking His Name in vain – a very grave sin before God. When examining Matt 7:21-23 [“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’ RSV] we are brought face-to-face with the seriousness of this. Note that “only the one who does the will of my Father” and not merely the one who claims to have done much in the Name of the Lord who shall enter the kingdom of heaven. In no uncertain terms we are told by Jesus Himself that His Name is not to be trifled with, whether in service or in prayer. In fact, I believe that this is not merely a parable to warn us about such things, it is a forewarning of what is actually going to happen. This will indeed take place!

 

Does that sound a tad too negative? There is more. Jesus said a lot of negative things about prayer which we, of course, do not examine very often because they expose the games we play. Let’s look at some of these things:

 

Matt 23:14      Jesus tells us not to be like the Pharisees who make long prayers

 

Matt 6:5          Do not pray to be seen and heard by men

 

Matt 6:6          The best prayer is a private prayer

 

Matt 6:7          Do not use many words and do not use meaningless repetition

 

In one of His lessons to the disciples, Jesus goes even further in His cautions about how to pray and how not to pray. Luke’s gospel account paints a scene for us and provides some insight for a number of conclusions [I particularly appreciate the way the New King James Version cites it]:

 

Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Lk 18:9-14)

 

Unlike Jesus, who often isolated Himself for prayer (Matt 14:23; Mk 6:46; Lk 6:12), the Pharisees preferred to pray in public; they wanted to be heard; they sought adulation for their religious observance (Matt 6:5-7). The Pharisee in this narrative was praying publicly in the temple but Jesus tells us how far his prayer was going: “praying thus with [to, about] himself” (verse 11). That prayer wasn’t reaching God’s ears … except as further condemnation to an already phony life. And the amazing thiing is, the Pharisee was not even concerned about God hearing him. As long as those around him heard his prayer he was satisfied. Jn 12:43 [“for they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God.”] tells us all we need to know about this game. This pretense is making a mockery of prayer: pretending to talk to God while actually preaching to those around! The Pharisees treated public prayer like a competition. Sadly, many Christians do the same! I call it “preaching in prayer” as did Oswald Chambers: “When you preach, you speak for God, and from God to the people; in prayer you talk to God for the people, and your proper place is among the people as one of them. It is to be a vicarious relation, not the flinging of theology at their heads from the pulpit.”[5]

 

There are a few things that we must always be aware of when praying, for we should never enter into it flippantly.

1)      Do not make speeches when talking to God. He’s not likely to be impressed. John Bunyan wrote, “The best
    prayers have often more groans than words”
[6]

2)      Do not speak to God in the third-person … as if He weren’t there. This is a dead giveaway that God is not being
    sought!

3)      Do not try to impress those around you. God is your focus.

4)      Realize that each of us, regardless of the circumstances, is before God … alone! When I hear someone pray in a
    corporate setting I should feel as if I’m eaves dropping on an intimate conversation between two persons who
    love each other.

 

Our North American, instant-gratification attitude toward all things has caused us to be frivolous in prayer, slipping in and out of it as easily as changing TV channels. But prayer is meant to be as essential, as focused, as demanding and as consecrated as any form of discipleship, study and devotion within the Christian life. The prayer of a righteous man (Jas 5:16) is heard and has power because it comes from within the framework that incorporates God’s will, truth, reality and honesty, and these things are not entered into casually. Any other framework is highly questionable, particularly those based directly upon emotional foundations. Chambers writes, “It is easy to create a false emotion in prayer, nothing easier than to work ourselves up until we imagine we are really concerned about a thing when we are not because it has never been brought to our mind by the Holy Spirit. That kind of prayer is not natural, we let our emotions carry us away.”[7] He is not suggesting that there is no emotion expressed in prayer, for God does indeed stir the heart of man in prayer; our Lord Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane being proof enough for that. But he is emphasizing that prayer does not start there, nor is it controlled by emotions. The “righteous man” sports not the nonchalant, cavalier posture of a transient but rather the intense spiritual integrity of a devoted prince. He takes nothing for granted and knows that his righteousness does not depend upon his performance but rather upon the Son of God Who gave Himself for us (Gal 2:20; Titus 2:14).

 

In these final parting remarks about the “prayer game” I would like to resort to the late A.W. Tozer. Seldom has any man grasped the depths of the problem and the depths of the solution as he. His cautionary advice comes directly from the Holy Spirit and we would be eternally wise to take it to heart: “When we go to God with a request that He modify the existing situation for us, that is, that He answer prayer, there are two conditions that we must meet: (1) we must pary in the will of God and (2) we must be on what old-fashioned Christians often call ‘praying ground’; that is we must be living lives pleasing to God.

It is futile to beg God to act contrary to His revealed purposes. To pray with confidence the petitioner must be certain that his request falls within the broad will of God for His people.

The second condition is also vitally important. God has not placed Himself under obligation to honor the requests of worldly, carnal or disobedient Christians. He hears and answers the prayers only of those who walk in His way. ‘Beloved, if our heart condemns us not, then have we confidence toward God. And whatsoever we ask, we receive of Him, because we keep His commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in His sight … If ye abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you’ (1 John 3:21; John 15:7). … The God-always-answers-prayer sophistry leaves the praying man without discipline. By the exercise of this bit of smooth casuistry he ignores the necessity to live soberly, righteously and godly in this present world, and actually takes God’s flat refusal to answer his prayer as the very answer itself. Of course such a man will not grow in holiness; he will never learn how to wrestle and wait; he will never know correction; he will not hear the voice of God calling him forward; he will never arrive at the place where he is morally and spiritually fit to have his prayers answered. His wrong philosophy has ruined him.”[8]

 


 

[1] Thomas S. Kepler, An Anthology of Devotional Literature, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, 1977, Page 674

[2] Thomas S. Kepler, An Anthology of Devotional Literature, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, 1977, Page 674

[3] Stuart Barton Babbage, The Mark of Cain, W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, 1966, Page 119

[4] Oswald Chambers, The Complete Works of Oswald Chambers, Discovery House Publishers, Grand Rapids, 2000, Page 933
[5] Oswald Chambers, The Complete Works of Oswald Chambers, Discovery House Publishers, Grand Rapids, 2000, Page 399

[6] Thomas S. Kepler, An Anthology of Devotional Literature, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, 1977, Page 399
[7] Oswald Chambers, The Complete Works of Oswald Chambers, Discovery House Publishers, Grand Rapids, 2000, Page 495

[8] A. W. Tozer, The Best of A.W. Tozer – Volume 2, Christian Publications Inc., Camp Hill, PA, Page 172-173


 

 

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