Monday, December 27, 2010

A Simple, Three-Word Prayer for 2011

Yet another Christmas has come and gone, New Year's Day is close at hand, and whether or not we are the type of person who likes to make resolutions, this time of year tends to cause all of us to look around a bit, assess our lives with more scrutiny than normal and try to decide what (if anything) we would like to try doing differently in the coming year. The key word in that last sentence is "try;" even though survey after survey routinely points to the fact that the vast majority of us will have abandoned our New Year's resolutions by mid-January, we nevertheless want to continue believing that lasting change really is possible, and thus the calendar-driven inventory takes shape in our hearts and minds...whether we want it to or not.

I abandoned the practice of making "formal" New Year's resolutions long ago, about the same time when I realized that change - deep, lasting, soul-level change - is not something that I can ever hope to muster up on my own. I'm just not capable of it. True, there have been times when I have experienced radical, life-altering changes that began with a deep conviction of the heart, but I credit that inner stirring entirely to the work of God in my life, not me. I am absolutely certain that, left to my own devices, I would still be doing all of the things that were so destructive during my teen years and young adult life.

As near as I can tell, everybody who claims Christianity loves Jesus...until He asks them to stop sinning, that is. It is precisely at that moment of confrontation that many people find the Person of Jesus to be, well, somewhat irksome. "Why can't I have Jesus and my sin?" No one phrases it that way, of course, but that's what we all secretly want, if we are able to be honest with ourselves. And yet, we have to admit that Christ pretty clearly calls us to discipleship but also calls us to change. Jesus' exhortation, "unless you repent, you will all likewise perish" (Luke 13:1-5) doesn't leave a whole lot of room for slippery interpretation.

Like most people, my heart rebels at being told what to do. My self-styled delusion of being firmly in control of every aspect of my life instinctively lashes out - at least internally - anytime someone suggests that I may be caught up in active sin, folly or rebellion. Those of us who have settled their Christian theology in the five-point reformed camp can even begin to blame God for the lack of repentance in our hearts. "God is sovereign over everything," this seriously-flawed argument goes, "so how can I possibly change my own heart? God will either choose to help me change, or He won't, and there is nothing I can do about it!"

Nonsense. (I really wanted to use a different word here, similar in form to the one that Paul uses in Philippians 3:8.)

As someone who also finds it extremely difficult to change, particularly in the face of besetting sinful response patterns, I'd like to offer up some hope that came to me through a passage that I have heard many, many times...but never had "ears to hear" until just recently. In the past couple of months, I have spent a lot of time meditating on the response of the disciples when confronted with Jesus' unbending call toward righteousness. In Luke chapters 14-17, Christ is doing some fairly serious teaching; by the end of this particular teaching moment, I imagine the disciples are feeling just a bit overwhelmed. It is then that Jesus issues yet another direct call to change; specifically, He instructs His disciples to forgive a repentant sinner up to seven times each day. The disciples, for their part, are very clearly aware that they are not up to the task:
Luke 17:1-6 (ESV)
"Temptations to Sin"

And he said to his disciples, "Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin. Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, 'I repent,' you must forgive him." The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!" And the Lord said, "If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would obey you.
A couple of things really grab me in this passage. One, Jesus is (as always) utterly realistic about the temptations to sin that are sure to assail each and every one of us. Two, the disciples don't really want to forgive a transgressor seven times within the course of one day; their sinful hearts immediately push back against Christ's command to forgive so "recklessly," so they all stop scribbling in their notepads for a bit and basically confess both their unwillingness and their inability, something like: "Seven times in one day?! Are you kidding me? Would you consider strapping a jetpack to my sanctification process, please?" (And I'm right there with them, believe me.)

Jesus responds by assuring them that with faith, they can accomplish what they would never think possible.

If you are anything like me, though, you are not often in need of uprooting and transplanting mulberry trees into the sea. But maybe you are finding it difficult to respond graciously to someone who just cut you off on the way to work. Perhaps you feel overly burdened by an unwelcome assignment at work. Someone who has been a perpetual thorn in your side may have chosen today to send you an unsettling e-mail. Maybe someone ruined your Christmas celebration with an unkind remark, or an unwelcome rehash of some of your less-flattering history. Whatever slights you may have experienced, I wonder if you might have responded differently with a quick burst of prayer to Jesus:

"Lord, increase my faith!"

To my own detriment, I tend to think of "real, serious prayer" as those rare, isolated moments when things are quiet, I have a few moments to collect my thoughts, and I am reading and praying over a Psalm or a chapter in one of the gospel accounts. Those times are all well and good, but not always available to me. I do not, for example, have time to pull over and read a Psalm or two every time some idiot cuts me off in traffic. And it is in those moments, those mundane, life-as-we-know-it times, that I find I most need to run to God in prayer.

For whatever this is worth, I have found that by simply asking God to increase my faith in those real-life moments has, in fact, made a real and noticeable difference in my life. Since I started doing this a couple of months ago, a few close friends, unaware of my new habit of echoing the disciples on this point, have offered that I seem "calmer," more "settled" somehow. I can only say that repeating this statement whenever someone or something ticks me off has really helped to shine a brighter light on those areas where I am failing to believe the promises of God. Whenever a harsh light is cast upon my own sinful attitudes and habits, it tends to make me want to step back from those habits (instead of embracing them).

How's this for a drastic understatement? I am a long way from where I need to be in my own walk with Christ. I suspect you are, too. We all are. Whenever I encounter the weakness of my own faith, my gut reaction is to over-respond with something like, "This year, by golly, I'm going to read the entire Bible in its original Hebrew and Greek, once each, every week, memorizing all of the Psalms as I go!" But this kind of change lasts about as long as our perennial New Year's resolutions, and is about as effective.

Rather than set ourselves up for failure and discouragement, I'd instead like to commend Luke 17:5 to you and encourage you to call upon it whenever you are confronted with something that you know you can't handle all on your own. The hard truth is, we are all confronted several times every day with people, places and things that we can't hope to walk through on our own without sinning in some way. Silently echoing the disciple's cry of desperation gives you a split second to change course, leaning instead on the strength of Christ for the possibility of a change.

I'd like to suggest that this one, simple prayer may actually be a resolution for 2011 that you can actually keep, and that results in real change as you lean not on your own strength, but instead put your hope in the only One capable of making any lasting change: "Lord, increase our faith!"

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