I have said it often and said it recently, that prayer has always been a struggle for me. It's not that I don't pray--I do!--but that I find it a battle to put my theology into action day-by-day and to live out my deepest convictions about prayer by actually praying. I experience little of the joy and sense of fulfillment that so many of the great pray-ers speak of. As often as not, I have to rely on the objective facts of what I believe about prayer more than any subjective feeling or sense of satisfaction.
Last week I received a jolt when I read H.B. Charles Jr.'s It Happens After Prayer. If I can read a whole book and hang on to one big application or one big challenge, I consider it a book that has been well worth the time I've invested in it. There were several helpful takeaways from Charles' book, but the one I expect to stick with me is this: "The things you pray about are the things you trust God to handle. The things you neglect to pray about are the things you trust you can handle on your own." On one level it's an obvious insight, but then again, the best insights usually are. I should have known it, and, in fact, I think I did know it. But I needed it clearly spelled out to me at this time in my life.
As I prayed last week, and as I gave attention to preparing a sermon, I was struck by a related thought: Prayerlessness is selfishness. I had been spending time praying as per Mike McKinley's oh-so-helpful guidelines and found myself praying that I would grow in love for those who would hear the sermon, that I would have wisdom to apply the text to their lives, that I would see how the passage confronts the unbelief of those who would hear it, and so on. And it struck me that for me not to pray, and not to pray fervently, during the process of sermon preparation would be the height of selfishness. I would be trusting that I could handle crafting the sermon and coming up with just the right applications all on my own. I would be effectively denying the Lord the opportunity to do his work through this sermon. "You go do something else; I've got this one!"
The text itself gave me an illustration. I was preaching the first chapter of Jonah and there we see Jonah aboard a ship in the middle of a storm so powerful that it threatens to destroy the boat and all aboard it. There is only one man on that ship who fears God, only one man who has the ability to cry out to a God who actually exists and who actually has the power to calm the storm. And he is the one man who refuses to cry out to his God, the one man who goes below and falls asleep. Even when the captain wakes him and rebukes him for his prayerlessness we get no indication that he prays. His prayerlessness is selfishness and further threatens the crew of that little ship.
If I believe that prayer works, if I believe that prayer is a means through which the Lord acts, if I believe that God chooses to work through prayer in powerful ways and in ways he may not work without prayer, then it is selfish of me not to pray. To pray is to love; not to pray is to be complacent, to be unloving, to be selfish.
Prayerlessness is selfishness for the pastor who does not pray through the process of preparing a sermon. He expresses love for his church when he prays and pleads for the Lord's wisdom and insight.
Prayerlessness is selfishness for the father who does not pray for his children, for their safety, their sanctification, their salvation, their obedience, their every need.
Prayerlessness is selfishness for the church member who does not pray for the Lord's grace to be extended to his friends, for those who are battling a specific sin and seeing both encouraging victories and heartbreaking failure.
Prayerlessness is selfishness for the Christian who does not pray for his neighbors, that the Lord would save them and that the Lord would even use him as the one to share with them the good news of the gospel.
Prayerlessness is selfishness for each of us when we neglect to pray for our brothers and sisters around the world who are facing persecution. To neglect to pray for them is to tell the Lord that he may as well allow them to continue to suffer.
And if prayerlessness is selfishness, than one of the ways I can best love my church and family and friends and neighbors and distant brothers and sisters is to go to my knees and to intercede on their behalf.
Tim Challies is author of the weblog Challies.com: Informing the Reforming and lives near Toronto, Canada. He is also author of The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment.
As I survey the contemporary church, one of my gravest concerns is the power and prevalence of mysticism. It appears in pulpits, books, and conversation. It is at the heart of Sarah Young’s bestselling Jesus Calling, it is in all the much-loved books by John Eldredge, it fills the pages of so many books on spiritual disciplines or spiritual formation, it is almost everywhere you look. Language that was once considered the distinguishing language of mysticism is now commonly used by Evangelicals.
Mysticism was once regarded as an alternative to Evangelical Christianity. You were Evangelical or you were a mystic, you heeded the doctrine of the Reformation and understood it to faithfully describe the doctrine laid out in Scripture or you heeded the doctrine of mysticism. Today, though, mysticism has wormed its way inside Evangelicalism so that the two have become integrated and almost inseparable. In an age of syncretism we fail to spot the contradiction and opposition.
Several years ago Donald Whitney attempted to define the boundaries of Evangelical spirituality--the boundaries of how we may rightly live out our Christian faith. His paper has been very helpful to me as I’ve thought this through.
Before we proceed, we need some definitions, and I will turn to Whitney: Evangelical theology is “the theology and practice considered orthodox by a consensus of the heirs of the Reformation.” These are the five solas of the Reformation, the divinity of Jesus Christ, the necessity of his atoning work, and so on--the core doctrines of historic Protestantism. Mysticism refers “those forms of Christian spirituality which attempt direct or unmediated access to God.” Mystics are those who expect to experience “a direct inner realization of the Divine” and an “unmediated link to an absolute.”
I want to track with Whitney as he expresses his concerns and challenges us to think carefully.
The Big Boundary
The first thing Whitney does is tell us where we can and must go to find the boundaries that must surround Evangelicalism. He says that they will and must be found in “the written self-revelation of God.” Whatever the boundaries are, they are God’s own boundaries and have been revealed to us. We cannot depend upon ourselves, our own wisdom or our own desires, to teach us about how we may experience God. The Bible points us to two forms of revelation: natural revelation and special revelation.
In natural revelation God reveals himself through creation, but this is incomplete and insufficient revelation. “It reveals Him to us only as Creator. It does little, if anything, to reveal Him to us as holy, as Judge, as Son, as Savior, or as Spirit.” For us to know God as he is and for us to obey him, we must have more than the revelation God gives us through what he has created.
“Knowledge of God requires a message, a message from God, a perspicuous (clear) message from God. And God sent a self-attesting, manifestly clear message in Word form.” This was Jesus Christ, the very Word of God. But Jesus was not the only living and active Word of God. There is also Scripture, God’s words recorded and written. “This written Word which reveals God to us has a unique and supernatural quality to it, part of which is that these are the words through which God the Holy Spirit makes Himself known to us individually and calls us to Himself personally.”
Whitney next narrows in on two particular boundaries drawn out of the first: the doctrines of Scripture alone (sola scriptura) and faith alone (sola fide). As we live out our Christian faith, these boundaries will constrain us.
At the very heart of Evangelical theology is the uniqueness and the supremacy of Scripture.
Evangelicals hold to the Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura, that is, the Scriptures alone--and not anyone’s individual experience nor the collected and distilled corporate tradition of the church--are our final authority. And the Scriptures are our final authority because the Scriptures are what God says. In this context sola scriptura means that the Bible is the ultimate authority in all matters of faith and Christian living, and thus the ultimate authority in spirituality.
Many a mystic will agree with all of this. However, Evangelical doctrine goes farther. If the Scriptures are the final authority on all matters pertaining to what we must believe and how we must live, “the Scriptures are also a sufficient guide for our spirituality. In other words, the authority for our spirituality claims its sufficiency as the director of our spirituality.” The Bible is sufficient to tell us what to believe and how to live.
The Bible will guide us not only in what we know of God but also in how we know God. “The boundaries of the forms and expressions of spirituality for disciples of Jesus are those consistent with the Gospel of Jesus, that is, those found in Scripture, or those inaugurated, guided, or interpreted by Scripture.” We have no right to determine how we will experience God, but are to go to the Bible and there to see how God promises he will guide us, teach us, and allow us to experience him.
Whitney offers two ways we cross this boundary of sola scriptura. The first is whenever
we seek an experience with Him in a way not found in Scripture. In one sense it is difficult to think of an example of an encounter with God for which there is nothing remotely similar in the Bible. Yet in another sense mankind seems to have a unlimited capacity to invent ways to “get in touch with God.” And all these have in common the presumption of the ability to experience God apart from the forms He has selected, and/or the presumption of the ability to experience Him immediately, that is, unmediated by God’s ordained means of revealing Himself to us.
A second way to cross the boundary of sola scriptura is
seeking to experience God in a way not inaugurated, guided, or interpreted by Scripture. Scripture should inaugurate many of our experiences with God, for the Scriptures are the clearest revelation of God. This is why He gave His Word to us, so that we would experience Him. And in a real sense we might say that all true experiences with God are ultimately inaugurated by Scripture.
We can undoubtedly all think of times that we have experienced some of the goodness, grace and nearness of God while holding a child in our arms or watching a sunset. Not all of our encounters with God involve an open Bible. However, this is consistent with sola scriptura if what we experience of God in that moment begins with, is guided by, or is interpreted by God’s Word. “So if in beholding the splendor of the sunset I find myself in awe of the goodness of God, the glory of God, or the power of God, I may rightly deem that an experience with God because the Bible tells me that God is good, glorious, and powerful.”
The key, of course, is that we constantly go back to the Bible to guide even our experiences, acknowledging that it is infallible and sufficient.
The second great boundary we cross as we integrate mysticism into Evangelicalism is the boundary of sola fide, the doctrine that expresses that we are justified by grace through faith alone, without contributing any merit of our own. The danger here is that the majority of the people we look to as teachers of mysticism hold a very different view of sola fide or a view of justification that outright rejects sola fide. “Specifically, this means that to send our disciples by means of books and quotations to learn their sanctification and spirituality from those we would consider heretical on justification is a dangerous practice.” There are few mystics who hold to a robust doctrine of justification by grace through faith alone.
Does this mean that we can learn nothing from the spirituality of anyone who embraces a theology which gets the Gospel wrong? No, but we should at the very least recognize the risk that this may lead some of our disciples to conclude that if Evangelicals are not right when it comes to knowing Jesus better, how can we be right about how to know Him in the first place.
God has given us his Word to guide us in all matters of faith and practice. When we commit ourselves to mysticism, we commit ourselves to looking for revelation from God and experiences of God that come from outside that Word. We reject his gift--his good, infallible, inerrant, sufficient gift--and demand more. Because God promises us no more, we quickly create our own experiences and interpret them as if they are God’s revelation. Yet the Bible warns us that we can do no better than God’s Word and have no right to demand anything else. The question for Evangelicals today is just this: Will God’s Word be enough? Because whatever does not lead us toward God’s Word will always, inevitably and ultimately lead us away.
Awkwardness is a cultural phenomenon. Jump over to Google and begin to search for “awkward” and you’ll soon find lists, photos and videos of awkward everything—awkward family photos, awkward celebrity moments, awkward missed high-fives, awkward moments in history, and pretty much anything else that could possibly be considered awkward.
Even my kids know what it is to be awkward. It is not unusual for them to blurt out in one of those moments, “AW-kward!” They don’t know a whole lot about how life and relationships work, but they do know that it’s uncomfortable when things have gone wrong. Awkwardness comes about, after all, when social situations do not go quite as we intended; it is that feeling of discomfort or embarrassment that arises when social desires and expectations are missed.
So where did this cultural obsession with awkwardness come from? Why are we suddenly so concerned with it? Adam Kotsko makes a compelling argument that much of it stems from our entertainment. It is no doubt enhanced by our dedication to social media through which our awkwardness can go viral. He says, “Awkwardness is everywhere, inescapable. Awkwardness dominates entertainment to such an extent that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to remember laughing at anything other than cringe-inducing scenes of social discomfort.” Shows like The Office, especially the original British series, delight in it; shows and movies starring Sacha Baron Cohen revel in it; Curb Your Enthusiasm has been to awkwardness what Seinfeld was to irony. Comedies, especially those R-rated comedies targeted at teens and the immature, champion it.
As our awareness of awkwardness has grown, so too has our concern it so that, as Kotsko says, “We are masters at diagnosing it, if not avoiding it.” Now that we have a cultural awareness of its presence, power and difficulty, we find ourselves wallowing in it.
Our middle-class whites are absolutely hopeless when it comes to dealing with those of other cultures, wondering whether and how to note the difference, what kinds of questions to ask and not to ask—chafing at the supposed constraints of ‘political correctness’ yet feeling very acutely the pressure to differentiate themselves from their low-class and presumably racist Caucasian confreres. And when we all come home at night exhausted from a long day of awkwardness, what do we do but watch yet another cavalcade of awkwardness.
Awkwardness is like watching a car accident. You don’t really want to see it, but you also can’t look away. “The participants in an awkward situation might flee the scene, but in the moment of awkwardness, they are strangely exposed, forced to share to varying degrees in the experience of awkwardness and indeed even drawing innocent bystanders into their impromptu circle. The experience of awkwardness, then, is an intrinsically social one.” There is joy in the horror of awkwardness, perverse appeal in its agony.
We have created a culture of awkwardness and we hate it as much as we love it. We hate what it does to us even as we love what it does to others.
We all know this on some level, all feel the awkwardness that threatens to engulf everything, all sense very acutely the terrifying possibility that civilization itself might collapse in a simultaneous worldwide cringe. We’re all very concerned to develop our own strategies for avoiding or at least controlling social discomfort, so it’s perhaps understandable that so few have asked themselves what awkwardness is, what it means, what it’s telling us about our age and about ourselves.
Fewer still are concerned with asking what the Bible might say about awkwardness if it said anything at all (which, we should note, it does not, at least directly. However, it is equally noteworthy that a Google search will turn up many lists of awkward Bible moments).
The Source of Awkwardness
The Bible might warn us that the whole concept of awkwardness is downstream from popular culture far more than it is upstream from Scripture. The Bible’s silence on the issue tells us that it may well be a phenomenon we have constructed more than it is a genuine spiritual concern. It might warn us that our use and overuse of a term like Aspergers Syndrome as a diagnosis for awkwardness may just be allowing us to rationalize our discomfort and dress up our sinful embarrassment. It might warn us as well that the more we concern ourselves with awkwardness, the more awkward we will feel and more awkward others will feel around us. We can only blurt “Well, that was awkward!” so many times before others will note our obsession and begin to learn that they need to conform themselves to a certain standard when they are around us. They will soon learn that we have greater love for conformity than for uniqueness and that our love is contingent on not embarrassing us.
The Heart of Awkwardness
The Bible might tell us that awkwardness may well be related to our own pride. Situations are not awkward in and of themselves, but awkward because of missed expectations. We expect people to behave in a certain way and when they do not, we feel embarrassment for ourselves or embarrassment for them. Sometimes that awkward feeling comes when we feel shame for a person who is completely oblivious to his own lack of social conformity. Awkwardness is not a real thing; rather, it exists only in our own hearts and minds. It blames the other person or the situation, and in that way it shifts our gaze away from the heart which is, as always, the heart of the issue. Our concern in difficult and embarrassing moments ought to be ourselves and our own hearts more than the other person’s lack of social graces or ignorance of social mores.
What is it in a situation that makes me feel that awkwardness? Is it that my foremost concern in a social context is how people perceive me? Am I relating to others as a kind of self-love or as a means of better loving them? Do I avoid people who are difficult to speak to because what I perceive as their awkwardness may just lower me in the eyes of others? Awkwardness and pride often go hand-in-hand.
The Refuge From Awkwardness
The Bible might tell us that Christian community ought to have no interest in awkwardness, that it ought to be the one refuge from the grasp of awkwardness. It is in the church that people are to be welcome for who they are and where we ought to see them through the lens of Scripture rather than through the lens of popular culture. It is in the church that we ought to be able to embrace people without feeling the need to diagnosis or fret about the level of their social aptitude. To diagnosis a person as awkward is to pass judgment on them and to pass judgment on them using a cultural rather than a biblical standard.
If we allow ourselves to look within, if we allow ourselves to look beyond culture’s messages about awkwardness, we will see that it aims a powerful spotlight on our pride and our fear of the opinions of others.
One of the significant difficulties many husbands and wives encounter is the place of sexual desire and pleasure in marriage. I want to speak to this today by answering a representative question, one of many I’ve received. “You speak of sex like it is a pure and holy thing. Yet when my husband wants to have sex with me, I feel like he is just responding to bodily urges and wants to use me as a way to relieve those urges. It’s all about the release. What is holy about this?”
I want to begin by assuring you that your concern is a common one and that at one time or another most couples struggle with the place of sexual desire and gratification within marriage. We all know that sex is meant to be an expression of mutual love, yet so often a wife finds herself responding to her husband’s physical needs or desires. She can feel like she is little more than an outlet for his urges. Sadly, there are many marriages in which this is exactly the case.
I believe that the heart of the issue here is that very few Christians have developed a Bible-based theology of sex. Fewer still live out that theology of sex. Instead, much of what we believe has been imported from outside the Bible and carries messages antithetical to God’s desire for the sexual relationship.
From an evolutionary perspective sex is little more than a means of spreading genes, of ensuring survival from one generation to the next. From a pornographic perspective, the meaning of sex is physical gratification so that a person’s worth extends no farther than her (or his) ability to satisfy another person’s cravings. From a romantic comedy perspective, sex is a component of an exploratory phase of a relationship and one that precedes expressions of love and loyalty. These are ubiquitous, powerful messages that compete with truth.
A Christian perspective on sex could hardly stand in sharper contrast. There we see that sex belongs to marriage and that marriage has been created by God for a very specific purpose. Before it is anything else, marriage is a picture, a metaphor, of the relationship of Christ and his church. Within that picture, that representation of Christ and his church, we have sex. Sex is a necessary component of marriage so that a couple desiring to live in obedience to the Bible will regularly have sex together (see 1 Corinthians 7:1-5). And here is where we come to your concern.
While it is always difficult to speak in generalities, it is probably fair to say that more often than not, it is the husband’s physical desire that motivates the sexual relationship. And I think the heart of what you are noting is an apparent contrast between a husband’s physical desires and this picture of Christ and the church. It is a contrast between what we believe sex is meant to be and what sex actually is. Aren’t these things at odds with one another?
Physical, Emotional, Spiritual
Here is what I want you to consider: What if the physical, “the release,” as you call it, isn’t the thing? What if it’s not the point of sex? What if the deepest purpose and meaning of sex is not physical but emotional and spiritual? And what if the physical desire is a God-given gift to compel us to take advantage of all the other benefits that sex brings?
This is where a Christian understanding of sex is so much better and greater than the alternatives. It heightens the purpose and importance of sex by celebrating all that sex is and all that it is meant to be, for it is here that the physical, the emotional and the spiritual come together in the most powerful way. Literally: the most powerful way. There is nothing in the human experience that brings these three together in such dramatic fashion and this is exactly why sex is reserved for the marriage bed. God wants marriage to be a unique kind of relationship and nothing marks marriage’s uniqueness more than sex.
Yet so few people think of sex in such terms. Even sex that is holy before God—sex between a husband and wife—can be marked by sin and ignorance. Few husbands have the words to express to their wives that the physical pleasure and relief that may come through sex are bound up in the much better and greater unity they find in making love to their wives. And yet somewhere they know it, they know that the greatest joy in sex is not orgasmic but in the joy of being body-to-body, soul-to-soul, and completely exposed before another person. The intimacy comes by way of vulnerability. There is no other place where a person is so exposed, so bare, so vulnerable. Sex is a declaration: This is who I am. Sex is a question: Do you accept me as I am? Sex is an answer: I accept you as you are. There is no other place where a person can be so loved and accepted.
This is the point of sex! This is its purpose. And the physical desire is a trigger, a reminder, that motivates us to pursue this kind of intimacy that is so integral to marriage. Not only that, but the physical desire allows this all to be a source of great fun and pleasure. It truly is one of God’s gifts to us.
I believe there is a call here for husbands to think about sex from a biblical perspective and to learn to express this to their wives. A husband should be able to explain to himself first, and then his wife, that the joy of sex goes far beyond the physical. It is not less than physical, but it is certainly so much more. And the husband needs to live as if this is true. Satan’s greatest victory in the area of sex is making it all about chasing that physical relief while ignoring the much deeper unity. A man can make hate to his wife instead of making love. He can have sex with his wife in such a way that he pursues nothing more than relief for his urges and when he does this he cheapens sex rather than elevates it. Husband, learn to understand and express to your wife what it really means to make love to her.
And there is a call here for wives not to resent the physical component of sex, but to see it as a God-given gift that motivates a husband and wife to pursue sex’s greatest gifts. She needs to understand that a man who is following the leading of his body toward that physical and emotional and spiritual unity, is a man who is looking to his wife for that thing that she and she alone can provide—this one expression of their deepest unity.
The fact is that as Christians we are good at teaching what sex is not, but not nearly as skilled at teaching what sex actually is and what it is meant to be and to display. The reality is far better, far more satisfying, than so many of us believe.