Friday, October 17, 2008

Refreshing Our Perspective on Prayer

desensitize vb: to make insensitive or non-reactive to a sensitizing agent

Familiarity with things can desensitize us. I used to be fearful about the long highway commute from my suburban Texas home to downtown Dallas where I attend seminary. You could shoot a Dirty Harry movie on certain stretches of Dallas highway and years spent cruising around lazy-river suburban roads with the kids had not prepared me for a 75-mile round trip alongside commuters who sometimes drive like they're going after blinking Pac Man fruit. After, ahem, a number of years now spent in slow pursuit of my degree, the fangs of the highway commute have sanded down a bit. Today, it's just a long drive in a car and, to be honest, some days it might seem like I'm going after the fruit. You see, I've been desensitized to the fear because it is now familiar to me.

People get desensitized to all sorts of things. Sometimes it's a good thing. I am grateful that my knuckles no longer turn a Geisha shade of white every time I point my car in the direction of downtown Dallas. But other types of desensitization aren't so good. People can get desensitized to sin and the suffering of others. We can even get desensitized to Scripture. I remember as a child one of my earliest memorizations was the Lord's Prayer found in Matthew 6: 9-13 which we recited weekly in church:

9 "This, then, is how you should pray:

"'Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,

10 your kingdom come,
your will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.

11 Give us today our daily bread.
12 Forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.

These are the words of Jesus spoken to His disciples during the Sermon on the Mount. A divine prescription for prayer. Spiritually and practically speaking, this is huge, isn't it? Jesus on prayer. How ironic, though, that of the bazillion times I've uttered these words in church, it has only recently really resonated. You see, I had become desensitized to this prayer and turned it into a facsimile of the very "babbling" (vs. 7) that Jesus warned about two verses before!

I heard a worship leader recently say this: "Let's trust not just with our lips, but trust from our hearts." I flipped straight to the Lord's Prayer and realized that this has been an exercise in rhetoric over the years, and that I needed to internally appreciate it. In order to do that, I needed to step back and look at this prayer afresh. When I am studying the Bible, it helps to try and isolate major themes. So, that's what I did with the Lord's Prayer and this is what surfaced:

Key Fundamentals

1. You are worthy of love and respect. (9)

2. I trust you. (10)

3. I need you. (11-13)

Underlying Heart Conditions

1. Humility

2. Submission

3. Self Surrender

After isolating key themes and understanding the heart conditions necessary for internalizing this prayer, it’s helpful to re-read the words with themes in mind. Also, consider the following:

Prayer: It’s Intimate

Notice Jesus ascribed the pronoun "Our" to "Father." This is a case in which a bland little workhorse descriptor becomes a staggeringly important key word. Why did He not say "my" father or drop the possessive attribution altogether? Because, the father of Jesus is the father of all who believe and we have a familial bond to Christ. Scripture affirms this and, to most Christians, it might seem like a statement of the obvious. But have you thought about what this means lately?

The Greek word for Father here is "pater" and is used elsewhere in Scripture to refer to a male parent (Mk. 9:24) or ancestors (e.g., Mt. 3:9). "Pater" is also employed as a title of respect for an older man (Mt. 7:2), and elsewhere refers to God as the Father of all believers (Mt. 5:16). Though the true nature of our bond with God is beyond our limited human understanding, the word gives us the picture of a perfect father, a loving provider and protector, worthy of his child's love and respect.

Prayer: It's not one-sided

You notice that Jesus begins His prayer by acknowledging the honor, trustworthiness and authority of God. In this way, the Lord's Prayer is not "me" centered. Before the first petition is made to God, there is other-centered recognition of His greatness. Think about it in human terms. We all have people in our lives who "take" from us and we know what that feels like. How do you suppose God feels when we only go to Him during times of need? When our only approach to the throne comes when we need to be bailed out.While there's not a thing that you or I could do to fill a "need" in God because He is perfectly complete, we should be praising His authority and goodness, and expressing to Him our love and gratitude.

Prayer: No Boats or BMW's, please

"Give us today our daily bread" does not bloat into boats and BMW’s. Our "daily bread" is perhaps a reference beyond food to our most basic needs. But if our prayers are chock-full of requests for "things" and "more things" on top of the seam-busting array of "things" we already have, I wonder if we've gone astray of what Jesus meant when He told His followers to ask for "daily bread."

Prayer: Necessary Forgiveness

The author Gary Thomas has a particularly thought-provoking message in his book, Sacred Marriage. Thomas suggests that when we are bothered by something with respect to our spouse--a habit or personality trait--that we should step back and see if the problem doesn't reside with us. Is it my own deficiency or sin area something I notice in others? If we could see our own role—a true and unvarnished picture of ourselves—in relationships that challenge us, maybe we could bridge nearer to the necessary forgiveness of others that Jesus calls for in The Lord’s Prayer.

Bible Study Tip: Are there passages of Scripture that have lost impact in your life because you have become desensitized to the message? Try reading them with a focus on identifying key themes or re-write and paraphrase the verses in your own words as a journal exercise..

References for this article include the NIV Study Bible (Zondervan 1985), Mounce's Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Zondervan 2006) and Webster's New Dictionary of the English Language (Merriam-Webster 2005). Photo by impactmatt, click here for restrictions.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

thanks -- very helpful and potent encouragement!