Icons or Heroes?
Sometimes we all need to run a reality check on our prayers. That’s just the way it is because we are fragile and deeply flawed, and there’s great tension between our intentions and mucking our way through life.
Whenever I need to do a diagnostic on my prayers, which is often, I consider those real life heroes who inhabit the pages of the biggest bestseller in history, the Bible a.k.a. God’s Word. Contrary to being icons or plastic saints, those folks were flesh and blood people who hoped, dreamed, failed, won, lost, and experienced the full scope of what it means to be encased in human skin while striving for transcendence.
Their struggles are our struggles; their issues our issues; their heartaches our heartaches. How they worked out the dynamics of faith as they mucked their way through this world ought to be lessons for us.
Crucible of Life
Saul, who became Paul, is a prime example. He was a Jew, born a Roman citizen, in the city of Tarsus, which was an important stop along caravan routes. It’s in Turkey, ten miles inland from the Mediterranean Sea. As a child and young man Saul learned the craft of tent-making. It’d be the trade that he’d return to time and again over the course of his life.
He also was strictly schooled in the history, theology, and faith of his fathers. He sat under the tutelage of Rabbi Gamaliel, a legendary scholar of Jewish Law. Saul was an exceptional student. By his own account, he was a Hebrew of Hebrews and faultless Pharisee. He was a man simmering with passion, on a career path that would have likely put him on the Sanhedrin Council, which was the Supreme Court of ancient Israel.
Saul was a contemporary of Jesus of Nazareth, but there’s no evidence that their paths ever crossed. At least not until the incident on the road to Damascus. That eye-opening revelation occurred after Christ’s resurrection. It happened like this: Saul was vigorously attempting to squash the movement of the Way, which at the time was a sect within Judaism. He had stood in support of the mob who stoned Stephen, the first follower of Christ to be martyred.
Saul sought to destroy the church. He tracked believers down, going from house to house in Jerusalem to drag men and women off to jail. When word came that a cell of the Way had begun operating in Damascus, Saul obtained arrest warrants from the High Priest and headed to that city to round up Christ-followers.
As he approached Damascus, a brilliant stream of bright light flashed from the sky. It was so intense that he fell to the ground, hearing a voice speak to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
A soul-shattering transformation took place. From that point on Saul ceased to be the fire breathing Pharisee bent on torching the Way, and began the process of being a disciple of the One who’d been crucified at Golgotha.
There was a brief sojourn in Damascus, where by supernatural arrangement, Saul connected with a Christ-follower named Ananias, who prayed with him and baptized him. A short while later—or immediately as said in his Galatian epistle—Saul went into Arabia for a period of feverish study that lasted three years.
Later—Saul, now Paul of Tarsus—returned to Damascus. His message was clear: Jesus was indeed the Son of God, alive and well, and busy building his church. Paul evidently never pulled any punches, seemingly always prepared and willing to tweak the nose of Jewish authority.
Paul became the most intuitive, cerebral and penetrating theologian of all time. He was also a missionary church planter who had a catalytic quality that established cells in the body of Christ all around the Mediterranean world. In doing so, he was far from the model of perfection. He had a contentious streak that created relational problems.
After the council at Jerusalem, where the early church settled a crucial issue, Paul butted heads with Barnabas. It was such a terse disagreement that the missionary partnership was dissolved. Paul teamed up with Silas and went into Syria, while Barnabas selected John Mark and sailed to Cyprus.
One time at Antioch, Paul had a sharp flair-up with Peter—“I opposed him to his face because he was clearly in the wrong.” Translation: The tentmaker went eyeball to eyeball with the former fisherman; apparently Peter blinked because he was in fact in error.
A tendency toward abrasiveness didn’t slow him. Paul worked for the sake of Christ with a fervency that never waxed or waned. He poured himself into life. His travels were not sightseeing journeys of ease and comfort. Read his telling of the hardships endured:
Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.
Paul’s story illustrates that the crucible of life is where prayer gets forged. Consider the following words he wrote when he was an old man and a Roman prisoner, in a jailhouse because of his belief in Jesus Christ.
Philippians 4:4-9 – NIV
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.
God Is God
Is our prayer life a measure of our maturity? Are we going through the motions of nice religious sounding prayers and forgetting to address the core of the matter? Do we pursue a change of heart, mind, and attitude in prayer?
Unless we are vigilant—which means keeping focused on God—we will slip into self-centered prayer: We will project, request and expect answers to come according to our idea of what is best. We will place God on our timetable and expect instant results.
We ought to be allowing God to shape our attitudes and perspectives in the process of prayer; to reveal more of himself and his ways to us; to have his will in every detail, every aspect and avenue of our lives. Instead we tell God what to do and how to do it. In fact, we often give him detailed advice. Then we become upset when the Creator of the universe, the One who knows the beginning from the end, doesn’t jump through our hoops.
We must stop giving God special instructions on how he should respond to our requests. Mayhap we ought to capture a vision of God’s sovereignty, and acknowledge the magnitude of our limitations in comprehending the vast mysteries that engulf us. Take a fresh look at Solomon’s words in Ecclesiastes:
As you do not know the path of the wind, or how the body is formed in a mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the Maker of all things.
Maybe, just maybe we ought to accept the fact that God is God—perhaps we should take God at his word and trust him simply because he is God. Instead of placing us at the center of our prayers, God should have that honored position.
Despite our protestations to the contrary, God’s delays are not God’s denials. He knows what is best for us. To grow in grace and faith means getting to that place where we routinely pray that God’s will be done, then proceed forward at peace.
The passage from Philippians cited above is all about us cultivating an attitude of joy and thanksgiving through all the highs and lows of life. That’s a pretty simple precept, but it’s extremely difficult. We are to put forth effort and do our very best, fully secure that love and mercy fill in the gaps when we fall short.
Here’s a prayer from antiquity—written by King David of Israel—that would’ve been ingrained in Paul from an early age, being formational to his worldview:
Search me, O God and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you and lead me along the path of everlasting life.
A closing challenge for us: Make a habit of praying King David’s prayer with the sure knowledge that we are wrapped up in a warm comforter of God’s grace.