If you were to peer into my wallet, amongst the usual collection of bank cards and library cards, you’d find a fair number of loyalty cards from various coffee houses and eateries. I like it, when I pick up a drink in Pret they stamp my little card and every so often I don’t have to pay. Result. It’s a nice feeling but I do wonder if sometimes we approach God in a similar manner and, whether we express the thought or not, feel that because we pray daily, or always go to church, or serve, that we deserve to get what we want from Him. It’s not that we do those things in order to get something from God, just that when we do want something those things can suddenly spring into our memory.
I’ve been thinking lately about the way that we pray; you see, I’m often not that great at praying. Some people are intercession warriors and what not but I am one of those people whose spirit is willing but whose brain sometimes turns to jelly midway through a prayer and ends up losing track. Then there are the moments where I say quite sincerely: ‘Your will be done, God, just do your will in my life,’ and then, after a pregnant pause, I continue with, ‘but, having thought this through, if your will could include X,Y and Z be on my time-scale that would probably be for the best.’ Far be it from me to tell the almighty God what His will should be and yet somehow I seem prone to try it anyway! Then there are the times when I realise that, consciously or subconsciously, I’m praying as though God owes me one. It’s like I’m doing the prayer equivalent of standing in line with my loyalty card. ‘Hey God, I’ve prayed for this nine times now, the card is all stamped, it’s rabbit out of hat time!’ Now, I’m sure none of you reading this ever slip into any of these habits, but bear with me while I write a little bit about why yesterday’s daily reading challenged me.
In Genesis 32 we find Jacob at a critical point. Having left Laban he has journeyed onward and is approaching the land of Edom where his brother Esau dwells. He sends messengers and they return to tell him that Esau is approaching with four hundred men. Memories come flooding back not of childhood tomfoolery but of buying a birthright for some stew, of Esau’s rage when tricked out of his blessing and of his avowed vengeance. Fearful, Jacob comes to God and pours out his heart in prayer. The prayer that follows is a wonderful example of a person coming to God with an understanding that what’s needed isn’t what he has earned but rather an act of favour and love; it isn’t an appeal based on anything Jacob had done but a direct appeal to God’s mercy. For the first time in scripture Jacob calls out to God by name, he repeats the promises of God and then in a memorable verse declares himself totally unworthy of all that God has given Him and of getting any more. Ask for something by reminding the one you’re asking that you’re not worthy of it? Remind them that they have already gone more than the extra mile for you anyway? It stands in defiance of all human logic and yet is exactly what is needed.
And Jacob said, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, that I may do you good,’ I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. Please deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, that he may come and attack me, the mothers with the children. But you said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.'”
– Genesis 32:9-12 (ESV)
He doesn’t come because he deserves an answer, he comes because he believes God’s word will come through anyway. He comes with what is a frank appeal to grace. It’s on this appeal to grace that the whole prayer sits, and I think that we can learn a lot from this. You see I think that we can all fall into the trap of knowing that we’re not saved by works and yet still thinking we can in some way earn things. No matter what we do or have done in life when we come to pray we’re not coming to a negotiating table where we can trade our works or loyalty for his results. The actuality is far better than that and yet at the same time so much harder for us to deeply understand. In a society where everything is based on what we do, God is all about what He’s already done. He doesn’t need to hear what we’ve done, He already knows everything that we have ever done and will ever do, what He wants is for us to just fall on his mercy.
For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe.
– Deuteronomy 10:17 (ESV)
As it explains in Deuteronomy, it doesn’t matter who we are or what we’ve done – God doesn’t respect titles and positions and he can’t be bribed by service. It’s the opposite of how we might behave when requesting something from another person. Instead of coming with reasons why we might deserve something, it’s going and saying ‘you know what, you have already given me far more than I deserve’. Within twenty four hours of saying this prayer Jacob had wrestled with God, received His blessing and welcomed Esau in peace.
This was an effective prayer, it was a prayer that remembered who God is. When we do that, when we just openly and honestly come to God in this humility, then what we’re doing is placing ourself in a position of absolute trust and reliance on Him. When we pray we should know that God is for us and wants to give us results, Jacob does this by remembering the promises of God in his prayer, but we should recognise that answers come not from our worthiness but from yet more divine grace towards our lives. I am hugely unworthy of what God has done for me, and of what He has planned for me. I don’t want to be a person who comes to God in any way feeling that I’m owed results, I want to be totally open about my dependency on His grace. I want my life to be dedicated to an ever growing realisation of this grace. How much more effective might my prayer life be if I came always with this same attitude and sincerity? How about yours?