Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Prayer and Personal Responsibility

We are often taught that if we pray hard enough and exercise enough faith that God will deliver us from all sorts of trials and tribulations in our lives--ill health, financial pressures, and even natural disasters. Undoubtedly, the "name it and claim it" ethos of prosperity theology that pervades so many of our churches helps to exaggerate our tendency towards this belief.

Yet what happens when the very trials from which we seek God's deliverance have been brought upon ourselves as the result of our own bad decisions. Perhaps, for example, I am praying to God to restore my health because I'm suffering from chronic heart disease. But for most of my life I have neglected to eat properly or exercise regularly. Likewise, I might be praying to God for financial deliverance while--at the same time--ignoring the fact that I routinely buy things I don't need, only rarely bother to balance my checkbook, and never attempt to pay off more than the monthly minimum on my credit cards. In such instances, can we really truly expect God's unconditional deliverance?

In response to Australian prime minister John Howard's recent call to prayer for the drought-stricken regions of that country, Kristine Morrison--an Australian Baptist--raises similar questions:

They point out that in the past decade of prosperity the government has not seriously addressed water management issues. John Howard is accused of failing to listen to scientific advice about water management and being without an alternative water management plan. His plea for prayer is reckoned by one correspondent to be reasonable only in comparison to being asked to slaughter a chicken.

Though secularists, these writers have proved alert to some of the dilemmas facing those who pray. Is it reasonable to pray to avoid the consequences of something that those who pray may have contributed to? Our squandering of water and our failure to be active in prompting our government to take water management practices seriously does compromise our approach to God. (Italics mine)
In other words, Morrison suggests that we really have no business praying to God for deliverance from the calamities in our lives if we are simply seeking to avoid the consequences of problems that we have contributed to. Furthermore, she goes on to point out that--at least in some instances--the so-called blessings of God on one group of people may, in fact, directly lead to more adversity for others.

The knowledge of the cyclic nature of rain patterns presents another difficulty for those who pray for rain. We know that higher rainfall in one part of Australia (or the world) usually means less rain in some other part of the continent (or the world). Is it right for us to pray for more natural abundance in our part of the world when other places, already suffering resource depletion, may receive less rain as a result?
So what, then, is the praying Christian to do?

First of all, we must remember that God is the creator of the entire world and the Lord of all who live in it. Therefore, we must exercise caution lest we inadvertently find ourselves praying for things that might be given to us at the expense of others. Secondly, and much more profoundly, Morrison suggests an approach that can be summed up in a simple word that is rarely, if ever, heard in the sermons of most prosperity preachers: REPENTANCE.
One writer to the Herald, clearly not a secularist, made a compelling link between the need for repentance and effective prayer. He advocated a day of repentance where the nation could acknowledge both God as the giver of rain and our dependence on the generosity of God to provide for all our needs to accompany our requests for rain. Many of us have prayed to escape the consequences of our actions. However, we can only do this when we express contrition and repentance for such actions. This important and significant aspect of prayer was omitted in our prime minister's call to prayer.
Wow! What a thought! If I want God to deliver me from my chronic health problems, perhaps I need to first repent of the poor lifestyle choices that contributed to those problems in the first place. Or if I am seeking financial deliverance, then I first need to repent of the poor money-management decisions that put me into debt.

Here it is helpful to remember that repentance, in the biblical sense, is not just about apologizing to God (or others) for our mistakes. It's about leaving old sinful habits behind and embracing new Christ-honoring habits. In other words, true repentance is like making a U-turn, a full 180 degree change in the direction of our lives. It is about walking away from the old and towards the new; dispensing of old eating and exercise habits and embracing new ones; and renouncing our old spending habits and making an effort to learn new ones. Or in the case of Australia's prime minister John Howard, repentance means beginning to heed the advice of environmental scientists and leading his government in developing more ecologically sound water-management practices.

A final caveat: While repentance is good and, indeed, required if we claim to be followers of Jesus Christ, we should not make the mistake of thinking it is akin to some sort of magic formula or ritual that will guarantee God's favorable response to all of our prayers. God is NOT like a celestial ATM machine that will answer all of our prayers on demand. Nor should we forget that scripture teaches us that as believers we can expect trial, temptations and, yes, even suffering to be a part of the Christian life. That doesn't mean that we should stop praying or depending on God, nor that we should stop taking responsibility for our own actions--both personal and corporate. It just means that hardships--often for reasons unbeknownst to us--are a reality of our fallen human condition. And, as the Jesus himself once said, God "causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous."

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