|Hindrances to Prayer
Hindrances to Prayer
Reading: James 4:1-6
Introduction: A few weeks ago, when we were in the midst of spending several of our Wednesday night meetings devoting ourselves to prayer, I read from a book by a Norwegian man named Hallesby in which he talked about the essence of authentic communication with God. He writes, “Prayer is something deeper than words. It is present in the soul before it has been formulated with words. And it abides in the soul after the last words of the prayer have passed over our lips. Prayer is an attitude of our hearts toward God, an attitude which He in heaven immediately recognizes as prayer, as an appeal to His heart. Whether it takes the form of words or not, does not mean anything to God, only to ourselves. What is this spiritual condition? What is that attitude of heart which God recognizes as prayer? In the first place, helplessness. This is unquestionably the first and the surest indication of a praying heart. As far as I can see, prayer has been ordained only for the helpless. It is the last resort of the helpless. Indeed, the very last way out. We try everything before we finally resort to prayer.….Prayer and helplessness are inseparable. Only those who are helpless can truly pray.”
I found myself coming back to these words again and again this week as I considered our theme for the week, which is “hindrances to prayer.” For if authentic prayer is born out of our helplessness, then our inability to pray, to have our prayers answered, must come from opposite attitudes of the heart. When one begins to think through stories in scripture in which prayers of the people are not recognized or not heard by God, it is clear that “helplessness” is not first on anyone’s mind or heart. In fact, when the people are helpless, it is prayer that is not on their minds! Prayer does not appear to have been an interest of Eve and Adam when the temptation came to be like God. Calling on the name of the Lord is very specifically mentioned in the life of Abraham, but not when he is about to enter Egypt and he decides to declare that Sarai is his sister in order to survive. Helplessness IS something you find often in the words of the Psalmists. It is what you find in the prophet Jonah, but not until he is hopelessly lost, when he should be dead but is instead alive in the belly of the great fish.
In the stories that Jesus tells, there are those people whose prayers are heard, and those whose prayers are not heard. The persistent widow crying out to an unjust judge for justice is offered by Jesus as a model for continuing to pray to a God who surly will vindicate those who cry out to him. The publican who dares not lift his eyes to heaven, but beats his breast and cries out, “Be merciful to me, a sinner,” goes home justified, Jesus says. There are also those religious leaders who love to stand in synagogues and on street corners and pray so that they can be seen by others. They heap up empty phrases, thinking that prayer is measured by the number of words uttered. They stand not in helplessness before God, but with self-righteous pride, grateful that they are not like other men. They speak not out of helplessness but out of self-sufficiency. Sometimes they speak as “wanna be’s”, as people who want to be someone great, not out of authentic faith but through selfish short-cuts to fame. Such is the case for Simon the sorcerer in Acts 8. He wants to be the center of attention as he was before Philip came along displaying the works of the Holy Spirit. He wants the power of the Holy Spirit so that he can be somebody great. When he tries to buy that power with money, Peter rebukes him harshly and warns him to “repent of this wickedness of yours and pray that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see,” Peter says, “that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.” Then Simon’s helplessness comes out as he ask Peter to pray on his behalf.
Helplessness is not at work in the lives of Ananias and Sapphira when they lie to the Holy Spirit and hold back proceeds from the sale of property while claiming they are giving all of the proceeds. Helplessness is not what is at work in the life of the sons of Sceva when they attempt to cast out demons by using the names of Jesus and Paul—at least not at first. Their prayers probably became authentic as they were overpowered by demons, stripped naked and ran from the house!
When James writes his letter, helplessness does not seem to be the mark of authenticity that characterizes his audience. They are a people who struggle with what he calls double-mindedness. In the opening verses he calls them to seek wisdom from God through faithful prayer, but then immediately warns about the failure of such prayer if there is any double-mindedness. There is a problem with people in his audience not making the connection between saying and doing, between verbal claims of faith and how one lives the life of faith. There is a tendency among them to think that material wealth is sign of greater blessing by God. When wealthy people visit the church, they receive better treatment than the poorer, less well-dressed folks. Finally, it becomes clear in chapter four that at least some of the people addressed by James are caught up in a value system that James believes is of the world, not of God.
They believe that “being is determined by having.” Think about that for a moment. These people that James denounces in the end believe that their authenticity as humans is determined by their collection of material possessions. They also live in a social order that believed in limited good. The spirit of the age in the first century world included the concept of limited good. All of life could be quantified—grain, cattle, land, wealth, love, joy, peace—all of life! And there was only so much to go around. Thus, abundance one place necessary meant famine somewhere else. If someone was very wealthy, there must be others in poverty. The only way for the poor to become rich was for the rich to become poor. Not all could be rich at the same time!
The philosophers of the first century believed that envy was therefore the source of all other evils in the world. Envy—wanting what you don’t have that someone else has—leads to war, leads to killing because, in order for you to have, others must become have-nots. If “having determines being” in a limited good social order, then me “being” authentic means desiring what other people have and acting in such a way that I can get it. Jealousy, greed, competition, lust, coveting all stem from that basic desire to have what someone else has. That’s James’ complaint here at the beginning of chapter four.
What causes wars, and what causes fightings among you? Is it not your passions that are at war in your members? You desire and do not have. You kill and you covet and cannot obtain; so you fight and wage war. (These are not merely rhetorical questions and statements) You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions (James 4:1-3). Their prayers go unanswered because they are motivated by self-seeking and self-serving desires to have, to be authenticated by the world’s standards, not God’s. Therefore God will not answer even when they ask. James goes on to compare such people to the Idolatrous Israelites who committed spiritual adultery against Yahweh. Adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God. Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you suppose it is in vain that the scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit which he has made to dwell in us”? But he give more grace; therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (4:4-6).
Do you hear why their prayers go unanswered? They are double-minded people—he calls them that directly in verse 8. They want to claim the grace of God, but they still seek to determine their identity by the world’s standards of having! It is not the Spirit that God has given them that makes them somebody, it is their desire for more stuff that drives them. They still live as though having more and more material possessions, satisfying their earthly passions, is what makes for happiness and authentic existence! They are compelled by what they see others having that they want. And when they pray, it is so that they can have!
Does any of this sound or feel familiar? We live not in a cultural belief system of limited good, but unlimited good, right? There is a limitless supply! Everyone can be rich if he or she wants to be! Or so the American dream myth has it. But whether limited or unlimited, we still find ourselves easily captured by the spirit of envy that James talks about. We still succumb to the belief that our being is determined by having. And we still find ourselves working hard to justify prayers before God that are motivated the desire to have, to be authenticated as persons by our collections of stuff. We live in a culture—we, in this city, Nashville,TN, we in all of our churches, we in all of those nice cars parked outside, and the nice houses we will drive home to—WE live in a culture driven by the idolatry of envy.
All of us want to win the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes so that we can give it all away to charitable causes—that’s what we’ve done with the money and wealth we already have, right? But it’s not just money and stuff—it is the prayer and the language of prayer that I utter that is not about kingdom business but John’s business. The prayer that I speak for my sake. It is the times I say, “I am praying for you,” not because I am interested in talking to God on your behalf, but because I am interested in you thinking I am spiritual! It is the times I pray for outcomes of football games and the improvement of my golf swing. I keep wanting to believe that God really is interested in my golf game. I know that he is interested in my personhood, in my wholeness as God’s man. I justify the golf as part of my mental and emotional wholeness. But praying that I will beat Eddie Plemmons is probably not a prayer that I should expect God to answer.
No, when you pray, pray like this…Our father, hallowed be your
name…..Humble yourselves before the Lord….Draw near to the Lord and he will draw near to you…Resist the devil and he will flee from you—that’s still in this same context of James 4, by the way. The context of double-mindedness, wanting to be God’s person while chasing the ambitions of the world. Give us this day our bread for the day, not our 7course breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
So what about authentic prayer today? Are there times today when we pray but we should not expect an answer? Are there times when our prayers are more for appearance sake than the reality of a heart inclined toward God? Are there times when self-sufficiency and selfish motives encroach on the language of prayer and the desires of our hearts? When you pray, what motivates your requests?
Oh God, forgive us! Soften our hearts, focus our minds. Make us kingdom people first; people who know that you have given us your Spirit. People who know that you already have determined our being apart from our having. Help us to know that you are delighted to be in our presence because of what you have done in Christ, not what we have collected on this earth.
Delivered at Woodmont Hills, September 17, 2000.
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