My writings on this blog have entered a patch of thought on self-denial. And yet, somewhat ironically, I find myself going down the rabbit hole of rumination at situations and interactions that are less than desirable to me.
I lay this before the Lord---why do I still feel this way? Why not rather be wronged, why not have my first impulse be unconditional positive regard (a useful therapeutic concept, I feel) toward people regardless of their behavior? This need to defend myself, to be correct, and to think first and foremost of myself and my rights is hard wired within me.
As I've been reflecting on here, it's in the air we breathe.
In Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, Kate Bowler researches 1970s and 1980s prosperity gospel preachers who viewed "Christianity as a legal document" (quoting E.W. Kenyon here) in which we find rights to "salvation, protection, and victory over all circumstances." It's a peculiarly American take on the Gospel which, as so many American products, we are now exporting elsewhere. Bowler continues,
These legal benefits afforded followers (to use one of the prosperity gospel’s well-worn phrases) 'rights and privileges': the safety , healthy, happiness, and financial security promised to each Christian. In crusades, televised sermons, write-in testimonials, and casual conversation, participants spoke of rights and privileges as shorthand for the abundant blessings believers could command “in Jesus’ name.” Conversely, those who did not demonstrate God’s power—plagued by doubt, poverty, or disease—fell to live 'beneath their privileges.'
This sentiment is alive and well today. Even those who don't completely embrace it may inadvertently treat God as a personal Genie, available for us to command in order to receive the blessings and rights we are due. In the example of the Lord's prayer, we are instructed to pray for our daily bread and, by extension, our needs. However, is it possible to go astray in how we direct our thoughts in prayer and what level of self-focus we display there and elsewhere? What model does Christ give us? And are we mindful of to Whom are we praying??
Regarding the words of Christ, Russell Moore, in his "Moore to the Point" newsletter, wrote this week on the "Revenge of the Black-Letter Christians." If you aren't reading Moore, I strongly recommend it. If the mark of a prophetic voice is partly the rejection by their home establishment (see Jesus' words in Luke 4:24), Moore has his bona fides. Plus his engaging writing style and emphasis on Biblical truth paired with a sense of having been there and seen much in Christendom--he writes of things that so many of us need to hear. Anyway, in this newsletter, he looks back on his life and says,
There was a time when I really worried about 'red-letter Christianity': the idea that the words of Jesus (printed in red in many Bibles) are more authoritative than the rest of Scripture and can override a theological or ethical teaching found in, say, the Old Testament or the Pauline Epistles.
But then he adds,
I still am concerned about this mentality, which can be found in many places. But, increasingly, I’m seeing its mirror-image—a kind of "black-letter Christianity" that’s just as perilous. At first glance, a prioritizing of the red letters makes sense. Jesus is, after all, more authoritative as a person than Moses or Jeremiah or Paul or John...
The problem with this direction is not that it becomes too focused on Jesus but that it isn’t focused enough.
Moore explains how Jesus clearly displayed a view of Scripture that is unified and unbroken, and Christ heavily quoted from the Old Testament. Since all Scripture is "God-breathed," "every word of the Bible should be in red letters." Moore continues,
Many view red-letter rhetoric as a slippery slope that, taken to the extreme, could lead to an attempt to split apart Word from Spirit, Father from Son, Head from body. Those dangers are all real.
Yet like many other things, we tend not to see, as C. S. Lewis warned us in Mere Christianity, that the devil sends errors into the world not one by one but two by two—in "pairs of opposites," [Note: emphasis mine] on either side of the truth.
In the present discussion, that means splitting the Bible from Jesus is a temptation not just for red-letter Christians but for black-letter Christians too—and the stakes are just as high, if not higher.
It's worth reading the entire newsletter (you can subscribe on his site here: https://www.russellmoore.com/). Bottom line, if Evangelical Christians are leery of "liberal Christians" emphasizing the words of Christ to the exclusion of other parts of the Bible, Moore is arguing that the opposite issue is possibly more dangerous. We inadvertently leave out the words of Christ, in our prayers, in our thoughts...and in our behavior. And, since Christ is God, all of Scripture comes from Christ and are His words. I'm again reminded of the story I told in last year's Isaiah blog---of the southern Christian I encountered at a conference who was shocked at how "liberal" passages of Isaiah sounded and assured me that she'd have to "ask her pastor" about it before believing Scripture. One of the passages in question was Isaiah 61 ("The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners"), which Jesus Himself quotes to mark the start of His ministry.
It sounds too liberal these days, to some. I'm intrigued by Moore quoting Lewis on the "pairs of opposites" that the devil sends. It seems pretty apparent to me that the extreme political rights and lefts offer powerful temptations and traps for Christians right now. In certain circles on the Christian Right, we can pray to God the Father, and we can compel the Holy Spirit to do our bidding. But sometimes we're all over the map on what we do with Christ's words.
I may not fall for this hook, line, and sinker, but in what ways do I act like a whiny toddler running back to my parents to defend my rights, "lift my head," and come to my defense? On one hand, we are instructed to do exactly this rather than to fight our own battles. David prays prayer after prayer along these lines, and the rest of Scripture verifies the rightness of these prayers.
And yet, if our every impulse is self-focused, treating God like He has the same qualities as the helicopter parents of this present age, we are not growing up in the faith. We are staying stuck in some kind of perpetual spiritual childhood.
In Simplicity: The Freedom in Letting Go, Richard Rohr writes,
….the gospel is ultimately calling us to a stance of simplicity, vulnerability, dialogue, powerlessness, and humility. These are the only virtues that make communion and community and intimacy possible.
Power. That's exactly it. We are promised power in the Holy Spirit but--to quote the Princess Bride--"I do not think it means what you think it means"! It certainly doesn't mean that God is our Genie. In fact, in a passage I've been reflecting on for over 20 years (since my husband and I selected it as the guiding verse for our wedding), we seem to need power in order to even approach and understand in any sense the awesome and holy God:
I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
How is power and Spirit referenced here? We can pray for the Spirit to strengthen us in power. That is certainly described in this passage. The reason for this, however, is not that we have power for power's sake or that we compel the Spirit to assert our rights and privileges. There is a "so that" in that very same verse and it reads:
So that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.
That's the goal of this power! And then Paul continues and prays that we receive power in order to
grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
That is a very different kind of prayer than whiny ones where we ruminate and beg the Lord repeatedly to take care of some undesirable momentary unhappiness...or where we pray to overthrow systems we feel hold us back in some way that we can't experience the comfort and lifestyle we desire.
What does this mean for prayers for health and healing? Well, this particular passage isn't talking about that. There are beautiful prayer chains across this country on behalf of many suffering Christians. There are beautiful prayer chains on behalf of what is happening in Ukraine right now. I believe that Paul shows us models of global Christian support, such as taking up donations for Christians who are suffering and for requesting prayer. We live out these passages when we do these things.
And yet in the overall orientation of our lives, the focus should not be about US and establishing our desires, but allowing God to work in and through us to transform these desires. We can pray for help and offer our SOS calls, absolutely, but growth in the Christian walk is even more transformative than being physically healed from something.
Henri Nouwen said that there are three essential spiritual practices: the discipline of the Heart, the discipline of the Book, and then discipline of the Church or community of faith. The discipline of the Heart is what I have in mind here. Prayer is so much more than what we sometimes relegate it to being. According to Nouwen,
Prayer helps us stand in the presence of God with all we have and are: our fears and anxieties; our guilt and shame; our sexual fantasies; our greed and anger; our joys, successes, aspirations, and hopes; our reflections, dreams, and mental wandering; and most of all our family, friends, and enemies--in short, all that makes us who we are. With all this we have to listen to God's voice and allow God to speak to us in every corner of our being.
It's not that we shouldn't present our worries and requests to God--we absolutely should! It's just that the overall purpose in whether or not our requests are granted lies far beyond the specific requests. Even if God did grant our wish lists of how we would like our lives to be, that hypothetical life would still be far less than what God has in mind for us, since what He has in mind is total transformation. We don't even know what to ask for! So, we lay all that we have before Him, tears and all...but we open ourselves up to Him in the process and listen to His voice and what He has to say during those moments of prayer, during the types of Scriptural study, and during our times with Christian services. And, we present all of our lives to him---we avoid the sacred/secular false dichotomy and don't hold back the tiny moments of everyday existence from the Creator, either. We let Him have it all, come what may. As Nouwen asks, "How are you making space in your life for God to speak?"
Lord God, please soften my heart to understand, receive, and live out Ephesians 3--these verses You have placed on my heart. How wide and long and high and deep is Your love, Jesus! Help me to know this love that surpasses knowledge! Forgive me for crowding out space in my life for You to speak. Let me listen to and follow Your leading on the spaces You open up for this, and devote them to You.