Monday, December 24, 2007

Freedom From Quiet Time Guilt - Parts 3 to 6

Here is the final installment of "Freedom From Quiet Time Guilt." I pray that it was freeing for you as it was for me.

3. The Remedy: Weakness Christianity
There are two religions calling themselves evangelical Christianity today: Strength Christianity and Weakness Christianity. Strength Christianity is that religion which places both feet squarely on the Bible and proclaims, “I am strong. I sought the Lord. I’m a believer. I’ve turned away from sin. I read my Bible and pray every single day. I’m for God!” Weakness Christianity, by contrast, places both knees squarely on the Bible and says, “I am weak, but the Lord has sought me. I believe, but help now my unbelief. I fail and am broken by my continued sinfulness. Have mercy on me, Lord, and grant me favor, for apart from you I can do nothing.”

Those who pursue Strength Christianity will never find joy in God, for they will never find God. Our Father refuses to be approached in that manner. They will find only increasing religious pride and secret hardness of heart. On the outside, they will project a picture of righteousness. They’ll have it all together. They’ll be spiritual. But only on the outside.

For those who stumble across the rare jewel of Weakness Christianity, however, there is provision beyond what we can possibly imagine. Our suffering, our failures, our weaknesses and disappointments all gain an incredible spiritual significance. God never says he’ll be glorified in our religious accomplishments. But he does promise that his power will be made perfect in our weakness (2 Cor 12:9).

Neediness is the heart of biblical religion. When we honestly lay our brokenness before God, we’re surprised to see a radically different message in the Bible. While we had perhaps expected a to-do list from Holy Writ, a program to make us righteous, or a divinely sanctioned self-help book, we instead see a shocking message that centers on our God and his grace to his broken people, not about us and our performance and expected rewards. And when we approach God in brokenness—Weakness Christianity—we find a radically difference vision for prayer. Prayer is not something we do—a performance designed to get something from God. Instead, it’s merely a free and honest confession of our neediness to God and our spoken reliance upon him for each and every blessing. When you stumble upon Weakness Christianity, you realize that true religion is all about God’s grace, not about our devotional consistency.

4. The Shocker: Grace for the Christian
This grace is for you right now, now and tonight and tomorrow and next week and forever. The deadly assumption made too often among those who claim to heed the Scriptures is that grace is only for non-Christians. Grace is what God offers to people who don’t know Christ. Grace is what makes us Christians; but once we’re Christians, we live by our own resources. This is why advocates of Strength Christianity so often sound like evangelical Christians. They really do believe that God offers grace to unbelievers who will turn to God through Jesus Christ. And they’re right on that. What they wrongly assume, though, is that the Christian life begins by grace, but continues by human works.

I’ve seen this confusion many times. I found it ironic that the very same prayer program that so hurt the church I love included within it an absolutely wonderful children’s program. This at first puzzled me. The children who attended were pointed to Jesus, reassured of God’s love for them, and encouraged to rest in God’s mercy and total acceptance in Christ. In the adult activities, by contrast, people were told to try harder, to persevere, to do better, to be more consistent and to pray more, so that God could bless them. The children heard, “God did it,” while the adults were told, “Just do it.”

Why the difference? The difference was simple. These teachers were assuming that the children of the church were not yet Christians (…an assumption I would question). God offers non-Christians grace. The adults, however, were committed Christians. The Christian’s relationship with God rests not upon God’s grace, but upon his or her performance, particularly the performance of the ultimate devotional duty, the daily quiet time. This assumption, that grace isn’t for Christians, is spiritual venom, which is keeping millions of Christians in bondage to self-reliance, guilt, shame, and despair. Quiet Time Guilt is the great epidemic among Bible-believing Christians today.

If you think the purpose behind this little tract is to absolve you from the call to pray or the need for Scripture, think again. My purpose is to free you to desire prayer—to desire God. I want you to long for the pure message of the gospel, spelled out on page after page of the Bible, and to find the joyous freedom found in Christ. Prayer is a grace, not a work. It is a confession of our neediness to God, not a proof that our “relationship with God” is going well. If you think that God will not bless you today because you missed your quiet time, this has been for you. If subtle legalism has left you in bondage so that you no longer hunger for God’s word or freely call out to him in prayer, then hear this: God has already chosen you, pronounced you righteous, adopted you into his family, and promised to finish his work in you. Perhaps you have been lied to in the past. Now it is time for the truth to set you free. Free to be needy. Free to fail. Free to approach God without dread. Free to delight in him rather than in your performance.

But I have a few more theological reflections to share before you leave. Keep reading.

5. The Surprise: The Quiet Time is Optional
Imagine for a moment you’re meeting a Christian friend. “How’s your relationship with God going?” they ask you. “Well, I’m struggling with my attitude about my job—but God is teaching me to be content and to not gossip when people rub me the wrong way.” A silent stare greets the words, your inquisitor’s eyes staring you up and down. After a moment of awkward silence, the question comes again, “But how is your relationship with God?” Hmm. What wrong with this picture?

Perhaps this has never happened to you. But I’ve found contemporary Christians are often more concerned about my ‘relationship with God’ than with my relationship with God. Whose idea was it to define the sum total of my relationship with God as my devotional consistency? Your quiet time is not your relationship with God. Your relationship with God—or, as I prefer to say, God’s relationship with you—is your whole life: your job, your family, your sleep, your play, your relationships, your driving, your everything. The real irony here is that we’ve become accustomed to pigeonholing our entire relationship with God into a brief devotional exercise that is not even commanded in the Bible.

Yes. That’s what I said. The daily quiet time—that half hour every morning of Scriptural study and prayer¾is not actually commanded in the Bible. And as a theologian, I can remind us that to bind the conscience where Scripture leaves freedom is a very, very serious crime. It’s legalism rearing its ugly little head again. We’ve become legalistic about a legalistic command. This is serious.

But no misunderstand what I’m saying. My goal isn’t that we pray and read the Bible less, but that we do so more—and with a free and needy heart.

Does the Bible instruct Christians to call out to God in prayer? Absolutely. “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Th 5:16-18). But this isn’t a command to set apart a special half-hour of prayer; it’s instruction to continually call upon God. Elsewhere the Apostle calls us to pray: “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” (Phil 4:6-7). But notice that the focus here is not on the performance of a devotional duty, but on approaching God for grace—for our heats and minds to be guarded by him. Paul’s burden is that we would rely upon God in every circumstance and therefore have peace, rather than relying on ourselves and finding ourselves captive to the anxiety that accompanies self-reliance.

Does the Bible command us to read our Bibles every day? No. Not really.

What Scripture actually instructs is that we meditate on God’s word all the time. Consider the godly man in Psalm 1. “His delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night” (Ps 1:2). This is not exactly the same thing as reading the Bible every day. Personal Bible reading is one—and only one—way we to meditate upon God’s word. At this point it’s helpful to consider the difference between a good idea and a biblical mandate. A biblical mandate is something that God explicitly or implicitly commands in Scripture. Loving your neighbor is a biblical mandate (Mt 5:43). Moving to Philadelphia to work in a homeless shelter, by contrast, is not a biblical mandate. Rather, it’s a good idea, a wonderful possible application of the biblical mandate to love your neighbor. But moving to Philly isn’t the only way you can love your neighbor. Similarly, meditating on God’s word is a biblical mandate. The daily quiet time, by contrast, is a good idea, a wonderful possible application of the mandate of biblical meditation.

It may surprise you to know that the concept of the quiet time as a command is a modern invention. It’s only in recent centuries that Christians have been able to actually own Bibles—the printing press and cheap paper have given us more options so far as biblical meditation is concerned. But remember that most Christians throughout history have not owned Bibles. They heard the Bible preached during corporate worship. They were taught the Bible in the churches. They memorized the Bible profusely—a first century rabbinic saying stated, “If your rabbi teaches and you have no paper, write it on your sleeve.” But for most Christians through history, biblical meditation took place when they discussed the Bible with family and friends, when they memorized it, when they listened very carefully to God’s word preached. The concept of sitting still before sunrise with a Bible open would have been very foreign to them.

We have so many options today, why do we get hung up on the quiet time? Listen to Christian teaching tapes. Invest your time in a small group Bible study. Have friends over for coffee and Bible discussion. Sing and listen to Scripture songs. Read good theology. Tape memory verses to the dashboard of your car. And pray throughout your day. I always reserve the drive to church on Sundays as a time of uninterrupted prayer for my pastors and elders, for those leading worship, and for the peace and purity of the church. Certain landmarks around town remind me to pray for certain churches, Christians I know, or causes God says are important. I suspect I spend more time praying in my car than on my knees. (Though I love praying on my knees as a concrete display of my dependence on God, I can’t do this in my car without causing an accident.)

If you have a regular quiet time, don’t stop. You’ve found a wonderful way to meditate on Scripture. You’ve set aside a specific time to call upon God in prayer. But if the quiet time doesn’t work for you, that’s okay. You should not feel guilty since you have not broken a commandment. The quiet time is an option, a good idea—not a biblical mandate. If the quiet time isn’t working for you, there are other options as well. All of them are good ones. The key is to rely on God to accomplish his plans, a reliance expressed in prayer and fed in Scripture. You have all kinds of opportunities to call upon God in prayer and to meditate upon his word. He loves you and delights in your expressions of weakness and dependence. He is glorified in your weakness.

6. The Theology of Prayer: Means of Grace
So what exactly does prayer do? That’s the question I’m often asked. There are several wrong answers to this question. Some assume that prayer furnishes God with the information he lacks. God doesn’t view it that way. He not only knows what’s going on now, he knows what will be going on next week. Indeed, he even ordained what will be going on next week, the Bible speaks of “the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will” (Eph 1:11).

Neither is prayer an attempt to convince God to do what he wouldn’t otherwise do. He will grant our requests only insofar as they accord with his eternal purpose—his will. “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him” (1 Jn 5:14-15).

And I hope we’ve dismissed the idea that prayer shows God how much we love him! It’s not a work, but a grace! But often we think that prayer is something we do to obligate God to bless us. This is the subtlest of errors, for it resembles the biblical teaching. Indeed, it is a caricature of the biblical picture of prayer. Grace-empowered, grace-motivated prayer does bring blessing, but prayer isn’t a work we do that obligates God to give blessing. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one. Prayer is a means of grace, not a work to merit grace.

Theologians have classically called prayer and Scripture (along with the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper) means of grace—highways along which the Holy Spirit tends to travel. The means of grace are the normal instruments God uses to accomplish his saving work in and through us. Does prayer change things? Yes, because God changes things, and prayer is an expression of our reliance upon him to accomplish his purposes.

I remember about six months ago calling upon God in prayer about my finances. Starting a not-for-profit teaching ministry is hard work, and church missions committees would often rather support a missionary doing evangelism than one who is training believers. One evening I called out to God with great urgency. After a year of support raising and teaching, I could still only afford to teach half-time while working another job, and even the funds that had enabled that year of half-teaching were almost all gone. “Father, this is your ministry, not mine. If you have raised me up for this, then something must change. I cannot go without food. I cannot fail to pay my rent. If you wish me to teach, you must grant the resources to do this. If you do not enable me to teach, I will not teach. Apart from you I can do nothing.”

Was I manipulating God by threatening to stop teaching? No. And being a sovereign God, he wouldn’t have been impressed. Rather, I was confessing to God my utter and total dependence on him to fund my work.

The next day, after eight months without any new support, a new friend took me out for coffee and told me he felt compelled to support me at $100/month. That same day, I received a note from an old friend in another part of the country pledging monthly financial support. When I checked my email, I had received a message from a member of my church who had since moved away, telling me a $1200 check was in the mail.

Did my prayer force God’s hand? No. All of this was already in the works long before I prayed. But when I confessed my neediness to God, he was pleased to provide for me. Prayer was the means of grace, not a work I offered for reward. And God was glorified in my weakness. God is faithful to hear our prayers, and he delights in answering them. Prayer is one of the basic freedoms Christians have, and freedoms aren’t given to leave us in bondage. There is a cure for Quiet Time Guilt. That cure is the gospel of Christ, in whom we have redemption. Gospel—our need and God’s provision—is the heart of biblical prayer. God will care for us. We belong to him.

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