Letters to God

mail.jpgI was recently perusing some letters my wife Deborah had written me before we were married.  Here's one of them:

Sensitivity

Sensitivity involves a great many things.  The greatest sensitivity one can have is toward God.  You are definitely sensitive to His leading and to the Holy Spirit's working in your life.  Some call it a tender heart; others, yieldedness–whatever term you wish it to be, I admire it in your life!

Sensitivity also includes being aware of the needs of others and responding to those needs.  I have seen you weep inwardly when a brother fell and then do all in your power to help restore.  I have watched you give of yourself until there was none left to give, and all because you saw a need!

I cannot overlook your sensitivity to me.  When I'm feeling down, you just what to say or do.  If I'm hurting in some way, you do all that you can do to ease the pain, whether it be emotionally, physically, or spiritually.  Thanks!  I love you!

Now, Deborah is obviously wrong.  I am certainly not always sensitive to the needs of others as I should be.  However, when I read a letter like this, it is a specific demonstration of her love and trust in me.

Too often, my communication with my heavenly Father goes like this:

Dear Heavenly Father,

Thank you for this day.  Thank you for giving us a beautiful sunny day.  Thanks for providing our needs.  Help us to love you as we should.  Help us to do what is right.  Be with ____________ who is struggling right now.  Bless this food.

In Jesus' name, Amen.

Now, there's nothing really objectionable in that prayer, other than maybe asking the Lord to "be with" someone.  If they're a Christian, He's with them.

But, the problem with this prayer is that is an oft-repeated one.  It is a routine, a liturgy.  It says "God, here is a brief acknowledgement of you in my day."  It does not do justice, either quantitatively or qualitatively to the God of the universe.

Consider this prayer:

My God, I feel it is heaven to please Thee, and to be what Thou wouldst have me be. O that I were holy as Thou art holy, pure as Christ is pure, perfect as Thy Spirit is perfect! These, I feel, are the best commands in Thy Book, and shall I break them? must I break them? am I under such a necessity as long as I live here?

Woe, woe is me that I am a sinner, that I grieve this blessed God, who is infinite in goodness and grace! O if He would punish me for my sins, it would not would my heart so deep to offend Him; But though I sin continually, He continually repeats His kindness to me.

At times I feel I could bear any suffering, but how can I dishonour this glorious God? What shall I do to glorify and worship this best of beings? O that I could consecrate my soul and body to His service, without restraint, for ever! O that I could give myself up to Him, so as never more to attempt to be my own! or have any will or affections that are not perfectly conformed to His will and His love! But, alas, I cannot live and not sin.

O may angels glorify Him incessantly, and, if possible, prostrate themselves lower before the blessed King of heaven! I long to bear a part with them in ceaseless praise; but when I have done all I can to eternity I shall not be able to offer more than a small fraction of the homage that the glorious God deserves. Give me a heart full of divine, heavenly love.

Did you have the same reaction as I did?  WOW!!  What's the difference between my prayer and this one?  What's the similarity between this one and Deborah's letter to me?  I think it is simply this, Deborah's "prayer" to me and this prayer are clearly the products of meditation.  Deborah took the time to think about me and one characteristic that she wanted to express appreciation for.  This prayer obviously comes from a deep reflection on who God is and who man is.

The prayer I have reproduced here is from The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions.  The Puritans took time to reflect on God and then wrote out their prayers to Him.  I think this is a good practice and one which should be reborn in our day.

To some, the writing out of prayers and even the reading of those prayers calls to mind the practice of dead, liturgical denominations.  OH NO!  We do NOT want to be like them!  And so, many of us avoid the writing of prayers because of associational fear.

I would submit, however, that at least in one area of our worship, singing, we practice the concept I'm advocating whether consciously or not.  Many of the greatest hymns, both from our heritage as well as in contemporary hymnody, are transcribed prayers to the Lord.  I recently reviewed the most 100 most popular songs being used today in the Christian church.  About 95% of them were prayers.  We like to sing prayers that have been written by others.  Why don't we write them out?

Writing, at least in principle, is the product of thinking.  And what better use of our time can you suggest than to think, to meditate, on God and express our heart to Him–to meditate on His Word and capture our thoughts on paper?  It is time well-spent.

There is nothing wrong with expressing the spontaneous cries of our heart to the Lord.  But this is another way to spend time with the Lord, and it does require time.  It breeds devotion.  It compels humility.

Pastor John Piper has some excellent thoughts on the subject:

Being devoted to prayer will mean that what you say in your times of prayer will often be free and unstructured, and often be formed and structured. If you are only free in your prayers you will probably become shallow and trite. If you are only formed in your prayers, you will probably become mechanical and hollow. Both ways of praying are important. Not either-or, but both-and.

By free I mean you will regularly feel like pouring out your soul to God and you will do it. You will not want any script or guidelines or lists or books. You will have so many needs that they tumble out freely without any preset form. This is good. Without this it is doubtful that we have any true relation with Christ at all. Can you really imagine a marriage or friendship where all the communication read from lists or books, or spoken only in memorized texts. That would be artificial in the extreme.

On the other hand, I plead with you not to think you are so spiritually deep or resourceful or rich or disciplined that you can do without the help of forms. I have in mind four kinds of forms that I hope you all make use of.

Form #1. The Bible. Pray the Bible. Pray Biblical prayers. This week we are building our prayers around the prayer in Ephesians 3:14-19.

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, 16 that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith- that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Memorize it and pray it often. Pray the Lord's prayer and as you pray it put each phrase in your own words and apply it to the people you are burdened about. Pray the commands of the Bible: "Help me – help my wife, my children, the elders, our missionaries to love you, O God, with all my heart and all my soul and all my strength." Pray the promises of the Bible: "O Lord, take all the authority that is yours in heaven and on earth and make our missionaries feel the sweetness of the promise that you will be with them to the end of the age." Pray the warnings of the Bible: "Or Lord, grant me to fight against lust with the kind of urgency that you taught when you said, gouge out your eye and got to heaven rather than leave it good and go to hell." Open the Bible in front of you and put one elbow on one side and one on the other and pray every paragraph of into contrition or praise or thanks or petition.

Form #2. Lists. Pray lists. I have in mind lists of people to pray for and lists of needs to pray about. If you can remember all the people and needs you should be praying for without a list, you are God. I must have lists, some in my head and some on paper. I have memorized about 70 people that I pray for by name every day. But that does not include the list of people who came to missions in the manse that Noel and I pray for each night from a written list. It does not include the list of our missionaries that I read from a list. And that's just people, not to mention needs that change in my own soul and in the family and in the church and in the world week by week. So I encourage you to use lists of people and lists of needs. Keep some kind of prayer folder or notebook or files in your handheld computer. Remember I am only talking about the second half of this pair: freedom and form. Don't forget the value of freedom. It is both-and, not either-or.

Form #3. Books. Pray through books like Operation World – a different country, and the cause of Christ in it, every day or two. What a powerful way to get a globe-sized heart and vision of God's supremacy! Pray through a book like Extreme Devotion – a one-page glimpse into the suffering, persecuted church for every day of the year. Take my book, Let the Nations Be Glad, and turn to pages 57-62 and pray through the 36 things that the early church prayed for each other. Take The Valley of Vision, a book of Puritan prayers, and pray what great saints of the past have prayed. We are so foolish to think that left to ourselves we will see all the Bible has to say and all the needs we should pray about without the help of good books.

Form #4. Patterns. Develop patters of prayer that give you some guidance of what do first and second and third when you get down on your knees. One pattern, as I already mentioned, would be to structure your prayers around each of the petitions of the Lord's prayer. A pattern that I use virtually every day is the pattern of concentric circles starting with my own soul – which I feel the sin and needs of most keenly – and moving out to my family, and then the pastoral staff and elders, then all the church staff, then our missionaries, and then general needs in the larger body of Christ and the cause of Christ in missions and culture. Without some form or pattern like this I tend to freeze and go nowhere.

If indeed we are to be devoted to prayer (Romans 12:12) and that without ceasing (1 Thess. 5:17), then written letters to God can certainly help us in this task.

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