Scriptural Selections: On Prayer, III

Dear Friends,

This mailing comes at a time when I’ve been daily receiving appeals to pray for Kenya. The latest comes from NYYM’s Clerk, Ernie Buscemi, and reads, in part:

“I’m writing to ask that each of us in New York Yearly Meeting hold all of Kenya in prayer, so they may feel the power of prayer. I pray that each person in Kenya feel the fullness of their humanity and know that they are a treasure in God’s eyes. I ask that we pray for peace that includes the needs of children, women and men not to be hungry. Pray for basic human rights, such as ethnic understanding, political and social justice. Pray for responsible participation in all faith communities in Kenya. Pray for the safety of all and the ability to listen and hear God’s voice.”

I pass it on to you, in case you haven’t already gotten it. Already I
hear news reports that the tension and violence there are easing, for which I give thanks; but I note that Ernie’s prayer is for much more than that – it’s that each person in Kenya might know that they are a treasure in God’s eyes. Can we pray for such a thing without making the effort to remember that each of us is a treasure in God’s eyes? I find myself having to pray something like “Please open my eyes, Lord, so that I can see it for myself.”

An appeal for prayer almost always makes me stop and reflect on my inability to pray truly and acceptably unless I’m enabled to pray by the Holy Spirit, so I often feel the need to preface my prayer with a prayer to be given the spirit of right prayer – “for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered” (Romans 8:26). Many of you will no doubt recall times you’ve set out to pray for something, or about something, and found your prayer “corrected” or “refined” as you held it up before God. Some of you may have felt yourselves turned back, with a sense that your prayer would not be complete, or acceptable, without your first having taken some action such as a gift, a sacrifice, or an intervention of some sort:

* Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath aught against thee; Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift. – Matthew 5:23-24

Therefore, if you’re finding yourselves stopped in your efforts to
pray, respect the stops and ask what they, or God, might be directing you to do.

This e-mailing, third in a series of Scriptural selections on prayer,
will be focused on stopped, refused and redirected prayers. This was not what I expected to do. I believe that my efforts were redirected. I don’t know why. I hope that it speaks to someone’s condition.

* * *

The first refused prayer in the Bible – interpreting the word “prayer” broadly – was Cain’s offering, Genesis 4:3-7. As first in a series of acts of kindness to Cain, the Lord suggests a way to remedy the situation:

* And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the
fruit of the ground an offering unto the LORD. [4] And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the LORD had respect unto Abel and to his offering: [5] But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell.
[6] And the LORD said unto Cain, Why art thou wroth? and why is thy countenance fallen? [7] If thou doest well, shalt thou not be
accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.

I think that the closest the Torah comes to comedy is the story of the priest-prophet Balaam – complete with the Bible’s only talking animal other than the serpent of Eden, Balaam’s ass (Numbers 22-24). Balak, King of Moab, anxiously seeks Balaam out to curse the approaching Israelites, then in their last year of wandering before entering the promised land. At the king’s insistence, Balaam three times builds seven altars, sacrificing bullocks and rams on each, but each time pronounces a blessing on Israel rather than a curse: “How shall I curse, whom God hath not cursed?” (Num. 23:8) Balak’s “refused prayer” receives Balaam’s inflexible answer, “Behold, I have received commandment to bless: and he hath blessed; and I cannot reverse it” (Num. 23:20).

Prayers from unrepentant sinful lips, prayers for things contrary to God’s will, and prayers directed to beings other than the One God – these can never be expected to bear fruit:

* And they took the bullock which was given them, and they dressed it, and called on the name of Baal from morning even until noon, saying, O Baal, hear us. But there was no voice, nor any that answered. And they leaped upon the altar which was made. [27] And it came to pass at noon, that Elijah mocked them, and said, Cry aloud: for he is a god; either he is talking, or he is pursuing, or he is in a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth, and must be awaked. [28] And they cried aloud, and cut themselves after their manner with knives and lancets, till the blood gushed out upon them. [29] And it came to pass, when midday was past, and they prophesied until the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, that there was neither voice, nor any to answer, nor any that regarded.  – 1 Kings 18:26-29

* But unto the wicked God saith, What hast thou to do to declare my statutes, or that thou shouldest take my covenant in thy mouth? – Psalm 50:16

* He that killeth an ox is as if he slew a man; he that sacrificeth a
lamb, as if he cut off a dog’s neck; he that offereth an oblation, as
if he offered swine’s blood; he that burneth incense, as if he blessed an idol. Yea, they have chosen their own ways, and their soul delighteth in their abominations. [4] I also will choose their
delusions, and will bring their fears upon them; because when I
called, none did answer; when I spake, they did not hear: but they did evil before mine eyes, and chose that in which I delighted not. [5] Hear the word of the LORD, ye that tremble at his word; your brethren that hated you, that cast you out for my name’s sake, said, Let the LORD be glorified: but he shall appear to your joy, and they shall be ashamed. – Isaiah 66:3-5

* They are turned back to the iniquities of their forefathers, which
refused to hear my words; and they went after other gods to serve them: the house of Israel and the house of Judah have broken my covenant which I made with their fathers. [11] Therefore thus saith the LORD, Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them. [12] Then shall the cities of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem go, and cry unto the gods unto whom they offer incense: but they shall not save them at all in the time of their trouble. – Jeremiah 11:10-12

* The man answered and said unto them, Why herein is a marvellous thing, that ye know not from whence he is, and yet he hath opened mine eyes. [31] Now we know that God heareth not sinners: but if any man be a worshipper of God, and doeth his will, him he heareth. [32] Since the world began was it not heard that any man opened the eyes of one that was born blind. [33] If this man were not of God, he could do nothing. – John 9:30-33

* But Peter said unto him, Thy money perish with thee, because thou hast thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money. [21] Thou hast neither part nor lot in this matter: for thy heart is not right in the sight of God. – Acts 8:20-21

The world seems full of people who think themselves faithful believers in God who, for all their religious punctiliousness and orthodoxy, have a heart that is “not right in the sight of God” and so suffer delusions of their own righteousness and make prayers that “cannot reach” God.

* And they have built the high places of Tophet, which is in the
valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire; which I commanded them not, neither came it into my heart. – Jeremiah 7:31

* I hate, I despise your feast days, and I will not smell in your
solemn assemblies. [22] Though ye offer me burnt offerings and your meat offerings, I will not accept them: neither will I regard the peace offerings of your fat beasts. [23] Take thou away from me the noise of thy songs; for I will not hear the melody of thy viols. [24] But let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream. – Amos 5:21-24

* They shall put you out of the synagogues: yea, the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service. – John 16:2

Though God “chooses their delusions” (Isaiah 66:4, above), the
responsibility for being deluded ultimately rests on the individual
soul, which we must suppose began the chain-reaction of delusion by making a primordial choice of darkness over light, of untruth over truth, of the creature over the Creator, of spiritual numbness and ignorance over spiritual awareness:

* And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. [20] For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved. – John 3:19-20

* For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness; [19] Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. [20] For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: [21] Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. [22] Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, [23] And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things. [24] Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves: [25] Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen. – Romans 1:18-25

Christian and Islamic tradition agree that prayers from the damned are not fulfillable:

* There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day: [20] And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores, [21] And desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. [22] And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried; [23] And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. [24] And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.
[25] But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime
receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented. [26] And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence. – Luke 16:19-26

* And they who are in the fire will say to the keepers of hell, “Pray
unto your Sustainer that He lighten, [though it be] for one day
[only], this suffering of ours!” [But the keepers of hell] will ask,
“Is it not [true] that your apostles came unto you with all evidence of truth?” Those [in the fire] will reply, “Yea,  indeed.” [And the keepers of hell] will say, “Pray, then!” – for the prayer of those who deny the truth cannot lead to aught but delusion. – Qur’an 40:49-50 (Asad translation)

There are, however, certain prayers of the righteous, the prophets, the saints which go unfulfilled, in spite of the Divine reassurance “ask, and it shall be given you” (Matthew 7:7, Luke 11:9). What are we to make of them? Righteous Job egged and begged for an explanation of his suffering, and for a long and painful time, God was silent. Even Jesus’ own “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me” (Matthew 26:39) was denied Him. Knowing the goodness of God, one must assume that all our righteous but denied prayers are among the “tears” that God will one day wipe away from our eyes (Revelation 7:17, 21:4). But perhaps, when our tears are wiped away, it will be clear to us
that all our prayers now have been fulfilled, after all, and in a
better way than we could have imagined. Paul wisely counsels us that the peace and joy that are to be ours are far greater than any pain we suffer now in this life, “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us,” Romans 8:18. A few lines later (8:28) he writes, “we know that all things work together for good to them that love God.”

Paul’s prayer for the removal of the “thorn in his flesh” was refused, but with an explanation that led the Apostle to learn to “glory” in his infirmities:

* And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. [8] For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me.
[9] And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my
strength is made perfect in weakness.
Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the
power of Christ may rest upon me. [10] Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in
distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.  – 2 Corinthians 12:7-10

We all pray, every moment of our lives, for the things that promise gratification, safety, and freedom from pain: house, parents, brethren, wife, children. This is natural. But Jesus, Greatest of teachers, bids us detach ourselves from these things for God’s sake – to suspend our prayers to always have them about us, to be ready to give them up, to pray rather to be made perfectly serviceable to the Divine Will: “for whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it” (Matthew 16:25).

* And he said unto them, Verily I say unto you, There is no man that hath left house, or parents, or brethren, or wife, or children, for the kingdom of God’s sake, Who shall not receive manifold more in this present time, and in the world to come life everlasting. – Luke 18:29

This is reminiscent of the prayer of Solomon for “an understanding heart to judge thy people, that I may discern between good and bad” (1 Kings 3:9), which so pleased the Lord that

* God said unto him, Because thou hast asked this thing, and hast not asked for thyself long life; neither hast asked riches for thyself, nor hast asked the life of thine enemies; but hast asked for thyself understanding to discern judgment; [12] Behold, I have done according to thy words: lo, I have given thee a wise and an understanding heart… [13] And I have also given thee that which thou hast not asked, both riches, and honour: so that there shall not be any among the kings like unto thee all thy days. – 1 Kings 3:11-13

It is simply a matter of discerning the right thing to pray for:

* And seek not ye what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink, neither be ye of doubtful mind. [30] For all these things do the nations of the world seek after: and your Father knoweth that ye have need of these things. [31] But rather seek ye the kingdom of God; and all these things shall be added unto you. – Luke 12:29-31

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And the Lord direct your hearts into the love of God, and into the patient waiting for Christ. – 2 Thessalonians 3:5 (KJV)
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POSTSCRIPT: The phrase from the Qur’an quoted above, “the prayer of those who deny the truth cannot lead to aught but delusion,” suggests the futility of prayer – which is always a reaching out for God – for those whose dominant motive is to flee from God, those who, in Paul’s words, “hold the truth in unrighteousness,” or in John’s words, “love darkness rather than light.” One simply can’t have it both ways. Those familiar with Shakespeare’s Hamlet will recall King Claudius’s agonized soliloquy (Act III, Scene iii) which links his inability to pray to the fact that he hasn’t been willing to surrender the profits of his sin, “my crown, mine own ambition and my queen:”

…Pray can I not,
Though inclination be as sharp as will:
My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent….
And what’s in prayer but this two-fold force,
To be forestalled ere we come to fall,
Or pardon’d being down? Then I’ll look up;
My fault is past. But, O, what form of prayer
Can serve my turn? ‘Forgive me my foul murder’?
That cannot be; since I am still possess’d
Of those effects for which I did the murder,
My crown, mine own ambition and my queen.
May one be pardon’d and retain the offence?

In spite of his discouragement, Claudius has a moment of hope, and kneels to pray. The sight of the murderer on his knees dissuades Hamlet from killing him, and Hamlet withdraws, unseen, leaving Claudius to rise from his failed prayer with the couplet –

My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.

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