Thursday, July 31, 2008

Prayers I Don't Mean

I know the plans I have for you . . . (Jer. 29:11)

Sometimes we say things we don’t mean. We’re not lying, deliberately stating something that isn’t true or trying to mislead. The intentions that give rise to these words are usually good but poorly formed.

Most often I do this with my kids.

“Dad, can we go to Bruster’s for ice cream?” A simple yes or no question. One stock response of mine goes like this: “Not now kids, it’s too close to dinner time. Maybe we’ll go tomorrow (or later this week, etc.).

I’m not sure what this is. Maybe it is a lie. Most likely it is a lame effort to be the good guy, the great dad who does fun things. To that end I devise ways to say “no” without just coming out and saying “no.” The fact is I have no idea when or if we’ll go to Bruster’s. I’ve said something I don’t mean.

Sometimes we say things we don’t mean when we speak in anger. Sometimes we say things we don’t mean because we speak in ignorance, without all the pertinent information. We do this with each other more often than we care to admit. And recently I’ve had to confess that I’ve done the same thing with God.

God gave me a sign, a real estate sign to be exact. A few days ago I left my driveway and noticed that the home just down the street had sold. The house was put on the market earlier this year. I’d have never given it a second thought except my own house was put on the market a year ago and we’ve not had one offer.

Our plans to move are being driven by lifestyle considerations. We’d like to be closer to where we work and where the kids go to school. We don’t have to sell, and that’s a nice position to be in these days. Still, it’s been a matter of trusting God and waiting patiently. All year long I’ve mouthed a prayer that sounds like what any devout person might pray in our situation. “Lord we want to be where you want us to be.”

When I saw the big SOLD sign in my neighbor’s yard it said to me loud and clear, “God wants you right where you are now.” And somehow that bothered me. Whatever it was I felt, it told me that I’d been praying something I didn’t mean. I’d been saying something to God that didn’t reflect what was in my heart.

It’s not uncommon that I teach beyond myself. I regularly speak or preach on things that I deeply believe and have thoroughly studied, but haven’t mastered. Last spring I wrote a series of daily reflections on the fruit of the Spirit. Here I am a year later still struggling with patience and gentleness and, well . . . with all of them.

I realize now that in the same way I sometimes pray beyond myself. I say things to God that reflect where I’d like to be and not where I truly am.

Of course, there are plenty of prayers that I do mean. When I pray for my children I mean every word. I know my failures quite well and when I confess I mean every word. When I ask for the Spirit’s help to do things that I can’t do in my own power, I mean every word.

But when it comes to where my life is headed and what the future might bring and the plans I’ve made for myself, I lapse into the error that Jesus saw in the Pharisees. I draw near with my lips while my heart is somewhere else, distant, wrapped up in myself (Mark 7:6). God spoke to his people through Jeremiah and assured them that he had a plan for them, plans to give them a future and a hope (Jer. 29:11). Problem is, I’ve got some ideas about that too. With my prayers I seek God’s plan. My heart, however, silently pursues the course I’ve charted, hoping that at some point the two paths will converge.

It seems that the life of faith and the life of prayer are lived in the gaps: gaps between what we know and what we do, gaps between what we aspire to and the realities of our lives, gaps between what we say to God and what we hold deep inside of ourselves.

So many look at those gaps and name them hypocrisy. Not so. Hypocrisy is an attempt to mask the distant heart. It knows the right words and draws near with the lips while denying the deeper truth of what forms and fills the heart. Following Jesus in those gaps means telling the truth about who we are while moving toward what God calls us to be.

Look closer at those gaps and you’ll find plenty of grace there. Grace is the only thing that makes it possible for us to keep walking in those places. Grace keeps us from settling for a distant heart. It keeps us from the despair of never measuring up. Grace is what we count on because we don’t always know how to pray as we should (Romans 8:26). But the Spirit intercedes for us, praying according to God’s will.

Thanks be to God. I mean that.

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