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TEXT: I John 5:13-17
SUBJECT: I John #17: Why Your Prayer Life is So Bad
How's your prayer life?
In almost sixty years of going to church, I have met only one person who said her prayer life was good. Whether it was or not, I don't know, but that's what she said.
As for the rest of us? Our prayer lives are not what we want them to be-and they're not what the Lord wants them to be. We don't pray without ceasing; we don't pray in faith; we don't pray in hope; we don't in charity. In a word, we hardly pray at all, and when we do, we pray more like the Pharisees and Sadducees than the disciples of Christ and the children of God.
This is not a new problem. The twelve disciples didn't know how to pray, and, when Jesus needed them most, Peter, James, and John couldn't pray at all. If you read the Devotional Literature from all ages, you'll find everyone from the Church Fathers to the Medieval Doctors to the Reformers, Puritans, and Christian leaders today, decrying the fact that we don't pray very often and we don't pray very well!
If this doesn't apply to you, thank God! And I can only wonder why I'm up here instead of you. What the disciples said to Jesus, needs to be said time and again-
Lord, teach us to pray.
I John was not written as a kind of Manual of Prayer. If anything, it's a controversial-a polemic against the heretics who were then doing so much damage to the Church in Asia Minor. Their mouths needed to be stopped-an d John was just the man to do it. Whatever 'Jesus' the heretics preached, John knew the Real Jesus, the One he and his colleagues once-
Heard, saw with their eyes, looked upon, and hands had [actually] handled.
This is the Jesus John presents to us in his First Epistle, and he's at great pains to convince us that there is Life in this One-and in no other! Along with Paul, John is the first and greatest Defender of the Faith.
But this Defense of the True Christ has a practical bent to it. Whether John likes 'arguing' I don't know; at one time, he certainly did; but now? Probably not. But he's willing to do it, to don the armor of God and do battle with the false teachers and the Father of Lies who is giving them their orders.
Why? It is not to make a name for himself as a Public Intellectual. Nor, is it even designed to win heretics to the Faith (though I'm sure he'd like to do that). John refutes the Gnostics in order to fortify the faith of the Church-and, more to the point-to, if you will, Assure us of the Assurance of our Salvation.
This is John's point, and it's not a matter of guess work. He tells us the very thing from beginning to end, and nowhere more succinctly than in 5:13-
These things I have written to you who believe in the Name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have Eternal Life, and that you may continue to believe in the Name of the Son of God.
John doesn't want us to wish or hope or cross our fingers about belonging to God; he wants us to know it, to know it for sure-even when we sin! This is why he wrote his First Epistle.
JOHN'S PRACTICAL PURPOSE
But.why does he want us to have Assurance? Why is it so important to John (and Christ) that we know we have Eternal Life?
If you've struggled with Assurance yourself, or known people who have, you're likely to think that the aim of Assurance is to make Christians happy, or at least, less worried than we otherwise would be. This is an aim, and one of the fruits of Assurance.
But the Higher Aim is something above your blood pressure or my good night's sleep. John tells us what it is in vv.14-15
This is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us, we know that we have the petitions that we ask of Him.
And so, John writes the Epistle to Assure us of our Salvation and he assures of us our Salvation so that.we'll Pray More, we'll Pray Better, and we'll Pray with Confidence!
This is the practical, 'nuts-and-bolts' reason he wrote I John and why the Holy Spirit both inspired it and preserved it for our benefit.
There's a place for personal discipline: of course there is! To borrow from the famous Brother Lawrence, we all need to-
Practice the Presence of God.
Fixed times for prayer are useful; as we get older, it's good to make lists, so we don't forget the needs of others. When someone says, 'Pray for me, please', the best thing to do is to do it on the spot, so that it doesn't slip away from you in the hustle-bustle of life. Reciting the Lord's Prayer is helping millions of people as I speak. I do it every day, along with the Jesus Prayer-
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
Discipline has a role to play in your prayer life. Even more necessary is sorrow for sin and the desire to turn from it. There are many verses to this effect, Psalm 66:18, Proverbs 21:13, I Peter 3:7, for example-
If I regard iniquity in my heart the Lord will not hear me.
Whoever stops his ears at the cry of the poor, he himself will cry, but not be heard.
Husbands.dwell with your wives according to knowledge.that your prayers be not hindered.
A measure of wisdom and humility are also needed, asking for things agreeable to God's Will, for instance, or in the Name of Christ, and with the realization that you don't deserve anything!
I never want to minimize these factors in Prayer. But what I very much want to do is to put them in their place! To put them under the Thing John puts first!
WHAT YOU NEED TO PRAY MORE AND BETTER
What's that? He leaves no doubt, v.14a-
This is the confidence.
The this obviously refers to what just came before it. Which is.what? Knowing we have Eternal Life (and how we got it!).
Boldness in Prayer, therefore, begins with knowing Who God is to you and What Christ has done for you!
Who is God? The Confession and the Creed say-
God is a spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in His being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth.
This is true; He is all that. He's also-
Maker of Heaven and Earth and all things therein, visible and invisible.
This is some of what God is. But v.14 leaves that in the background. It's reminds us of What God is-to us! He's our Father in Heaven, the Father who has always loved us and always will love us. Loved us enough to make us in His Image and to provide for our daily needs, of course, but chiefly, loved us enough to-
Send His Son to be the Propitiation of our sin.
When we think of implacable love, we think of mother bears, tearing in pieces any and every perceived threat to her cubs. Though my sons are big, and my wife is small, she'd do the same for her kids! She'd throw herself into the mouth of a lion to protect them. Millions of mothers would do this, if called upon.
And there's the Thing: God was called upon to do it! For there is no way that sinners can escape His wrath unless He takes it upon Himself. Which is the very thing Christ did, when-
God spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all!
On the Cross where He-
Bore our griefs and carried our sorrows.
.While we stood below laughing! While we were saying, 'He had it coming'-He is stricken of God, smitten, and afflicted! While we added our voice to the mob-
Let Him be crucified!
It was always-but especially then-that God revealed Himself as our-
Father in Heaven!
Knowing this God is your God is what gives you confidence to pray, to pray Big, to Pray long, and to pray no matter how hopeless it all seems-
There is nothing too hard for God.
The God who.
Loves us with an everlasting love.
The Key to a Better Prayer Life, therefore, is not more discipline and not more contrition (as necessary as they are), but more faith in-
The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
What the disciples said of His demands to forgive, goes double for our prayer lives-
Lord, increase our faith.
You don't need a Better God, a Better Christ, or Better Promises! You need a Better Faith! And this faith is both God's gift and, at the same time, your responsibility to receive and cultivate. You do both-not by dwelling on your failures or the demands of the Law-but by looking, gazing, staring at the Cross! For it is uniquely there that-
The love of God was demonstrated toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
This is what gives us confidence to pray! And what the Bible probably means by 'praying in Christ's name'.
TO (HECK) WITH THE PROSPERITY PREACHERS!
Does this make God our servant, doing out whatever favors we ask, simply because He can't say no? No. V.14 tells us that our prayers have to be-
According to His will.
This doesn't mean His 'secret will', things like whom to marry, what job to take, if you should move or not. You should pray about such things, but God doesn't promise to, let's say, give you a wife because you asked for one.
His will means God's revealed will. We can pray for holiness, because God has promised to make us holy. We can pray against the power of Temptation, because God has promised to deliver us from it. We can pray for pardon, pray for a good conscience, pray for wisdom, pray for every last thing that-
Pertains to life and godliness.
But what about the other things? The things so dear to us that God hasn't promised to give us? Believe me, it pains me to say that the Lord has not promised to save all of our loved ones. Can we pray for them? Can I pray for two of my three sons? Sure I can, because it is God's revealed will for me to pray for their salvation, and because, while He hasn't named them in particular, He has promised to save-
A great multitude, which no man can number, out of every nation, kindred, tribe, and tongue.
We can pray for our loved ones; we can pray for our health, pray for a job, pray for a spouse, pray to have kids, pray for the light to stay green when we're late for work!
But always, we pray for such things insofar as they're God's will. This is not a decline in faith or an injection of doubt, for the Only Man Who Never Doubted, once prayed-
Abba Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done.
When it became clear that His Cup of Suffering would not pass, Jesus stood, roused the sleeping disciples, and said-
Up! Let us be going. He who betrays me is at hand.
God promises to answer your prayers that are according to His known will (though just how-or when-He doesn't promise).
What He doesn't do is promise to answer foolish prayers, self-centered prayers! Folly and selfishness are definitely not according to His will! And while the Prosperity Preachers offer a carte blanche to their deluded followers, guaranteeing everything from healing to jobs to wives and children, to-if I may quote my beloved Janis Joplin-
O Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz?
John does nothing of the kind! Why not? Not because God couldn't give you a luxury car if He wants to, but because, in most cases, it wouldn't be good for you. Rather than making Him stingy, it only reveals His love for you. Giving you-not what you always want-but what you always need. (And, no, there's nothing wrong with having a Mercedes Benz!).
I'm sure some younger Prosperity Preachers are sincere and think they find their promises in the Bible, but as for the big ones who've been around for a while? I can't see them as anything but crooks!
THE HARD ONE
Speaking of 'sincerity', I sincerely wish I didn't need to comment on vv.16-17! These verses plainly distinguish a sin that does not lead to death and a sin that does. When a brother commits the former, we're to ask God to forgive Him-and He will. But the latter we're not to pray for because God has espressly willed to not forgive him! This is clear enough, what isn't so clear is-
What sin is unto death?
What kind of sinner should we not be praying for? The Medieval Church taught we needn't pray for people who have committed mortal sins, like murder, adultery, or blasphemy. The problem is, famous people have committed these very sins--and have been forgiven. David committed the first two in one of the great scandals in history. While Paul specifically names Himself as a (former)-
Blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent man.
.who obtained mercy!
This is certainly mistaken, and we can be thankful for that in light of the (almost) universal reign of fornication today, not to mention the non-stop taking of the Lord's Name in vain.
A second view says something to this effect: the death spoken of here is not 'eternal death', but death imposed by the state on criminals. In other words, while we may ask God to forgive a man on death row, He doesn't promise to spare his life on earth, that is, get a reprieve or pardon from the governor. This is certainly true. Many have been forgiven on Death Row only to hang at dawn. But it doesn't fit the context at all.
A third view links this sin to the Unpardonable Sin of mentioned in Matthew 12:24 and Mark 3:38. This is blaspheming the Holy Spirit. There is much to be said for this one, and I lean toward a variation of it, but it only explains one extremely mysterious verse with one every bit as mysterious!
A third possibility is the one I favor. The person spoken of here is an Apostate, that is, someone who once professed faith in Christ, but now has renounced that faith-not wavered-but once and for all-said No to God.
This is certainly agreeable to some parts of Hebrews, but more importantly, it seems to fit the overall teaching of I John, which, in part, is about false teachers luring and dragging Christians away from God's Christ to one of their own making!
Whatever we make of these puzzling and disturbing verses, one thing is clear: True Doctrine matters more than we think it does. Especially the True Doctrine of Christ. Sincerity is not enough; being a decent person; even a heroic figure is not enough. No one is or can be saved without True Faith in the True Christ.
Having separated the terrible sin of Apostasy from the lesser sins we all commit daily, John closes with a reminder-
All unrighteousness is sin and there is a sin that does not lead to death.
This provides a real warning to us: Maybe you're not tempted to renounce your faith in Christ or join the heretics' church. But does this mean your 'little' sins don't matter? Your sexual lust? Your love of money? Your lying to your wife, cheating on your income tax return, holding a grudge, looking down on people? Being too chicken to witness? Or too tired to read the Bible? Or too busy to go the church?
Such things are not as serious as Apostasy; when we're guilty of them, we can be prayed for, pardoned and restored. But this doesn't mean they don't matter. They do matter. They offend God and weaken the church, give His enemies a reason to blaspheme, and disfigure His image in you. Sin is bad, even little sins are bad. How bad? Bad enough to send the Spotless Son of God to Hell on the Cross as the only means of sending you to Heaven.
Let us, therefore, take our sins more seriously than we do-- and the One who bore them in His own body on the tree.
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