††††††††††† Periodically all through history, unwashed, uncouth, barbarian hoards have swept down out of the bleak frozen north to overrun, rape, pillage and destroy the home of civilization, culture and refinement in the sunny lands to their south.
††††††††††† In China, Genghis Khan's Mongolian rabble pillaged civilization. In Europe,† Attila the Hun's marauders plunged the Roman Empire into the Dark Ages. And, of course, in this country, Abraham Lincoln's yankees...
††††††††††† But, even as an unbiased and totally objective Southerner, I have to admit that Lincoln may have had a few good points. Whatever else he did, he was right about freeing slaves.
††††††††††† In 1862, in the midst of what is known locally as The War Of Northern Aggression, Abraham Lincoln wrestled with a problem concerning prayer.
††††††††††† The president realized that devout Christians lived in both the Union and the Confederacy. People on both sides during the war prayed for the safety of their loved ones in battle and for peace.
††††††††††† Devout people on both sides prayed for victory.
††††††††††† President Lincoln summed up the problem of such conflicting prayers saying:
††††††††††† "In great contests, each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be -- but one must be -- wrong. God can not be for and against the same thing at the same time!"
††††††††††† Two applicants -- or a dozen -- praying for one job opening.
††††††††††† Two suitors praying for the hand of one young woman.
††††††††††† Two football teams praying to win the big game.
††††††††††† God must be for one and against the other. Right?
††††††††††† Oddly enough, the Bible hardly acknowledges the problem that bothered President Lincoln.
††††††††††† The closest thing I know of in Scripture that touches on this problem comes when Jesus talks about persecution.
††††††††††† He told his disciples, "A time is coming† when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God."† -- John 16:2
††††††††††† Not a particularly comforting thought, is it?
Us and Them at conflicting prayers
††††††††††† In the matter of conflicting prayers, the general tone of Scripture is one of assurance which borders on arrogance.
††††††††††† The Bible writers make virtually no allowance for a difference of opinion. In the Old Testament, when the record deals with God's relationship to a particular nation, this is not surprising.
††††††††††† Moses prayed for the defeat of the Egyptians in no uncertain terms and saw their defeat. Any Egyptian nationals who desired to follow God left Egypt along with Israel and were assimilated among the Jews.
††††††††††† When Joshua lead the conquest of Jericho, God gave orders that every man, woman, child, goat, sheep, ox, cow and horse was to be killed. The only exception allowed was the Harlot Rahab and her family, who were all assimilated into the Children of Israel.
††††††††††† The prayers of the Canaanites inside Jericho, assuming they did pray, are not even recorded in Scripture.
††††††††††† The Jews prayed as God's children and outsiders hardly stood a chance to contact God except by becoming Jewish.
††††††††††† This is understandable in that the Jews prayed to the one living God and the heathen prayed to idols.
††††††††††† No contest there.
Us and us at conflicting prayers
††††††††††† However, internal conflicts among the Jews themselves present a different problem. Sometimes this Jew and that Jew while both supposedly acting in accordance with God's will prayed for opposite things.
††††††††††† But the record shows that God vindicated the person who was really on His side.
††††††††††† For instance, when Moses came in conflict with another Jew; the other man -- or woman, in the case of Miriam -- had to give way before the chosen man of God. The earth opened and swallowed Korah. Leprosy claimed Miriam.
††††††††††† This pattern runs all through the Old Testament.
††††††††††† In I Kings 22 and in II Chronicles 18, we read about 400 "prophets" who urged the kings of Judah and Israel to attack the Syrian army. They prayed for victory in the battle. One of these, the prophet What's-His-Name, made himself a headdress sporting a set of iron horns to demonstrate how the good guys would gore the Syrians.
††††††††††† On the other hand, one lone prophet named Micaiah, son of Imlah,† said Syria would defeat the kings of Israel and Judah. "I saw all Israel scattered on the hills like sheep without a shepherd and the Lord said 'These people have no master. Let each one go home in peace," Micaiah said.
††††††††††† The horned prophet swacked Micaiah in face. The kings decided to follow the advice of the 400-prophet majority. They arrested Micaiah and threw him in jail on a strict diet of bread and water.
††††††††††† Then they marched off to battle.
††††††††††† The Syrian army creamed them.
††††††††††† Guess what happened to What's-His-Name?
††††††††††† The Syrians got him.
††††††††††† And his horns.
††††††††††† Now, each one of God's men did meet opposition. That opposition sometimes prevailed; they jailed, persecuted or even killed God's man. But that opposition was soon revealed in Scripture as anti-God.
††††††††††† Over and over we read how the person who was really on God's side is set against a false prophet. The prayers of one are answered, the prayers of the other are not.
††††††††††† My point is that in Old testament times, God's man was so marked as God's man and God's cause was so marked as God's cause and God's will was so evidently God's will that no one could fail to see it for long!
This tradition carries on into the New Testament.
††††††††††† The people who followed Jesus in New Testament times found differences among themselves.
††††††††††† Peter and James viewed the gentiles differently from the way Paul viewed the gentiles.
††††††††††† Paul said:
††††††††††† " When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was in the wrong. Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself... When I saw they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, 'You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew..."--† Galatians 2:11 - 14 NIV
††††††††††† Paul's view prevailed in this matter but many other factions arose among Christians praying to the same God about the same matters.
††††††††††† Writing to the church in Corinth, Paul said, "My brothers, some from Chloe's household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, 'I follow Paul'; another, 'I follow Apollos'; another, 'I follow Cephas'; still another, 'I follow Christ.' Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul?"
-- I Corinthians 1:11-13 NIV
††††††††††† Such differences last to the present day.
††††††††††† What should we think about them?
Christ's Unearthly Kingdom
††††††††††† Jesus made it clear that "My Kingdom is not of this world".
††††††††††† Today, the kingdom of God on earth, the Church universal, is an invisible kingdom. No single Christian denomination or school of theology monopolizes truth. And, though many claim to be, no single earthly spiritual leader is indisputably God's man.
††††††††††† Sad to say, but almost daily we see fine Christian leaders of all persuasions snared by greed, lust or just plain foolishness. In fact, any Christian you look at long enough is sure to disappoint you. Christians are not Christ.
††††††††††† But the fact is that the woods are full of Christians. Anywhere you go you are likely to find some saint serving cheerfully in some difficult, humble, thankless position. Schools, nursing homes, hospitals, welfare offices, shopping malls, filling stations, skid row missions, resort hotels ... Almost anytime you move beyond your immediate theological circle, you find devout brothers and sisters in unexpected places...
Even in Heaven!
††††††††††† Once a friend of mine, a flaming liberal who calls me a rabid fundamentalist, teased me with this old joke:
††††††††††† A Presbyterian businessman died and went to Heaven. He was greeted at the gates by several friends from work who had died before him. There was his Catholic secretary, the Methodist clerk out of the mail room, the Episcopalian janitor, the Baptist vice president -- all of them rejoicing to see him home.
††††††††††† The group prepared a great welcoming feast for him then showed him around, pointing out heavenly landmarks: the Great White Throne, the Tree of Life, the Pearly Gates, the Streets of Gold, the Crystal Sea.
††††††††††† The group grew quite rowdy with enthusiastic pointing, laughing, shouting, and asking him questions to catch up on earth news.
††††††††††† But approaching one magnificent marble palace set in the midst of a walled garden filled with luscious greenery, blossoming flowers and sparkling fountains, all the group suddenly fell† silent. "Sish," one friend whispered. "Go by on tiptoes and don't make a sound."
††††††††††† "Why," the Presbyterian asked.
††††††††††† "Brotherly love," the friend whispered.
††††††††††† They all tiptoed past in silence and once away from the mansion resumed talking.
††††††††††† "What was that all about," asked the Presbyterian, "What did you mean by brotherly love".
††††††††††† "Well, that mansion is for fundamentalists only, and we always tiptoe past because it might spoil Heaven for them if they knew the rest of us are here".
††††††††††† That story is hardly true but as a fundamentalist Christian myself, I can appreciate the humor, and the sadness, in it.
††††††††††† But Heaven is full of people. Jesus said they will flock in from the South and East and West --and, yes, even yankees from the North.† The Lord has room for everyone.
††††††††††† And he has room for the prayers of everyone even when those prayers conflict.
Do our prayers conflict or compliment each other?
††††††††††† When my son John entered the military, I prayed for his safety daily because he worked in a dangerous area. As a Christian with a keen sense of responsibility, John prayed extensively about fulfilling his duties efficiently. On two different occasions a number of men in Johnny's charge were killed while he was on duty but working in another place. This caused him great anguish. John told me that he felt enormously guilty and responsible and even disappointed that he had not been killed with the others.† I felt my prayers had been answered; John felt that his own prayers had not been answered.
††††††††††† It took him a long time to realize that our prayers and not been mutually exclusive. He was doing his duty precisely and at the same time he was kept safe. God in fact had answered prayer for both of us; but John had trouble coming to terms with his feelings about the matter -- which have little to do with the facts of the matter.
Our Earthly Kingdoms
††††††††††† We all see only our own little world. I see my wife. My children. My job. My plans. My wants. You see these same elements in your little world and you give the ones close to you the same importance in your prayers as I give to my own. Joe sees his wife, children, job, plans and he prays for them.
††††††††††† That's as it should be.
††††††††††† It is fitting and proper that we each pray for the people and concerns within our personal sphere of influence.
††††††††††† God takes all these prayers into consideration as he answers.
††††††††††† Recently, after President Bush gave his State of the Union address to Congress, CBS News presented a hour-long survey program in which 7,000,000 people called in to a computer in Omaha, Nebraska, to register their opinions on political questions. The computer immediately tabulated all these varied opinions.
††††††††††† A magnificent feat of technology.
††††††††††† Well, God made the brains of the people who made the computer.
††††††††††† He can handle more than seven million prayers an hour.
††††††††††† As the Psalm says, "His understanding is infinite".
††††††††††† Once I asked Fred, my oldest son who was then about 7, about that verse; he'd memorized it for a first-grader Vacation Bible School class. Patiently, as though I were a dolt, he explained, "Infinite means that God's got all the jelly you've got bread for."
††††††††††† Out of the mouths of babes, Thou hast perfect praise -- among other things.
Christ's Kingdom and our kingdoms
††††††††††† God is. God is infinite. He is good. He is holy. He is almighty. He is love. He is omniscient. He is omnipresent.
††††††††††† And he brings all these attributes to bear for us when we pray.
Paul explains the whole matter in only 187 easy steps:
††††††††††† "For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom the whole family of believers in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love surpasses knowledge -- that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
††††††††††† Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.-- Ephesians 3:14-21 NIV
††††††††††† Notice how many individual people, living and dead, in all generations Paul's prayer involves. Notice how many of the various attributes of God are mentioned. Notice that more than we either ask or imagine is included.
††††††††††† And notice that God's purposes are more than we bargain for when we pray. He's interested in stuff like:
††††††††††† Strengthened with power in your inner being
††††††††††† Christ dwelling in your heart
††††††††††† Rooted and established in love
††††††††††† Power to grasp the love of Christ
††††††††††† To know love that surpasses knowledge
††††††††††† filled with the fullness of God...
††††††††††† And here all I was praying for was to beat Joe out in getting that new job.
††††††††††† God does not fool around when we pray. As our loving Father, He's got plans for us.
It is with reason that the Scripture terms us "The Children of God".
††††††††††† Yes, we are the children of God. Trouble is, we think of ourselves as grown-up sons and daughters, independent and on our own but humoring the old man; but I suspect a better translation of the biblical term might be "The Two-Year-Olds of God".
††††††††††† Sometimes I think we are playing one game while God is playing another on the same field.
††††††††††† Maybe it's a little like a father's discovering his children playing "house" or "doctor" with the kids next door.
††††††††††† The children think they are simply playing a unique game, the dad realizes his kids are developing life-long sexual attitudes.
††††††††††† Our Father in Heaven realizes that the games we play are much more serious than we ourselves realize. So often the things we pray for are tiny game pieces compared to the wonders God has in store for us.
††††††††††† For instance take my own favorite Bible character Saul -- not the one who writes the long theological sentences --† the other one.
††††††††††† Saul's father lost some donkeys. Saul hunted them for a week or so and couldn't find them. He decided to go to the Prophet Samuel and consult the Lord. God ordered Samuel to anoint Saul as the first king of Israel. And here the only thing poor Saul was praying for was to find his donkeys!
††††††††††† I think that's typical of all our prayers.
††††††††††† We want a dime to go to the corner convenience store for candy; our Father's trying to get us in the car for a trip to a place better than Disneyland!
††††††††††† "Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him!
-- I Corinthians 2:9 KJV
††††††††††† At this point, I wouldn't be surprised if you are thinking John hasn't answered the question he raised in the first place about conflicting prayers; he's trying to fob us off with that old cliche "Pie in the sky by and by".
††††††††††† You're right.
††††††††††† That's the only pie there is.
††††††††††† Anything less is ashes.
††††††††††† As one saint -- I think it was Jim Elliot, a missionary speared to death by Auca Indians in Ecuador -- once observed, "No one in Heaven will complain about having lacked anything on earth".
††††††††††† Here the Lord God Almighty offers us glory unspeakable, the deepest desire of our hearts, an eternal quality of Life unending.
††††††††††† And we sulk because our prayers are not answered exactly as we expect. Could we be expecting the wrong things when we pray?
You have been reading Chapter Eleven of the book Why Donít I Get What I Pray For? by John W. Cowart †(IVP, 1993)
Click here for Chapter Twelve