“Lord, I believe! Help my unbelief!”What a beautiful, succinct, and honest prayer: I have some faith, Lord, but give me more. Squeeze out the pockets of darkness with your light, and help me to cultivate a living, vibrant belief in you. Yeah, those six little words (just five words in the original Greek) are pregnant with theological and personal meaning.
And, yet, it’s not enough for us today, is it? Today, we say, “Lord, help me embrace my unbelief.” Because acknowledging that you do believe is not “authentic” enough for today’s spiritual climate. Just like it’s now uncouth to claim that you know with certainty anything at all about God (even those things that God’s Word tells us with certainty). There’s a new standard for faith gaining momentum, and it is unfaith. In the last few years, pastors have even begun regularly stating and over-stating the shaky and tenuous nature of their own belief from the pulpit. (“Sure, I’m a pastor, but most of the time I wonder if there’s any God at all.”)
Lord, help me embrace my unbelief.
But that’s not the only update we’ve made to the Bible's picture of faith and how we live it out. Along with sacramentalizing a lack of belief, we’ve also baptized a lack of preparation. In describing the cost involved in following Him as Lord, Jesus said, “For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’” (Luke 14:28-30, esv). This is wisdom. In approaching matters of faith, we should inventory, prepare, and consider whether we will be able to follow a particular enterprise through to the end. The book of Proverbs also echoes this sentiment consistently.
But that’s not enough for us today either, is it? The new mark of faith is to rush headfirst into any endeavor, only to find ourselves unprepared, under-committed, and ultimately unwilling. Then, we say to God, “This is your work, God, so you better do something about it. Bless my impulsiveness and lack of wisdom.” And later, when we tell the story to other Christians, this is painted as stepping out “in faith.” Counting the cost is out, running up a tab and then pinning it on Daddy to bail us out with a miracle is in.
If you’ve been at my church the last couple of Sundays, you know why I’m mulling over this stuff right now. It’s because, two Sundays ago, I prayed my own foolish prayer. The gist of it was, “Lord, bless my foolishness,” but it more specifically went something like: “Well, Lord, I feel like I can barely walk into the sanctuary, but it’s about time for the sermon. So you’d better give me the strength to power through.” I don’t know that I even prayed that prayer as such (i.e. I didn’t “speak it in my mind”), but it was implied.
Of course, halfway through the sermon (if you can call it that), I mumbled something about coyotes and hit the floor like a sack of potatoes. And I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t a little miffed with the Good Lord for failing to answer my prayer. After all, didn’t it show a ton of faith and perseverance for me to throw wisdom to the winds and step up to the pulpit anyway? Wasn’t it a laudable thing to undertake a sacred duty—proclaiming God’s Holy Word—when I was completely ill-equipped to do it at the moment? In retrospect, those are pretty stupid questions. But at the time, I was operating in the categories of the “new and improved faith,” the kind of “faith” that doesn’t count the cost, but over-commits and leaves God in the awkward position of being expected to bless my foolishness.
Ultimately, I was expecting special treatment from God—an exemption from the principles of biblical wisdom—simply because I was me, or maybe because I’m on his payroll. Either way, these are principles native to the kingdom of this age, not the Kingdom of God.
Now, let me clarify. When I call this idea “new,” I mean that it’s currently experiencing a resurgence; strictly speaking, it’s anything but new. The Scriptures are full of people throwing up foolish prayers and making foolish vows to God. Remember in Jeremiah 21, when King Zedekiah asked God to set his holiness aside, overlook the sins of the people, and give them victory against Nebuchadnezzar? (Translation: “Lord, bless our sin and hardheartedness.”) Or the men who swore an oath to God that they would not eat until they had orchestrated the death of Paul? (Translation: “Lord, bless our hate because we’ve dressed it up as piety.”)
Church history has its own damnable prayers. St. Augustine (before he had the “St.”) famously prayed for some time, “Lord, make me chaste . . . but not yet!” (Translation: “Lord, bless my carnality because I have big plans to be righteous later on.”) And even after the Reformation, some über-righteous church leaders told William Carey not to go overseas, bringing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the precious peoples of India and beyond, because “If God wants to save the savages, he will do it without your help.” (Translation: “Lord, bless our laziness, callousness, and xenophobia, even as you make our wallets fatter.”)
The modern church continues this legacy of foolish, misplaced prayers. Big-name Christian singers and preachers, caught in compromising positions, more often publicly pronounce that they need not repent; after all, they prayed for God to “release them” from this commandment or that, and he answered in the affirmative! And even local churches, whether implicitly or explicitly, pray God’s blessings upon tactics, motives, unions, and behaviors that are clearly counter to God’s revealed Word. And yet, by the current reckoning, this just shows lots of faith and a “big view” of God’s grace.
I imagine most of these people knew their prayers were foolish as they uttered them. I sure did as I began trying to sputter my way through one of the most difficult texts I’ve ever preached, even while my vision swam. But if we know it’s foolish, why do we pray at all? Why not just leave God out of the equation, as many have, and “do what thou wilt?” I think it’s the same reason people clamor to surround themselves with false teachers who will say whatever their itching ears want to hear (2 Timothy 4:3): because, in the flesh, we want a false assurance that God is okay with our sin and foolishness, the he is in fact in favor of them and will bless them, rather than to hear God’s Word proclaimed as it is, convicting us and driving us to the cross, where we will repent, be forgiven, and be changed.
At the end of the day, praying a lot (even from motives that look super-spiritual) is no guarantor of true godliness. Selfish and misguided prayers are offered up by millions of people every day. The question is: what are we praying for, in what spirit, and especially, are we submitting the content and spirit of our prayers to God’s Word? Or are we asking God to give us our own little loophole in light of our special circumstances and our years of faithful service?
May our sanctification lead us down a path toward the former kind of prayer. May we pray, “Lord, break my pride, humble my spirit, banish my fear, convict me of sin, guide me into true wisdom, and continue to renew me day by day.” And when we fall into selfish prayer (or when we fall to the ground as a result), let us be open to the Holy Spirit, prompting us to repent and to give ourselves anew to the God of Scripture.
Soli Deo Gloria,