Missing the Heart of the Matter

I have purposely stayed out of the current political and cultural conversations that have carried the headlines since the latest school shootings.  I’ve been heartbroken at the pain that the families and survivors of this violence have felt, and heartbroken over the levels of vitriol and derision that have escalated in our “debates” about the solution to our cultural crisis. I sympathize with those who are frustrated by the empty promises of “thoughts and prayers” when thoughts and prayers don’t lead to compassionate and sensible responses.  And at the same time, I am dismayed when genuine “thoughts and prayers” are ridiculed and rejected.

I’ve stayed out of the conversation because I haven’t had much to add. Then today, in studying for a lesson from 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, I read the following from John MacArthur*.  I think he summarizes what’s really wrong in our culture, and what we need most.

How much closer to peace is man than he was a century ago – or a millennium ago? How much closer are to we eliminating poverty, hunger, ignorance, crime, and immorality than men were in Paul’s day? Our advances in knowledge and technology and communication have not really advanced us. It is from among those who are intelligent and clever that the worst exploiters, deceivers, and oppressors comes. We are more educated than our forefathers but we are not more moral. We have more means of helping each other but we are not less selfish. We have more means of communication but we do not understand each other any better. We have more psychology and education, and more crime and more war. We have not changed, except in finding more ways to express and excuse our human nature. Throughout human history wisdom has never basically changed and has never solved the basic problems of man.

“Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age?”

Where have all the clever arguments and impressive rhetoric brought you? Are you better off because of them – or simply more self-satisfied and complacent?  Don’t you see that all the wisdom of your wise men, your scribes, and your debaters is folly? Nothing really changes. Life has the same problems; men have the same struggles.

Could the apostle have written anything more appropriate for our own day? Where have our great thinkers – our philosophers, sociologists, psychologists, economists, scientists, and statesmen – brought us? Never before has mankind been so fearful of self-destruction or been so self-consciously perplexed, confused, and corrupt.  Modern human wisdom has failed just as ancient human wisdom failed, except that its failures come faster and spread farther.  The outer life improves in a material way, while the inner life seems to have correspondingly less meaning. The real issues are not solved.

Human wisdom sometimes sees the immediate cause of a problem but it does not see the root, which is always sin. It may see that selfishness is a cause of injustice, but it has no way to remove selfishness.  It may see that hatred causes misery and pain and destruction, but it has no cure for hatred. It can see plainly that man does not get along with man, but does not se that the real cause is that man does not get along with God. Human wisdom cannot see because it will not see.  As long as it looks on God’s wisdom as foolishness, its own wisdom will be foolish. In other words, human wisdom itself is a basic part of the problem.

Peace, joy, hope, harmony, brotherhood, and every other aspiration of man is out of his reach as long as he follows his own way in trying to achieve them. He who sees the cross as folly is doomed to his own folly… The more man looks to himself and depends on himself, the worse his situation becomes. As his dependence on his wisdom increases, so do his problems.

This is God’s plan, as the words “in the wisdom of God” indicate. God wisely established it this way, that man could not know Him by the wisdom of the world. Man cannot solve his problems because he will not recognize their source, which is sin, or their solution, which is salvation.  Man’s own sinful nature is the cause of his problems, and he cannot change his nature. Even if human wisdom could recognize the problem it does not have the power to change it. But God has the power. God was well-please through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. He chose to use that which the world’s wisdom counts as moronic, as foolishness, to save those of the world who would simply believe. Believing implies complete assent to all the truth of the saving gospel. For those who will exchange their wisdom for His, God offers transformation, regeneration, new birth, and new life through the power of the cross of Jesus Christ, His Son. This “foolishness” is man’s only hope.

* MacArthur, John F. The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: 1 Corinthians (Moody Press, Chicago. 1984) pg 42-44.

Prayer Changes Things

“The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.”
(James 5:16)

In all the time I’ve served as a Pastor, I have never heard or experienced such a rejection of prayer as what we hear today in our culture.  With every natural disaster or act of terror and violence (and there have been many), when people offer their prayers, the hurting world more and more lashes out with mocking and derision.

There is a part of me that understands the frustration might come when one hears this.   If I were hurting and someone were to say to me, “You’re in my thoughts and prayers,” but then they don’t pray, or their life is such that everything they say and do contradicts a life of prayer, then I would know that they are just spouting empty words to make themselves feel better and quickly get out of the conversation.  How many times have we heard, or worse, told someone ourselves, “I’ll be praying for you,” but then never a prayer is uttered, and no further thoughts are expressed?  We have, by our own prayerlessness and lack of sincerity, given a poor example to the world of the power of prayer.

But what is most astonishing is the boldness of some today in their outright denial of the effectiveness of prayer.  Most notably, in the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, FL, in which 17 students and teachers were gunned down, when our President offered his prayers and condolences for those who were mourning, the “rock-star” astrophysicist and agnostic, Neil deGrasse Tyson, replied, “Evidence collected over many years, obtained from many locations, indicates that the power of prayer is insufficient to stop bullets from killing school children.”

For starters, as a scientist, when Tyson says he has collected evidence, I wonder what that evidence might be. Is it the fact that bad things continue to happen even when people are praying?  That does not necessarily disprove the power of prayer. It may just mean that we don’t know how the prayer has been, or will be answered.

Of course, one shouldn’t expect someone who denies the knowledge of a real and personal God to uphold the power of prayer as a means of communing with that God and knowing the transforming power of God’s grace.  As intellectual as Tyson is, he is blinded by the veil of sin in this world (2 Cor. 3:14),  but ever the ultracrepidarian, he boasts of that of which he cannot know.

Still, as Christians, those who know and love God, and have been commanded to pray, this current cultural resistance to prayer should serve as a reminder to continue praying, but to pray with confidence in the one who hears our prayers.

Prayer does change things

Contrary to Tyson’s bold declaration, prayer does change things, and there is an abundance of evidence. R.C. Sproul, in his book, Does Prayer Change Things? noted the following evidences in Scripture:

  • By prayer, Esau’s heart was changed toward Jacob, so that they met in a friendly, rather than hostile, manner (Gen 32).
  • By the prayer of Moses, God brought the plagues upon Egypt and then removed them again (Ex 7-11).
  • By prayer, Joshua made the sun stand still (Josh 10).
  • By prayer, Elijah held back the rains for three and a half years. Then by prayer, he caused it to rain again (1 Kings 17-18).

I could go on, but there are also the prayers that have been answered in our own lives.  How often have we prayed and found that God has delivered?  Was this evidence taken in to consideration?  How many times has prayer stayed the hand of an angry father, or a desperate man contemplating crime?  Those stories we may never hear, but they are still answered prayers.  Prayer does change things!

More importantly, prayer changes us.  When we pray, the purpose of our prayer is not so much to see the world around us change, but that God might change the way we see the world around us.  Prayer teaches us to look not to wisdom and influence of man for our peace and security, but to trust in the Lord alone.  Prayer reorients our perspective; we may not know why this is happening, or what it all means, but we can know the Sovereign Lord who reigns over all things, and know that He is good, and He is able to work in all things for the good of those who love him.  We may not know the how, we may not understand the why, but we come to know the One who is at the center of all things, who hold all things together, and who has shown His great love for us in Christ our Lord.

So let us recommit ourselves to prayer.  In the face of overwhelming grief and tragedy, may we pray that God would give us the grace to comfort those who mourn, and to weep with them in their sorrow.  And when we say we will pray, let us pray.  Don’t put it off until you get home, pray right then and there.

And let us pray that God would give us wisdom to heal, not the symptoms, but the cause of the sickness in our culture.  No new legislation, no amount of community organizing, will curb the violence and division in our world today. Those are merely the painful symptoms of a systemic problem. The underlying cause is a radical brokenness within our souls that come from sinful rebellion and rejection of God. The only cure, the only hope that we have is the salvation that has been secured for us in Jesus Christ. May we, through prayer, have the wisdom and boldness to share the Gospel freely, and may God heal our land.

SDG