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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Thursday, February 26, 2015

Prayer and Doubt, and Where We Get This Wrong

Let me acknowledge the Bruderhof community and their publication ministries:  The Plough Publishing, the Plough Journal which is brand new, and the daily emails such as The Daily Dig.  I find the quotations they send out regularly encouraging, challenging, and thought-provoking.  One of those quotations got me motivated to write today.  It is from the second-century Christian text by Hermas.
Tear doubt out of your heart! Never allow doubt to hinder you from praying to God by perchance thinking to yourself, “How can I ask anything from the Lord, how can I receive anything from God since I have sinned so much against God?” Never think like this! Instead, turn to the Lord with your whole heart. Pray to the Lord without wavering and you will come to know God's great mercy. The Lord will never desert you. God will fulfill your heart’s request because God is not like human beings, who harbor grudges. No, God does not remember evil and has compassion for all creation.
I find that in our era of "positive thinking" prayer, we have put the weight of prayer on our ability to stir up intense intellectual focus on the certainty of our own thoughts.  If prayer depends on what I can drum up in my own mind and emotions, then I am to that extent praying to myself rather than to God.

The contrast between doubt and faith does not come down to my drummed-up certainty.  We have all known people, and perhaps we have been those people, who get so stirred up around wanting something to happen that our way of talking about it leaves us sounding more like promoters than believers.  There is a kind of "faith in your team" which leads one to believe, for instance, that Duke cannot lose a basketball game.  Then there is the reimagined future of weeks not spent in the cameraderie and joy when Mercer figures out how to knock Duke out of the NCAA tournament early.  While sports fandom may be a trivial (not for everyone) example of drummed-up certainty, I hope it provides a helpful analogy to how some theology of prayer is more about personal wishful thinking turned into wished certainty rather than actual faith in God.

Too often, we make doubt and faith in prayer about doubting or believing that I will get that specific thing I want.  Such is the danger of prayer that becomes shopping at the heavenly WalMart.  Prayer, as getting God to do what we want, and thus seemingly getting God to change God's mind and stop holding back the thing we believe we must have, is not the prayer of faith.

Faith, as trust and as faithfulness, gets us closer here to what makes a prayer of faith.  It also gets at what Hermas sees as the problematic form of doubt.  A prayer of faith, shaped by the model prayer Jesus taught and the High Priestly prayer Jesus prayed not long before his death, is a prayer for God's will to be done on earth and for us to be united to God in Christ.  It is about changing us to be more what God's purpose for us in creation has always been.  Trusting God to seek our good, even when the world is going bad, is the prayer of faith.  Walking with God in faithfulness, trusting the faithful God to never leave us, is the prayer of faith.  Holding fast to God's faithfulness, even when we ourselves have not arrived at the full virtue of faithfulness, is the prayer of faith.

Hermas here says that doubt is the doubt that one can receive grace.  If God is a gracious, loving God, then Hermas says that the God we can trust does not wait for us to stir up enough goodness in ourselves to offer grace and love.  We already receive God's grace, even in our failures and sins.  The doubt Hermas wants us to tear from our hearts is the doubt that God cares to listen to us.  As my professor in seminary, Dr. Francis Dubose (author of God Who Sends) taught us, the proto-missio appears when God seeks Adam and Eve in the garden as they were hiding and ashamed.  God pursues creation with reconciling love.  It is God's nature and mission toward the world.

Doubt here is not the uncertainty or fear that I won't get the thing I want.  Doubt is not trusting God's faithfulness to reach out in love toward us.  It is giving up on prayer because we are overwhelmed by our unworthiness and we fail to understand that God's grace is God's holiness.  God is not like us--God is gracious and merciful.  God is at work to make us gracious and merciful.  That is what we must trust, and the doubt of it is we must put away.  What will the future bring?  Exactly what we decided it must bring?  Another national championship for Duke?  Those specific things are not the main thing.  The future will bring great opportunities to live in the grace and love of God with one another, reconciling and building community around the purposes of God who made us for beloved community.

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