August 11th, 2016
Prayer is for many like exercise: the idea of it that initially sparkles can in time give way to a practice that fizzles.
We can’t quibble with what we find in the pages of Scripture of men, women, and children–to say nothing of Jesus himself–thinking of praying as equivalent to breathing. But integrating that fuller pattern of prayer we let Jesus underscore for us last Sunday proves more problematic when aches and pains, unremitting responsibilities, clamoring children, or an undercurrent of desolation constantly encroaches upon our limited attention.
And maybe that is because we lack imagination for how prayer will matter in the world we inhabit. Our images of monks and nuns cloistered away in contemplation lead us to construe of prayer as reserved for the really committed. For those of us who have far less solitude or uninterrupted time, prayer may feel more like a luxury item we can afford only occasionally.
But perhaps the priorities of prayer with respect to, as we styled them, the Person, Purpose, Provision, Pardon, and Protection of God have more relevance to our so-called mundane existence than we knew–or more than what even a sermon on prayer might convey.
For this week’s Backstory, we want to share a true story that came across our desk recently–one that underscores just how relevant prayer is to real lives. The story illustrates how the Person of God motivates us to seek the Purpose of God, and in this case by incarnating the Pardon of God.
Julian Brooks tells this story (HT: Mockingbird) about a friend facing his wife’s unfaithfulness. It begins with a helpful prefacing word.
The following is a true story. But before I share it, here’s a brief disclaimer that should keep in perspective the purpose of this story, of why it is worth sharing.
Grace cannot guarantee results or change. If it could, it would simply turn back into law. Law promises this for that–that’s exactly why the law can’t produce what it demands. Grace simply loves. Its reason for turning the other cheek is not because it guarantees that its enemies will no longer strike. It turns the other cheek because it loves its enemies more than it loves itself. Stories of grace in real life are beautiful and powerful. But we must be careful not to turn them into something we try to reproduce. Often we are after the results, the change, the victory, or the testimony more than the person. Grace must always be seen as something we have received from God. We are the needy, the ones for whom the story is written; I have struck the face of God and I have been forgiven.
The conversation had come to a pause. I certainly didn’t have any words to say.
“She’s been unfaithful.” My friend’s words broke the silence, just above the sound of a whisper. His voice was full of pain and sorrow.
“I’m so sorry,” I replied. I truly meant it, but I also knew they were just words–words that certainly had no power to relieve the flood of pain he was enduring. But what else could I say?
He was in the midst of a marriage crisis. Even before this things were on the rocks, to say the least. Now there had been unfaithfulness. All I could do was listen to him from the other end of the phone, hundreds of miles away, and hope that God would lovingly provide the comfort that this wounded relationship so desperately needed.
At the time, I was just starting to get the gospel in my own life. I was a recovering legalist completely scandalized by grace. My own failures were so evident in my life that I certainly had no judgment towards my friends at all. I just wanted to be there for them in some kind of way. As I fumbled through the conversation on the other end of the phone, my friend mentioned they were going to go to counseling.
I affirmed him that that was the right thing to do. Give it some time, get some help. Then an outrageous thought crossed my mind. Something that I felt would be ridiculous to suggest. Now, before I get to that, let me remind you that I am not trying to provide a formula for reconciliation between husbands and wives. The last thing I want this story to do is make those of you who have cheated or been cheated on feel more shame because things ended differently for you. This story is meant to remove shame not cause it. This is a story of pure Grace, therefor by definition it can’t be copied and pasted into anyone else’s situation. Grace cannot be controlled or used to manipulate. In fact even though this story deals with a couple in the midst of a marital trial, the main point is to provide a real life scenario of what it looks like to live under the banner that reads, It Is Finished. This is a story about what awaits us at the end of your sin, a story that reveals Christ for YOU!
“You should buy her roses,” I said as carefully as possible.
My friend chuckled a bit, perhaps out of anger, or sheer disbelief that I could say such a thing.
“I don’t think I can do that,” he responded honestly.
“That’s fine. But if somehow God grants you the grace to do that, just see what happens. When you guys meet up for counseling, have some roses waiting for her.”
“I’m just trying not to kill anyone,” he replied. “I don’t think I can buy her Roses.”
“No pressure–I doubt I could do it. But forgiveness is wild, man. You just never know what will happen.” We chatted a little bit more and prayed. To be honest I really didn’t think he would do it–I felt silly for even recommending it. Like I wasn’t being understanding enough to just feel the pain he felt.
A day or two later he called me back. His voice was light and free. He got right to the point.
“I bought them,” he said exuberantly. “I wasn’t going to. The whole way over to meet with the pastor I was thinking, ‘Heck no, I’m not buying her any flowers.’ But the closer I got to the office, the thought started to plague me. So I prayed, ‘God if this is really what you want, there needs to be a florist’s shop on the way. Because I’m definitely not backtracking to find one.’ And of course, one block from the church, there was a florist’s shop. Up until the moment I walked into the store, I was angry; I really had no desire to do it. But when I bought them everything felt different. I couldn’t wait to give them to her. I needed her to know I was hurt but, more than that, that I really forgive her.”
It took me a moment to process what my friend was saying. “You really bought your wife the roses? I mean honestly, man, not that I didn’t have any faith in you, but how did you do that?” And then, with excitement, I asked: “So what happened next?”
“She wasn’t there when I first arrived, and the pastor was curious as to why I had flowers. He asked me, ‘You did just find out about the unfaithfulness yesterday, right?’ ‘Yes,’ I answered. ‘Well,’ the pastor went on, ‘I can honestly say that in over 20 years of ministry, this is a first.’
“When she showed up, she saw the flowers and started crying,” my friend continued. “We held each other. I wanted her to know she really was forgiven and that somehow we will make it through.”
There’s plenty more to the story. God is continuing to do a wonderful work of grace in my friend’s marriage. But, again, the point of this story is not to recommend this as advice to someone else, or to make you feel like a failure if your own marriage wasn’t reconciled. The point of this story is to highlight just how uncontrollable and unexpected grace can be.
Try to imagine it this way: You have just failed someone who loves you. As you approach him or her, there are things you are certain of–how you have failed, how you deserve judgment–but the last thing you expect is flowers. But what you receive upon arrival is not just a gesture of “I’m willing to work things out” or “I’ll give you one more chance” but a gift assuring you that you are loved. This story goes against the very core of our nature. None of us expect love to be waiting for us when we sin–perhaps we expect some grace for accidental mess ups, but not for the really big sins. We expect something other than forgiveness and the reassurance of love.
I believe it was Chad Bird who put it this way: “Grace is always a surprise because it’s never deserved.” Perhaps you’re reading this and you are convinced that God is absolutely done with you. You have become enslaved to sin, and all the scriptures of warning are being twisted out of context in your head; they accuse you and tell you that you are too far gone or that you are not the elect. “You wouldn’t be going back to these things if you really loved God,” the toothless foe roars. To which you should reply with a hearty “Amen!” Of course you wouldn’t sin if you really loved God. But the truth is that God really loves you, yes, even the you that you don’t think anyone knows about; the bitter, backbiting, scorekeeping, insecure train wreck that is you! Today, the only thing God has for you is roses. Bought just for you, at a cost to himself, because he loves you that much. And, yes, even your unfaithfulness is not going to change that.
Maybe the fuller pattern for prayer we unpacked last week (and which we’ll practice this Sunday night) sounded, to return to our original metaphor, like a workout of exercises that, in the end, only makes you tired.
But think of it this way: just as each type of exercise works a series of muscles which might be required of you on any given day–and their exertion a way of fortifying you against the injuries that we get more often from ordinary activity than sudden accident–so praying in the fuller way Jesus outlines “fortifies” us for the moments that ask more of us than most. Like when we receive an unexpected diagnosis, or when our children’s choices elicit a new level of exasperation.
Or when our relationships come under such duress that our capacity for forgiveness feels flaccid in the face of the strain.
We don’t pray to win a medal, but to fit us for the marathon that is life.