Prayer Series V
Sabbath Day Sermon: Saturday 2 December 2000
Back to Part 4
Prayer cannot be compared with any other human activity. There are many who believe that the results that prayer brings can be explained away simply in terms of human psychology. And whilst it is certainly true that prayer has a psychological component, you cannot explain the supernatural aspect of prayer in simply these terms.
William Law, a well-known 18th century Anglican clergyman, once said: "If anyone could tell you the shortest, surest way to all happiness and perfection, he must tell you to make it a rule to yourself to thank and praise God for everything that happens to you. For it is certain that whatever seeming calamity happens to you, if you thank and praise God for it, you turn it into a blessing..."
To the worldly mind, such advice will appear to be insane. And indeed, it would be insane if there was truly no God because it is suggesting that you, in a way, deny reality around you. I am reminded of Oddball in the film, Kelly's Heroes, who played American country music through a speaker whilst his tanks blazed a trail of death and destruction through the enemy lines. He said he did this to soothe his nerves. In truth, he was using the music as an escape from reality - to make him feel better about what he was doing.
Many people pray for this reason - to make them feel better. They aren't too concerned whether there is a God there or not. For them, prayer is merely an experiment, like trying a new shampoo - if it gives what they think are good results, they'll buy it. The trouble it that many things that give short-term benefits end up destroying you.
Such was the case with an American man called Jim who was an alcoholic. He thought alcohol was pretty nice at first but in the end it ruined his life. He thought it would cure his miseries. Many turn to the bottle to drown out sorrow and end up making themselves, and many others, even more miserable.
Jim's father had been an alcoholic for 30 years. For years and years his family - first his wife, then his son and daughter-in-law - had prayed that God would heal him but with absolutely no result. And like all of us who pray and nothing happens, we wonder why. Is there really a God? Am I doing something wrong? Am I being punished for something? Those who do not know Christian doctrine then start imagining all sorts of crazy things and ask such questions as: Am I being punished for something evil I did in a former life? Perhaps I was a murderer and was reincarnated as I am now to pay for my sins. Many people think this way, and it is a very destructive thought not only because no many can pay for his own sins, but also because reincarnation is a devilish lie. So people get themselves trapped in mental prisons and cannot get out.
The problem with Jim's father was that he refused to admit that he had a problem with alcohol and if you ever raised the subject with him, he would storm out of the room in anger either if you ever mentioned the subject (something psychologists call denial) or, and even more so, if you ever mentioned religion to him.
After doing some scripture study and listening to some tapes by a well-known preacher, Jim suddenly realised that there was something he and his family had failed to do for their husband and father. This was the scripture that got him going:
"Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in ALL circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus" (1 Thess. 5:16-18, NIV).
It was the word "all" that seemed to leap out of the page at him. In the past, he had only ever thanked God for all the good things in life, but never the bad. But if that had been the Apostle Paul's meaning, why hadn't he written: "Give thanks in all good circumstances..."? But he hadn't. Not only had the apostle told the believers to give thanks in every and any kind of situation, but to always be joyful and to pray continually.
Now if you are not in the Spirit of God you cannot possibly do this. No man who is relying on his own power can give thanks for a debilitating illness, for on behalf of a loved one is suffering terribly. It is only when you enter into God's realm - into the realm of the Holy Spirit - that you can do these things.
So on that day Jim decided he would take Paul's words as they stood and do what for him was naturally impossible. He said to his wife: "Honey, let's thank God for Dad's alcoholism and praise Him that the condition is a part of His wonderful plan for Dad's life!"
For the rest of that day that gave thanks and praised God for every aspect of the situation, and by evening they felt a new sense of excitement and expectation.
The next day Jim's parents came over for the usual Sunday dinner visit. Always before, Jim's father had cut the visit as short as possible, leaving right after dinner. This time, over a cup of coffee, he suddenly asked a pointed question.
"What do you think about Jesus Revolution?" He turned to Jim. "I saw something about it on the news last night. Is it just a fad, or is something happening to those kids who were hung up on drugs?"
The question led to a lengthy and open discussion about Christianity. Jim's elderly parents didn't leave until late that evening.
Within weeks Jim's father came to admit his drinking problem, turned for help to Yah'shua the Messiah (Jesus Christ), and was completely healed. He now joins the rest of the family in telling others what praising God can do!"
Jim never forgot his lesson. He would go around telling people that for 30 years they had prayed for his father without any result and then after only one day of praising Him for the situation, a miracle happened.
It is a tragedy, therefore, that Christians spent all their lives praying but never follow the counsel given in Scripture. It's even in the Lord's Prayer which we have been studying for a whole month. What is the one thing we are to do which is mentioned twice in the Lord's Prayer? It's the first think that we mention in that prayer, and it's the last. Yes, it is PRAISE! It starts: "Hallowed by Thy Name", which means to exalt the holy name of Yahweh. And it ends: "For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.". It is pure praise, from beginning to end. That model prayer that Yah'shua (Jesus) taught starts and ends in praise NO MATTER WHAT OUR CIRCUMSTANCES. It's what we are supposed to go in both good and bad times. Yah'shua (Jesus) never taught two prayers - one for when we're feeling down, and one for when we're feeling good. That prayer deals with every possible situation we could ever meet, and it does so by starting and ending with praise.
But before we look at this further, let us remind ourselves of one or two important things. The Lord's Prayer isn't telling us that we should praise Yahweh and then go and ask Him for something that isn't in His will. Thus it would be a stupid mistake, wouldn't it, to praise God and ask Him to make you a successful murderer. I know that's an extreme example and sounds stupid, and yet that's what people do: they ask him for something which is not in His will and praise Him believing it will happen. This is not what I am trying to tell you at all. Thanking God for our situation. especially if it is a desperate situation, is the formula we have been given to get out of sin and into a full life of freedom. Alcoholism was never in God's will. Being in prison for some crime never was God's will. Becoming a pornographer never was in God's will.
But if you ever find yourself in such a situation and you want to get out - to intercede for loves ones who find themselves in a spiritual prison - then the solution is first of all to thank Yahweh for that situation by, first, accepting that it is real - not denying it because of shame, pride, or whatever - and second, thanking God that He is going to get the person concerned out of that mess if he is willing to do things the Lord's way.
Many people say the phrases, "Praise the Lord" or "Thank God" without ever realising what those words mean. Praising God is not simply repeating the words "Praise the Lord" anymore than loving someone is saying "I love you" when you don't feel anything at all. To praise Yahweh means to laud, honour, acclaim, and express approval. It means to give positive affirmation - to heartily agree with - everything that God stands for. It means to unconditionally agree with everything He has commanded, with everything He has revealed in His Word. It means to give thanks for every commandment even those which appear difficult and, sometimes, impossible because they run so totally contrary to our nature. It means saying a hearty "Yes!" to all that Yahweh is.
So when we praise Yahweh for a difficult situation in our lives, whether sickness or a disaster, it means that we literally accept and approve of its happening - we accept it as being a part of God's plan in our lives. That doesn't mean we are giving thanks for evil - God forbid - for we know Satan stands behind all the evil in the world - but we are giving thanks to God for permitting these things to happen for, no matter how terrible these things may seem in the short term, in the long-term they are for our good. The fact that we can't see why a child murder or a rape can be for anyone's good is not for us to understand, for we do not have the bigger picture. It is not for us to know why the blind man Yah'shua (Jesus) healed was born blind other than for the reason the Lord gave. All we need to know is that the circumstances in our lives, irrespective of the cause, is calculated by God for the ultimate good.
I don't want to get into a discussion about free agency today for I have talked about this before and it's another topic. What we do have to remind ourselves of is the fact that any evil that is in the world is there because man allowed it to happen by rebelling against the truth. Whenever man rebels, it gives Satan and his demons legal ground to make trouble. God cannot stop the devil doing these things because to do so would be to deny us our free will and make us mere robots. So what he does is to incorporate our wrong choices, and the evil works of Satan that these lead to, into His Master Plan for ultimate salvation. No matter what evil Satan does, He uses it for the ultimate good. And it is that which we are accepting and praising Him for. It would have been crazy for Jim to have thanked God for alcoholism, but that's not what he did. What Jim did was to thank God for the situation as it was there and then in full confidence that Yahweh could turn it round for the good on behalf of his father.
You can't really praise God without being genuinely thankful for the thing we are praising Him for. And we can't really be thankful without being happy about what we're praying for. Praising, then, involves both gratitude and joy.
How could Jim have been thankful and happy for his father's terrible alcoholic problem? Alcoholism isn't a beautiful thing. It's a marriage-wrecker and a home-wrecker. It is the cause of a huge number of motor accidents. It causes a lot of crime. Wherever there is serious sin, you will almost without exception find alcohol present. That is not to say that alcohol itself is evil - only its abuse. Scripture gives it a place as a medicine.
Jim was happy and thankful because he saw in faith how God would turn an impossible situation around. Though he may not have been aware of it at the time, God would use this situation as a powerful witness in the future.
Praising God for someone's situation, however awful, does not mean we are praising Him for some unknown fate. What it means is that we accept that, ultimately, and in spite of Satan and his demons, God is responsible for what is happening. Otherwise it would make little sense thanking Him, would it? Jim could therefore thank God for his father's alcoholism in spite of his father's foolish choice to get tangled up with alcohol in the first place. Although it appeared that God was not in control at anyone moment of time during that 30 year period, God was in ultimate control, waiting for the right moment based on man's free agency. And that moment was Jim's understanding of the principle of praise in adversity. And it wasn't as though this was some secret that had been hidden away from man. No, it was always there, right before their eyes in the Bible. But as is so typical of human stupidity, when we read something we don't understand or don't like in the Scriptures, we either dismiss it or try to explain it away by saying, "Oh, it can't possibly mean that". We are all experts at making excuses.
"Always be joyful. Always keep on praying. No matter what happens, always be thankful, for this is Yahweh's will for you who belong to Yah'shua the Messiah", Paul said (ibid.). And he meant it.
God has a perfect plan for us even if we find it hard to understand it. Many of us get stuck because we cannot simply accept that Plan in faith - we demand answers to our questions and get annoyed or depressed when we don't get them. And very often we use that annoyance or anger to turn away from God. Our lack of faith kills off our relationship with Him.
King David wrote: "For Yahweh is the King of all the earth. Sing praises in a skilful psalm and with understanding" (Ps.47:7, Amp.V.).
Let us be careful that we do not try to manipulate God. Let us not say: "It doesn't make sense to me, but I'll praise the Lord if it kills me, if that's the only way I can get out of this mess!"
Don't ever try that! We have all tried to manipulate God but fortunately He loves us too much to let us get away with it. As David said, we are to praise God with our understanding,. not in spite of it.
The kind of understanding David is talking about is not why God allows things to happen, or how He solves our problem - that's beyond our ken. The Lord permits certain adverse and negative circumstances to come into our lives to bless us. We can never fully understand why He permits these things. What He wants us to accept with understanding is that He does it. That is the basis of our praise. Yahweh wants us to understand that He loves us and that he has a plan for us.
Paul, who fully understood this principle, said: "And we know that all that happens to us is working for our good if we love God and are fitting into His plans" (Rom.8:28).
Please note that keyword "if" - if we love God, if we conform our lives to His plans, then we shall know and understand that everything that happens to us - the good and the evil - is for an ultimate good. But if we don't love God, if we don't allow Him to have His way with our lives, then when difficulties come along, we shall not understand and be left in a state of confusion and despair. That is the understanding we are supposed to have.
If at this very moment of time we are having difficulties and there seems to be no way out, then the message of Scripture - of God's Word - is that we should accept with our understanding that Yahweh loves us and has permitted this circumstances because he knows that they are good for us. We are therefore to praise Him for what He has brought into our life - our illnesses, our financial difficulties, our career problems - and we are to praise Him deliberately with a joyful heart. And if we cannot find that joy, then I can guarantee it is because somewhere in our hearts we are in rebellion - somewhere in our thinking and our feeling we are declaring, like Frank Sinatra, "I'll do it my way". And that is a fatal choice. Life will forever remain a mystery when that choice is consciously made. When the good times come and things are going well, as we suppose, we will forget all about God and His commandments, but when the bad times come - and they will - then we will be left in hopeless despair. Worse, we may discover that we have wasted an entirely life out of His will, pursuing our own selfish interests. And if we keep on doing that up to our deathbed, then when we die, we will discover to our eternal horror, that we have thrown away EVERYTHING and FOR EVER. And surely there can be no worse fate than that.
I would like to finish today by giving you one more true story. It's about a couple who had a daughter was in a mental institution and had been diagnosed as hopelessly insane. And as you can well imagine, they were besides themselves with grief.
Prayer groups across the whole country had not made one bit of difference. The parents had pleaded to Yahweh on their knees day after day without any result and their faith was sorely tested.
When they were taught that they should instead be praising Yahweh for their daughters mental illness - well, you can imagine their reaction - a mixture of anger and misery. The wife had declared: "It would be blasphemy to thank God for something so obviously evil. If we thank Him, it would be to accuse the Almighty of deliberately hurting our daughter. No, this just doesn't fit with my idea of a loving God."
And that, you see, was the problem. She didn't understand the love of God.
It was her husband who made the breakthrough in faith. "It doesn't seem right," he argued, "but what if the Scripture is right?"
His wife had looked helplessly at her husband. "I just don't know," she had said, "I just don't know."
And of course she didn't. How can anyone know when what Yahweh wants of us is pure faith?
Her husband continued: "We've nothing to lose, have we?" he insisted. "Why don't we try it?"
He began to pray: "Dear God, we know that you love us and that you love our daughter even more than we do. We're going to trust that you're working out in her life what you know is best for her; so we thank you for this sickness, thank you that she's in hospital, thank you for the doctors who haven't found a way to help her. We praise you God for your wisdom and love toward us..."
The longer they prayed that day, the more they became convinced that Yahweh was indeed doing what was best.
The next day the hospital psychiatrist called.
"Sir, there's been a remarkable change in your daughter," he said. "I suggest you come and see her."
Within two weeks she was released from the hospital. A year later the daughter was married and expecting a baby, one of the happiest young women in the world.
Next week I will share some more stories with you and get on to what I really wanted to talk about this week which, as usual, I didn't have time for, namely Baptism of the Holy Spirit.
I decided to talk to you about praise today as a result of an experience I had last night. When you are having difficulties as your family and community are presently facing - four of us here have bad health, two of us have career problems, and we are in an acute financial crisis - you tend to be open to things you may have heard about before but never really believed in them. And that is, I would suggest, why the Lord permits crisis in our lives - because we are more open and teachable in proportion to our desperation for solutions to our problems.
I admit I have done a lot of complaining to the Lord recently but last night I decided I would stop that and follow the Scriptural formula. The realisation came after a long and very fulfilling discussion we had last night in our Communion Meeting. I retired to bed determined that this was the course I would now take.
Recently I have been having lots of dreams about animals - rabbits, frogs, pigs, etc.. You name it, I've been dreaming about them. Animals usually represent aspects of human nature, usually negative, because they are not governed by a higher, spiritual nature as we are. Sometimes, though, the Lord uses animals in a positive way to indicate that we are moving in the right direction in our lives.
As I woke up this morning I dreamed I was holding in my cupped hands a beautiful goldfish. It was wriggling around gasping for oxygen and I didn't know what to do, for if it remained out of water long, it would suffocate and die. So in the dream I rushed to a white sink and turned the cold tap on, putting the fish under the tap whilst the basin filled it with clear water. When there was enough water for the fish to swim in, I let it go and it began to swim around. I noticed that the basin was squeaky clean, as was the water.
The dream was a confirmation of what I should talk to you about today. This principle of praise in all circumstances as a vital part of the Lord's Prayer. We are promised if we do that we will se led safely through temptation and away from evil. And I believe that is absolutely true.
May the Lord bless you until next week when I will take this story further. Amen.q
(Many of the stories in this sermon are taken from Merlin R. Carothers, Power in Praise, Kingsway Publications, Eastbourne, UK, 1972, Chapter 1)
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