The Second Woe: The Perils of Proselytizing

Don: The second woe to afflict the Pharisees was this:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you travel around on sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves.” (Matthew 23:15)

How can the goal of religious teaching, practice, and life—the laudable goal of the Pharisees—result in double damnation? What did Jesus mean by it? In our own zeal to save others, can we be guilty of doing the same thing?

The Pharisees were one of three active religious sects, the other two being the Sadducees and the Essenes, in the time of Jesus. The Greek root of the word Pharisee means to separate, to isolate, to be set apart. Their goal was to separate themselves from worldly contamination—from various things, food, and people. They had lists of things to shun, things to do, and most importantly strict provisions on how to decontaminate themselves should they be defiled through exposure to a contaminant.

They were the religious teachers of the day; upstanding citizens who lived (at least on the surface) exemplary lives. Luke 18 recounts a Pharisee presenting his pious credentials in prayer to God while standing next to a tax collector at whose honest admission of sinfulness he sneered. Yet the Pharisee was probably right. The Pharisees were not thieves and murderers. So why was Jesus so against them?

The short answer is that they were the opposite of the kind of people who make it into the kingdom of heaven:

“Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3-4)

Jesus went on to detail the criteria, and ended by saying that

“… where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.” (Matthew 18:20)

He further elaborated on the criteria in Matthew 5, telling us to turn the other cheek, to love our enemies, to be loving, humble, compassionate, and forgiving, and to adopt other characteristics that hardly described the proud and unforgiving Pharisees. Jesus declared:

“The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them. They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger. But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries and lengthen the tassels of their garments. They love the place of honor at banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues, and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called Rabbi by men. But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ. But the greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted. (Matthew 23:1-12)

In this second woe to the Pharisees, Jesus condemned them not only for stopping converts from entering heaven but also for corrupting them on their way to heaven, and for drawing these fresh converts into their own camp and by doing so corrupting them as well.

Jews are not evangelistic by nature. Most are ethnic rather than converted Jews, but we know from the epistles of Paul that proselytizers were active in the very early Christian church. And Judaists went all the way from Jerusalem to Galatia in order to corrupt the teaching of Paul and make the practice of Judaism an active part of the religious experience. Jesus acknowledged that the Pharisees’ goal of conversion was laudable, but He implied that the effort was misguided and corrupting to the point of double-damnation.

It is an observable fact that some converts become zealots and fanatics. But how is it possible to be “twice as much a son of hell”? In the Greek Bible, the word for hell in this verse is gehenna, a transliteration of an Old Testament term for the Valley of Henna, a place where the sacrifice of children was made to Moloch by the evil kings of the time (2 Chronicles 28:3 and 33:6). When King Josiah initiated reforms, the site was regarded as a hideous abomination (2 Kings 10:14) and by the time of Jesus it had become a permanently burning garbage dump, with dead human bodies often dumped into it.

How could hell, the object to be shunned by leading a religious life, become a destination for the religious Pharisees? What does Jesus mean by all of this? What was so corrupting in the Pharisees’ proselytizing? Might our own evangelism create converts who become sons of hell? Might what we teach and share destroy souls rather than (as we intend) save them?

Donald: What does it mean to convert someone? To a specific church or to a faith?

Michael: There is a guy who visits Wayne State University regularly with a placard listing all the types of people destined for hell. The list includes homosexuals, adulterers, etc. He shouts out his message in anger and receives a lot of angry shouts in return. It usually ends up basically as a slanging match. Nobody pays him any serious attention.

Don: I see the second woe as a serious indictment. We in our church are deep into proselytizing, sharing our faith, saving souls. It is a key part of who we are and what we do as a collective. The notion that to be saved one must acknowledge Jesus as savior is deeply held in Christianity. Yet Jesus takes the Pharisees’ considerable and arduous and potentially dangerous efforts to proselytize as worthy of double damnation. Might He not take us to task too?

Donald: Do Daoists proselytize?

David: No. Daoism has been turned into a faith but it is just a philosophy at heart. The philosophy is fundamentally: It’s futile to try to change the Way (which I think equates to “God’s will” in religion), so don’t interfere with the Way of other people. Let the Way take its course; let God’s will be done.

I would agree, from personal observation, that born-again Christians tend to be twice as zealous as “normal” Christians. [Postscript: The same is visible in Al Qaida and ISIS as sort-of “born-again” Moslems.] If a faith is the wrong faith to begin with, then to convert into it people who can be predicted to be doubly zealous is doubly bad. The Pharisee version of faith is a hypocritical and therefore a wrong version. The last thing needed is the doubly hypocritical Pharisee convert!

Jay: No matter how energetically it may be conducted, if conversion is based on fundamental error—is not in alignment with the will of God—then it is a bad thing. I think that should be a sobering thought for us. There is enormous danger in religions that proselytize in the belief that they alone know the Truth.

But contrast this with the following statement by Jesus after His resurrection:

“All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you….” (Matthew 28:18-20)

Michael: Proselytizing stems from an insecurity of faith. Converting someone else to one’s faith “proves” the rightness of one’s own faith. If one is happy and secure in one’s faith then it should be enough to share it with others as the source of one’s happiness and security without converting them. It seems to me an assault on basic human dignity to try to convert someone.

Jay: But then, what is Jesus asking us to do in telling us to baptize everyone in His name? How is that sharing of the faith different from that driven by insecurity and need to be proved right?

Donald: There is a difference between sharing faith and sharing doctrine. I discovered (relatively late in life) that people of different faiths can discuss faith and Scripture without mentioning doctrine.

Michael: Baptism is an act of forgiveness; it is not a rite of initiation. Therefore baptizing everyone means sharing the forgiveness of God with them.

David: Donald’s meetings with people of other denominations sound like the “two or three gathered in My name” meetings consisting of baptism “in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost” in the sense Michael described. Religion seems to be absent from such meetings, but what is present in their discussion is Jesus at His core: Love, compassion, forgiveness, and mercy.

Religions don’t grow through private gatherings of two or three like-minded people. They grow by mass marketing and proselytizing their brand, their doctrinal identity. They all claim to worship a God of mercy and love, so there is no marketing advantage there. It is logically (though by no means humanly, fools that we are) impossible to convert people to a God they already believe in.

The Pharisees did not seem to get very far with their proselytizing. Judaism didn’t get very far except through the diaspora, and it remains a small religion. Daoism fared no better but did not proselytize: It is but a tiny fringe outside China (and even there is small relative to Buddhism and Confucianism). Daoism doesn’t care. The Way is what it is.

I read in the teachings of Jesus that He would agree that doctrine is nothing while love and compassion and forgiveness and mercy are everything.

Donald: I don’t know if it would be different if the people I meet to discuss faith were non-Christians.

Michael: Jesus’ denunciation of the Pharisees as hypocrites implies a moral dimension in the issue, a moral deficiency in the Pharisees.

Jay: The mention of hell and even double hell certainly implies about as heavy a moral aspect as could be imagined. Is there a way to share faith that does not risk this great moral danger?

Don: Our church is built on the basis of proselytizing. Joining the church and sharing faith are synonymous with us. Yet we seem to be at potential risk of condemnation if we fail to understand and heed the warning implicit in what Jesus told the Pharisees. Is it an indictment of theology or practice?

David: Both. He calls them hypocrites because they neither walk the zealous walk nor talk the zealous talk of their converts.

Don: How could that be prevented? How can faith be shared “properly”?

David: It depends on the definition of faith. If we mean faith in a God of love, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness then there is surely nothing immoral in universal human terms about sharing it. But if we mean faith in a church and its identifying features of chosen Scripture, dress, rituals, allowed foods and so on, then there is something if not immoral then at least questionable in sharing it. If a group of people happen to share a liking for certain features then let no-one stop them, but the group should not try to convert others to its beliefs.

Donald: A challenge for churches is that they tend to proselytize through sensationalism. The faithful post yard signs showing Jesus surrounded by the animals featured in Daniel. Who is likely to be attracted by such things? And how good is the retention rate for people converted by such means?

Jay: It’s a problem when we share our doctrine on the basis that it is the only way to God. But can we not share it on the basis that it is one way to God?

David: Each of us is staring the answer literally in the face, right now. We are from different faith groups yet we are here to share our common faith in the God of love, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness. So it seems to me the answer is yes, it can be done and is being done, and I think (hope!) its similarity to the two-or-three-person gatherings Jesus recommend makes us somewhat less damnable than the poor Pharisees!

Jay: But it seems extremely unattractive to the masses.

Donald: We are secure enough in our group that we don’t seek to convert everyone else to our views. We value our conversations for what they are, not for what they could be in terms of audience size.

Michael: Perhaps converts are insecure in their necessarily shallow knowledge of the theology of their newly adopted religion or denomination. Theology thus induces feelings of guilt, making guilt-consumed converts out of guilt-free people.

David: Perhaps meetings like ours would be more attractive to more people if they were not actively discouraged. Religions do not want to expose the faithful to folks they regard as infidels. Religion seeks to divide. Jesus seeks to unite.


The Value of Suffering

Don: God’s original plan, and His final plan for the new earth, do not entail or involve suffering. Yet suffering is a way of life for all of us on earth. Some may suffer more than others, but there is no-one who does not suffer at some time or other.

Although God is not the cause of suffering it seems He does use it to teach spiritual lessons. The first is that all mortals suffer, and we must learn to face our pain and not run from it. The fact that Jesus—the best man who ever lived—could suffer, forever disassociates suffering from sin. While suffering may be caused by poor choices—there is a cause and effect—we cannot equate it with God’s wrath.

Every day, patients ask their physicians: “What have I done to deserve this cancer, this injury, this death sentence?” The answer is that they have not done anything to deserve it. Anyone can fall prey, in this broken world, to undeserved suffering. If the disciples had stayed awake in Gethsemane, they would have seen this lesson played out.

The second lesson from Gethsemane is that whatever suffering you may have, there is probably someone who is suffering more. A quote from Hellen Keller comes to mind:

“I cried because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet.”

You may be uncertain, fearful, and downcast like the disciples in Gethsemane, until you see a man sweating blood, as they did. The most difficult lesson from Gethsemane, however, is to see God’s hand in suffering without despairing of God’s love. A friend who is no stranger to suffering wrote this to me:

“To feel privileged in suffering is to see the hand of God in it. But if we fail to do so, it is sheer wasted, fruitless, unbearable suffering.”

This statement contrasts holy suffering (which has God’s hand in it) with mundane suffering (which does not). Only through holy suffering can we understand God’s love more fully. Some may suffer more than others, but we cannot say they are cursed. To my friend, they are blessed. The premise is that more we suffer, the more we can understand the depth of God’s love.

The pain, discomfort, and distress of suffering can be physical, psychological, or spiritual. Paul used the metaphor of a tent to describe it:

For all things are for your sakes, so that the grace which is spreading to more and more people may cause the giving of thanks to abound to the glory of God.
Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:15-18)
For we know that if the earthly tent which is our house is torn down, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For indeed in this house we groan, longing to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven, inasmuch as we, having put it on, will not be found naked. For indeed while we are in this tent, we groan, being burdened, because we do not want to be unclothed but to be clothed, so that what is mortal will be swallowed up by life. Now He who prepared us for this very purpose is God, who gave to us the Spirit as a pledge.
Therefore, being always of good courage, and knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord— for we walk by faith, not by sight— we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord. (2 Corinthians 5:1-6)

Another lesson from Gethsemane is that we must face our suffering and not run from it. Watching and praying implies facing suffering with our physical senses. That is the watching part. Prayer calls upon the strength of the holy spirit to shore up our inner senses, our soul:

No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it. (1 Corinthians 10:13)

We are promised peace from suffering:

Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7)

Jesus takes the suffering away:

“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

It takes unusual spiritual insight to see God’s hand—and even more, to see His love—in suffering. Those who have the insight reveal to us the truth, which is why we must not turn our eyes away from them and their suffering, lest we miss the lesson, and we must pray to understand the spiritual insight ourselves. The lens of prayer itself reveals insights.

How is that we can see God’s love and blessing in suffering? How is it even possible? It seems counter-intuitive. and utterly illogical. Is it true that those who suffer most will also love the most? If it is of spiritual value, should we not just embrace suffering but even seek it?

David: It seems to me that any value in suffering is purely spiritual in nature. One is never closer to God than when one is suffering. No-one wants it, but God and suffering go together. Nothing makes this clearer than the Beatitudes (Matthew 5), where sufferers are blessed directly.

Robin: It has a humbling effect to realize that we are not in control of everything in our lives.

Donald: Satan wanted that control over our lives. Some of us bestow our allegiance to another power, granting that power control over us. The Bible depicts Christ chiefly as a comforter and peacemaker. We should be anxious for nothing. It’s hard to fathom what life would be like if had no pleasantness, no meaning, for oneself. The concept of heaven is hard to understand. Most of our lives are spent if not on trying to be comfortable then at least on avoiding suffering. We live in gated communities. We avoid dangerous areas. We avoid things and places we cannot control.

Robin: On the one hand there are people who thing that they suffer because they have angered God; on the other there are people (Martin Luther was one) who think that suffering brings them closer to God, so they self-flagellate and inflict other methods of physical pain on themselves.

David: Several Christian sects self-harm; so do some Shia Moslems, and some Hindus. In all cases, the physical suffering is intended to produce spiritual benefit.

Don. Most people seek to avoid pain.

Donald: Heaven is said to be pain-free. Doesn’t that leave a void?

David: God does not want us to suffer, but we must not turn away from it. Who was more blessed: The Good Samaritan or the mugging victim he helped? Should the victim not have waved the Samaritan away for hampering a burgeoning relationship with God? It doesn’t matter. All we need to know is that God will be at hand when we need Him.

Michael: People in their right mind do do not hurt themselves on purpose, except out of guilt. It has no other value.

Mikiko: Job suffered because Satan rules the world (1 John 5:19). Humans cause others to suffer (Ecclesiastes 8:9). Sometimes, people suffer because they are at the wrong place at the wrong time (Ecclesiastes 9:11). God loves us deeply and hates to see us suffer (1 Peter 5:7). Human fathers don’t want their children to suffer, and neither does our heavenly Father. God is love, God is mercy, but like a human father, He disciplines His children sometimes. Suffering and discipline are different.

Donald: The “father” analogy resonates powerfully. No normal human father would ever allow (let alone want) his children to suffer. It’s unimaginable that God would, except to the extent of teaching a child lessons to help it survive in life.

Robin: Experiencing suffering ourselves makes us empathetic to others who are suffering. It gives us something in common, something to relate to, a means to communicate with them.

David: Suffering can also cause feelings of hatred and revenge against the cause of the suffering, whether human or divine. With her life in ruins around her, Job’s wife said “Curse God and die!” She did not seem to feel spiritually blessed by her suffering.

Robin: But Job responded: “Though He slay me, yet will I serve Him.”

Donald: Christ lived in a sinful world and was surrounded by sin, yet never sinned Himself. But as a human, was He not susceptible to disease, and to aging, and other natural causes of suffering? Scripture does not tell us.

Don: In a typical caring family, when a family member suffers, other family members will suffer too. The husband of a wife who has been told she has an incurable deadly cancer can appear to suffer more than his wife. People strive to find meaning in something that may be just a random event.

Michael: Is empathy proportional? The greater your suffering, the greater your empathy and love for others who suffer? The Bible clearly says that Jesus was “a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.” Did that account for His concern for humanity, His care of the afflicted, His life spent among sufferers?

Robin: Job said to his wife, after she cursed God for their suffering:

“You speak as one of the foolish women speaks. Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity?” (Job 2:10)

Don: It seems there is something about suffering that makes it not just spiritually useful but also necessary.

Anonymous: Paul said that suffering purifies the soul. He told the church to let sinners suffer at Satan’s hands so that they would learn the Truth. Sometimes we need spiritual surgery, we need to swallow a bitter spiritual pill. Spiritual healing entails suffering. We heal from all kinds of wounds that life inflicts on us. We might be selfish, worried, feeling detached from God, feeling misfortunate. These are sufferings of a different kind.

Don: Of all the things that call into question the existence and the love of God, suffering is foremost. We think either that God is not powerful enough to prevent suffering, or He does not love us enough to prevent it. As loving parents ourselves, it is impossible to embrace the idea that God allows or inflicts suffering, or doesn’t take it away when it happens to His children. What kind of God rules a house where children are abused or die from leukemia or from lax gun control?

On the other hand, it appears that there is some value, some blessing, some love of God in suffering. How can we bring this out?

David: Who was closer to his father: The prodigal son or his elder brother? In a two-child family where one is healthy but the other is dying of cancer, do the parents love one more than the other?

Michael: If we are suffering and seriously believe that God loves us then we are forced either to abandon our belief in God or reach a new understanding of Him. We might conclude that we are not as significant in the grand scheme of things as we would like to think, and that God’s will matters more than ours.

Mikiko: God loves everybody impartially. The Prodigal son needed more of his father’s attention than his elder brother, and his repentance was worthy of celebration.

So listen to me, you men of understanding: It is unthinkable for the true God to act wickedly, For the Almighty to do wrong! (Job 34:10, New World Translation)

God does not cause suffering, and when we do suffer and pray to Him, He gives us strength and power through His love and mercy.

Chris: What would our relationship with God be like if we did not suffer? What would be our relationship with our own children be like if they never suffered? Would our love be the same? Would they need us as much? If we did not suffer, how could we understand God’s love? Christ’s suffering started when He said He was going to take on the sins of the world and thereby risk separation from His Father. Without suffering is it impossible to understand the relationship between parents and children, and between fellow human beings?

Donald: The dilemma is that a primary parental role is as protector, so a good parent should not allow children to suffer.

Chris: A good parent will allow children to make decisions knowing they will suffer as a result, in order to teach them lessons that will protect them later in life. There are different kinds of suffering. Some of them are non-negotiable, but some of them are.

Donald: Helicopter parents create an environment in which children are so protected that they have no opportunity to learn to deal with life’s pitfalls until after they are grown up and unprotected.

Chris: We are most protective when children are babies, and we grow progressively less protective as they grow older.

Donald: What is our responsibility to protect adults who seem (for whatever reason—reduced mental capacity would be on one end of the scale; willful obstinacy would be on the other) not to have learned life’s lessons—for example, persistent beggars?

Anonymous: If we go back to the beginning of the Bible, the Israelites suffered in Egypt, in bondage, and the Lord saved them, showed them the way out, showed them a better way of living, gave them specific laws telling them how be happier, better servants of the Lord, free from bondage. Yet from that point on we watch the Israelites go astray—ignoring the laws, worshiping idols, and generally disregarding their relationship with God.

Today we still suffer from our disobedience to God’s law. Our suffering is self-inflicted. But at least we can understand what happened. He asked us to worship Him “in gladness of heart.” He does not want us to suffer—we do it to ourselves. He is using our suffering, our brokenness, to show us the way, to heal us, to show us His love. He practically begs us to understand this, and when we do, the least we can do is humbly thank Him for not abandoning us, for continuing to love us despite our waywardness.

Love has to be strong to heal, to eliminate suffering. A parent must be prepared to watch a child cry as the nurse administers a vaccine injection. God allows us to suffer in this loving way. It is beneficial.

When we consider the question of suffering, we have to go all the way back to the beginning of the Bible and follow how God has tried relentlessly throughout to get us to come back to Him, to follow His laws, so that we will not suffer. We fool ourselves into thinking we have gone back to Him and that we do follow His laws, but we are far from doing so.


Temptation, Suffering, and the Value of Prayer

Don: We’ve been discussing prayer: What makes it effective, how should we pray, and what should we expect from it? The Lord’s Prayer is a communal prayer, and one of its core elements is a plea to be led not into temptation. In Gethsemane, Jesus again put prayer and temptation in such a juxtaposition that it seems likely there is an important message in that. In Gethsemane we also see suffering.

It seems to me clear that the temptation Jesus was asking the disciples (and us) to avoid is not the temptation to sin. If it were, He would have left them asleep and in no position to sin. What he was asking them to avoid was the temptation to fall asleep.

This article nicely expresses my own thoughts on the subject:

The Agony in the Garden – The Place to Stay Awake

March 7, 2004

As Jesus and his disciples enter the Garden of Gethsemane, he tells them: “Stay awake, watch!” The implication is that they’re about to learn something, a lesson is to be taught.
But, as we know, they didn’t stay awake, they fell asleep, not because the hour was late and they were tired after a long day, nor even because of the wine they’d drunk at the supper. They fell asleep, Luke says, “out of sheer sorrow”. They fell asleep because they were disconsolate, disappointed, confused, depressed. And, because of that sleep, they missed the lesson they were supposed to learn from watching Jesus in his prayer. What was that lesson?
Jesus, himself, explains it three days later on the road to Emmaus when, in speaking of his suffering and death, he asks: “Wasn’t it necessary?” What the disciples were supposed to see and grasp in the Garden of Gethsemane was the intrinsic connection between suffering and transformation and the necessity, in that process, of being willing to carry tension, disappointment, and unfairness without giving into despair, bitterness, recrimination, and the urge to give back in kind.
We fall asleep out of sorrow whenever we become so confused and overwhelmed by some kind of disappointment that we begin to act out of hostility rather than love, paranoia rather than trust, despair rather than hope. We fall asleep out of sorrow whenever we sell short what’s highest in us because of the bitterness of the moment.
And this is one of perennial temptations we have in life, to fall asleep out of sorrow. Most times when we give in to weakness or commit sin we do so not out of malice or bad intent, but out of despair. For example: A number of times, I have had friends who gave themselves over to periods of sexual promiscuity even though they knew better. They weren’t so naive nor rationalizing to believe for a minute that what they were doing was either life-giving or morally right. So why did they do it? Flat-out loneliness, inchoate depression, practical despair. They were asleep out of sheer sorrow. Unspoken in their actions were these words: “Given my life, my practical situation, that’s the best I can hope for. I’ll take second- best, even fifth-best, because for me there can be no first-best.” Their action was simply compensatory.
The same often holds true too when we give into bitterness, anger, jealousy, hostility, and the urge to give back in kind. Why are we sometimes so petty? Why are we sometimes less than the gracious, understanding, and forgiving persons we would like to be? Simply put, we’re biting in order not to be bitten. Some deep disappointment has rendered us asleep to what’s highest inside of our own selves and some depression has rendered us powerless to our own goodness.
It’s not easy to stay awake to the lesson Jesus was trying to teach in the Garden of Gethsemane.
*Whenever we feel so weak and overcome by disappointment that we give into actions that we know are not good for us, but seem to be the best we can do given our practical situation, we have fallen asleep out of sorrow, just as the disciples did in the Garden of Gethsemane.
*Whenever the unfairness of life so embitters us that we cannot resist the urge to give back in kind, anger for anger, recrimination for recrimination, pettiness for pettiness, we have fallen asleep out of sorrow, just as the disciples did in the Garden of Gethsemane.
*Whenever the complexity of life so confuses us so that we no longer feel any obligation to take care of anyone beyond ourselves, but only want to protect ourselves, to hide, and to find a secure place of shelter, we have fallen asleep out of sorrow, just as the disciples did in the Garden of Gethsemane.
*Whenever we feel so overwhelmed by the fact that God seems silent, withdrawn, and unwilling to intervene and clean up the world that we can no longer imagine the existence of God, we have fallen asleep out of sorrow, just as the disciples did in the Garden of Gethsemane.
*Whenever we feel like a minority of one, so alone, little, and despairing before the powers of chaos and darkness that we believe that Christ is no longer Lord of this world, we have fallen asleep out of sorrow, just as the disciples did in the Garden of Gethsemane.

What then is the lesson from Gethsemane? Why should the suffering of Jesus be educational? Why did sorrow and suffering drive Jesus to remain alert, while it drove the disciples to sleep, to disconnect? Is the lesson in the prayer or the suffering of Jesus, or both? If suffering has such spiritual value that it can serve as a lesson, is God complicit in causing it?

Jesus asked the disciples:

“So, you men could not keep watch with Me for one hour?” (Matthew 26:40)

“One hour” may be a clue. It not only contrasts with the lengthy prayers of the woeful Pharisees but also, in the Bible, an hour is a symbol of brevity and is all the time needed for a transformation, such as the vineyard workers who worked only the last hour of the day and were transformed from being poor to being as wealthy as those who worked all day, and such as Babylon,…

… the great city, she who was clothed in fine linen and purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and precious stones and pearls; for in one hour such great wealth has been laid waste! (Revelation 18:16)

The disciples had the same opportunity for transformation in the one hour of prayer in Gethsemane. What was that opportunity? What was the transformational lesson they missed?

Donald: Sleep is avoidance, tantamount almost to denial. It is like living in a gated community, denying entry to outsiders and shutting ourselves off from their lives.

Jay: The transformation we need is from our fallen state of severance from God to the restoration of our relationship with Him, or at least to make some progress towards it. The fact that suffering is a necessary component of divine purpose is what makes it more than just pain and sorrow; divine purpose adds spiritual value to suffering.

Don: After His resurrection, when Jesus appeared incognito before two disciples on the road to Emmaus, He said to them:

“Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things [crucifixion, etc.] and to enter into His glory?” (Luke 24:26)

The Egyptians [see last week’s discussion] likewise had to suffer so that the wonders of God would be known. But like the disciples, we find it hard to connect suffering with God’s glory.

Michael: Suffering is central to Buddhism. They teach compassion not as directed outwardly at the suffering of others but as inwardly directed, because only by acknowledging the suffering in ourselves can we recognize and empathize with the suffering in others.

David: Suffering is linked to joy: In the Beatitudes, sufferers are told to

Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great….” (Matthew 5:12)

We don’t know whether the beatified sufferers prayed, but prayer is not mentioned so does not seem relevant. What matters is that through suffering they were blessed with grace and with a reward in heaven. To pray for suffering to be removed in this life is probably futile.

Donald: There are people who seem to suffer all the time at their own hands. They just never do the things that might take them out of suffering, and instead they continually ask others for handouts. What is our responsibility toward people who take no responsibility for themselves? Should we lock them out of our gated community? Pretend they don’t exist? Go to sleep on them?

Don: Does seeing suffering have educational value? Did the suffering of Jesus have educational value for the disciples? Or was it the prayer that had educational value for them? What were they missing?

Donald: If we don’t see the suffering in others, we may not recognize our own condition. We depend on contrasts: Suffering lets us appreciate joy.

Don: Should we seek suffering?

Jay: It is not necessary. God will bring suffering to us. I am not joking: The Bible is replete with examples of God bringing suffering to people, but with a purpose intended not just to educate the sufferer but the beholder as well. Jesus in Gethsemane, the Egyptians, Hezekiah, Daniel, Jonah, Job, Paul, Joseph…. All of these are Bible heroes; all endured extreme discomfort. The closer they got to God, the harder the Devil attacked them; yet the more they suffered, the closer they got to God.

Donald: Should we be spending our Sabbath morning with suffering people instead of among ourselves?

Alice: Suffering is a privilege.

David: No pain, no gain? So do people who happen to be born into the gated community and lead happy and blameless lives there, unaware of the suffering outside the gates, not deserve to go to heaven? Should we feel sorry for them?

Jay: In Gethsemane, there is a call to be watchful regarding suffering. But what does “suffering” mean? We think of physical and emotional pain, but is it there such a thing as spiritual suffering?

Alice: There is persecution over Jesus’ name, and not everyone is privileged to live it. One thing happens to both believers and non-believers according to Solomon, in the Proverbs. Both suffer. The difference is that one gets the benefit of suffering; the other just sleeps though it.

Kiran: Hinduism has a famous story of two rocks in a temple. One is chosen to become a statue of a god, upon which worshipers showered milk and honey, while the other was made into a doorstep. The doorstep rock complained to God about its unjust treatment, and was reminded that the statue rock endured greater and prolonged suffering at the hands of the sculptor. But this kind of suffering entails a reward (milk and honey) while Christian suffering offers no reward.

Donald: I have always thought it a privilege to work with young people—to be able to help them manage their lives and prevent future suffering. Similarly, doctors and nurses often have the satisfaction of taking suffering away from their patients. What about people whose work is irrelevant in helping sufferers?

Kiran: Perhaps Jesus was saying that suffering cannot be turned into a religion.

Guest: There are people who so arrange their nights that if they fall asleep they are instantly re-awakened. There are religions, like Buddhism, Hinduism, and others where suffering is necessary for benefit. Suffering is a privilege, but should we run from it? Absolutely! Our whole Adventist system is based on running away. Our liberty, our organization is based on when the Sabbath is going to become a problem, so that we can run.

Neither Paul nor anyone asks us to seek suffering. It would be unfair. I can’t bear to see my son hurting and would do anything in my power to prevent it. How can I expect anything less from God? God has put “fight or flight” into our DNA, and predisposed us to flight rather than fight.

In Gethsemane, I think Christ had a local lesson for the disciples, reproving them for missing the opportunity to recognize that God was suffering with them—that God is not immune to suffering. We are so familiar with suffering, and generally blame God for it. By sleeping, the disciples lost the once-in-eternity opportunity to watch God suffer. Had they done so, they would have seen that He is not immune to suffering and therefore is not to be blamed for causing it. They would have been better able to preach the message that God is not our enemy.

Jay: In the ideal situation—that is, in heaven, in the garden of Eden—there is no suffering. It does not exist. But it exists for fallen Man and it has to, for us to understand what we have lost and enable us to find out way back to it.

We realize our love for our child all the more when it falls ill. We don’t want it to happen, yet it does have an inherent lesson—a lesson to which prayer can keep us awake and aware. As long as we are awake, even if we feel that God doesn’t care, we may see or experience something that will help us come through it.

Mikiko: In Gethsemane, Jesus was deeply concerned about the reproach that his death as a criminal would bring on his Father’s name. Jehovah heard his Son’s prayers, though, and at one point sent an angel to strengthen him. Even so, Jesus did not stop supplicating his Father, but kept “praying more earnestly.” The emotional stress was enormous. What a weight was on Jesus’ shoulders! His own eternal life and that of believing humans was at stake. In fact, his ‘sweat becomes as drops of blood falling to the ground’ (Luke 22:44).

People sweat blood when blood hemorrhages into the sweat glands. It is extremely painful. God did not want his Creatures to suffer and we caused our own suffering through disobedience. Suffering is no part of God’s plan for us.

Donald: Should physicians talk their patients into seeing the advantages of their pain and suffering?

Jay: Suffering is not the ideal, is not what God wants, and is not to be sought. But it is not to be avoided. There is potential freedom in it. It is a privilege, a blessing, a lesson, a way out.

David: Would a father whose child grows up without a single day of illness or injury we capable of empathizing with his neighbor whose child becomes seriously ill or hurt? If suffering is a privilege and a benefit, then logically non-suffering is a misfortune and a disbenefit.

Chris: What if suffering is a tool that can be used for good or evil? If I do not suffer, how can I relate to my fellow Man who does suffer? At the judgment (Matthew 25), people who did not visit the sick, etc., were surprised at their unfavorable judgment. If they themselves never suffered, how were they expected to relate to those who did? Perhaps this is why suffering is a privilege. It enables us to relate to our fellow Man. If God has suffered from our willful disconnection from Him, how can we relate to Him if we cannot reciprocate—if we experience no suffering ourselves?

Kiran: Jews who suffered from the Holocaust seemed oblivious to the suffering of the Palestinians whose land they took.

Alice: That’s why suffering is not what we think it is. We suffer because we sin and we deserve to. But the suffering that is a privilege is not this kind of suffering.

Jay: In the case of Palestine, are we in danger of wrongly defining the lesson that should have been learned from the Holocaust? Are we capable of assigning cause to the effect of suffering? Equally, are we capable of assigning blessings? The dangers of getting these wrong are real and severe. We do not know God’s ways. In the end, it’s a matter of faith.

Don: Do we even know that we are suffering? “I was suffering because I had no shoes, until I saw a man who had no feet.” Everything in life is relative. People suffer because they drive a Ford Escort and not a Cadillac, but people without a car would say they don’t know what suffering is.

Donald: Who suffers the most—and the least—in this world? A wealthy monarch would seem to suffer the least. Most of us are closer to the monarch than to those who suffer day in, day out. I could put myself in their shoes soon enough, but it would be self-induced. What is my responsibility?

Mikiko:

When under trial, let no one say: “I am being tried by God.” For with evil things God cannot be tried, nor does he himself try anyone. (James 1:13; New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures)

God does not give us suffering. It was not part of His purpose for Mankind, but we rebelled and set our own definitions for good and bad, so today many people suffer because Satan is in control, not God.

Michael: It wasn’t just that Jesus suffered at the end of His life. He suffered throughout it. He lived in poverty. He had idiots for friends. Does that make Him more human? I think so. I think suffering is an important aspect of humanity.

Donald: Prosperity preachers would have us believe differently!

Don: We will continue to explore this topic.


Suffering and the Will of God

Jay: Last week we discussed the suffering that seems to be the common element in several prayers, including the prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane on the night of His arrest. We questioned whether or not suffering is part of God’s plan, God’s will.

It was evidently His plan for the Egyptians during the period in which the Israelites were held in captivity and enslavement by the Pharaohs. When the Pharaoh refused to let them go, God inflicted a series of 10 plagues on the Egyptian people:

  1. Blood
    This is what the LORD says: … With the staff that is in my hands I will strike the water of the Nile, and it will be changed into blood. The fish in the Nile will die, and the river will stink and the Egyptians will not be able to drink its water. (Exodus 7:17–18)
  2. Frogs
    This is what the great LORD says: Let my people go, so that they may worship me. If you refuse to let them go, I will plague your whole country with frogs. The Nile will teem with frogs. They will come up into your palace and your bedroom and onto your bed, into the houses of your officials and on your people, and into your ovens and kneading troughs. The frogs will go up on you and your people and all your officials. Exodus 8:1–4)
  3. Lice
    “And the LORD said … Stretch out thy rod, and smite the dust of the land, that it may become lice throughout all the land of Egypt.” … When Aaron stretched out his hand with the rod and struck the dust of the ground, lice came upon men and animals. All the dust throughout the land of Egypt became lice. (Exodus 8:16–17)
  4. Flies
    The fourth plague of Egypt was of creatures capable of harming people and livestock. The Torah emphasizes that the ‘arob (עָרוֹב “mixture” or “swarm”) only came against the Egyptians and did not affect the Israelites. Pharaoh asked Moses to remove this plague and promised to grant the Israelites their freedom. However, after the plague was gone, the LORD “hardened Pharaoh’s heart”, and he refused to keep his promise. (Exodus 8:20-32)
  5. Livestock Disease
    This is what the LORD, the God of the Hebrews, says: Let my people go, so that they may worship me. If you refuse to let them go and continue to hold them back, the hand of the LORD will bring a terrible plague on your livestock in the field—on your horses and donkeys and camels and on your cattle and sheep and goats. (Exodus 9:1–3)
  6. Boils
    Then the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Take handfuls of soot from a furnace and have Moses toss it into the air in the presence of Pharaoh. It will become fine dust over the whole land of Egypt, and festering boils will break out on men and animals throughout the land.” (Exodus 9:8–9)
  7. Hail and Lightning
    This is what the LORD, the God of the Hebrews, says: Let my people go, so that they may worship me, or this time I will send the full force of my plagues against you and against your officials and your people, so you may know that there is no one like me in all the earth. For by now I could have stretched out my hand and struck you and your people with a plague that would have wiped you off the earth. But I have raised you up for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth. You still set yourself against my people and will not let them go. Therefore, at this time tomorrow I will send the worst hailstorm that has ever fallen on Egypt, from the day it was founded till now. Give an order now to bring your livestock and everything you have in the field to a place of shelter, because the hail will fall on every man and animal that has not been brought in and is still out in the field, and they will die. […] The LORD sent thunder and hail, and lightning flashed down to the ground. So the LORD rained hail on the land of Egypt; hail fell and lightning flashed back and forth. It was the worst storm in all the land of Egypt since it had become a nation. (Exodus 9:13–24)
  8. Locusts
    This is what the LORD, the God of the Hebrews, says: ‘How long will you refuse to humble yourself before me? Let my people go, so that they may worship me. If you refuse to let them go, I will bring locusts into your country tomorrow. They will cover the face of the ground so that it cannot be seen. They will devour what little you have left after the hail, including every tree that is growing in your fields. They will fill your houses and those of all your officials and all the Egyptians—something neither your fathers nor your forefathers have ever seen from the day they settled in this land till now. (Exodus 10:3–6)
  9. Darkness
    Then the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand toward the sky so that darkness will spread over Egypt—darkness that can be felt.” So Moses stretched out his hand toward the sky, and total darkness covered all Egypt for three days. No one could see anyone else or leave his place for three days. (Exodus 10:21–23)
  10. Death of Firstborn
    This is what the LORD says: “About midnight I will go throughout Egypt. Every firstborn son in Egypt will die, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who sits on the throne, to the firstborn of the slave girl, who is at her hand mill, and all the firstborn of the cattle as well. There will be loud wailing throughout Egypt—worse than there has ever been or ever will be again.” (Exodus 11:4–6)

Pharaoh compounded his problems by only pretending to relent. He did this following the plague of blood:

But when Pharaoh saw that there was relief, he hardened his heart and did not listen to them, as the Lord had said. (Exodus 8:15)

…and the lice:

Then the magicians said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God.” But Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he did not listen to them, as the Lord had said. (Exodus 8:19)

…and the flies:

So Moses went out from Pharaoh and made supplication to the Lord.  The Lord did as Moses asked, and removed the swarms of flies from Pharaoh, from his servants and from his people; not one remained. But Pharaoh hardened his heart this time also, and he did not let the people go. (Exodus 8:30-32)

and the livestock:

Pharaoh sent, and behold, there was not even one of the livestock of Israel dead. But the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he did not let the people go. (Exodus 9:7)

But after the boils, there was a major shift in strategy:

The magicians could not stand before Moses because of the boils, for the boils were on the magicians as well as on all the Egyptians. And the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not listen to them, just as the Lord had spoken to Moses. (Exodus 9:11-12)

However, Pharaoh was soon back to his old ways even after the plague of hail, hardening his own heart without any help from God:

But when Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunder had ceased, he sinned again and hardened his heart, he and his servants. Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he did not let the sons of Israel go, just as the Lord had spoken through Moses. (Exodus 9:34-35)

So God did it again for him after the locusts:

Then Pharaoh hurriedly called for Moses and Aaron, and he said, “I have sinned against the Lord your God and against you. Now therefore, please forgive my sin only this once, and make supplication to the Lord your God, that He would only remove this death from me.” He went out from Pharaoh and made supplication to the Lord. So the Lord shifted the wind to a very strong west wind which took up the locusts and drove them into the Red Sea; not one locust was left in all the territory of Egypt. But the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not let the sons of Israel go. (Exodus 10:16-20)

…and again after the darkness:

But the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he was not willing to let them go. Then Pharaoh said to him, “Get away from me! Beware, do not see my face again, for in the day you see my face you shall die!” Moses said, “You are right; I shall never see your face again!” (Exodus 10:27-29)

…and one more time, after the horrendous slaughter of the firstborn:

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Pharaoh will not listen to you, so that My wonders will be multiplied in the land of Egypt.” Moses and Aaron performed all these wonders before Pharaoh; yet the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not let the sons of Israel go out of his land. (Exodus 11:9-10)

Can suffering be the will of God? Could it be the result from prayer?

Pastor Ariel: What is suffering? Jesus said that if anyone wants to come after Him, let him take up His cross. So what is the cross? Should I pray for leukemia? Or is suffering that which we experience when our selfishness and pride are wounded, when we are humiliated and have to ask for forgiveness, when we reconcile with a brother who has wronged us? In that sense, our suffering is the will of God.

Don: Gethsemane is the garden of sorrow. There is something that requires us to be awake in the garden of sorrows. We ought not to sleep during the suffering of others—we ought to witness it. Sleep is a preventive against the temptation to do bad things, so this cannot be the kind of temptation Jesus wants us to avoid. It seems that Jesus recognizes the “educational value” of witnessing suffering in others, and anticipating thereby something beneficial in the longer term. By falling asleep, the disciples missed the suffering that Jesus went through in Gethsemane and days later found themselves undergoing similar suffering as they were hunted and persecuted.

But why is prayer beneficial or even necessary in such situations?

Pastor Ariel: Prayer perhaps helps in the interpretation of what we witness, especially something that is stressful. Prayer helps mitigate our shortsighted presuppositions of the meaning of an event. We may comfort someone with the words “It was God’s will” but are we certain of it? Prayer might help us arrive at a more definite interpretation of a painful event.

Donald: I am uncomfortable with the idea that God might cause suffering. Last week this was posted in my church: “Surely Christ took up our pain and bore our suffering.” It seems to be true that we navigate through life trying to avoid suffering, but we live in a sinful world, and sin is the source of our suffering.

Pastor Ariel: My young daughter “suffers” when I tell her it’s time to get ready for bed. The rich young ruler “suffered” at Jesus’ “cruel” suggestion that he give up all his wealth. He walked away in sorrow. Perhaps there’s a difference between what God regards as suffering and what we regard as suffering.

Donald: We’d love to eat fried food all the time but we know we will suffer for it.

Jeff: These are childish things that are open to debate. A painful death, in contrast, is universally recognized as suffering. There is no debate about it. Suffering of this sort is universally linked with prayer for relief, whether or not one believes in God.

Pastor Ariel: We pray in the Lord’s Prayer for our daily bread, yet there is starvation in the world. Is it then God’s will that we have our bread daily? It is a guilty relief to know that it is human freedom, not God’s will, that causes starvation. We discard stale food from our pantries knowing that people are starving somewhere in the world. Our free will is what causes starvation, not God’s will. We pray that God gives “us”, not “me”, our daily bread. Should we only minister to the needy at Thanksgiving, or should our ministry and community service be ongoing all the time? That will not happen without the Cross in our lives, but with it, then those crying to God for relief from starvation could have their prayers answered by God through us.

Dewan: Jesus promised His followers many things, but a pain-free life on earth was not one of them, because our selfish and sinful desires can lead us down painful paths.

Jay: In our fallen condition, we need contrast to understand. We can’t know peace without pain, love without hate, light without dark, and so on. There is no contrast in heaven—no night, no predation (hence, the lion and the lamb lie down together), no pain, no fear, and so on. There is complete experience of God. Is it possible that in a fallen state we cannot experience God without contrast?

Pastor Ariel: We are already in darkness. There is starvation in Africa in part because of corruption. Jesus is the Light which we would not need if we were not already in darkness. We know evil, but we need God to show us good, and we then have the option to accept good over evil.

David: The message I get from Gethsemane is that we should not turn our back on the pain and suffering of others. Daoism too espouses acceptance rather than avoidance of the Way. As a postscript, I would add that the Daoist Way reminds me of the path walked by the traveler in the beautiful 23rd Psalm. It is a path which winds not only through green fields and beside still waters, but also through the valley of death.

Donald: Is it my responsibility prevent the suffering of others?

David: I think our responsibility is not to turn your face away from it. It sounds awful to say so, but suffering in others is spiritually enriching—it has the “educational value” Don mentioned. The disciples were offered this enrichment in Gethsemane, but would rather sleep than experience it.

Jeff: I think the answer is Yes. The conundrum is that it seems it is not God’s responsibility. His failure to alleviate suffering when He has the power to do so suggests that He does not accept responsibility.

Pastor Ariel: We all want to snap our fingers and make things happen. God does not snap fingers; He touches and changes hearts, but leaves it up to our fingers to bestow our worldly goods on the poor—or to clutch our wealth in selfish possession.

Donald: Some people find themselves continually in various binds because they have no self-control. But there is no doubt that they suffer. What is our responsibility toward such people, knowing that the more we give, the more they will demand?

Jay: We want to define suffering, the will of God, and God’s love. In our fallen state, I don’t think we can, no matter how “in tune” with the spirit we feel. Our biases lead us astray. God proved a point in Egypt: He inflicted the plagues so that His “wonder would be known.” What was that wonder? it seems to be that He was God and in control of all things, that the Israelites were His people and He would alleviate their bondage in Egypt.

But it ignored the Egyptian slave girl whose firstborn son was slaughtered.

Pastor Ariel: Some Egyptians heeded God’s message and left with the multitude in the Exodus. God revealed to them the wonder of His mercy.

Jay: One thing that is becoming clearer from the Egyptian plagues and from Gethsemane is that suffering has value. Yet we remain troubled by that.


What Should We Pray For?

Don: We often pray because we want God to intervene in our affairs on our behalf. Some people seem to be successful at it, others not at all. Churches hold up the first as prayer warriors, paragons of virtue, lauded for their faith and admired for their devotion. As for the others, however, we question their faith, and wonder about their connection to God. Why is it that in their case prayer seems to fall on deaf ears?

It is convenient to ascribe God’s lack of response to a prayer to its not being His will to grant it, or else to a lack of adequate faith in the supplicant. Is there a usable, actionable concept to help us understand what to expect from prayer? Should God be at our disposal? For prayer to make a difference, we must have realistic expectations, lest we find it futile and disappointing.

A Lifeway poll found that nearly half of all Americans, including more than one in five of those professing no religion, pray daily. Of them: One in four say God answers all of their prayers; 37% say God answers some of their prayers; but only 3% say that God answers none of their prayers.

A recent Carnegie Mellon study also found that among millennials, 53% look to religion for guidance yet 62% talk privately with God. This suggests that millennials are not giving up on God but are bypassing religion to reach Him.

Lifeway found that while 74% pray for their own needs and difficulties and 42% pray for their own sins, a generous 82% pray for family and friends and 38% pray for those who experience natural disasters. At the other end of the generosity scale, only 12% pray for politicians and 5% for celebrities. 41% pray for people who mistreat them, 37% pray for their enemies, and 21% pray to win the lottery. 20% pray for success without effort (such as passing an exam without study), 15% pray to avoid discovery for a bad deed, 14% pray for revenge on someone who hurt them or a loved one, 13% pray for their sports team to win, 9% for bad things to happen to bad people, 7% to find a good parking spot, 7% to avoid being caught while speeding, 5% for success in something of which God would not approve, 5% for someone’s relationship to go bad, 5% for someone to get fired, and 4% for someone to fail.

A Christianity Today poll found that 25% of respondents with incomes higher than $150,000 pray for bad things to happen to bad people and nearly 20% for someone to get fired, while (respectively) only 8 and 5% of respondents making between $75,000 and $150,000, and only 1% earning less than $30,000 did so. The survey concluded that an empathy gap exists between the rich and the poor.

The Lord’s Prayer is the ideal prayer taught by Jesus to His disciples. It is a communal prayer, not an individual prayer. It asks God to “Lead us not into temptation.” In the Garden of Gethsemane on the night of His arrest, Jesus reminded them of the danger of falling into temptation after He found them sleeping, telling Peter:

“So, you men could not keep watch with Me for one hour? Keep watching and praying that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:40-41; repeated verbatim in Mark 14:38-39)

One might suppose that of all things, sleep would be the antidote to temptation, yet Jesus wanted them to be awake and to pray in order to avoid it. How might prayer help us avoid temptation? What did He mean by saying “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak”? Was He talking about the disciples or about Himself—about His own temptation?

Luke adds a different perspective. According to Luke, Jesus told the disciples before they fell asleep and before He Himself prayed:

“Pray that you may not enter into temptation.” And He withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and He knelt down and began to pray, saying, “Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done.” Now an angel from heaven appeared to Him, strengthening Him. And being in agony He was praying very fervently; and His sweat became like drops of blood, falling down upon the ground. When He rose from prayer, He came to the disciples and found them sleeping from sorrow, and said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not enter into temptation.” (Luke 22:39-46)

What is the relationship between prayer and temptation? How can the end product of prayer be a state of freedom from temptation? Eve was tempted not simply to disobey God by eating a forbidden fruit, but to be like God. This desire to be like God seems to be the human condition, as the serpent was evidently aware. During His retreat to the desert, Jesus Himself was also tempted by the devil to turn stones into bread, to show off his divinity by jumping off the roof of the temple, and generally to use His godly power to help Himself (Matthew 4).

The common theme of these various temptations seems to be a desire to be like God. How can prayer overcome that desire and forestall the temptation? What was Jesus trying to tell the disciples—and us—in his admonition to be awake and pray to avoid temptation?

Donald: If we see someone asleep in church we tend to be offended, though we all do it sometimes! Or they are on their phones. Is our situation in church different from that of the disciples in the Garden? Is sleep more excusable in one than in the other?

David: Luke said in the quoted passage that Jesus found the disciples sleeping “from sorrow”. So theirs was not simply an escape from a boring sermon. We think of sleep in the aftermath (or even in the midst) of tragedy as a blessed relief.

Don: Sleep is also a relief from temptation, yet we are admonished not to sleep in circumstances such as the disciples found themselves in in Gethsemane. We associate temptation with sin, but we can also be tempted to do good, or to do something morally neutral. In and of itself, temptation is not sin.

David: Jesus was saying that sorrow is not reason enough to sleep. He Himself was in agony yet He did not escape into sleep; instead He prayed, and fervently at that. He was saying “Now is not the time to sleep: It is the time to face your sorrows.”

Jay: Temptation seems to me to be associated with straying from God’s will—from the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy will be done”. Prayer is a strengthening exercise for will alignment. Will cannot be aligned unconsciously—it can only be aligned while in a state of consciousness, and it is not easy, as Jesus demonstrated by praying three times for it in Gethsemane. Repetition breeds focus.

Donald: Perhaps prayer is like a spiritual strengthening exercise. It builds upon itself but the results become apparent only over time.

David: It’s clear from the passages today that it is God’s will that we suffer, just as it was Grandma’s will that we suffered when she forced spinach down our childhood throats. Our will is not to suffer. We want ice cream, not spinach. But in Gethsemane Jesus says: “No! Face up to your suffering, as you see me face up to mine!”

Donald: He wanted the disciples to stay awake so they could suffer along with Him?

David: It looks that way to me.

Robin: It’s rubber meeting road. You can’t just be a fair-weather believer. The disciples also got to see a change in Jesus in His distress and sorrow—something they would not have been used to. His doubt and fear would have shocked them even more—almost as if He were succumbing to temptation. He had convinced them that He was the lamb of God, yet here He was doubting God.

Jay: There is no doubt that Jesus suffered from Gethsemane until his Resurrection. And there is no doubt that His suffering was the will of God. Ordinary humans don’t want to say “Thy will be done” under those circumstances, but that is the message in the Lord’s Prayer and it was Christ’s prayer in Gethsemane. We may argue that Christ’s case was different, that He had a grand purpose—the salvation of the whole world; but His suffering was just as real and personal as it would have been for you or me. Could it be that it is God’s will that we too must suffer for some grand purpose we can’t understand?

Robin: It’s difficult to tell the difference between God’s description versus His prediction of suffering. After the Fall, He described the earth as cursed, and predicted that the Man and Woman would suffer as they never had before. We have to be careful in ascribing cause and effect here, lest we read a vengeful God into it. We may think God punished us for our sin, whereas in fact our suffering is a natural and inevitable result of breaking the law. People struggle with the idea of a vengeful God.

David: It seems trite to sum this all up as “No pain, no gain” yet that is what it amounts to. In the Beatitudes, suffering begat blessing and the sight of God. To evade suffering is extremely consequential: You will not see God.

Donald: Then we should pray for suffering? The church that preaches this may not attract many worshipers! When I consider my relationship with God, I think of Him as a peaceful river, a comforter, a lamb. It is hard to associate these with suffering.

Jay: Because of the Fall, we can only experience the world through contrast. I cannot appreciate the peace of a river without also knowing it in raging flood. Can we appreciate joy without experiencing sorrow? Peace without suffering? Love without hate? Heaven is defined as the place where we can do all those things, but first we have to get back in. The fact is that we are out. We Fell from heaven.

Kiran: Jesus prayed that His suffering had a purpose—to help others. A mother does not begrudge suffering for her baby. She does not think of herself when her baby is in need. She has a higher purpose. Perhaps that is the grand purpose of suffering: To help others.

Robin: God is telling us not to lose hope and faith through suffering.

Donald: I still struggle with the notion of a God who wants His children to suffer.

Jay: We ignore the enormous suffering of the Egyptians from the Ten Plagues, but when we ourselves suffer we are all over God with demands to stop it, and with complaints when He does not.

Donald: Then He goes and heals the sick. Go figure… if you can!

Jay: We can’t understand why God does what He does. Prayer is about accepting the will of God, “as is”. To assess His actions as good or bad is dangerous.

Donald: Why pray for an outcome if suffering is the goal?

David: The Hebrew Worthies had no expectation of any outcome when they stepped into the furnace. We have no idea whether, and if so how much, they suffered from the fire before God intervened. We read only: Have faith and you will be saved! But the Worthies had no such thought. “God’s will is what it is,” they practically shrugged.

Jay: The Worthies did not question God’s will, but we do. We want to know why.

Donald: So we should not ask for God’s protection.

Jay: God is not waiting for us to ask for protection, so why pray for it?

Donald: I pray for a relationship with God. I hope for His protection. It’s a question of loyalty, of showing where I stand, of pledging allegiance.

Jay: The question is one’s motives for seeking the relationship. It cannot be based on selfishness. But when you take the selfish quid pro quo out of the relationship, what is left to pray for?

David: Faith is not an investment, with an expectation of dividend. In fact, there is a dividend in that God’s will is done. We just don’t see it as dividend. The ultimate faith, as demonstrated by Jesus in Gethsemane, is to suffer without any expectation of anything. A relationship with God is strictly a one-way street with regard to suffering. We have to believe that all things work together for good (Romans 8), that all things are God’s will. But that’s a hard sell to humans.

Jay: We must distinguish between the personal good and the greater good. “All things” includes bad things as well as good things. They are all God’s will. Accepting this brings peace.

Don: Maybe it’s not that God wants us to suffer, its that He does not usually intervene in our worldly affairs. The Worthies knew and were content to live by this belief. It’s hard for most of us to do so. It’s easier to fill churches with holy roller preachers than with simple believers like the Worthies. Perhaps the temptation Jesus wants us to avoid is not the temptation to sin but rather the temptation to control God and make Him align with our desires, rather than the other way around.

Donald: Different personalities might have more or less difficulty with this message. We think of church as a place of refuge from suffering, yet it seems it should be the ground zero of suffering.

Jay: It is hard to consider the Ten Plagues without accepting that God did it, that He brought immense suffering on the Egyptians.

Don: We don’t care about that, because they are the bad guys. Recall the statistics we began this meeting with: Up to 25% of people, with the rich in the top percentile and the poor in the bottom percentile, pray for bad things to happen to bad people.

Suffering was the common theme in the prayers of Job, Hannah, Hezekiah, and even Jesus, as well as in the non-prayer of the Hebrew Worthies. We need to understand this, and figure out its relationship to temptation.

David: We should pray to suffer.


The Expectation vs. the Reality of Prayer

Don: Jesus criticized the Pharisees for both the quality and the quantity of their prayers. He also criticized their expectations of a quid pro quo for their prayer, fasting, and the giving of alms. I suspect most of us are like the Pharisees. We think if we pray more, longer, better, with more people, faith, sincerity, and zeal that God will give us what we ask for in our prayer. In fact, Jesus did indeed say there is a quid pro quo, but it is that the more hypocritical one is in religious practice, the more one will be condemned for it.

The Lord’s Prayer is the perfect prayer given to the Disciples by Jesus:

 It happened that while Jesus was praying in a certain place, after He had finished, one of His disciples said to Him, “Lord, teach us to pray just as John also taught his disciples.” And He said to them, “When you pray, say:

‘Father, hallowed be Your name.
Your kingdom come.
‘Give us each day our daily bread.
‘And forgive us our sins,
For we ourselves also forgive everyone who is indebted to us.
And lead us not into temptation.’” (Luke 11:1-4)

The Lord’s Prayer is a community prayer. The personal pronouns are plural “us”, “we”, and “our”; not “me”, “I”, and “my”. The request for daily bread is not so much a demand for a physical object as it is an acknowledgment that God provides for us. In the Greek, it can be read as: “You give us this day our daily bread; You forgive us our debts as we have forgiven our debtors.” These are statements or acknowledgments, rather than requests.

The call for the kingdom to come is a call for heaven to come to Earth, bringing with it peace and joy and kingdom principles such as going the extra mile, going to the back of the line, and loving one’s enemies. To pray is to surrender to the will of God. The only quid pro quo in the Lord’s Prayer is that we will be forgiven in proportion to how we forgive others. It is a quid pro quo with our fellow human being and with God.

What outcome can be expected from praying the Lord’s Prayer? What were the outcomes of other famous prayers in the Bible?

The Prayer of Hannah

Elkanah had two wives: Hannah, whom he loved but was barren, and Peninnah, who bore him children and was nasty to Hannah. One day, …

…, greatly distressed, [Hannah] prayed to the Lord and wept bitterly. She made a vow and said, “O Lord of hosts, if You will indeed look on the affliction of Your maidservant and remember me, and not forget Your maidservant, but will give Your maidservant a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life, and a razor shall never come on his head.” (1 Samuel 1:2-11)

The outcome was that she did indeed have a son, Samuel, and she did what she promised and gave her son back to the Lord. In other words: She got what she wanted, but had to give it back.

The Prayer of Hezekiah

King Hezekia was mortally ill. When warned by the prophet Isaiah to put his house in order because the Lord had decided he should die, he…

… turned his face to the wall and prayed to the Lord, saying, “Remember now, O Lord, I beseech You, how I have walked before You in truth and with a whole heart and have done what is good in Your sight.” And Hezekiah wept bitterly. Before Isaiah had gone out of the middle court, the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “Return and say to Hezekiah the leader of My people, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of your father David, “I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears; behold, I will heal you. On the third day you shall go up to the house of the Lord. I will add fifteen years to your life, and I will deliver you and this city from the hand of the king of Assyria; and I will defend this city for My own sake and for My servant David’s sake.”’… 

So God did as asked. However, after some Babylonians came to visit Hezekiah, Isaiah asked him:

“What did these men say, and from where have they come to you?” And Hezekiah said, “They have come from a far country, from Babylon.” He said, “What have they seen in your house?” So Hezekiah answered, “They have seen all that is in my house; there is nothing among my treasuries that I have not shown them.”

Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, “Hear the word of the Lord. ‘Behold, the days are coming when all that is in your house, and all that your fathers have laid up in store to this day will be carried to Babylon; nothing shall be left,’ says the Lord. ‘Some of your sons who shall issue from you, whom you will beget, will be taken away; and they will become officials in the palace of the king of Babylon.’” (2 Kings 20:1-21)

Thus, the immediate outcome of Hezekiah’s prayer was the granting of his request for life but the final outcome was a disaster for Hezekiah and his kingdom.

The Prayer of Job

When Job suffered a series of catastrophes in life, he asked God why a faithful servant of God such as himself should be punished in this way. God responded by asking Job, in no fewer than 77 questions, if he could do the mighty things that God did. Chastened, Job replied:

“I know that You can do all things, And that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have declared that which I did not understand, Things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” ‘Hear, now, and I will speak; I will ask You, and You instruct me.’ “I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear; But now my eye sees You; Therefore I retract, And I repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:2-6)

God did not answer Job’s prayer directly, but in the end, Job was enlightened.

The (unspoken) Prayer of the Three Hebrew Worthies

Ironically, there is no prayer here, in a dire situation—inside a fiery furnace—where one would most expect it. Prayer, the worthies said in essence, was not necessary, because, as they told their tormentor King Nebuchadnessar:

… our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire; and He will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” (Daniel 3:16-18)

The outcome was uncertain, but the faith was absolute and no prayer was uttered.

In the Garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus was about to be arrested, He prayed that he would not suffer but that God’s will, not His will, be done (Matthew 26). He clearly did not expect His to prevail over God’s.

These examples show a wide variety of outcomes from prayer. Life is full of unanticipated, and often prayerful, events. What should we expect? Is it more noble not to expect anything? Or to turn to the wall, like Hezekiah, and pray passionately for what we desire?

Jesus told this parable about prayer:

Now He was telling them a parable to show that at all times they ought to pray and not to lose heart, saying, “In a certain city there was a judge who did not fear God and did not respect man. There was a widow in that city, and she kept coming to him, saying, ‘Give me legal protection from my opponent.’ For a while he was unwilling; but afterward he said to himself, ‘Even though I do not fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow bothers me, I will give her legal protection, otherwise by continually coming she will wear me out.’” And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge said; now, will not God bring about justice for His elect who cry to Him day and night, and will He delay long over them? I tell you that He will bring about justice for them quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:1-8)

The unjust judge, who answered the widow’s prayer only under pressure, is the opposite of God, the just judge as described in this passage:

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Or what man is there among you who, when his son asks for a loaf, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, he will not give him a snake, will he? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him! (Matthew 7:7-11)

God does not need our pleadings.

Almost everyone prays, and almost everyone expects something in return. Might our unrealistic expectations for prayer lead to the sort of woes the Pharisees suffered? Is there such a thing as a bad prayer? A good prayer? Would we recognize them?

David: It is shocking to me that Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer omits its key line: “Thy will be done”. To me, that line alone is the complete, the perfect, prayer.

Donald: Christ knew his destiny in the Garden of Gethsemane yet asked to avoid it. Knowing what He knew, why bother to pray? Is it a case of praying “in any case”? Is there a benefit in that? Patients do it when the doctor tells them they are likely to die. Is it just a matter of starting a conversation with God, with no real expectation of being spared from death?

Michael: We concluded in a previous discussion that prayer is important even though it does not result in what we want.

Kiran: I think we thought that it was like wifi—when you connect to it, your system automatically gets updated. We thought that prayer makes us honest about ourselves, and that (as Paul said) we don’t know how to pray. But there is benefit in prayer.

David: We usually think of prayer as an “ask”. But that is only one narrow application of prayer. Wikipedia provides a broader definition (citing Jevons):

Prayer is an invocation or act that seeks to activate a rapport with an object of worship through deliberate communication.

“Thy will be done” is a statement of faith, an affirmation of belief in God. It is not a request. What can we expect from saying it? It may depend on the individual. To me, it enlightens by giving a purpose to life. In process theological terms, our purpose is to help God Become. It’s good to be reminded of that, lest we forget; hence, say it daily—aloud or in the head (I don’t think God cares which, but if aloud then it should be done out of the hearing of others.)

Robin: Christ’s Gethsemane prayer was His final example of the triumph of spirit over flesh. His humanity did not want pain and sorrow, but He relinquished what His humanity wanted and accepted instead what His spirit wanted. It led Him out of desperation and into peace.

Don: Could a church survive if it told its members that prayer might or might not get them what they want?

Robin: We have to look to Jesus. It might be dangerous to teach that prayer will get you what you want.

Kiran: We should always add that it is OK if prayer does not deliver what you ask for, because it will always deliver what is best for you.

Robin: Faith should not depend on God’s doing what we want.

Donald: If allegiance goes to some entity other than God, then we can see, in our own heart of hearts, where our priorities lie. If prayer is only for the purpose of my asking for something to come my way, it’s a pretty shallow relationship. Contrast that with paying daily visits to an elderly relative with dementia: Though apparently one way, the relationship, the love, the allegiance, are all that matter. The posture of prayer seems important too: Sometimes we kneel, sometimes we stand.

Don: We teach our children to pray. We encourage them to ask for things. Sometimes the prayers are answered, and sometimes not. Members of this class have testified to having had their prayers answered. What should we teach children to expect from God?

Dewan: I have had prayers answered when family members have been gravely ill. Jesus promised His followers peace and joy and forgiveness of sin, but he did not promise a pain-free life on earth. He did not guarantee answers to selfish prayer to fulfill sinful desires.

Donald: We pray not to suffer, yet suffering can bring positive results, such as helping us to see were our real priorities should lie.

Jeff: All religions have some form of prayer. It seems to me that the act of prayer is a declaration of one’s acceptance of subordination to a higher power. I can think of no examples in scripture of prayers prayed from a position of strength.

Jay: It is an expression of faith that an unseen, unheard higher power exists to hear one’s prayer. My children ask me for lots of things I won’t give them. They might sulk for a bit but in the end my refusal to answer some of their “prayers” does not at all diminish their belief in my love for them. It does not damage our relationship. It seems that as we grow out of childhood, we expect more from our prayers. The quid pro quo seems to grow stronger.

In Gethsemane, Jesus clearly did not want events to unfold as he knew they would. He prayed for His suffering to end “if possible.” And He asked not just once, but twice. That is troubling, since first of all anything is possible for God, and secondly because if Jesus Christ, the perfect human being, the one with the strongest possible relationship with God, cannot get God to answer His prayer, what chance have we?

Kiran: In the end, He did get what He wanted in the sense that His death did not last forever. He was resurrected.

Jay: But why pray for that? He knew that would happen.

Kiran: Prayer is an expression of gratitude, serving to remind us of the good things we receive, whether we are “religious” or not.

Jay: It’s a faith-based self-assessment. But we have perverted it into a means of fulfilling selfish desires.

Jeff: …With some backing from the Bible!

David: And is this how we teach our children to pray? A parent does not have to teach a child to ask for a candy. All they have to do is teach the child to talk, and the child will figure out the rest. (Come to think of it, do we really teach children to talk, or do they learn to talk on their own?)

Jeff: A parent can explain to a child why it can’t have the candy. But our prayers go into the ether, with no explanation for the results.

David: That’s my point. How can you teach the inexplicable to a child? Is it really necessary to teach a child how to pray? Might it even be wrong to teach a child how to pray, given that we don’t really know ourselves and therefore might teach the wrong thing that the child has to struggle to overcome as an adult?

Kiran: We can teach children that they are not all-powerful. We can teach them that they are vulnerable.

Donald: We often give them examples of answered prayers.

Jay: We should teach them that whether they pray or not, God’s will will be done. But who wants a religion that says you can’t leverage God for yourself, as Hezekiah did?

Jeff: God Himself said we could leverage Him! There is scriptural support for this.

Don: Hezekiah did all the “right” things and got what he wanted.

Robin: We all get answers to our prayers, but sometimes they are a “No!” —and we don’t like that.

David: I don’t think we all want something out of God. Whether I want it or not, God’s will will be done. I am glad about that because I cannot imagine anything better than being surrounded by and related to ultimate Goodness. Of course I want my parent to give me what I need but I also know that I don’t know what I need and I believe that my parent does know what I need. What is there not to like about that?

Donald: What does a homeless person pray for?

David: What did the oppressed in the Beatitudes pray for? Perhaps nothing, perhaps for an end to their suffering. But in either case, Jesus assures us, they received God’s blessing, His grace.

Donald: Is this a First World problem? We here are well off and lead comfortable lives compared to many. Do people lacking the silver spoons we may have been born with not have a right to pray for one?

Jeff: Yes, and they are guaranteed to get it, according Mark 11.

Don: To be continued.


The Second Woe (continued): Prayer

Don: When I was a boy, we had an Elder in church who made very long prayers. When we saw him up on the platform we would groan. We were more concerned to time him than to listen to what he actually prayed. Most of his prayers were about 12 minutes long but could run to 20 minutes—a real form of torture in the days before padded kneeling benches.

He was not the only one to deliver long prayers. There seemed to be a general belief that quantity was quality, that sinners said short prayers and saints said long prayers.

Perhaps Jesus also suffered from the absence of kneeling benches, because in the Second Woe He placed long prayers right behind devouring widow’s houses as habits to be avoided:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense you make long prayers; therefore you will receive greater condemnation. (Matthew 23:14)

Of course it’s not simply a matter of prayer length. Jesus was contrasting the scribes’ and Pharisees’ (hypocritical) piety against their evil predatory financial practices.

Prayer is a vital part of life. A Pew study in 2015 found that 70% of Americans pray on a regular basis. Protestants pray more than Catholics. Jehovah’s Witnesses pray most of all. Women pray more than men. People aged 30-49 prayed more than other age cohorts (perhaps reflecting that, at that age, many are parents of teenagers!). Third-generation immigrants pray more than first-generation immigrants, who themselves pray more than second generation immigrants. Poor people pray more than rich people. People with high school or lower education pray more than people with college degrees. Married people pray more than singles (I won’t go there…!). Democrats pray more than Republicans.

None of these findings say anything about the quality of prayer. The study did not even define “prayer” for the survey respondents.

Jesus was a praying person, and He had quite a lot to say about prayer. In the first part of the Sermon on the Mount He identified prayer as one of three universal aspects of religion (the other two being the giving of alms and fasting). Note that the language in this passage is essentially the same language used in the Woes passage:

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.

“When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.
“And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words. So do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.
“Pray, then, in this way:

‘Our Father who is in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name.
‘Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
‘Give us this day our daily bread.
‘And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
‘And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil. [For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.’]

For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions. (Matthew 6:1-15)

Why do we pray? What is the purpose of prayer? We are told to…

… pray without ceasing… (1 Thessalonians 5:13)

If God knows what we need before we ask (as Jesus says He does, in the passage above) then do we even need to pray? Is asking for things from God through prayer unnecessary and even inappropriate? For most of us, I suspect, asking for something is the main reason why we pray. We are weak, depleted, afraid, uncertain, empty, and need a higher power to help us, to enable us, to deliver us. Is that the purpose of prayer? What did Jesus mean when He told us to avoid meaningless repetitions in our prayers?

No-one wants to pray to a God who will not respond to our prayers and to our needs. But God knows what we need, so why should we pray? Paul seemed to think it doesn’t matter, since we don’t know how to pray anyway:

In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. (Romans 8:26-28)

Neither Paul nor Jesus was suggesting that we should not pray. But what should the expectation be for our prayers? Should God benefit from our prayers? How do we know if a prayer has been answered? What, in our surrounding world, is the result of answered prayer versus simply the result of natural causes and consequences?

Jesus returned to the subject of prayer in closing the Sermon on the Mount, and said some very provocative things:

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Or what man is there among you who, when his son asks for a loaf, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, he will not give him a snake, will he? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!
“In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 7:7-12)

How can it be that we will receive anything we ask for and have every door opened for us? That is surely not the common experience. Yet people take the passage at its face value. However, Paul brought a fresh perspective to it:

Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-9)

This suggests that inner peace—the peace of God—is God’s answer to our prayers. Should we expect something different? Something measurable? Something specific? We believe that if our prayer for something specific is not answered, it is only because we don’t have enough faith, we are unwilling to sacrifice enough, we are not praying long and hard enough.

Donald: We are admonished to be as little children in our journey with Christ. What does one tell one’s own children about prayer? That it is just talking with Jesus? We tend to chuckle when a child prays a childish prayer, and tend to be surprised when one prays a “meaningful” prayer. What do we teach our children about the content of prayer?

Jay: We seem to think that our prayers can influence the will of God, implying thereby that we know something God doesn’t and can get Him to change His mind. Scripture seems to induce an “ask” mentality in people by suggesting that they can get it if they ask hard enough. But how can one reconcile the inherent contradiction in a human faith so great that it can change the mind of God?

I would propose that the product of prayer is the acceptance of God’s will over one’s own will. How can God refuse anything that aligns with His will? To me, faith is the acknowledgment of one’s inability to understand and control God; therefore, a faithful prayer is a prayer that God’s will be done—which is how the Lord’s Prayer opens. How can God not answer that prayer—how can He refuse to let His will be done? This is the prayer that will always be answered.

Robin: We always receive an answer to prayer. Scripture has many examples. Hezekiah prayed to change God’s mind, with bad results. On the other hand, the Importunate Widow’s persistence paid off with the unjust judge, implying that powerful minds could be changed. This tells us that God will decide with the best answer even if we can’t understand it. We can’t fully understand Him, so we can’t fully understand all His answers until we see Him face-to-face.

Mikiko: The Ruler of the universe is deeply interested in you and wants you to tell Him about how you feel and about your problems. Prayer helps us to have a close friendship with Jehovah. When friends regularly talk to each other about their thoughts, concerns, and feelings, their friendship grows stronger. It’s similar with prayer to Jehovah. Through the Bible, He has shared His thoughts and feelings with you, and He tells you what He will do in the future. You can share even your deepest feelings with Him by talking to Him regularly. As you do this, your friendship with Jehovah will grow much stronger. (See James 4:8.)

“Jehovah is near to all those calling on him, to all who call on him in truth. He satisfies the desire of those who fear him; he hears their cry for help, and he rescues them.” (Psalm 145:18, 19)

Don: My concern is with the end product of prayer. As a surgeon, I see sick people every day. Illness does strange things to people. Religious people who become ill become sceptical when they don’t seem to receive answers to their prayers. They tend not to see illness as the result of natural causes. Most people who fall ill want to see some kind of meaning in it. They turn to God and prayer and religious rituals to help them overcome their illness, only to be disappointed and left in a vary dark and stark place.

The problem arises primarily out of the expectation that God will deliver us from distress if we ask Him to. If He does not, then (we think) it must be our fault because we lack piety or faith or have not followed the prescribed rituals or have committed a grievous sin in the past. We in organized religion foster and fuel the expectation with the Scriptural backing of “Ask, and it will be given to you”, so if your expectation is not met, there must be something wrong with you. We tell you to correct your ways, do something for God, confess your sins, express more faith, do more fasting and other self-deprivation, amplify your prayers (hold prayer meetings), and so on.

Nobody wants to serve a God who is either not powerful enough to get us out of trouble or does not consider it His job to get us out of trouble.

David: What does it mean to be “relieved of distress”? Does it mean to be cured of cancer? I think not. My Daoist answer (in good company with Paul, it would seem) would be that acceptance of distress brings relief and peace. Distress is just the Way things are and the Way things are is the will of God. To accept the Way things are is to accept it is to accept the will of God.

We saw it in Fay, through the emails she sent as she lay dying of brain cancer. Her emails bore testimony to the peace and even bliss (she herself used the word) that accompanied her acceptance. To a believer (like Fay) in a God of ultimate goodness, surely there can be no better outcome from prayer than the peace and even bliss that ensues from bringing one’s will into alignment with God’s. It is a beatitude.

O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? (1 Corinthians 15:55)

Donald: Prayer does reduce personal anxiety. Just reaching out and giving one’s will to someone else is a good thing. (What it does to one’s relationship with God is a different question, perhaps.) We probably sense that our specific prayers are probably not going to be answered. Their true value lies in reducing anxiety. This gives us an “out” if the sought-after specific request is not granted: “My prayer was answered; just not in the way I expected.”

In addition, prayer (like giving) shows commitment to the faith journey. Which reminds me: Is there a difference between public and private prayer? We are admonished not to pray in public, but Daniel prayed (with God’s approval) openly at his window.

Jay: We get stuck in the definition of the will of God. The train of thought goes something like this: God is love, a loving God will care for us, being cared for will make us happy and healthy. But the train of Scripture shows many an example of people affected by the will of God in ways that don’t seem too promising for health and happiness. The Egyptians drowned in the Red Sea, for instance. It was God who parted and then closed the waters, not Moses. It was not as though Moses had to plead with God to get Him to change His mind and whack the Egyptians.

That we can get to a point where God’s will results in health and happiness as defined by the human measuring stick is faulty thinking. Humans are incapable of understanding the will of God. How can we know that any and all natural occurrences are not the will of God? Yet we define love and happiness and so on and think we can get God to use our definitions. At best, we see through the glass but darkly, so to pray for specific things is to set a trap for oneself.

Donald: But we’ve all read stories of the lone house left untouched by a hurricane while all around it were demolished, with God to thank for answering prayers to save it.

Jay: It ignores the strong likelihood that plenty of prayers were being said in the destroyed houses as well, as the hurricane approached. Maybe it was the will of God. I cannot know. But it seems more likely to be the result of our wishful thinking about prayer and the will of God. In this respect, I share the Daoist view: It is what it is. Prayer is not a crowbar to force open God’s box of blessings.

Prayer is also not just a matter for the moment, for those times when we need a favor. If we treat the prayer described in the passages we have read as the work of a lifetime, then acceptance of the will of God becomes a more obvious purpose and the outcome of ultimate peace makes sense. If prayer also brings us into a closer relationship with—a better understanding of—God, then treating it as the work of a lifetime also makes sense. In this sense, the longer we pray, the better.

We teach our children to pray because we want them to believe that there is something there; we want them to believe that God exists; that there is something with which it is good for them to develop a relationship; and that prayer is integral to the development of the relationship. There is no point trying to build a relationship with something that does not exist.

But human language is so inadequate to the task of communicating with, and understanding, God. Hence the intercession of the Holy Spirit. But we use language to negotiate a compromise with God, so that we align a bit more of our will with His… and He with ours… to try to get the specific outcomes we seek from prayer.

Robin: God walked with humans when we were created. But following sin, He did not. It was not a punishment; it was to prevent His holiness from causing our immediate death. When divinity flashed through Jesus in Gethsemane, causing men to fall down “as dead men”, they did not die. In His mercy and love, even for people who wanted to destroy Him, He did not allow His divinity to kill them. We may not understand how or why that works the way it does, but it does.

The only way that God communicates with us now is through prayer. We communicate with those we love, so if we listen, we will hear His voice. Prayer is communication. Sometimes it is simple, or desperate, or awestruck; but it is still communication. It does not have to be more complicated than that.

Jesus talked about meaningless repetition and the length of prayer. The Pharisees were too busy talking to listen. Prayer is a two-way conversation, but we tend only to push our side, and not listen to God’s. And we had to be reminded by Jesus (in the passages cited today) that since God already knows what we need, repetition is pointless and it too stops us from listening.

David: To me, prayer has two purposes:

  • To acknowledge the existence of God. Nobody prays to something they don’t believe exists, so to pray is tacitly to recognize God’s existence;
  • To accept God’s will. If we love someone, as Robin said, we will communicate.

It does not matter how bad a child may be, its mother will tend to love it and talk to it nevertheless. (Admittedly, even a mother’s love may have its limits, but that is because mothers are only human.) In the same way, a child will also tend to love an abusive father. There is a reason we will never understand why “it is what it is,” and it is when we come to terms with that, that peace (even blissful enlightenment) can descend upon us.

Robin: A big reason for communication in prayer is to alleviate fear. Starting a prayer with praise helps take our mind off our selfish concerns. Knowing that there is a God of the universe who loves us takes away fear of the unknown and the fear of being alone.

Donald: When someone says “I will pray for you” it shows that they care for you, that there is a relationship between you. But there are several kinds of prayer. There’s public prayer within church, whose content is mutually agreed upon. We say one prayer to begin Sabbath school every week, and another one to end it. They are different in content but they don’t change.

Robin: Beginning prayers are an invitation to God to be present and help us to learn.

Don: The problem is that we generally expect to get from prayer something more than “just” peace and freedom from anxiety and fear. We teach people to expect that through prayer God will lead them from a desperate state to a well state. That’s why people join a religion. If not that, what else does religion have to sell?

Donald: One of the values of having God in one’s life is recognizing one’s place in the universe. Does prayer differ among the various religions? I sense that Christian denominations all tend to pray essentially the same. So is prayer universal? A matter of acknowledging our place in the universe? It’s a little like going to church every week: One senses there is some value in just doing it.

David: What Donald says may be true of formal public prayer in some organized religions. But the informal prayer that Jesus recommended we conduct in the closet (and I think He meant “in our hearts”) is truly universal. I think every human being prays silently at some time (even very often) in life, regardless of religious affiliation. That is the prayer addressed to and answered by God in the form of the inner spirit. Jesus talked about meaningful prayer; to me, this is the only prayer that can be truly meaningful. At the end of the day, neither a lottery win nor a cure for one’s child’s cancer has any spiritual meaning. Formal prayer is not necessarily wrong, but is not necessary.

Robin: When dying of cancer, my aunt prayed and felt close to God. But she wanted to live longer so she could see her grandchildren off to a good start in life. I dreaded visiting her in case she asked me “Why is this happening to me?” but, inevitably, one day she did. I do not have a wit quick enough to respond remotely coherently to the sudden question, yet on this occasion the words came and I answered without hesitation: “All your life, you have tried to show your children how to live with faith. Now, God is using you to show your children how to die with faith.” I think the words brought her comfort, and I am sure they came not from me, but from God.


The Second Woe: Quid Pro Quo?

Don: Jesus not only criticized the religion of the scribes and Pharisees—He attempted to re-define it. In the “First Woe” [see last week’s discussion] Jesus pointed out that salvation was linked to that of others, and that those who value their relationship with God and who are spiritual leaders have an obligation not to burden others with religious demands. He noted that His own religious burden was light. Our obligation is to enable and encourage the practice of religion, not to discourage or disable its practice. We seldom consider that we are judged upon the religious beliefs we impose on others.

In the Second Woe, Jesus used strange language that needs to be explored:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense you make long prayers; therefore you will receive greater condemnation. (Matthew 23:14)

Mark put it this way:

In His teaching He was saying: “Beware of the scribes who like to walk around in long robes, and like respectful greetings in the market places, and chief seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets, who devour widows’ houses, and for appearance’s sake offer long prayers; these will receive greater condemnation.” (Mark 12:38-40)

But immediately after this, Jesus…

… sat down opposite the treasury, and began observing how the people were putting money into the treasury; and many rich people were putting in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which amount to a cent. Calling His disciples to Him, He said to them, “Truly I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the contributors to the treasury; for they all put in out of their surplus, but she, out of her poverty, put in all she owned, all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:41-44)

This passage is usually used to justify sacrificial giving. God expects us to give our all, to hold back nothing, since blessings ensue from giving without restraint. But to me, the context in which Jesus made these remarks about the widow puts them in a different light. The widow seems to have fallen pray to predatory and greedy scribes and Pharisees who “devour widows’ houses”—who did not hesitate to drive people to destitution through demands for payments and offerings to the temple. The religious payments might even involve the seizure of property, hence leaving poor widows without even a place to live.

Jesus was saddened and angry that the widow had succumbed to the belief that God requires this degree of sacrifice as a test of faith, a blind submission to God and at the same time a down-payment on blessings that were supposed to result from passing the test. Jesus here reminded us that there is no quid pro quo for grace. Giving brings blessings but that is not the point of the story. The point is that the religious leaders were fleecing believers to an unconscionable degree and doing so by linking the giving to God’s will, while displaying their own piety in the form of extravagant clothes and behavior. Such hypocrisy, said Jesus, would ultimately result in all the greater punishment.

Jesus strongly condemned the use of religious teaching and practice to solicit funds in church. The early Christian church had this to say:

Now, brethren, we wish to make known to you the grace of God which has been given in the churches of Macedonia, that in a great ordeal of affliction their abundance of joy and their deep poverty overflowed in the wealth of their liberality. For I testify that according to their ability, and beyond their ability, they gave of their own accord, begging us with much urging for the favor of participation in the support of the saints, and this, not as we had expected, but they first gave themselves to the Lord and to us by the will of God. So we urged Titus that as he had previously made a beginning, so he would also complete in you this gracious work as well.
But just as you abound in everything, in faith and utterance and knowledge and in all earnestness and in the love we inspired in you, see that you abound in this gracious work also. I am not speaking this as a command, but as proving through the earnestness of others the sincerity of your love also. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich. I give my opinion in this matter, for this is to your advantage, who were the first to begin a year ago not only to do this, but also to desire to do it. But now finish doing it also, so that just as there was the readiness to desire it, so there may be also the completion of it by your ability. For if the readiness is present, it is acceptable according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have. (2 Corinthians 8:1-12)

So I thought it necessary to urge the brethren that they would go on ahead to you and arrange beforehand your previously promised bountiful gift, so that the same would be ready as a bountiful gift and not affected by covetousness.
Now this I say, he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must do just as he has purposed in his heart, not grudgingly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. (2 Corinthians 9:5-7)

The number one reason “nones” (poll-responders claiming no religious affiliation) give for not attending church is that the church is always asking for money. A CNN article titled “How Passing the Plate Becomes the Sunday Morning Stick-up” said:

David Lee had just opened his wallet for two successive offerings at a church one Sunday morning when a pastor walked onto the pulpit to pass on a request.
“You all going to think I’m crazy, but God says give again,” the pastor said.
The congregation rose from their seats to march to the front as the church organist played a soothing melody. As they dropped off their offerings at the altar, the pastor urged them on with, “God says give everything; don’t hold nothing back.”
The organist then picked up the tempo, and the pastor shouted, “God says run!” The offering ended with people surging toward the altar like music fans rushing a concert stage.
“It was pandemonium. They weren’t just giving money, but shoes, watches and diamond rings,” Lee says. “There were people dropping alligator shoes on the altar.”

People widely condemned an Atlanta megachurch pastor who asked his church to buy him a $65 million private jet. Yet there is no condemnation for countless church leaders across America who have turned the Sunday morning offering into a form of spiritual abuse,…

Quibbling over how churches collect money may seem trivial. But the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century was sparked, in part, by outrage over how the Roman Catholic Church collected money.
Church leaders sold everything from “indulgences” to people who wanted their sins pardoned to holy relics of dubious value. And researchers say that today’s surge in “nones,” or Americans who claim no religious affiliation, is driven by people who complain that religions organizations are too concerned with money and power.
No wonder the Apostle Paul, who built the first Christian churches, refused to take money from his followers, one pastor noted. Paul declared in 1 Corinthians 9:15-18 that he would only “present the gospel free of charge.” He supported himself as a tent maker.

What is the role of money in the church and in the life of the Christian? And does the disappearance of money (in the traditional form of coins and notes handed over in person, replaced by cards and iPhone payments often made online) make a difference in the quality of giving? What is the future of giving in a technological age? Can a church inspire giving without appearing to be extortionate?

Donald: Church organizations have to run on money. There are several structured giving programs—tithing, and so on—that make provision for that. We know what our members earn based on the tithes they pay. Can tithes drive people into poverty? Whatever the case, we certainly should not link tithing to salvation, but how would we manage the organization without tithes?

David: Right or wrong, tithing lends itself to modern methods of funds transfer. But perhaps the (inevitable) disappearance of traditional money from the wallet and purse will force change in the collection plate ritual. The absence of a palpable transfer of a dollar or 20 dollar bill might deter spontaneous giving, spontaneous sacrifice. An automated weekly collection would seem to me to tend to diminish the sense of sacrifice one gets from handing over what might be the last dollar bill in one’s wallet, at least until one can get to an ATM to replenish the wallet. I don’t think the difference will make much of a difference, however.

The bigger question is whether it is defensible for a church to take any money, period. At the very least, should the church not ensure that any money it does take does not impose an undue burden on the giver? How important is the aspect of “sacrifice”?

Kiran: Giving the tithe can be painful but not burdensome. To me, it is acceptable that some of it will be wasted in some way, because in the end most of it is used to good purpose. Giving in that way is giving back to God, rather than giving in expectation of a bigger payback from God—a quid pro quo. The ability to give back in the service of God is humbling. Can people without a church and therefore without tithes contribute? Of course. They can give directly to the needy.

Jeff: Malachi seemed on the face of it to be about quid pro quo: God said “Do this, and I will give you a blessing.” In our church, we say essentially the same: “Pay the tithe, and you can then participate in church.” That is a quid pro quo.

Jay: Suppose that giving money were a legitimate form of passing on grace. Money is quantifiable, so (under the supposition) it would enable us to quantify grace. The more we give, the more grace people would receive. The story of the widow sets this on its head: The rich give a lot of money but their gift is worth little; the widow gives a little money but her gift is worth a lot.

As well, it highlights the individualistic nature of giving: Quantity given has to be related to how much the individual giver can afford. It boils down to the individual’s relationship with God. In organizational terms, we are probably going to get it wrong.

Jeff: Jesus told the Rich Young Ruler that he had to give all his wealth in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. He established a direct correlation between giving (to the point of poverty) and the reward. Yet in many other parts of Scripture wealth is looked upon as a blessing.

David: The widow did what the Rich Young Ruler would not. But the widow went through a middleman—the temple—whereas (as I read it) Jesus was asking the Rich Young Ruler to give his money directly to those in need.

Jeff: Was Jesus seeking to benefit the poor or the Rich Young Ruler in bestowing his advice?

David: Both.

Donald: Add to those the issue of giving to the church to keep it going. Surely there is nothing wrong in giving to a church in whose organization one believes. But it is different from giving to God or to society. Have we defined our terms adequately?

On average, students from wealthy families, who will have been well schooled and gotten good grades in high school, will win scholarships and end up paying less for college tuition than students from poor families who lack the supportive environment that would otherwise have helped them achieve scholarship-worthy grades.

Jeff: Without the pretext that giving to church is the same as giving to God, tithing does not hold up.

Kiran: I used to be solicited for money by many people claiming to be in need and I acquiesced to the point of financial imprudence. I stopped giving when I realized I was being cheated. Once bitten, twice shy. I also realized that in at least some cases of genuine need, a non-monetary response is better: Give a fishing rod rather than a fish. It is easier for the church organization than for the individual to make sensible determinations about what to give and to whom to give. It is more efficient to donate blood to the blood bank than to an individual.

David: I have an Indian friend who arranges for a volunteer to buy 25 inexpensive breakfasts (bread and fruit) and give them to poor people who gather to beg outside India’s churches, temples, and mosques every morning. There is no middleman, no overhead. The money goes to benefit the poor directly. My friend the donor is not religious. If he can do this, why can’t we?

Jay: By its very nature as a medium of exchange, money expects a quid pro quo. But grace is not a medium of exchange: By its very nature, grace is a one-way free gift with no expectation of quid pro quo. If giving money is the same as passing on grace, then what happens to the money—whether most of it goes to people only pretending to be poor, or to middlemen, or is spent on drugs or frivolities, etc.—is irrelevant. It is not the giver’s concern. The sower of seed in the parable is not chastised for sowing seed on rocky soil.

Jeff: Grace is unlimited. Money is not. But the message from the pulpit is that your limited stash is really God’s, so hand it over!

Donald: When we have wealth we may “pay forward” in the sense of giving not because of a perceived present need but for future needs, out of gratitude for our own blessing of wealth.

Jay: I give money to beggars and to needy students. What they do with it is for them to decide.

Donald: But tithes are not intended purely for the poor: They are to support the organization.

Jay: But the passages we are discussing are about giving to the poor and about a relationship with God and our fellow Wo/Man. We live in a quid pro quo world, but we need to think in an ideal world, if we are going to make the present world better.

Donald: The quid pro quo relationship with the church is fair and beneficial. Our tithes bestow blessings such as Pathfinders. This is not the same as providing breakfasts for the poor.

Jay: The motive of neither the tithe-giver nor the breakfast-giver is for us to judge. It may be to get to heaven, to be personally blessed, to help others. We can’t really know. Jesus can judge the motives of the widow and the Pharisees, but can we? Is giving money to the church so it can feed the poor more or less worthy of God’s blessing than giving directly to the poor?

Jeff: It’s impossible for human nature to give unselfishly. We always expect a quid pro quo of some sort.

David: At least later in the life of Mother Theresa, I think it safe to assume (from her documented failure of faith) that she did not expect much personally out of the sacrifice of her life to helping the poor. But it did not stop her from continuing to help them. I share Jeff’s dim view of human selfishness in general but to me it’s important to acknowledge the “odd wo/man out” like Mother Theresa to show that what Jesus asks of us is not impossible, so we have no excuse for not trying.

Jeff: We can’t know Mother Theresa’s motives.

Jay: If total unselfishness is unattainable, should we aim for it anyway?

David: If by attaining pure unselfishness you meet your goals for spiritual development, are you not being selfish? It seems we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t!

Kiran: Symbiosis is a biological quid pro quo that helps all symbionts. Every one wins.

Don: But if one is in a position of religious authority it is clearly forbidden (from the Woes passage we are discussing) to extort money from weaker people in the name of God.

Donald: If we ask for money to buy a table and chairs so a group of us can sit down every week and discuss things of the spirit, is that in the name of God?

Don: Is the collection not directly related to the notion that the donor’s motive is to give in order to get something back? Might not the widow have expected something back in return for her two mites?

David: When the pastor calls from the pulpit for collection, he (or she, in some churches) has no way of knowing whether the little old lady stranger reaching into her purse is a near-destitute widow giving her last dime to the church. Doesn’t the church have a responsibility to find out if its benefactors can afford to be its benefactors?

Donald: The very large Willow Creek church in Chicago used to conduct collections only on weekdays, when only members were likely to be present, not guests. When it began to collect at weekend services as well, the pastor prefaced each collection by asking guests to pass the plate without donating. They also said at conferences that if a donation to Willow Creek meant no donation to the guest’s own church, then the guest should refrain from donating to Willow Creek. This made it quite clear that to Willow Creek, the collection was for the church organization, not for direct charity.


Impediment to Salvation

Don: What role do we have in each other’s salvation? How can we facilitate salvation for one another, or how can we prevent, limit, derail, undo, discourage, or otherwise impede the salvation of others? Are there clues in what Jesus said about the Pharisees in the passage we discussed last week?

Moses was and is known as the lawgiver, as the seat of authority. That seat was physically represented in stone or wood in synagogues, elevated like a pulpit to convey a sense of authority, importance, and leadership. From it, a teacher (a Pharisee, in the time of Jesus) would read the law of Moses in the Torah scroll. With this as background, the key passage in what Jesus said regarding the Pharisees:

“…therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them.” (Matthew 23:3)

It seems that impeding salvation involves demanding a behavior or behaviors—some form of action or inaction—which the demander personally is unwilling to undertake. The behaviors demanded are difficult (Jesus called them “heavy”) and are imposed without any offer of assistance. Contrast this with:

“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

When you hitch yourself to the yoke of Jesus, He becomes your ox, to haul your load for you.

While placing heavy behavioral loads on others, the Pharisees themselves merely had to demonstrate their piety by wearing conspicuous religious adornments:

“But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries and lengthen the tassels of their garments.” (Matthew 23:5)

In the Middle East today, some Moslems wear their beards and robes in a certain way as a sign of piety. Human religious arrogance seems to be a potential impediment to the salvation of others. But impedance is not just placing behavioral burdens on others or displaying religious arrogance: It may also involve a display of social arrogance:

“They love the place of honor at banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues, and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called Rabbi by men.” (Matthew 23:6)

In the early Christian church, the issue of behavior was a major topic of discussion with respect to the practice of circumcision and the eating of kosher and un-kosher foods. These Jewish religious practices were being imposed by Jewish Christians on Gentile Christians. If someone were to approach a Christian and ask: “What must I do to be a Christian?” the response would involve a set of prescribed and proscribed Jewish behaviors.

At a council of Christian brethren gathered to discuss whether and how to let Gentiles join them, James said:

“Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood. For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.”

 Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them to send to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas—Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren, and they sent this letter by them,

“The apostles and the brethren who are elders, to the brethren in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia who are from the Gentiles, greetings.
“Since we have heard that some of our number to whom we gave no instruction have disturbed you with their words, unsettling your souls, it seemed good to us, having become of one mind, to select men to send to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. “Therefore we have sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will also report the same things by word of mouth. “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well. Farewell.” (Acts 15:19-29)

Paul made instructions even more explicit, and potentially more troubling for those who want to impose a viewpoint on others:

Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions. One person has faith that he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats vegetables only. The one who eats is not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat, and the one who does not eat is not to judge the one who eats, for God has accepted him. Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.

One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God. For not one of us lives for himself, and not one dies for himself; for if we live, we live for the Lord, or if we die, we die for the Lord; therefore whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that He might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.

But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written,

“As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to Me,
And every tongue shall give praise to God.”

So then each one of us will give an account of himself to God.

Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this—not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way. I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but to him who thinks anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean. For if because of food your brother is hurt, you are no longer walking according to love. Do not destroy with your food him for whom Christ died. Therefore do not let what is for you a good thing be spoken of as evil; for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. For he who in this way serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then we pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another. Do not tear down the work of God for the sake of food. All things indeed are clean, but they are evil for the man who eats and gives offense. It is good not to eat meat or to drink wine, or to do anything by which your brother stumbles. The faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves. But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and whatever is not from faith is sin. (Romans 14)

Is living a life of faith easy or hard? Or is it neutral—does faith have no influence on life? If life is easy, do we have a sense of unease that we are not living it correctly? If we are religious, if we value a relationship with God, should the path be easier or harder? How does our relationship with God influence and impact the salvation of those around us?

We have seen salvation only as an issue affecting the individual, not as affecting groups. Yet in the passage under study, Jesus strongly implies that there is a social aspect to salvation, a mutual responsibility for it. How can we share our faith without impeding that of others?

Anonymous: I think God looks at our intentions. As long as they are good—based on a loving heart and goodwill—I don’t think God would allow them to be interpreted as offensive. If we are misinterpreted … . It’s what we mean, not what we say or do. God sees what we mean.

Shakir: We are more capable of impeding the salvation of others than we are capable of facilitating it. So the best thing we can do is to stop being an impediment. Helping or facilitating is extra, just icing on the cake. It is better to be neutral than to be harmful, even with the best of intentions. It is best to be very concerned about being an impediment.

Michael: I was at a social gathering recently where one of the other guests, who barely knew me, lectured me non-stop on how to live my life better by going to church. His basic assumption was that I was doing wrong and he knew just how to put it right. Maybe he meant it in good faith, but I did not find it helpful.

Anonymous: His intention was good, but your response was up to you. I don’t know if God directed that man to say something you might not like to hear now but may come to reflect upon in the future, to your benefit. God sees and supports both hearts.

Michael: But I was being judged, and to me, passing judgment on others is never well intentioned.

Anonymous: The judgment that matters is God’s, and this man’s judgment would be irrelevant. God judges what is in the heart, and we should not be afraid to open our hearts to others. Older people tend to be more judgmental of younger people, in this way. It is easy to be offended, but no offense was intended. God knows!

David: Michael’s antagonist seems to have been proselytizing. Pope Francis recently said: “Do not proselytize!” Even the conservative Pope Benedict once said essentially the same thing. Shakir is right: Be Neutral. Let people find their own way to salvation.

Shakir: There is nothing wrong with sharing one’s faith. It’s a matter of how it is done. If the recipient feels pressured or judged, it will not be well received. If it is simply a suggestion to consider something, to take a look at something, the response will be more positive. It’s the difference between sharing, which is good, and judging, which is not. It’s a matter not so much of whether to share, but rather of how to share.

Chris: I agree. Judging is not sharing. We were never meant to judge. We were meant to be a tool for sharing God-given principles, not a tool to use for our own benefit. We are God’s tool, and it’s up to God how He uses other people as His tools. We may be tools at the right time to help another grow a relationship with God. God knows, but I don’t. Tools don’t judge—they do what their creative owner wants.

Anonymous: Faith has two applications: A group of beliefs (a denomination), or a personal walk with God. Maybe sharing is more effective when it is to share one’s personal walk with God and testify to His impacts on one’s life without mentioning Scripture.

David: Proselytizing is an attempt to convert someone.

Anonymous: It doesn’t hurt for an older person to give guidance to a less mature person. The aim is to affect their lives for God, to help them live happily and successfully with God, to have a conscience, joy in the heart, strength, faith, hope, and love. It is not to bring them to one’s own religion.

David: Michael was upset. Could his anger have impeded his salvation?

Michael: Proselytizing and even just evangelizing is tricky business!

Don: How might faith be shared in a neutral way, without causing offense?

Shakir: It depends on the recipient’s perception of the intentions of the sharer. Whether in religion, politics, sports, or whatever, bringing a new supporter validates our belief, strengthens our side, improves our chances of winning whatever game we are playing. This is different from caring about people enough to want to share with them something you think might make their lives better in some way. But you have to be willing to listen to them. Sensitivity and openness are most important.

David: This is what happens in this class, coming as we do from different faiths and backgrounds. We share our different perspectives without fear of judgment within the class or of feeling bad. I would say nobody’s salvation is being impeded here; but I can’t say whether we are assisting in each other’s salvation I think we are, but I can’t prove it.

Don: So the Shakir Rule of Neutrality rules?

Shakir: It is neutral in terms of action. A bad action may have been well intended. Perhaps the actor just did not know how to perform the action properly. It happens in surgery!

Michael: So it’s the action, not the intention.

Shakir: Both are important. If the object is inanimate, intention does not matter, but a human being can perceive intention and react to it.

Anonymous: It depends on the listener, not on the talker. Given clearly good intentions, only someone with a bad heart, someone who judges people, someone who wants to get his own way, could be offended. But those with a good heart will accept anything from you without being offended. They will accept you as you are.

Don: It’s clear from the passage that Jesus is talking not just about action but also about motive and the whole subject of religious and even social arrogance. Any time we proselytize or share our faith from an elevated Seat of Moses standpoint there’s a risk of falling into the trap Jesus referred to.

Anonymous: But we cannot be always alert and sensitive to the salvation of others, we cannot remain unfailingly neutral, and we cannot invariably act in good faith. We are not perfect. And God’s will may intervene at any time.

Isaac’s wife Rebecca acted out of faith with respect to Jacob, but she is considered to be bad. She led Esau to want to kill his brother. She created a big problem in the family by favoring Jacob over Esau.

Naomi’s advice to Ruth to go to a man to be covered by a robe could be considered bad advice.

Scripture shows that God’s will can be imposed on us no matter what we want. So what we say may seem bad but have been inspired by God for His purpose.

David: We seem to agree that there is always some danger of impeding the salvation of others in what we say. But salvation being what it is to Christians—the most important issue in life—then anything that risks the salvation of others must be totally unacceptable. It must be left to God alone. This seems to be what God told Job’s friends.

Anonymous: How smart, how enlightened are we? How are we to know the very small possibility of being an impediment for someone? If I am unaware of the possibility, I may talk with the best of intentions yet be an impediment. All I can do is try to be good!

Shakir: In sharing faith, it is important to be sensitive to the listener’s freedom, independence, right to choose, self-awareness, and so on. As well, the listener’s perception not only of the message but also of the messenger matters. The one might get in the way of the other. The listener expects respect, and without it, the message will fall on deaf ears.

David: This has serious implications for religion. In church, there is a sense of judgment from the pulpit. The church is not neutral.

Don: One of the capstones in all of this—something that puts the Woes into perspective—is Jesus’ statements about humility: That he who is first is last, and so on. How can one be humble when one knows one is right, as church knows it is right?

Shakir: If one is lost and God brings one home, one is humble about it. If we make our own way, we are proud of our achievement.


The First Woe

Don: In a way, the Prodigal Son was not lost, since he was able to “come to his senses” and make his way home. He had sense enough to know that if he did not come to his senses then he would be truly lost. He was able to assess his situation and remember that he was still his father’s son. He was able to reason that even a demotion to servitude in his father’s house would be better than the penury and starvation he was experiencing in the far country.

Is the failure to come to one’s senses (to come to oneself), and thereby to reject one’s status as a child of God, connected with the Unpardonable Sin? In the three Lost parables we have discussed in the past two weeks, the common thread is the earnestness of the searcher. But there is another: None of the lost (the coin, the sheep, the Prodigal) is so bereft of sense as to renounce its owner/shepherd/father.

Another aspect of being lost can be derived from the “woes” that Jesus attributed to the Pharisees. They might help us to identify religion that is false and fatal—religion that leads to outer darkness. I propose that the woes have a common theme of centering religion on ourselves. Jesus prefaced his remarks about the woes thus:

“The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them. They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger. But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries and lengthen the tassels of their garments. They love the place of honor at banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues, and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called Rabbi by men. But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ. But the greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.” (Matthew 23:1-12)

Then He described the first of eight woes:

“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you shut off the kingdom of heaven from people; for you do not enter in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in.” (Matthew 23:13)

In other words, He accused the scribes and Pharisees of making salvation difficult for people, of standing in the way of people who might otherwise find [or be found by?] God. It is a terrible thought that religious leaders, who include some of us, might be impediments to the religious well-being of others. As Jesus said, in another context but relevant here:

“[W]hoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” (Matthew 18:6)

But is salvation really easy? Jesus said:

“For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” (Matthew 7:14)

This gives the impression of a difficult path to salvation, yet Jesus seemed to contradict Himself:

“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

Contrast this light load of Jesus with the “heavy burdens” which the scribes and Pharisees “lay them on men’s shoulders” (see Matthew 23 quote above).

When we consider what it means to be lost, when we care about and are aware of God’s grace, how do we make salvation easy or difficult for ourselves and others? Is the load light or is it heavy? How does it all relate to the Unpardonable Sin? Do the “woes” lead inevitably to Unpardonable Sin, or could they lead to grace?

Donald: Words matter. Actions matter. As a baptized member of the Adventist Church, I proclaim that I accept the doctrines of the Church in the context of God and Christ. At a megachurch of 5-6,000 worshipers I’ve visited, there is a preparatory series leading baptismal candidates toward Christ, and then there is an outdoor mass baptism, and the gateway to Christ for the baptismal candidate is finally opened by the acceptance of a white towel. The names of the newly baptized are not recorded. This seems to be truly a baptism into the body and the life of Christ. It may complicate matters when churches say to baptismal candidates: “Come to Christ, but follow our doctrines.”

David: To me, words matter only insofar as they form a stumbling block to a relationship with God. I do not believe that communication with the divine can take place in English or any other human language. We can grasp divine concepts—divine Truth, divine Right, divine Wrong—only through the inner spirit. All it takes, and all we can contribute, is simple faith in that spirit. We do not have to say the words “I believe in God” in any human language in order to believe in God. We simply have to believe.

Words matter because they are dangerous.

Mikiko: With regard to the lost sheep, Jesus said that there would be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repented than in 99 truly righteous people who had no need of repentance (Luke 15:7). The self-righteous Pharisees failed to see their need to repent and brought no joy to heaven. Even after baptism, people may fail to follow God’s directions, so they need to repent too.

Jay: It seems that after Jesus cast out the demons, the Pharisees were passing judgment on the source of His power, suggesting that it came from Satan (Matthew 12). They were casting doubt on Jesus’ credentials for judging and forgiving and saving people. Jesus was pointing out that we do not have those credentials and that, in thinking and representing that they did, the Pharisees were a stumbling block to salvation. The first woe addresses the Pharisees’—our—lack of perfect understanding of salvation and judgment.

The Lost Coin bears no responsibility. Neither does the Lost Sheep. Even the Prodigal Son did not seem to realize that he was lost, even when he was reduced to eating with the pigs. And when he finally came to his senses, even then he completely misunderstood what it meant to be saved: He came home not to resume his place as a dutiful son, but to replace starvation and misery with servitude—but fed, housed, and clothed servitude—in his father’s house. He did not seem to realize what true salvation was.

Human understanding of salvation and its opposite can never be perfect, because it is a divine construct. The first woe seems to me to require that we acknowledge this. If we think our understanding is perfect, we become stumbling blocks to others and commit the Unpardonable Sin.

Don: Our lack of understanding was made poignant in the Day of Judgment scene described by Jesus (Matthew 25:31-46) in which everyone is surprised. The good were surprised to earn that they had been good, and the bad were surprised to learn that they had been bad.

Michael: Christians proselytize by first hooking people with talk of salvation through God’s love and grace; then, when the target asks to know more, he or she is introduced to the specific doctrines of the proselytizer’s church, and God’s love and grace fade into the background, while church rules and regulations take center stage as the necessary conditions for salvation. They can be an impediment to salvation. But we may sometimes, as individuals, be impediments to salvation for other people even without any reference to salvation; perhaps by exalting ourselves.

David2: I get a picture, from the quoted Scripture, of the hypocrites—the scribes and the Pharisees—standing with their backs to the gates of heaven, blocking the way for others.

Donald: My behaviors might tempt someone to follow me, even though I might be in the wrong lane. The map is important. Even if we all agree on the map and the destination, it has multiple routes to get there. I may have good reasons to choose a particular route, but to claim that it is the only way is wrong.

David: Following a specific route, with its own rules and regulations is burdensome. The light burden is a highway without speed bumps and limits. The highway to God is simply to believe in God, in Goodness. This does not mean that we will behave accordingly. We will sometimes go too fast, force others off the road, and drive carelessly, all the while believing in Goodness. That is to say: We are not capable of perfection. We will be at least as bad on highways bound by complex rules of the road, but when we break those rules, the punishment is severe—the burden of driving on that highway is heavy.

It seems to me (with as little arrogance as I can muster 😉 that all God wants is for us to believe in Him/Her/It, because that is all it takes to maintain a universal preponderance of Good over Evil. To me, this is God’s master plan. If we believe in a God of pure Goodness, our behaviors will tend to be good, on average. Unbelief would be catastrophic, for the individual and for Creation. To the extent that religious doctrines make belief in God seem somehow subordinate to their rules and regulations, to that extent religious doctrines are burdensome and serve as stumbling blocks by making believing in God far more difficult than it need be.

Kiran: The repentant Prodigal Son was willing to be subjected to all the rules imposed on servants in his father’s household, but his elder brother was unwilling to see the Prodigal rewarded. To him, there was a bargain with the father which he had kept but his brother had broken. He did not think as a child of God should think.

Jay: Even those who live with the father, those who live blameless lives in the kingdom, do not necessarily understand salvation. Is it liberating or horrifying to realize that one is incapable of understanding? To human beings, it seems to me, it is horrifying. We need to understand in order to deflect the horror, so we build a structure—religion—to help us in our quest for understanding. Is the first woe a warning against doing just that? Or is it a warning against saying that our doctrines embody all the understanding you need for salvation? It’s one thing to build a construct of loving God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself; it’s another thing to say that if you don’t work with our construct for loving God, etc., then you are lost.

David2: We are fundamentally uncomfortable not knowing. We therefore tend to fill in the blanks with whatever comes to mind and construct edifices out of them. They are human constructs, idols. But we find it so difficult to trust in God to fill in the blanks for us in His own good time. It’s hard to put down the pen when we reach a blank in the narrative.

Don: We’d rather be wrong than uncertain.

Jay: Without faith, uncertainty leads to despair and feeling lost in outer darkness. With faith—as Jesus taught through the Centurion—the uncertainty, and the basis for despair and lostness, no longer exists.

Don: The statement by Jesus that the way into heaven is narrow seems to me to mean simply that it allows people to pass individually. It’s a one-person-wide wicket gate, not a city gate allowing people to enter 20 abreast. Every individual is assessed by Jesus, and allotted grace as needed for entry.

Jay: We are incapable of passing through the gate without His help. No amount of human effort will get us through it. So why do we—why should we—care about our behavior, about what we do? What’s the point?

Donald: If we live forever, will we see God? Why do we seek Him? Is to ensure we are not lost, or that we do not end up as a loss to the Creator? Am I drawn to Him because He is my Creator and has a role to play in my life on earth, or because I am more concerned about my life after death? Am I lost in outer darkness because I don’t deserve salvation, or because I don’t seek it?

Mikiko: We get lost sometimes because we are imperfect. The Prodigal Son ended up eating with the pigs, realized his imperfection, and determined to go home and repent to his father. He received in return his father’s love and mercy. God welcomes everyone who repents. Everyone who does so is promised everlasting life.

David: To be in thrall to terror of damnation is surely a real psychological and spiritual burden on people. Is it a natural burden we are born with, or is it a burden imposed upon us by society, by culture—specifically, by religion—as we age? I personally do not feel any natural terror of damnation, so in my case at least, it must be neither. It is not a burden, period.

David2: In my observation, Eastern culture is much more accepting and even amused by the lack of certainty in life, whereas Western culture must have answers.

Michael: There appear to be two elements to the woe: One is belief, the other is behavior. Jesus called the Pharisees out for not behaving as they told others to behave. If I accept someone else’s (David’s in this case) statement that belief in God is belief in Goodness and that this tends to lead to good behavior on balance, could that conceivably be an impediment to my personal relationship with God?

Chris: The Prodigal’s elder brother was always a good and dutiful son until refusing to join in the father’s party for the Prodigal. He who was lost (the Prodigal) was saved seemingly at the expense of the loss of one (his elder brother) who was not lost to begin with.

David2: Was he lost in that instant of refusal to obey his father and join the party, or was he always lost? There is a hint of reproach in his father’s comments that all of the good things now being given to his younger brother had always been available to him. It seems he jut never asked for them. He never took advantage of his father’s goodness.

Jay: But he never did anything directly wrong until that instant of refusal, which hinged upon his judgment of his brother as someone undeserving of forgiveness, which he was neither entitled nor equipped to do. It implicitly accused his father of bad judgment and bad behavior. This is what the Pharisees did when they criticized Jesus for casting out demons. The uncertainty of what is the right thing to do kills us, at least in the West.

David: We are all reading exactly the same words in the Parable, yet we are drawing different conclusions. This is the problem with words, with Scripture as representing the Word of God. As I read and interpret those words, the elder brother had no loss of belief in his father. Yes, in the heat of the moment he made a mistake in judgment, but surely the point is just to show that he made a mistake in judgment, not to show that he was damned to outer darkness. But I can see how terrifying it would be to believe in the latter.

Michael: There is no need for fear of eternal damnation: The human condition is miserable enough without that. Depression and anxiety are prevalent, perhaps arising out of some sort of existential guilt. I worry about Original Sin.