Emptiness is What I Long For…

I don’t know how many of you remember the song “Holiness” by Micah Stampley (as far as I can tell, though I found websites attributing the song to three different people). Honestly, I had to look it up because all I could remember was the first line of two verses. This isn’t a bad song, holiness and righteousness are things that we should long for, and they are things that we should pursue. God commands us to Holiness and to Righteousness, and this is what sanctification is all about. However, when I was in college we used to use this song to mock one another horrendously. Whenever someone was struggling, frustrated, down in the dumps, the lyrics of the song were replaced with whatever that person was feelings at the time. We would sing out ‘bitterness, bitterness is what I long for’ or ‘lustfulness, lustfulness is what I long for’, and we weren’t entirely being mocking. A part of the reason for this was to remind one another of where we should be. Clearly bitterness and lustfulness are not what God wants from me, and they are not what I should be pursuing. Nonetheless, we often do. In our human hearts we often mistake bitterness for righteous anger, lust for love, pleasure for joy, etc and we convince ourselves that this is the way that we should feel. We convince ourselves that this is a good thing, even though it is clear to everyone around us that it isn’t.

Last night I was at a get together with a large number of very young people. There were a few people who were my age, but most of the attendees were between eighteen and twenty-one. Part of the evening (a large part actually as there were a lot of people) was a kind of popcorn sharing of meaningful events over the summer. We were asked to share what God has been doing in our lives, and it quickly turned into people being chosen to share by others. Honestly, I spent most of the night thinking about what I might say, and as it ended I’m really not sure whether I would have said that I didn’t have to share or that I didn’t get to share. Honestly, and I hope my journal reflects this, God has done a lot over my summer. Certainly too much to share in a short tidbit.

God tends to use the summers in my life to do work on me, whether I want him to or not. I was during the summer that I started learning how to trust him. It was during the summer that I let go of my anger. It was during the summer before I converted that the Holy Spirit started drawing me himself and out of the sins that I was so comfortable with. The summer has always been a special time for me, and I honestly don’t think that’s likely to change any time soon. This summer one of the things that God has taught me is that I need to empty myself. I need to let go of my pride, my self-esteem, my self-importance, my desires, my hopes, my longing, and give them all to him. I’ve let go of some of these, but certainly not all of them. Pride is probably the most significant thing I need to let go of right now. It consistently gets in the way of following God and obeying him. Whether I’m too prideful to go to a Sunday school class, too prideful to ask out a girl, too prideful to accept being second best, too prideful to see the qualities of others… ultimately, something that God has shown me this summer is that I am often too prideful to obey. I can think of two major fights that I had with God over the past three months that were based entirely on my pride.

So, this is my song for the moment: Emptiness is what I long for. I want to be empty of myself and filled with the Holy Spirit. Somehow, I have a feeling that’s going to hurt.

The Inward Understanding of Prayer

Recently I’ve been reading Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God and I just started E.M. Bounds Essentials of Prayer. Prayer is an interesting topic on which many great and worthy volumes have been written, each with it’s own approach, conception, and fundamental understanding of the importance of prayer. There are many who believe that prayer exists solely to guide the mind and heart of the believer to God, and that it has no fundamentally real effect on the world outside of the believer. There are others, as I have written about before, who believe that prayer is akin to a magical spell which the believer can use to force God to accede to his wishes. Some believe that prayer is a simple thing, that it is easily pursued and it’s goals are easily obtained. Others argue that prayer requires the absolute and total concentration and devotion of the believer, that a half-hearted or half-minded prayer is utterly worthless, possibly even that God does not hear these prayers in the first place. I think that prayer is all of these things and more.

Prayer is, at its very core, our communication with God. There are times in which our prayers are uttered in confusion. They are half-hearted, half-said, half-meant because we ourselves do not truly know or understand for what we pray. We are easily distracted and often utterly without conviction. We lose ourselves on a daily basis, and must seek God for any hope of finding ourselves again. In these times, we are told by scripture, the Holy Spirit translates our prayers for us. No prayer passes by God unnoticed. No utterance, no matter how confused or insincere, is lost to the rolling tides of time. God knows all, sees all, hears all, and so all prayer is meaningful in that it is communication with God, but this does not mean that God responds in the affirmative to all prayer.

However, any attempt to parse out the prayers that God answers and those that he doesn’t is an exercise in ridiculousness. Who are we, simple and foolish men, to lay out rules upon God. Make no mistake, this is often what we do. We search the scriptures for verses that support our ideas and desires, and then we make those into unbendable sanctions upon the divine. We claim verses from John 15 or Christ’s promises to Peter and make them into manifest laws that, when we pray in a certain way, God must give us what we want. Similarly, we take verses from Paul’s epistles or from James and transform them into unalterable standards that all men must meet for their prayers to reach God’s ears.

I have found that these issues of practical theology are best governed by one simple rule, place not upon God, but upon man’s desire to define things: God is God. He can do whatever he wants.

There is much wisdom concerning prayer in scripture, and many promises concerning the effectual nature of prayer. However, the one thing that we can see both from scripture and from experience is that God does as he desires. Consider the failure of Paul’s prayers to remove his ‘thorn in the flesh’, or the failure of the disciples in casting evil spirits out of a young boy. Even at our best, the understanding of man is utterly and thoroughly limited, and any attempt to understand the power of prayer must begin with an inward conviction that we are not in charge. We do not make the rules, we do not define the standards, we do not tell God how things work or what he is allowed to do.

Instead, we must come to prayer with a humble spirit and a contrite heart, fully aware of our own depravity, and of the eternal grace that God has laid upon us to cover our many sins. We must begin by understanding that prayer, at its core, is communication with God. It is our conversation with a loving, gracious, jealous, wrathful, just (and so much more) father who has the will, the right, and the power to do whatever he desires with and in us, and who loves each of us more than can be understood. Any discussion of prayer must begin with the inward understanding that our first purpose is to glorify him, and the humility to make that purpose our overriding goal. Whatever other intention our prayers might have, this is the core, and when we forget that, then we lose sight of the foundation upon which our lives of prayer are built.

Then The Demons Left

I had the privilege of attending a deliverance (i.e. exorcism) tonight. It was an interesting experience, and I use the word interesting intentionally. If I’m honest, the only thing I can say with absolute confidence is that the experience was real. The woman who was delivered was visibly changed by the end of the night. That being said, I’m not convinced that the experience was entirely spiritual. As I’ve said, I’ve been involved with the occult, I’ve been exorcised (or at least the attempt was made) shortly after my salvation, and I’m fairly familiar with the demonic. In my experience demons aren’t stupid. According to my reading of scripture, demons aren’t stupid. In fact, I have no rational reason to believe that demons are stupid, but some of the things that were said tonight were remarkably stupid.

Some of this I can put on the simple fact of pride. If a demon is compelled by the Holy Spirit to speak, and whether for pride and for some other reason it does not wish to speak the truth, the only possible response might sound stupid. For instance, if the only answers are yes and no, and the demon doesn’t want to say yes, then no is left, and no might sound stupid. However, this only explains a portion of what happened tonight. Also, if everything rebuked tonight was a demonic spirit, then the young woman who was delivered must have had upwards of a hundred demons in her. The only scriptural precedent I have for this is Legion, and his case in scripture appears to be rare. That being said, scripture tells us remarkably little about the demonic, and so any exorcism ministry must be, in large part, extra-biblical. This was openly admitted by the exorcists tonight. In fact the claim they made was that much of what they did was extra-biblical, but none of it was unbiblical. This is a claim I have to agree with. Nothing I saw was heretical, none of it was sinful, none of it was theologically problematic. It was simply outside the scope of what scripture teaches.

The result of what I saw was absolutely real. I said this above, and I want to reiterate it. However, it was also therapy (again, this was a point made by the exorcist), and I think that which was rebuked had a mix of spiritual, psychological, and emotional elements. I have no doubt that some of the things rebuked were demonic in origin. However, I am not convinced that all of the things rebuked were demonic in origin. I think some of them may have been sin issues, emotional traumas, or psychological mechanisms that arose from those traumas. That being said, I also see no problem with rebuking these things. One thing I noticed is that the exorcists, at a few points, bordered on word/faith (i.e. name it claim it) doctrines without actually crossing over into them. I found this intriguing because, if they had crossed that line, then I could point to something distinctly unbiblical, but they didn’t. And there is truth in the claim that words have power. Not the reality altering divine power that word/faith doctrine gives them, but they do have power.

So, I’m definitely glad that I went, and I’m probably going to join them again. For now I have no actual verdict on what I saw tonight, except that it appeared effective (I want to say ‘was effective’ but to really make that claim I’d need to see sustainable change in the woman delivered, and… well, this all happened a few hours ago).

Communication Through Non-Verbal Exclamations

…speaking of, I have actually had entire conversations (meaningful ones) composed entirely of grunts. I think that this is something that women don’t understand. Nonetheless, the ways that we can effectively communicate with one another are nearly endless. Not only are there many forms of body language through which we can express ourselves (it’s something like 55% of all communication), but a variety of intonations, pitches, etc that communicate meaning.

So, the ability to have a meaningful conversation through grunting shouldn’t really be surprising (though it seems like it often is). It’s one of the primary ways that we communicate with God as well. I’ve been reading through Romans in my devotions (love Romans!) and a part of Romans 8 (8:26-27) struck me today. Anyone who’s been a Christian for long has had a time when they simply didn’t have any words for God. Sometimes we just aren’t sure what to pray for (I’m there a lot), and sometimes we honestly don’t know how to pray. There are no words for the pain, fear, grief, joy, hope… really whatever excessive emotion has led the supplicant to this point of mental collapse… that we feel.

At these times all we can do is groan or grunt, possibly moan (zombie-style!), or even just scream.  We have no words, but we certainly have meaning, even if we aren’t really even sure what that meaning is. In these times the Spirit within us conveys our meaning, known or unknown, to God. God knows us, better even than we know ourselves. He knows when we are seeking joyful communion with him, when we are being selfish, when we are hurting, desperate, terrified. He knows when we need to just cuss at him, and he knows when he needs to cuss back.

I am a stubborn man, and there have been many times when the only thing that got me moving was God telling me to “just shut the fuck up and do it!” I’m not going to say that he speaks to everyone this way. Honestly, I kind of doubt that he speaks to most people this way. However, God knows us. He knows what we need, and what we need to hear. He knows how to speak to us, both in love and in wrath, to bring us where he wants us.

We also serve a demanding God. If anyone tells you that being a Christ-follower should be easy punch them in the face. …Okay, don’t punch them in the face, that will probably land you in jail. However, tell them that they’re wrong. Following Christ isn’t easy, and it isn’t supposed to be easy. It can, and probably will, be one of the hardest things a person can ever do. There have been many times that I wanted to give up, walk away, and chuck the whole Christian thing.

Then there’s this still, small voice, accompanied by a giant hand beating me over the head with a mallet! Not entirely, but it does feel that way sometimes. God doesn’t let his people go easily. However, he really is always there: to take care of us, to love us, to rejoice with us, to comfort us, to guide us, to teach us, to encourage us, to counsel us, to strengthen us. God never stops working in or working through us, and my deepest prayer is that he never does.