We all do it. Most of us do it daily. We come before the throne of God Almighty and offer up prayers we really don’t want Him to answer. We know we are supposed to pray for these things. We’ve been around enough to know that these are the things Christians pray for. And yet, in the depths of our hearts, we hope they won’t get answered.
This disbelief is not something we would admit. We think we want all our prayers to be answered. But the truth always comes out. When God starts answering those prayers, our reactions to His methods betray what we really want. We want the ends, but we do not want His means. And this is the rub.
My wife knows her way around the kitchen. The girl can flat-out cook. And I can flat-out eat. We are a good match. Something I have learned while watching my wife in the kitchen is that if you want cookies, then follow the cookie recipe. Do not stray from it. Do not forget an ingredient or step. Otherwise the result will be sadness and a growling stomach. This is the nature of cooking and baking. The means matter when the goal is a particular end.
A land flowing with milk and honey. That was the promise. When God appeared to Moses and chose him to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt, God tells Moses that He is giving them a land flowing with milk and honey. I’m sure that sounded like paradise to the people. They had only know oppression and poverty. And here was God promising wealth and freedom. Finally, after years of crying out to God to rescue them, to remember them, God answered their prayers. As God rescued them from the hand of Pharaoh, the people rejoiced and responded with praise. Whatever God commanded of them, they did. But something happened. Something changed. The path to the Promised Land led through the wilderness. There was difficulty and suffering in their path. And the people grumbled. Manna? In the wilderness? Where’s the water? Did God bring us out here to kill us? Is God a liar? They questioned the means by which God was bringing about the promised end. And their faithless grumbling was their undoing. Rather than receive the blessing promised, they were cursed and fell in the wilderness. For their grumbling revealed that the rescue they prayed for they never really wanted.
Right now, I sit in a townhouse that I want to sell. I have two bedrooms that are both occupied and a new son due to be born in February. We feel cramped. We knew this time would come, so we put our house on the market 10 months ago. And we prayed that God would sell it. But this is not all we have prayed for. I asked God to make us more like Jesus through this process. And of all the prayers Christians are supposed to pray, this is the one I think too many of us pray without thinking about it. I know I did.
Why is this? We like the ends. To be like Jesus, full of love, mercy, kindness, and joy, sounds wonderful. But we often do not consider the means by which God will make us like Jesus. Jesus walked the path of suffering and humility. Today, we celebrate the birth of Jesus. The Eternal Son of God enfleshed to live, die and rise again so that we might be saved from our sins. Where was he born? Most likely, a drafty cave. Who visited him? Mangy shepherds. He had no convenience. He had no comforts. Even in his birth, Jesus lived a life marked by humility, suffering and difficulty.
Yet, somehow we think we should not have to suffer. But much to our consternation, there are no shortcuts to imaging Jesus. If we would be like him, we must walk His path. Humility comes before honor. Suffering comes before glory. It is the way of the Father.
The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:16-17, ESV)
We want the Promised Land without the wilderness. We want the milk and honey without first tasting the manna. We want Jesus without the cross because we would rather not bear our own. It is why we pray prayers we do not mean. Thankfully, even though God sees through our half-hearted prayers, He still answers them as if we meant it. Affliction shows up at our door and does his work (1). Sin bubbles to the surface. Sin we had no idea was there. What will we do with it? Will we bring our sin to Jesus so He can kill it? Or will we respond like the wilderness generation and be killed by our sin? Will we grumble as Affliction begins his rehab project or with our eyes firmly fixed on the end, rejoice in the means? The early church rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer for the name of Jesus. Why? Because they knew that suffering leads to glory. Too often, I forget that. It is why I end up praying prayers I do not mean. But there is hope for me. He still came. Today is still Christmas. Praise God for His grace.
1 – I owe this concept of affliction to Doug Wilson’s tweet.