Nowhere is this major life principle more apparent than in the connection between prayer and goodness. God didn’t design prayer so that you would get better, even though you will. God didn’t design prayer so you would be holy, even though that does happen. God didn’t design prayer to make you more like Jesus, even though that is its by-product. God designed prayer—and get this straight—because he likes you and wants to spend time with you. How about that, sports fans? God loves us so much that he went to a lot of trouble just to spend time with us. God’s passion really is unreasonable. I’ve never understood it. God created the world so we could know him.
But prayer does change us...
Constrained by Love
The side effect of prayer is a changed life. No, that isn’t right. The side effect of prayer is a changing life. When Paul said that “the love of Christ compels us” (2 Cor. 5:14), he was referring to something that all those who have truly prayed have experienced, and that is the incredible love and unconditional acceptance of God. When I am obedient, it’s not because I work at it and say to myself, I’m going to be obedient if it kills me. If I did that, it probably would. I’m obedient because, as much as any man you ever met, I want to please the One who loves me that unconditionally.
We grow to resemble what we love. God’s grace and mercy toward us make us gracious and merciful people. That’s why when you encounter Christians who are negative, narrow, and critical, you can rest assured that they haven’t been spending much time with God.
We grow to resemble what we love. God’s grace and mercy toward us make us gracious and merciful people.
Have you ever noticed how people who have lived with one another often start looking alike? The next time you are with a couple who have been married for a long time, notice how much they resemble one another. Because we do grow to be like what we love, believers who are in prayer before the throne become more and more godly and Christlike.
Let me tell you something that might surprise you. I’ve preached some of my best sermons after I have sinned the worst. Now, that isn’t the defining principle of homiletics (i.e. sin more and preach better), but it is, I believe, a statement from God about why I am his. It isn’t because the relationship is earned, but it’s because it is a gift.
I can remember coming out of the pulpit amazed with the power of a sermon following my sin. I think I heard him say, “Child, I just wanted you to see that it isn’t your goodness or your purity. It’s mine. Don’t become presumptuous about what I just taught you, but don’t forget it either.
Someone has said that when you first meet God, he gives you a mirror wherein you see yourself as you really are with all of your sin, your anger, and your hatred. But you are also given a picture of Jesus, and God says, pointing to the picture of Jesus, “Child, I’m going to work in your life, and one of these days you are going to look just like that.” The Scripture says, “We know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him….” (1 John 3:2).
I used to believe the “lies” people had told me about God, to wit, that he was angry and that his anger was directed at my sin and disobedience. Do you know what that caused in me? It caused a rebellion that you wouldn’t believe.
God said, “Thou shalt not,” and something in my heart stood up and shouted, “I shalt.” The more I believed what they told me about God and the more I tried to be better, the more I, as Spurgeon said, “kicked against the goads.”
Then I discovered how much God loved me. I found out that my refusal to obey because of my “authority” problem didn’t change God’s love for me one iota. I found out that the only people who get any better are those who know that, if they don’t get any better, God will still love them.
That’s how I became such a pure, holy, and obedient spiritual giant!
Just kidding. But every place of growth in my life, every point of obedience, and every place of righteousness didn’t come because I was afraid of a God who would not love me if I didn’t grow, be obedient, and become righteous. The places of growth came because those things weren’t even the issue.
Love Produces Love
Let’s look at what happens as the believer encounters the love of God and increasingly understands how amazing that love is.
First, love by its nature produces love. The principle is this: you can’t love until you have been loved, and then you can only love to the degree to which you have been loved. Just as you can tell how guilt ridden a person is by noting how guilty you feel in his or her presence, you can tell how much a person is loved and accepted by seeing how much you feel loved and accepted in his or her presence.
There is a section in my prayer list that my friends call my Hit List. Generally, when I start praying for the people in that section of the prayer list, it is with great reluctance and sometimes anger. In other words, I don’t do it because I want to but because I’m told by God that I have to. A lady once said to Phillips Brooks, “I want you to know that I have been praying for your death and that I have been quite successful in this kind of prayer on three previous occasions.” I don’t generally pray for the death of those who are on my Hit List, but sometimes I would like to.
There are two salient points to which I would like to bear witness in regard to my Hit List. First, something begins to happen, and what started with obedience becomes a delight. That doesn’t happen quickly or without a couple of backward steps, but it does happen. Generally by meditating on the cross of Christ, the Father says to me, “Child, if I felt about you the way you feel about this person, where would you be?” And then, second, no one is on my Hit List who was there a year ago. They didn’t die, I did. In other words, something happened as I was loved that enabled me to love the unlovely or at least those I thought were unlovely.
Love Produces Honesty
Have you ever met people before whom you feel you must always defend yourself? By their very demeanor, they give you a feeling that you have spinach hanging from your front tooth. The more I’m around people like that, the more I find myself trying to defend my goodness, my worth, my perfection, and my views. But whenever I go to the Father, I don’t have to defend myself anymore.
That doesn’t mean, by the way, that the Father doesn’t bring me out of denial about who I am and what I’ve done. Let me give you an important principle: love allows confession without demanding correction. Correction takes place within the context of a process, and the process is lifelong, finally culminating in my being like Christ. If immediate correction were demanded as soon as confession was given, I would never confess. But that isn’t God’s way. When love is unconditional, confession is possible.
When I go to the Lord, he always accepts me, he never rejects me or turns away from me, and he has promised always to be my friend. In that context of prayer, I can begin the painful process of self-examination, because you see, love allows confession without demanding correction.
Love Makes Me Different
God changes people, but he doesn’t do it quickly, and he doesn’t do it by beating them over the head with his law. He is far wiser and gentler than that. And he never dumps the whole load on us at once. We probably couldn’t stand it if he did. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t work in the circumstances of our lives to bring us to obedience.
And never forget this: God doesn’t bring us to obedience to make us miserable. Just the opposite. His way really is the best way. Believe me, I know. I’ve done it my way, and I’ve done it his way, and his way allows me to sleep at night. When Jesus said he had not come to destroy the law (see Matt. 5:17), he said it because God’s way is the best way to live. Jesus didn’t destroy the law; he fulfilled it by increasingly giving us the power to live it and joyful forgiveness when we don’t.
Love Sets Me Free
There is great freedom in not having to be right or good. And most religionists have a need to be right.
Whenever you see someone who has to be right, you are looking at someone who is spending more time reading about God than praying to him. They have assumed that we are in a relationship with propositions instead of a Person. When we go before the God of the universe, one of the things we experience is the overwhelming conviction that the world is so big, our knowledge so limited, and God is so…well…God, that we could all be wrong.
But there is more than that. Prayer before a God who loves unconditionally frees the believer from the need to appear to be right. There is a direct correlation between real prayer and real freedom from the tyranny of others’ opinions and our own arrogance.
Love Creates Purity
We’re going to talk about purity, but the danger of talking about purity is that if God creates purity through prayer and we don’t get much purer, our proclivity is to fake it. We pretend that we have something we don’t, and even while pretending, we deny the reality that we are phonies.
Not only that, but when we start talking about the purity that comes from prayer, we are in great danger of defining our walk with God in terms of that purity and then going right back to the prison from which we have been liberated.
And teacher/preachers like me are in danger of returning once again to our weapons of manipulation and judgment, as we misuse the truth that God makes us better.
Don’t do that, and I won’t either!
Don’t allow this final lesson—that needs to be taught because it is true—to rob you of all the blessings of love I’ve shared to this point. If you allow that to happen, do you know what God will do? He’ll allow you to get worse.
Self-righteousness is so very dangerous and sometimes leads to public drunkenness where you confess your deepest and darkest secrets to your worst enemies. Well, maybe not that. But God does have the proclivity to “pluck the feathers” of “peacock Christians.”
Okay, I was constrained to tell you that before we talked about purity.
Do you remember what I said about God’s law? Well, it seems that the closer I get to him, the more I understand his love and acceptance, the more I want to please him. His law is the expression of his perfect will for his people.
Not being changed by prayer is sort of like standing in the middle of a spring rain without getting wet. It’s hard to stand in the center of God’s acceptance and love without getting it all over you. And that is the secret to being good for goodness’ sake.
Obedience is far less important to God than you fear and far more important to God than you could possibly know. God doesn’t need your obedience. He cares far more for you than what you do or don’t do. Within the context of prayer, however, one grows to love and copy the object of love. He knows you, and he knows what you need. He will never let you go or turn his back on you.
There is a strange pathology among people who are serious about God, and it doesn’t come from him. This particular view is that if it is good, fun, and enjoyable, it must be a sin. Don’t you believe it. God is making you better because his desire is that you fulfill the purpose for which you were born: to love him and enjoy him forever.
He will never let you go. However, he is our Father and this Father really does know best.
Adapted from Steve’s book, Approaching God. Used by permission of Howard Books, a division of Simon & Schuster.