So a key to a fruitful prayer is the conviction that the Bible was really and truly written to me personally.
Yes, it is. Deuteronomy 29:29 says, “The secret things belong to God, but the things that are revealed are revealed that you may do them.” The Bible is the part of God’s will and mind that he wants us to know. But the way you determine what he is saying in the Scriptures is through sound theological exegesis. But then, once you discern the meaning, you have to work it into your heart to make sure it does become a personal word to you and not just a concept you hold with the mind.
Question 4: Prayer Distractions
Last December on Twitter, you were asked, “Why do you think young Christian adults struggle most deeply with God as a personal reality in their lives?” You replied, “Noise and distraction. It is easier to Tweet than pray!” Sadly true. And we are fickle people. For all the many benefits of digital technology, we are tempted to get distracted from prayer by tweets and our Facebook feeds and texts and emails on our phone. In a sense, we want to be distracted! You’ve already identified this as a problem earlier. So what counsel would you give to a Christian who finds himself or herself lured to distractions when they are trying to pray?
I may have just answered the question. I mean, there is no way around just simply saying: This is something that I must spend time doing.
In the book, I tell the story of how my wife used an illustration on me: If the doctor said you have a fatal condition, and unless you take this medicine every night from 11:00 to 11:15 and swallow these pills, you will be dead by morning. If that was the case, she said, you would never miss. You would never say, I was too tired, or I didn’t get to it, or I was watching a movie, and I didn’t leave time. You never would do that.
And so when people ask: How am I going to get to prayer? How am I going to deal with [distractions]? I say, maybe you don’t believe you need prayer. And that is a theological, spiritual problem, and there is nothing I can do except tell you to get your heart and your mind straight on that.
Having said that, once you determine you must do it, inside your prayer time, it is hard sometimes to keep from being distracted. That is where meditation helps. Martin Luther said that if you warm your heart through meditation on the Scriptures, so that your heart starts to really warm up, you go into prayer because you want to pray, because you want to praise him for what you see, and you want to confess your sins.
Meditation on a passage of Scripture keeps me from being distracted in prayer. You say: OK, what does it mean to me? How do I praise God for this? How do I confess for this? How do I petition for this? Meditation warms the heart and absorbs the mind so I am not as distracted.
So the answer is twofold. You must decide prayer is something you must do, and there is nothing I can do to help you with that. But once you are inside, meditation keeps your mind from wandering.
Question 5: Unhappy Before God
Back to being unhappy in the presence of God: In the book you talk about lamenting to God—complaining to God—for the way things are going on earth. We know God is in control of all things. So when and how should we express lament in prayer, like the Psalmist? In other words, how do good Calvinists complain?
My belief is that Calvinists do understand that though God’s decree is the final reason for everything that happens, there is a concurrence. That is, God’s will and our responsible choices fit together. God predestines things through our choices. You don’t want to flatten things so that basically you believe our efforts and our crying out and our petitions and our actions really don’t matter. According to Scripture, they do. Both Don Carson’s book Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility and J.I. Packer’s classic Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God point out the fact that those are two things that seem to be in tension in our mind, but they are not in God’s understanding of things.
We must not flatten one for the other, or say because it is all God’s will anyway, there is no reason to cry out. God is going to do what he wants to do. So why pray?
If you take a kind of flat Calvinism and say God is in control of all things, then all prayer would be useless. So if prayer is not useless, why would laments be useless? If asking God for your daily bread isn’t useless, why would crying out and complaining about what is going on be useless? It wouldn’t be. So you must keep these things together.
So what does this look like for you? Can you share with us a season in your life when you did complain to God in prayer? What does your lament look like?
When people die, and it sure looks like it doesn’t seem to help the kingdom at all. That goes back a long way with me. The Christian church doesn’t have great leaders growing on trees. And when something comes along and takes a leader out of commission, either through death or something else, I can struggle with that and say: God, it doesn’t look like you know what you are doing.
Now that is a horrible thing to say, but the Psalms are filled with that kind of thing. So there have been times in my life in which I have wrestled and struggled and said: You know, Lord, thy will be done, and you do know best, but honestly I am struggling. This doesn’t make any sense to me.