Journey of the Magi

For me, Christmas is pretty much over on December 26th. By then, I am ready to see the tree taken down and the decorations put back in their boxes. But for others, the celebration continues into January with the observation of the feast of the epiphany. It’s also sometimes called the feast of the theophany or the feast of the three kings. It celebrates the visit of the Magi to the infant Christ. This year, those who observe it will do so on January 6th.

The Magi are a mystery in the Christmas narrative. They appear suddenly and soon disappear, like the star that drew them first to Jerusalem and then to Bethlehem. They trouble Herod with a question: “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him” (Matt. 2:2). Matthew does not tell us their names or say how many made the journey. When he describes their point of origin, it is only in general terms. His most detailed description is the term Magi itself, which designated a wise man, astrologer, or magician. What is evident is that the Magi were foreigners. They were the kind of people the apostle Paul would later describe as “excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12).

The Magi were indeed foreigners to the promise, but they were not ignorant of it. The answer given by the priests and teachers of the law to their question indicates that the Magi were not looking for an ordinary royal birth. Based on the information the Magi supplied, the religious leaders concluded that they were looking for the Messiah (Matt. 2:5). The Magi stopped at Jerusalem first because they knew it was Israel’s seat of power spiritually as well as politically.

The Magi came seeking information only to discover that they already knew more about what God was doing than Israel’s king or its priests. The religious leaders, for their part, seem to have been caught unaware by the news. When the Magi showed up on their doorstep asking for information, the chief priests and teachers of the law were able to pinpoint the location of His birth from Scripture. But instead of taking the lead in locating the Messiah, they have nothing more to say. At least for the time being.

Herod, on the other hand, was disturbed. He saw the new king as a personal threat (Matt. 2:9). Herod was an insecure ruler famous for his jealousy and cruelty. Although he urged the Magi to search carefully for the child, promising to follow later and pay him homage, it was merely a ploy (Matt. 2:9). Herod’s real intent was murder. But God thwarted Herod’s plan by warning the Magi in a dream. He also sent an angel to Joseph to tell him to flee to Egypt (Matt. 2:12–14). Jesus, Mary, and Joseph escaped, but the sons of Bethlehem did not. When Herod realized that the Magi had outwitted him, he ordered all the male children in Bethlehem and its vicinity aged two and under to be killed (Matt. 2:16).

Matthew says that the Bethlehem massacre fulfilled the words of the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more” (Matt. 2:18; cf. Jer. 31:15). This quote is proof that God was not taken by surprise. He did not need a contingency plan when Herod and the religious leaders refused to cooperate with His agenda. Indeed, Jeremiah’s prophecy indicates that they were playing into God’s hands even in their resistance.

Does this part of the story have a happy ending or not? It is hard for us to tell. Herod’s bloody rage introduces a somber note into the Christmas narrative, reminding us that not all is starlight and wonder. There is also blood. Bethlehem’s massacre is evidence of the two kingdoms at work in the narrative, just as they are in the world. One is a realm of light and life. The other is a kingdom of darkness and death. However, the death of the sons of Bethlehem was more than the aftershock of Herod’s jealous anger. It foreshadowed a greater casualty that was yet to come. This child, the object of Herod’s rage, escapes. But only for the moment. Before Jesus has worked any miracle or spoken a word, the cross is already looming on His horizon. A stanza in a popular Christmas carol, “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” alludes to this:

Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume

breathes a life of gathering gloom;

sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,

sealed in the stone-cold tomb.

The battle that swirled around Jesus in infancy will follow Him into adulthood. The religious leaders who were silent when Herod attempted to kill Jesus by slaying the children of Bethlehem will eventually speak up and demand that Pontius Pilate finish the job. An angel will come to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, but not to deliver Him from death. This man will be handed over to His enemies “by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge,” and with the help of wicked men, those enemies will put Him to death by nailing Him to a cross (Acts 2:23).

The good news, which is also the gospel, is that this is not how the story ends. Peter tells the rest of the tale in his sermon on the day of Pentecost: “But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him” (Acts 2:24). It is often said that Jesus was born to die, but this is not exactly right. Jesus was born to die for us and then to live again.

God is not responsible for evil but He is not a hostage to it either.

It’s true that Herod’s brutality introduces a discordant note into the Christmas story. Still, it also provides us with a needed reality check that serves as a good reminder now that the holiday is over. We exhaust ourselves in our attempt to create the perfect atmosphere during Christmas. We tell ourselves that we are only doing this to make the holiday pleasant. But is it possible that we are instead trying to convince ourselves that we can have a different kind of life? We want the fairy tale life we have seen in holiday movies or the ideal life we think we should have had. Why can’t our family be nicer and our friends friendlier? Is it too much to ask that we might have the kind of life we have always dreamed of for at least one day a year? We find our attempts to get into the season’s spirit spoiled by the ruts and hollows that mar the landscape of our lives. Those ruts and hollows will follow us into the new year. An empty chair at the table will remind us how death or illness has become an uninvited guest in our home. Simple boredom will creep in. The pandemic will continue to trouble us, at least for a while.

The journey of redemption includes evil as well as good. This is not only true of the stories we read in the Bible; it is true in our daily life. God is not responsible for the evil, but the story of the Magi reminds us that He is not a hostage to it either. The Bible reveals that redemption is a drama unfolding along two storylines. The first begins with Adam and descends into disobedience and decay. The second storyline issues from God’s promise in the garden that the woman’s offspring would crush the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15). These two intersect at the place where the Magi’s quest finally comes to rest. After leaving Herod, the Magi were overjoyed to discover that the star had reappeared. They followed it until they came to the house where the child was. When they saw Jesus, they bowed down and worshipped. The journey of the Magi ends where ours begins.

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REMYTHOLOGIZING CHRISTMAS: Why it’s Better to Wonder as We Wander

It’s that time of year when we tell the story of Christ’s Nativity. Then someone writes an article, publishes a book, or posts an exposé on social media telling us that everything we thought we knew about the old, old story is wrong. Yesterday, I saw one in my newsfeed shouting that Jesus’ family wasn’t poor after all. Joseph was a skilled tradesman who could afford to rent the stable because the inn was full. According to the retelling, it turns out that the stable wasn’t as rude and bare as the songs say. It was clean and private. I think it had wifi too.

Here is the way the new story goes. It was not in the bleak midwinter when “frosty wind made moan” but sometime in the spring. The star was not actually a star but a comet or a conjunction of planets or maybe swamp gas. The shepherds were not poor outcasts but more like gentlemen farmers who were well-heeled and highly thought of by the people. The three kings of the orient weren’t three in number and probably weren’t from the orient either. After a while, we begin to wonder if we can recognize the story at all.

There is a long tradition of this sort of thing going back before the days of the Internet. Some of the earliest deconstruction of the Christmas narrative was done by opponents of Christianity, like the second-century Greek philosopher Celsus. He claimed that Jesus was not born of a virgin but resulted from Mary’s adulterous affair with a Roman soldier. Of course, not all the demythologizing of the Nativity springs from a desire to debunk. Often, it is an attempt to clarify vague or absent details from the Gospels’ accounts.

Admittedly, there are some elements to the story, as we have heard and sung it, that are traditional, if not legendary. “The New Testament provides no precise information concerning the year, the month, or the day of the Nativity,” New Testament scholar F. F. Bruce points out. He notes that it is unlikely that the Magi brought their gifts to the stable, observing that they must have arrived after Jesus was presented at the temple. Otherwise, Joseph and Mary would not have been justified in sacrificing a pair of doves, the offering that Leviticus 12:8 prescribes for the poor who cannot afford a lamb (cf. Luke 2:22–24). The Gospels don’t say how many Magi there were. The number three probably comes from Matthew’s mention that they brought three gifts: gold, incense, and myrrh (Matt. 2:11). All of which raises two questions. First, why did such details creep into our telling of the story in the first place? And, second, what is wrong with correcting such errors?

As to the first question, the legendary content arose for various reasons. Primarily, it results from a well-intentioned desire to fill in the gaps. Although the Gospels included historical details, like the time frame during which Caesar Augustus issued his census decree or the fact that the Magi came from the east, their accounts are marvelously spare. There is much we would like to know that they don’t say. Sometimes, creative license motivates us to fill in the missing details. We want to tell this story the way we tell other stories. What do the characters look like? What are their names? So we draw inferences, seek clues, or simply make things up. Usually, the added details are small, like the number of the Magi. Occasionally, there may even be a warrant in the text for our addition. We tie the star in Numbers 24:17 to the rulers who come to the light in Isaiah 60:3 and conclude that the Magi were kings. We read of three gifts and decide they must have been three in number.

The second question is harder to answer. Is there anything wrong with demythologizing the Christmas narrative? I think the answer must be both no and yes. On the one hand, who can criticize a desire to maintain the integrity of the biblical account as it appears in the Scriptures? “Do not go beyond what is written,” Paul says in 1 Corinthians 4:6. He is talking about pride, but the warning also seems applicable here. It is always a bad idea to try and improve the biblical text. Unfortunately, our tendency to demythologize the Christmas narrative is not always driven by a passion for historical integrity or textual accuracy. Sometimes it is merely the academic equivalent to clickbait. It is an unfortunate fact of academic life that young scholars who are trying to make their bones must say something startling to get attention and often a job.

The same is true for people like me, who write books and post blogs. The rule is publish or perish for both parties, and the best way to get published is by saying something that will amaze and even agitate. In biblical studies, this often becomes a “new” understanding that is supposed to restore the original meaning to the old text. Yet, for some reason, the new “original” meaning always seems to overthrow the traditional view while somehow miraculously corresponding to modern thinking. What God always intended somehow always turns out to be what we already think or value.

This clamor for attention combined with the temptation to co-opt the biblical narrative for our own agenda has a debilitating effect on the Christmas story. Its effect upon us as worshippers is even worse. It leaves us skeptical and cynical—the modern compulsion to demythologize leeches the wonder from the Nativity story. What is more, what we are doing is not even true demythologizing. We are merely replacing old speculations with new ones.

On the other hand, saying we ought to remythologize the Christmas story might be viewed as its own kind of clickbait. It may sound like I suggest that we cast history aside and turn to legend. I do not. I am using myth in the sense that G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis did to refer to real events that echo the themes of the myths of old. “We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology,” Lewis wrote. “We must not be nervous about ‘parallels’ and ‘Pagan Christs’: they ought to be there–it would be a stumbling block if they weren’t.” I will grant there is some danger in using a term like myth in connection with the historical fact of Christ’s birth. Maybe we cannot see beyond the ordinary sense of the word. If so, then throw it out. The point is not the vocabulary we use to speak of these events but how we see them.

How should we see them? I think G. K. Chesterton provides a good answer when he describes the approach of Thomas Aquinas to the relationship between Revelation and Reason. “His argument for Revelation is not an argument against Reason; but it is an argument for Revelation,” Chesterton observes. “The conclusion he draws from it is that men must receive the highest moral truths in a miraculous manner; or most men would not receive them at all.”

Men must receive the highest moral truths in a miraculous manner or most men would not receive them at all.

G. K. Chesterton

Chesterton’s language captures the essence of the Bible’s account of Christ’s birth. It is moral truth delivered in a miraculous manner. The Nativity of Christ is not a myth. It is a miracle. The gaps in historical detail make little difference. It hardly matters whether there were three Magi or thirty. It does not even matter whether we know the actual date when Christ was born. All we need to know is made clear enough by the account we have, even though it is spare at points. That is, “when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law” (Gal. 5:4–5).

At that point, God didn’t just enter a story. He entered history as a human being by taking on flesh and being born of a virgin. His coming was announced with signs. Angels proclaimed his arrival to shepherds who saw Him lying in the manger. Magi traveled from the east following a star to pay homage to Him and present gifts. Herod, taken by surprise by His sudden arrival, plotted to murder the child and slaughtered the children of Bethlehem. Joseph took the child and His mother and escaped to Egypt and after the death of Herod returned to their home in Nazareth. Scripture records these facts, along with the wonder that accompanied them. Where the Christmas story is concerned, we do not need to be afraid of the scrutiny of legitimate history. Nor do we need to turn to legend to stoke our wonder. The biblical account requires neither demythologizing nor embellishing. It is perfect as it stands.

What Mary Knew

When I was a boy I thought I heard angels sing. I was in my bedroom at the time and the sound seemed to come from a distance. I was perplexed by what I heard. When I opened the bedroom window the music grew louder. I thought I could see a heavenly glow beyond the rooftop of the house next door. The fact that Christmas was approaching was the clincher for me. It had to be a heavenly choir of angels jubilating over the birth of the Christ child. There could be no other explanation.

Actually, it turns out that there was a more mundane explanation for the phenomenon. Someone was selling Christmas trees over on the next block. They had strung the lot with colored lights. The music I heard was only a phonograph connected to a loudspeaker. So much for my heavenly visitation. But I have often thought back on that brief moment of transcendence when I was certain I heard the angels sing on high.

When Gabriel appeared to Mary, there was no burst of song but a herald’s announcement. “Greetings, you who are highly favored!” the angel said. “The Lord is with you” (Luke 1:28). Artists have pictured this as a transcendent moment for Mary but Luke paints it differently. Mary is not moved to bliss by the angel’s words but to perplexity. She was troubled by what she heard. Perhaps she heard in them an echo of the angel’s greeting to Gideon as he threshed grain in a cistern and brooded about Israel’s defeat. In the Bible, this sort of promise always seems to be the precursor to an especially difficult assignment.

Or perhaps it was the ascription of God’s special favor that surprised Mary. It is true that Mary was from a royal line. But beyond that, there does not seem to have been much else about her life that made it singularly blessed. She was just a young girl betrothed to the local carpenter. Neither of them was rich. They do not seem to have had any grandiose plans for themselves. Until now there was no reason to believe that their life together would be any different from any other couple in their village.

The details the angel provides reveal the singular favor that will be bestowed upon Mary. “You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus,” the angel commanded. “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” (Luke 1:30-33).

Yet instead of reassurance, the angel’s promise only served to trouble Mary further. “How will this be,” Mary replied, “since I am a virgin?” She was of childbearing age. She was already engaged. How did she think it would happen? Mary’s question makes sense only if we understand the angel to be saying that this conception will be unusual. No man will father this child. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you,and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” the angel promised. “So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.”

Still, among all the remarkable words exchanged in this encounter, the most astonishing were those of Mary herself.“I am the Lord’s servant,” she replied after she had heard all these things. “May it be to me as you have said.” Did Mary know what she was agreeing to do? She knew at least this much: she would become pregnant before she was married and the only explanation she could give for this was that God was the baby’s father. She could not have concocted a more unlikely explanation if she had tried. If Mary was anxious about Joseph’s reaction, she gave no indication of it. After all, why should she be anxious? She knew what kind of man Joseph was. Scripture reveals that he was a man of faith, quick to do what he knew to be God’s will.

One dimension of the favor spoken of by the angel when he appeared to Mary was her distinctive role in the drama of redemption. Long before she was born, the judgment declared to Satan in the Garden of Eden foreshadowed Mary’s entrance into the story: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Gen. 3:15). Mary is the virgin spoken of in Isaiah 7:14 (cf. Matt. 1:23). Her place in the Nativity story is so crucial that it has led some to claim that there would be no Jesus without Mary. Although well-meaning, such rhetoric is, at best, unfortunate. Mary was not necessary to Jesus’ existence. Long before Mary was born or the world created, Jesus already was. According to John 1:1, He was “with God” and He “was God.”

Mary’s distinctive role lay in the fact that she was the vessel through whom our Lord took to Himself a human nature.

Mary’s distinctive role lay in the fact that she was the vessel through whom our Lord took to Himself a human nature. As the second-century church leader Ignatius of Antioch put it in his letter to the church of Smyrna, Jesus is “truly of the family of David with respect to his human descent” and also “Son of God with respect to the divine will and power” (Smyr. 1:1).7 Or, as he wrote in his letter to the Ephesians, there is a sense in which it can be said that Jesus is both “from Mary” and “from God” (Eph. 7:2).8

Yet as important as Mary is to the Christmas story, her presence on the biblical stage is strangely brief. After the nativity account, she reappears only a few times. On one occasion, when Jesus was twelve years old, she chastened Jesus for disappearing during a family visit to Jerusalem. After a three-day search, Mary and Joseph found Him in the temple courts listening to the teachers and asking them questions. Luke 2:48 describes the reaction: “When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, ‘Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.’” Eighteen years later, we find Mary at the wedding in Cana, urging Jesus to do something when the host runs out of wine ( John 2:3). Then again, after Jesus begins his public ministry, she shows up outside the house, where a crowd has gathered to hear Him teach. Mary is seemingly rebuffed both times (John 2:4; Mark 3:34–35; cf. Matt. 12:46–50).

The next time we see her, Mary is standing at the foot of the cross near the beloved disciple John. According to John 19:26–27: “When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, ‘Woman, here is your son,’ and to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.”

After this, Mary more or less disappears from view. She has a brief cameo at the beginning of the book of Acts, which merely says that she was present on the day of Pentecost (Acts 1:4). She does not seem to be mentioned in the New Testament epistles at all unless she was “the chosen lady” to whom John addressed his second epistle (2 John 1:1).

What, then, are we to think of Mary? As far as Nativity is concerned, she has a starring role. But when it comes to the overall drama that plays out in the four Gospels, she seems more like a bit player and foil. Yet, despite the brevity of her appearances in these accounts, we are left with a definite impression. First, we see that Mary was, first and foremost, a mother. When Mary shows up, she behaves toward Jesus like any mother would toward her son. Mary was a woman of deep faith. Her song of praise in Luke 1:46–55, known as the Magnificat, is biblically literate, theologically sophisticated, and poetically rich. What is more, this faith was combined with great courage. She had to understand the social implications of conceiving a child without a human father. Despite this, she raises no objections about the cost to her reputation, how it will affect her impending marriage to Joseph, or about the implications it will have on their life together. Mary asks only how it will happen (Luke 1:34).

These days Christmas music seems to like to portray Mary as fragile and uncertain. In one song she asks God to “hold her together” and wants to know if He wonders whether “a wiser one” should have taken her place. Another song runs through a list of theological affirmations about the incarnation and asks, “Mary, did you know?” The answer to the first question is no, and the answer to the second is yes. Mary was probably young, but I do not think she was fragile. Her actions reveal that she was brave, persistent, and obedient. Certainly, there is much that Mary could not have known about what it would mean to give birth to God’s son. The one thing Mary did know was that she was the Lord’s servant.

Christmas Traveler-free ebook by John Koessler

For some years now, one of the ways I have observed the Christmas season is by writing. I began with poems, the occasional story, then turned to essays. Over the last few years, I have been publishing these on my blog. This year I decided to collect the material into a small book and send it to my friends as a Christmas greeting. The idea occurred to me as I listened to Christmas music composed by Jazz musician Alfred Burt who, observing a tradition begun by his father, sent an original Christmas carol each year to family and friends. As someone who reads my blog, perhaps you will enjoy it too. You can download it from the link on my homepage below.

The Prickly Side of Grace

We have many expectations when it comes to church but one thing that we do not expect is to be sinned against by the church’s members. When it happens, as it sometimes does, we are always surprised. In hindsight, I suppose we shouldn’t be. What else would we expect from a congregation of sinners?

The church understands itself to be forgiven and in the process of being transformed. But it is still a company of sinners. Martin Luther’s description of the Christian as being “simultaneously justified and a sinner” is an admission that although Christians have been forgiven and declared righteous through the death and resurrection of Christ, we still struggle with the sinful nature. Being a sinner is a prerequisite for admittance to the church (Matt. 9:13; Mark 2:17; Luke 5:32). What is more, when Jesus spoke about relationships in the church, He seemed to describe sin between believers as a probability when He commanded: “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you” (Matt. 18:15).

The practice Jesus describes in this verse doesn’t fit the image many of us have of Christ. The contemporary church favors an uncritical and accepting Jesus. This popular Jesus doesn’t point fingers but stands with arms wide, ready to welcome everyone as they are without expecting either remorse or change. Rather than urging us to point out our brother’s fault, we would expect Him to say that we should let it slide.

Christ’s command to point out a brother’s fault is a hard pill to swallow in an age that regards amiability to be the chief of all Christian virtues. Likewise, the apostle Paul’s directive in 1 Corinthians 5:13 to “expel the wicked” seems incomprehensible to those who are persuaded that the church’s primary mission is to be a place where people feel comfortable and accepted. We are further confused when we read that with one breath, Jesus counseled His followers to confront those who sin, and then with the other, told them to forgive the same person repeatedly (Matt. 18:22). We tend to see these two responses as mutually exclusive.

According to Jesus accountability and mercy are not opposed to one another. These two obligations do not contradict each other, nor does one cancel the other out. Confrontation is its own kind of mercy because its ultimate aim is not to punish Christians for their sin but to loose them from its grip.

Although the vocabulary of confrontation that Jesus uses is drawn from the courtroom, He speaks of reproof more than prosecution. The aim is not revenge or even necessarily justice but restoration of the offender. Yet, the conditional language that Jesus uses to make His point implies both the possibility of failure and the probability of resistance. “If they listen to you, you have won them over,” Jesus says in v. 16. We must win over the offender before there can be any hope of reconciliation, and they might just reject our reproof.

The likelihood that our attempts will initially meet with resistance suggests that the scenario Jesus outlines is not a simple three-step procedure. We do not approach the person once and then immediately move on to stages two and three until we eject them from the church. Many private appeals may take place before one decides to move to stage two. Furthermore, every step provides an opportunity to reevaluate. Is the issue serious enough to take things further? Or should we merely absorb the offense and “bear with” the person?

The truth is that many of the things that bother us about others never even rise to the level of stage one. They may be the result of a moment’s thoughtlessness or perhaps the person’s immaturity. Most of the time, they are not even sins in the technical sense but merely irritations that we must tolerate with grace and patience.

What raises a matter to the level that it compels us to heed Jesus’ command to “treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (Matt. 18:17)? It isn’t necessarily the level of outrage we feel or even the fact that we have been wronged by someone. The gravity of the sin is one obvious factor. When the apostle Paul urged the Corinthian church to expel someone from their fellowship, it was because the sin he was committing was “a kind that even pagans do not tolerate” (1 Cor. 5:1). Perhaps the greatest challenge we face in following his example is that our standards have sunk so low that we have begun to wonder whether any sin warrants such a response from the church. The gap between what pagans tolerate and what the church accepts has closed. Church discipline itself has come to be seen as, if not a sin, then at least a form of spiritual abuse.

The confrontation that Jesus prescribes for the church isn’t only for the benefit of the person who has sinned against us. Church discipline has a reflexive effect as well. Jesus warns those who intend to confront others to scrutinize themselves first and remove the plank from their own eye before they try to remove the speck from their brother’s eye (Matt. 7:3–5). We usually think that our reluctance to confront those who have sinned against us springs from a fear of how others will react. But theologian Stanley Hauerwas notes that we are just as liable to be afraid of how it might affect us. “Such confrontation is indeed hard because it makes us as vulnerable as the one we confront,” Hauerwas observes. “The process of confrontation means that we may well discover that we have been mistaken about being wronged.”

Even if the erring sister or brother repents, we may find that we are unwilling to reconcile with them. “I seldom know what I really want, but I know what or whom I deeply dislike and even hate,” Hauerwas explains. “It may be painful to be wronged, but at least such wrongs give me a history of resentments that, in fact, constitute who I am. How would I know who I am if I did not have my enemies?”

What is it that separates the church’s execution of this kind of discipline from bullying and spite? Self-interest and revenge often clothe themselves in the garments of righteousness. How can we tell whether our aim is to win over an erring brother or sister or to exact revenge? The presence of grief is one indicator that we are not acting out of our own selfish interests. If we take pleasure in confrontation, we can be certain that we are motivated by the wrong kind of spirit. Church discipline should always be exercised with a measure of reluctance (1 Cor. 5:2; 7:7–11). Careful forethought is another characteristic. No church should be in a hurry to expel someone from their fellowship.

Jesus’ command is a stark reminder that grace has a prickly side. To comply we need to submit ourselves to the same light of truth that we must shine on others. That light will change our view so that we can no longer approach the offender from the moral high ground but must come to them as a companion and peer. And even if things go badly and we find that we must treat the offender like an outsider, we do so in the hope that we will once more be able to call them friend.

Bright Lights in an Age of Complaint

Some centuries have cooler names than others. Historian Will Durant labeled the Reformation period “the age of faith” and called the 18th century “the age of reason.” Lately, I have been wondering what historians will want to call this century, and I think a good candidate might be “the age of complaint.” 

The thought came to me the other day when I read Philippians 2:14, saying that we are to do all things “without grumbling or arguing.” I am not sure that I could find a directive in Scripture that is more out of step with the spirit of the current era. As proof, I submit the ubiquitous and generally disingenuous phrase, “I don’t know who needs to hear this but. . .” It is one that often shows up in Christian posts on social media. I don’t know who needs to hear this, but most of the time, the person who uses this phrase knows exactly who they think needs to hear what they are about to say. 

On the surface, Paul’s admonition that Christians should distance themselves from grumbling seems a bit trivial, coming on the heels of his stirring description of Christ’s descent into humility in verses 5–11 of the same chapter. It is as if, after urging us to make the effort climb to a great height because of the vista it affords, the apostle uses the occasion to draw our attention to some relatively insignificant blemish on the horizon, say a gas station or fast-food restaurant. What he points out is ugly, but is it really so serious as all that?

Given the magnitude of Christ’s example, we might have expected Paul to set our sights higher by urging us to a greater level of sacrifice. He might have asked us to meditate on the possibility of martyrdom or spoken of some great act of surrender or sacrifice. Give up your kidney. Sell yourself into slavery to preach the gospel to the heathen. Something like that. Instead, the admonition Paul leaves us with is the rough equivalent of a warning nearly every parent has had to give when taking the family on a long trip in the car: “Stop arguing with your brother. Don’t make me come back there.”

Not only are grumbling and arguing commonplace occurrences in everyday life. They are now a source of popular amusement, thanks to social media. As long as they do not direct it at us, we find the expressed contempt of friends and strangers immensely entertaining, second only to the articulation of our own dismay at the stupidity and wrong-headedness of others.

Censoriousness is no longer a character flaw. It is treated as a virtue, especially on social media, where our observations compete with one another for the audience’s attention. We do not feel that we have done our job until we have driven a stake through the heart of our opponent’s argument. The sharper the comment, the greater its sticking power. It is even better if we can express the sentiment with the cynic’s half-smile.

There is, however, an unsettling subtext to the apostle’s command in Philippians 2:14 that deconstructs our utopian fantasy of what we should expect from church life. When Paul tells us that we must do everything without grumbling or arguing, he implies that others in the church will provide many opportunities to do those very things. Tertullian, the second-century church father from Carthage, wrote that observers of the early Christians marveled at what they saw. “It is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us,” Tertullian wrote. “‘See how they love one another,’ they say, for they themselves are animated by mutual hatred; how they are ready even to die for one another, they say, for they themselves will sooner put to death.”

See how they irritate one another.

Paul’s directive to stop grumbling provides a necessary counterpoint that helps us understand the true nature of the love Tertullian’s quote describes. Those early pagans made their observations from the outside. They saw the behavior of Christians after grace and the gospel had done their work. Beyond their vision was the underworking of the flesh that created the occasion for those remarkable acts of love. If they had looked at the same deeds from that perspective, they might just as truthfully have declared, “See how they irritate one another.”

Another clue that the experience of mutual irritation is the field in which the Spirit sows the seeds of Christian love is found in those New Testament commands, which tell believers that they are to “bear with” each other (Eph. 4:2; Col. 3:13; cf. Rom. 15:1). The elegance of this phrase does not do justice to the experience it describes, and it would perhaps be more honest to translate the command “put up with” one another. Such language signals that Christian fellowship is as liable to be an act of endurance as it is a love feast. Indeed, the frequency with which Paul speaks about the church’s relational difficulties in his letters gives one the impression that Christian fellowship is primarily the practice of enduring the company of those who would otherwise be unlikely companions. In his poem The Death of the Hired Hand, Robert Frost defines a home as “the place where, when you have to go there, They have to take you in,” In the same poem, he also proposes an alternate definition when he says that home is,  “Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.” It strikes me that we could say the same about the church.

Throughout its history, the church has struggled with two related problems where community standards are concerned. On the one hand, it has often veered in the direction of perfectionism. Perfectionism, in turn, inevitably leads to hyperbole. When I say that the church has veered in the direction of perfectionism, I do not mean that it reaches a state of perfection on this side of eternity or even necessarily makes a serious attempt to do so. Rather, it is a habit of one-sided expectation. We make demands of others that we do not require for ourselves. When the church slips into perfectionism, it falls into a state of mutual disappointment.

We used to call this Pharisaism–the hypocritical practice of expecting more from others than ourselves. According to Jesus, the chief problem with this moral affliction is not merely its failure to meet the standard it sets but its lack of self-awareness (Matt. 23:25). Pharisaism turns us into blind guides who make demands of others but cannot see how we fail to apply the same standards in our own lives.

This lack of self-awareness, in turn, affects the church’s view of its practice of holiness in much the same way that over-realized eschatology does one’s view of the kingdom. That is to say, the church tends to claim too much for itself too soon. The result is a false perception of our own experience supported by exaggerated claims about our performance. “We have a fatal tendency to exaggerate the faults of others and minimize the gravity of our own,” John Stott observed. “We seem to find it impossible, when comparing ourselves with others, to be strictly objective and impartial. On the contrary, we have a rosy view of ourselves and a jaundiced view of others.”

It is easy to see how such a view would lead to grumbling and criticism. The inevitable result is a toxic mixture of self-satisfaction mixed with disappointment. We are pleased with ourselves while being irritated with others, and we fail to understand why they can’t be more like us. The irony, of course, is that they are like us. Or rather, we are like them, and we can’t see it. But is Paul’s message in Philippians 2:14 essentially that Christians are irritating and that we need to just suck it up and put up with the unpleasantness that comes with such an unfortunate condition? Far from it.

The church is not a community that has already arrived at perfection but one in the process of becoming. The apostle’s command implies not only the power of the Spirit to control our innate tendency to grumble and criticize, but it rests on a promise of transformation through the gospel. We are to do everything without grumbling or arguing so that we “may become blameless and pure, ‘children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.’” (Phil. 2:14–15). Self-help gurus tell us not to sweat the small things. But it turns out that that it is precisely in the small things where grace is most needed. It is in our small speech and everyday actions, where the reality of our salvation shows up most vividly.

Church Hunting: What People Want from Church

I know a couple of people who are in the process of looking for a new church. One is a family member who recently retired and has more time on her hands. The other is a friend who is moving to a different state. In both cases, I was reminded how much the search process feels like dating. It is exciting, uncomfortable, and most visits feel like a mismatch.

The internet has altered the experience of church hunting. Back in the day, looking for a church was a lot like going on a blind date. You showed up without really knowing what kind of church you were going to find. You might make a few assumptions based on denominational pedigree or the appearance of the building. But you had to visit to get any real first impressions.

Speed Dating the Church

Today most churches have an internet profile, and similar to internet dating, the initial point of appeal is almost always physical. When you visit the church’s web page, you are greeted by smiling faces meant to reassure you that the congregation is full of friendly, happy people that you will like. If you are not impressed, you can always swipe left and move on to another site. No need to go to the trouble of making an actual visit.

But as we all know, first impressions can be deceiving. Sometimes the pictures you see on the church’s web page aren’t even from the church but are stock photos inserted by some anonymous web developer. If you dig a little deeper, you can usually find photos of the church’s staff, a statement of what the church believes, a calendar of events, and an archive of recent sermons by the pastor. It’s not enough information to tell you whether this is the church of your dreams but sufficient for letting you know which ones you should probably ignore.  In this regard, I suppose this stage of church hunting is a lot like speed dating.

When I was a pastor, it felt like the people who visited our church were looking for the congregational equivalent of a supermodel. We were a good little church but never quite good enough for them. The congregation was too small, and we didn’t have enough programs. It irritated me at the time. But when I became a civilian and started looking for a church myself, I saw things differently. In fact, according to a poll done by the Pew Research Center, what most people look for in a church is pretty basic.

Good Preaching & Friendly Leaders

At the top of their list is a good sermon. Pastors tend to consider those who come to church mainly to listen to the sermon as selfish. But it makes sense that the sermon would be important to those who attend church. Listening to preaching is one of the main things we do there. Is it too much to ask that the sermon be both helpful and listenable? One of the marks of the first Christians was that they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching (Acts 2:42). We don’t accuse them of being selfish or consumeristic for doing so.

Next to preaching, people looking for a church want to know if it is friendly. Many churches know this and station people at the entrance whose main job is to grin at newcomers and extend “the right hand of fellowship” as soon as they cross its threshold (Gal. 2:9). But visitors are not dummies, especially if they have been to more than one church. They know that it takes more than a handshake and a smile to be friends. Visitors appreciate the greeting, but they do not necessarily trust it. The greeter’s warm welcome doesn’t carry any more weight than the flight attendant’s smile as you board the plane. At least the flight attendant’s greeting serves a practical function. They are sizing you up to see what kind of passenger you will be. Plus, they eventually serve snacks. The typical church greeter doesn’t offer more than a smile. They barely focus their gaze on you before moving on to the next person in line.

But even if the church’s greeters seem genuinely friendly, that doesn’t mean friendships will be easy to find. A church whose members seem close to one another is often a congregation where opportunities to connect will be scarce. The more close-knit the community, the less interested it is in including newcomers. People who have friends are not usually looking to make new ones, and they may even have trouble finding time for the friends they already have.

Perhaps this is why the respondents in the Pew survey said that feeling welcomed by leaders was what was important to them. They weren’t looking for a friendly congregation so much as for friendly pastors. To be honest, I’m not sure what this looks like in today’s church, especially in large congregations. Many pastors no longer visit their parishioners. The pastor may meet with you at a restaurant for lunch or even invite you over for dinner, but usually not more than once or twice. As soon as you have graduated from newcomer status to regular attendee, you will likely find yourself on your own again.

Proverbs 18:24 says, “One who has unreliable friends soon comes to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.”  The Hebrew literally says that a man of friends is to be broken. The proverb may suggest that the person with too many friends isn’t much better off than someone who has no friends. Those who appear to be friends with everyone often prove to be a friend to no one in particular.

Church size has a surprising effect on this dynamic. The larger the congregation, the easier it is to move in and out. Because so many people in the sizeable congregation are anonymous, it often has a larger pool of those who would like to be connected. The challenge is in locating them and finding a meaningful point of access. Visitors to small churches can often tell that they are close-knit, but they do not often find these congregations friendly. They are like a small town. You have to be born there or marry someone who was born there in order to belong.

Style of Worship

The third priority of church hunters has to do with worship style. This is another sensitive issue for pastors, especially worship pastors who like to remind the congregation that worship is “not about us.” What they usually mean when they say such a thing is that we shouldn’t complain if we don’t like the music. The irony (I am tempted to say hypocrisy) of this is that churches where one hears this sentiment expressed during the service usually rely on their worship style to attract new attendees. The philosophy of these churches seems to be that the style needs to appeal to those who don’t attend the church; it just doesn’t matter whether or not it appeals to members.

The trouble with a preference for a particular worship style is that it is so personal. It’s unlikely that a church can craft a worship style that has universal appeal. People who say that a certain style distracts them from worship are not exaggerating. C. S. Lewis believed that the best style was the one that you didn’t notice. He was talking about liturgy instead of music, but the principle is the same. Lewis compared the experience to dancing. “As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not dancing but only learning to dance,” he explains. “A good shoe is a shoe you don’t notice.”

As long as our attention is distracted by the style of worship, we are not worshipping. According to Lewis, an even worse scenario is one where innovations in worship cause us to fix our attention on the one who leads worship. Try as one may to exclude it, the question, ‘What on earth is he up to now?’ will intrude,” Lewis observes. If he is correct in this, today’s performance style, which focuses so much attention on the worship team or a worship leader, is more likely to be a distraction than an aid.

Location, Location, Location

There are a handful of other factors that people usually consider: like children’s programming, whether one has family members in the congregation, and opportunities to volunteer. But the only feature in the Pew survey that rose to the level of the three mentioned above was the church’s location. This is a surprise, given our mobility. Before the advent of the automobile, one’s choice of a church was constrained by a combination of personal conviction and local geography. For most attendees, church was unavoidably local. This also meant that you usually worshipped with the same people among whom you lived.

Those days are unlikely to return. Nor should we necessarily assume that closer proximity meant a better experience. If there was an advantage, perhaps it was that the limits of one’s geography also produced a kind of reflexive stability. You stayed in the church because you had no choice. In this regard, those churches were more like households than spiritual shopping malls. Worshippers did not see themselves as customers but as members of the same large family. This is the primary metaphor the Bible uses when it speaks of the church. The church is called the household of God (Eph. 2:19; 1 Tim. 3:15). Those who are part of it refer to one another as brothers and sisters (1 Cor. 16:20; 1 Tim. 5:2).

The Bible’s family metaphor is a needed correction in an age when churches are more likely to feel like a Starbucks than a royal priesthood (1 Pet. 2:9). The reminder that the church is a family will help with the letdown that inevitably comes after hunting for the perfect church, only to discover that it has the same rough edges you saw in the one you used to attend. You can choose your friends and even your spouse. But your family is given to you.

Heaven Can Wait

Have you ever wondered how fast God is? It sounds like the kind of question a child might ask. But for many of us, the honest answer would probably be, “Not as fast as we would like Him to be.” Although 2 Peter 3:9 says that God is not slow, waiting is so much a feature of the redemption story that Revelation 6:11 tells us that even the souls in Heaven must wait.  

Nobody likes to wait. Because of this, our prayers can sound more like demands than requests. We are like the man in the crowd in Luke 12 who called out to Jesus and demanded, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me” (Luke 12:13). Instead of sympathizing with the man or listening to his case, Jesus cut him off with this unsympathetic rebuke: “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:14-15)).

There is something unsettling about Jesus’ answer. It doesn’t fit the picture we have of Him. Although we don’t know the specifics about this man’s situation, we can make a few educated guesses. It is obvious that the man believed he had been wronged. It also seems reasonable to assume that his brother was the first-born, who had a right to 2/3 of the estate. Perhaps his brother had decided to keep the entire estate for himself. What is more, it seems likely that, given the circumstances and the nature of the request, this older brother was in the crowd when his younger sibling made this demand of Jesus. Jesus, however, shows no interest in protecting the younger brother’s legal rights in this matter. There are two parts to Jesus’ surprising response. One is an assessment of this man’s false view of Jesus. The other is an implied evaluation of the man’s motive in making the request.

When the Answer Means More than God

Both responses provide an important reality check for us. The first remark is a reminder that Jesus is not at our beck and call. He is not some kind of heavenly civil servant whose primary function is to make sure we get what we want or even that we get our fair share. Jesus’ unsympathetic answer is a blunt reminder that God does not necessarily share our interests. Jesus’ second remark is uncomfortable evidence that we cannot always trust our motives, even when the law is on our side. Viewed from the perspective of the man who made the request, this was a question of justice and equity. Jesus, on the other hand, perceived that it was a symptom of his greed.

Jesus’ blunt refusal to consider this man’s demand uncovers a dark truth about our impatience toward God. It suggests that sometimes our prayers are marked by what might be described as a kind of atheism. Not a denial of God’s existence but dismissal of the personal dimension of prayer. We are no more interested in God than we might be in the clerk at the counter who hands us our merchandise. The important thing for us is the answer. Not the one who grants our request.

In his book Beginning to Pray, Anthony Bloom reminds us that the intensity of our praying is not necessarily evidence of devotion. He asks us to think of the warmth and depth of our prayer when it concerns someone we love or something that matters to our lives. “Does it mean that God matters to you?” Bloom asks. “No, it does not. It simply means that the subject matter of your prayer matters to you.”

I am not saying that our requests are trivial or even necessarily selfish. I suspect that for this man in the crowd, receiving his inheritance was not trivial at all. It was a very big thing. Perhaps he was depending on it. But sometimes the things we are waiting for from God grow so large in our estimation that they stand between us and God. They may even become more important to us than God Himself.

Unequal Treatment

Sometimes God’s responses to our prayers seem uneven. He does not treat everyone the same. It may seem to us that God bestows answers too quickly on those who have ignored Him. They are excited about getting an answer to their prayer. It is as if they have discovered a world that they did not know existed, and in a way, they have. We are excited with them, at first. But after a while, there is something about their praise reports that may irk us. We have been praying for many of the same things and are still waiting. Why do their answers seem to come so quickly? Surely, it cannot be that they have more faith than us?

God is not a vending machine.

It is possible, of course, that they do have more faith. In Christ’s day, it seemed that those who knew the most about Scripture also had the greatest trouble believing Jesus. Faith does not always correlate with knowledge of Scripture or with spiritual age. Some who know relatively little in comparison with us may outstrip us in faith. While those who have walked with Christ a long time are sometimes still weak in faith. But this is not the only, perhaps not even the primary, reason for the difference. God’s dealings with us are personal in the realm of prayer, just as they are in everything else. God is not a vending machine that thoughtlessly dispenses the blessings we want when we punch the button of prayer. Neither is He a kind of heavenly bureaucrat who doles out the same portions to those standing in the prayer line. God’s answers are suited to His purposes for us as much as they are to our needs.

A Symptom of our Fear

In an essay on the efficacy of prayer, C. S. Lewis describes a startling observation about prayer he once heard from an experienced Christian: “I have seen many striking answers to prayer and more than one that I thought miraculous,” this person said. “But they usually come at the beginning: before conversion, or soon after it. As the Christian life proceeds, they tend to be rarer. The refusals, too, are not only more frequent; they become more unmistakable, more emphatic.”

The impatience we feel while waiting for God to answer our prayers is really a symptom of fear. We worry that God may reject our request. What is more, this fear is not without a warrant. Jesus’ blunt rejection of the man in the crowd is one of many refusals recorded in Scripture. But even without these, our own experience is testimony enough to prove that God does not always give us what we want when we want it.

God will grant some requests merely because we ask, as long as our request is accompanied by faith. Scripture says that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ in faith will be saved (Acts 10:21; Rom. 10:13; cf. Joel 2:32). Anyone who lacks wisdom is encouraged to ask for it (James 1:5–7). But the majority of our prayers fall into a category that we might describe as discretionary. The outcome is uncertain. God may grant them, or He might choose not to do so. Even if He does give us what we want, we do not control the timing. Another person may receive the answer in a moment, while we must wait for months and even years.

Waiting as an Act of Faith

Waiting for God is a fundamental discipline of faith. The closer we are to the end of the age, the more it will be required of us. “Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming,” James 5:7–8 urges. “See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near.” The farming analogy in this passage does more than point to waiting as an inevitable fact of life. It is a reminder that a fundamental conviction about the goodness of God must accompany our waiting (2 Pet. 1:3). We are not merely waiting to see what will happen with our request. We are waiting for God to act on our behalf. He who hears our prayer is the one “who causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45). Our waiting is energized further by the certainty that we will not have to wait long, at least by God’s standard of time. “The Lord’s coming is near,” James assures. 2 Peter 3:9 makes a similar promise when it says, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead, he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”

An old hymn describes God as “unresting, unhasting, and silent as light.” But the Bible says that God is in a hurry. According to Scripture, God watches over His people the way a cook waits for a pot to boil, or the watchman on the wall eagerly looks for the coming of dawn (Isa. 60:22; Jer. 1:12–13). Despite what the hymn writer says, speed is a characteristic of all God’s saving acts. That’s because the speed of God is the speed of redemption.

Is God Hard of Hearing?

Despite the countless number of books on prayer that have been written, C. S. Lewis observed that he had never come across one that was of any use to him. Ironically, he made this observation in a book he wrote about prayer. Lewis said that he had seen many books of prayers, but when it came to those written about prayer, the writers usually made the wrong assumptions about the reader. Or, at least, they made the wrong assumption about the kind of reader Lewis was. “The author assumes that you will want to be chatting in the kitchen when you ought to be in your cell,” he observes. “Our temptation is to be in our studies when we ought to be chatting in the kitchen.” 

I have often felt something similar. Books about prayer never seem to fit my situation. They either assume that I don’t want to pray or that I don’t know how. Neither is really the case. My problem lies elsewhere. I have been praying for as long as I have been a Christian. Longer, even. I’ve never felt that my problem with prayer was a matter of mechanics. Prayer never seemed like rocket science to me. You just talk to God. When I became a pastor, I became a praying professional. That is to say, prayer was a part of my job. I prayed publically as the church worshipped. I opened board meetings with prayer. I led the church’s weekly prayer meeting. I prayed for the congregation in my study. And I prayed with those who came to me for counsel. Over time I discovered that most people are like me. We pray, sometimes frequently, but there is something about the experience that leaves us feeling uncomfortable and vaguely dissatisfied. We aren’t sure why.

Our Problem is Relational

It seems to me that the primary problem most of us have with prayer has nothing to do with motivation or method. Our problem is relational. We don’t like the way God treats us. We feel like we are doing all the talking. It’s hard to carry on a conversation with someone who never talks back to you. After a while, a person begins to feel like the other party in the conversation is disinterested. Even when we do get an answer to our requests, they rarely seem to take the form that we anticipate. God’s disposition is unreadable and His paths seem oblique.

The main reason for this is because prayer is a conversation that moves primarily in one direction. It moves from the believer who prays to the God who hears. God’s silence does not mean that He is unresponsive. Good listeners are often silent when they are paying attention. It is true that in ordinary conversation, silence can also mean other things. When we try to talk to others, people may respond with the silence of disinterest, rejection, or even complete absence. But where prayer is concerned, the fundamental assumption of faith is that we have God’s attention. If we ask whether God is hard of hearing, Scripture’s emphatic answer is no: “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him” (1 John 5:14–15).

Why do I feel that God is unresponsive to my wishes?

The one guarantee we have in prayer is that God always hears us. But there is more to this hearing than awareness of our requests. The key to understanding John’s bold and frequently misunderstood promise is to note that to “hear,” in this sense, means something more than to take notice of something. To hear as John uses the term is to grasp the full implications of what we say. God knows both our desire and our true need. He also knows how our request fits into His plan.

John’s condition that our requests must be “according to His will” is not God’s liability clause designed to protect His reputation if we find the answers to our prayer disappointing. This is a condition that implies that we have a responsibility to consider the nature of our requests before we make them. Do we have a warrant to ask such a thing of God? Is it something for which He has told us to pray? How does the request fit with a larger understanding of God’s general will and plan for our lives? What is our motive in asking? God’s hearing of our prayers includes an assessment of everything that lies behind them.

We Misinterpret God’s Silence

We misinterpret God’s silence if it leads us to think that we are the initiators in prayer and that God stands by impassively as we wait to see what He will do for us. The Scriptures paint a very different picture. They show that God moved in our direction first. “The first word is God’s word,” Eugene Peterson explains. “Prayer is a human word and is never the first word, never the primary word, never the initiating and shaping word simply because we are never first, never primary.”

woman in black jacket and black pants sitting on white staircase

For this reason, Peterson describes prayer as “answering speech.”   Consequently, our prayers are a conversational answer to what God has already said. Prayer is a response to an invitation, extended to us through Jesus Christ, to express our needs and desires directly to God. The fact that God does not answer in kind when we speak to Him in prayer does not mean that God has nothing to say. As the hymn writer declares, “What more can He say than to you He hath said, You, who unto Jesus for refuge have fled?”

Scripture is an essential companion to prayer, not only because it teaches us how to pray but because it shows us where the conversation began. The Bible tells us what God has already said. By reading it carefully, we develop a way of thinking about prayer. We begin to understand the one to whom we are speaking.

It is easy to accuse God of being unresponsive to our prayers because we cannot hear His voice. But the truth is, we are the ones who are disengaged. God has spoken first, but we do not take His words into account. We are deeply interested in getting what we want when we pray but not nearly as concerned about God’s wishes. I am not saying that we have never read the Bible or that we have no interest in God. Only that we tend to be single-minded. We do not bother to consider God’s point of view. We are waiting for Him to respond to us when, all the while, He has been waiting for us. We are hoping that God will say something new without bothering to orient our prayers to what He has already said.

Would we pray differently if we believed that God’s silence meant that He was truly listening? It might help if we thought of prayer as communion instead of conversation. The essence of communion is shared experience. We usually interpret God’s silence as absence or disinterest. But in true conversation, listening is interaction as much as speech. Indeed, genuine listening may be even more of an exchange than words because, to really listen, we must enter into someone’s experience.  We have all had conversations where the other party did not really hear what we were saying. Their silence was merely a pause before speaking. We ourselves have been guilty of this. Such conversations are not conversations at all but merely an exchange of sounds.

Silence & Presence

Silent listening is essential to genuine conversation. It is also a common attribute of the experience of communion. Every happy couple knows that the joy of conversation is not the chatter but the pleasure of exchanged presence. The Christian idea of communion is rooted in the biblical concept of koinonia, a Greek word that means fellowship or sharing. Sometimes koinonia speaks of our experience with God, and at other times, of our experience with other believers. There is a connection between these two. In 1 Corinthians 1:9, the apostle Paul reminded the Corinthians that God had called them “into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” Such language denotes a special kind of relationship.  It is a fellowship or union with Jesus Christ. The church celebrates this relationship when it observes the Lord’s Supper, a rite that we often call “communion.” But the spiritual communion Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 1:9 is something more. Fellowship with Christ is an abiding union with our savior. Those who have been called by God and have trusted in Christ are themselves “in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).

This union is what Jesus prayed for when He asked that all those who believe “may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you” (John 17: 21).  He went on to ask, “May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one.” We often view Jesus’ words as a prayer for church unity, and unity is partly in view. But Jesus was asking for much more. Our mistake has been to see Jesus’ words as a statement of aspiration. Interpreted this way, Jesus’ words are more of a wish than a prayer.

If desire were all that Jesus meant, He might as well have said, “Father, I hope that they will be one.” Indeed, this is exactly how we usually hear this text preached in church. The emphasis is not on what God has done in response to Jesus’ prayer, but on what we are supposed to do if it is ever going to be a reality. Instead of a prayer addressed to the Father, we have changed it into a sermon preached to the church. But the “may be” of verse 21 is not a maybe. It is a “let it be” that echoes the Father’s declarations at creation. Just as God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light, Jesus prayed, “Let them be one in us and in one another.”

What does this have to do with our prayers? It means that communion is a state before it is an experience. Communion is still a fact even when we do not sense its reality. God hears us when we pray, even when the silence leaves us feeling like we are talking to an empty sky. God is present when we pray, even when we do not sense His presence. Sometimes when we pray, we act as if we need to attract God’s attention. We feel like a person on the ground waving their hands at a plane passing high overhead, hoping that someone up there will see them. But God does not have to come down from on high to take note of us. Nor do we need to arrest His attention. Although we often talk about “coming” into God’s presence, the truth is that we are already there. Whenever we pray, and even when we are not praying, we are always in the Father and the Son. God cannot be any closer than He already is. Even if we were in heaven (Rom. 10:6-8).