Doctrine of Faith (p. 139)
We have seen how God calls us into fellowship in his family. He summons us to a transforming friendship and grants us the privilege of participation in the mutuality of the triune society. In part four we now turn to the spirituality of our model of creative love theism. We consider the kind of life that moves us toward the goal of perfecting our loving fellowship. God who first loved us calls us to love him in return. He calls us to be his friends in a relationship that grows and deepens. Love cannot be coerced; it must be invited. God invites us to a free, interactive, loving relationship with him.
Once saved by grace, we are called to live by faith, a life of simple trust in the goodness of God extended to us. From there we are called to live in love, in the spirit of mutual caring that reflects the purpose of our existence: to mirror the social Trinity. We also live in hope, longing for the coming of the kingdom and restless for the completion of the work of redemption. Faith, love and hope are the chief expressions of the new humanity, because they indicate the way to be fully human by the grace of God in Jesus through the Spirit.
Faith expresses the thankfulness we feel for what has been given and gives opportunity for petition in the activity of prayer (chapter thirteen). Our friendship with God leads us into a lifelong process of healing and into holiness (chapter fourteen). We are nourished by feeding on God's Word (chapter fifteen) and refreshed by the fellowship of other believers (chapter sixteen).
PRAYER: Conversational Love (pp. 141-150)
Faith is more than a once-and-for-all decision. It has a beginning, and some can remember the very moment whey they turned to God. But, more important, it is a path and a direction. Once a baby is born, it wants to grow. In the same way, having begun in faith, we keep moving in the direction of God's light and presence. Job was probably a pagan when he began his faith journey, but where he began was less important than the direction he was going. The goal of faith is a transforming fellowship with God, a life process in which Christ is being formed in us (Galatians 4:19), a process in which faith expresses itself in love (Galatians 5:6).
The Faith Journey
A person can be quite religious and yet be traveling away from God. In commending sinners who believed, Jesus was really saying that however far away from the kingdom they might appear to be at the moment of faith, they were moving in the right direction, which is what matters. As pious Jews the Pharisees were near to God's kingdom in one sense, but they were actually estranged in their hearts and moving further away from God. A person who has never read the Bible or been inside a church may have a heart that is open to God. God looks for faith in us more than the theological knowledge. We are saved by faith, not by what we know about God (Hebrew 11:6).
In terms of experience, faith is an awakening to God. We recognize our Savior, feel sorry for what we have done and experience thankfulness for the new relationship that is offered to us. Faith makes us free to be human, to give ourselves to God, and live a life of love that corresponds to the love of the three Persons of the Trinity. The path of faith is a twofold movement of love toward God and love toward our neighbor. It requires us to put God and God's cause first - that is, the cause of reconciling and restoring human beings. [Hans Küng has a fine exposition of the godly life as advancing God's cause, which is to advance the cause of a beloved humanity: On Being a Christian (London: Collins, 1977), pp. 214-77.]
Because creative love theism focuses on restored relationships, it implies a certain kind of spirituality, one of growing friendship with God. Remember that Jesus calls us friends: "I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing: but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father" (John 15:15). God does not put us in a subservient, or leave us in the dark about his plans. He has always wanted us to be his covenant partners. Thus there are no "little people" in God's sight; we are all precious and important to him.
Called to fellowship with the triune God, and reconciled into the family of God, we have a Father in heaven who loves and cares for us. Jesus himself knew he needed to deepen his relationship with the Father, when he went away to a quiet place to commune with God. He gave time to this relationship and spoke much about it. [James Houston, The Transforming Friendship (Oxford: Lion, 1989); Kenneth Leech, Experiencing God: Theology as Spirituality (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985); Eugene H. Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1980).]
Our relationship with God is not primarily a legal one. An acquitted man might feel grateful to the judge who pronounced him not guilty, but would not necessarily love the judge or want to be his friend. That is why interpreting religion in terms of imputation and legal justification, does not leave room for loving devotion. When people emphasize a legal model, prayer becomes more a duty for pleasing God than a delight at the heart of the relationship.
Prayer is central to our model of creative love theism because God made us conversation partners. We are God's friends and need to have a heart-to-heart relationship with him. Prayer is a basic expression of our faith. Close friends talk often and spend time with one another: conversing is central to friendship. So our relationship with God cannot be healthy if prayer is an incidental part of our lives. Prayer is an expression of our growing in a love relationship. Those who love well pray well; those who love little pray little.
Many people in our culture are seeking more of an intimate relationship with God. People crave warm, mystical faith, not cold rationality and formal liturgy. [Alan J. Roxburgh, Reaching a New Generation: Strategiesfor Tomorrow's Church (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1993), chap. 8.]
The Life of Prayer
Prayer is our answer to the gifts God freely bestows on us. The Spirit within us stimulates joy and gratitude and unites us to Christ in our prayers. It is God's way of bringing us into greater intimacy with himself. Through prayer we enter into God's plans and cooperate with him in his work. Our prayers are answered, though not necessarily in the exact ways we envisaged. God takes them seriously and weaves them into his plan for the salvation of humanity.
Effectiveness in prayer is not a mechanical technique. It is a very personal area of Christian growth. Christians must talk and pray to God, not only about God: We need to talk to him about the work he is doing in our lives and in society. We need to be attuned to his voice as he summons us to acts of love and obedience. We need to learn to be honest in our praising and in our crying out to him. We need to distinguish between what we may want and what we really need.
Prayer is the exercise of our faith and the key to a transforming friendship. It is our communication as sons and daughters with our God. We are persons, not objects, to God. He has freed us from sin to be his covenant partners. He desires our conversation, our spontaneous gratitude, even our questioning and protesting. In prayer we place our entire existence in God's hands. [Richard J. Foster is a very helpful guide: Celebration of Discipline (New York: Harper & Row, 1978) and Prayer: Finding the Heart's True Home (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992).
The Christian life is union with Christ. It is not a merely judicial acquittal; it is deeply mystical. Paul even identifies the riches of the gospel as "Christ in you, the hope of glory" (Colossians 1:27). Elsewhere he testifies: "I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (Galatians 2:19-20).
We Christians are too rushed and busy. We give too little time to meditation and contemplation in our union with Christ. Andrew Murray, in unanimity with all mystics, urges us to learn the secret of waiting on God. Friendships take time. We should slow down and focus on God's presence and on his working in our lives. [Andrew Murray, The Believer's Secret of Waiting on God (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1986).] We need to wait on God in silence and cultivate a deeper relationship with him.
Because God is present with us, we need to be present with him. The psalmist says, "For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him" (ps 62:5). We engage God with the heart, not only with the mind. As we remember that God is continually with us, at the center of our being, we let ourselves be drawn into his presence to experience his love. [An introduction to the literature of devotion is Richard J. Foster and James B. Smith, eds., Devotional Classics: Selected Readings for Individuals and Groups (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993).]
Prayer is also a necessity because of the foes, dangers and temptations that we face. The Christian life is a conflict and involves spiritual warfare. Therefore we ask God to help us remain faithful to him. We pray, "Lead us not into temptation." Prayer is a weapon in our warfare (Ephesians 6:18, see the context of the preceding verses, 6:10-17).
Charismatic and Contemplative
Recent years have witnessed a surge of charismatic spirituality that tends to be demonstrative and affective, with singing, dancing, tongues and prophecy. It would be a cold heart indeed that does not detect in this movement a release of the Holy Spirit into human experience. The fruit is abundant - praise and adoration, spontaneous testimony and expressive bodily action, an outpouring of love and spiritual ecstasy. Many people are being set spiritually free and overcoming their fear of resurrection life. They are realizing that more things are possible with God than they had thought. This glorious awakening of charismatic experience is reminiscent of the book of Acts. [Charles E. Hummel, Fire in the Fireplace: Charismatic Renewal in the Nineties (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1993).]
Why do some have difficulty receiving this fullness? Jurgen Moltmann
The essential impediment to the charismatic experience of our potentialities for living is to be found in our passive sins, not our active ones; for all the hindrance is not our despairing attempt to be ourselves, but our despairing attempt not to be ourselves, so that out of fear of life and fear of death we fall short of what our own lives could be. The charismata of the Spirit are present wherever faith in God drives out these fears of life, and whenever the hope of resurrection overcomes the fear of death. According to the testimonies of the first Christians, it was the Easter jubilation over Christ's resurrection that released the stream of charismata in the congregations. The pentecostal movement begins at Easter. [Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), p. 244.]
Charismatic expression and contemplative prayer should both be integrated in our practice. As in the whole of life, so in our spirituality; there is a time to speak and a time to keep silent. It is common after the experience of strongly affective prayer to feel a hunger for quietness and solitude. As the renewal matures many are being drawn into contemplative prayer, for the two are complementary. The outpoured Spirit opens us up to deep union with the Risen Lord as well as to exuberant praise. [Paul Hinnebusch, ed., Contemplation and Charismatic Renewal (New York: Paulist, 1986).]
The prophet tells us, "The LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him!" (Habakkuk 2:20). And the psalmist wrote, "Be still, and know that I am God" (Psalm 46:10). As obsessively active people, we need to center in and listen to God. The contribution of charismatic renewal has been to awaken Christians to the dynamic activities of the Spirit. But sooner or later it is necessary to introduce periods of silence and move into contemplative expressions of prayer. The renewal will realize its potential as it opens itself also to the traditions of meditation. [M. Basil Pennington, Centering Prayer: Renewing an Ancient Christian Prayer Form (New York: Doubleday, 1980), p. 169, and Thomas Keating, Open Mind, Open Heart: The Contemplative Dimension of the Gospel (Rockport, Mass: Element, 1986), pp. 79-80.]
God is longing for us to come "higher up and deeper in" to his heart. He would sing his love song to us if we would but open the door of our heart to him. God aches over our coldness, and absence, and our distance from him. He mourns when we do not move toward him. God's heart is open and wants to deepen our friendship. That is why knowing God is not merely a matter of having a new status - it is coming home to the Father.
Reading Scripture as Prayer
One way to enter into God's presence is through what has been called divine reading, or lectio divina. This is a devotional reading that employs Scripture as a means of grace. The issue is not how much but how we read the Bible. The idea is to read only a brief passage, slowly and meditatively. This way we do not merely skim the surface of the text; we begin to go deep into its content.
So often we read the Bible for information rather than for transformation. We may be seeking data for a systematic theology or a prophecy puzzle rather than seeking the person of God. We forget that Scripture is God's love letter to his people more than a legal brief or encyclopedia.
The secret is to go off alone by yourself, get still and listen to God. Read a brief passage of the Bible slowly, and let it soak in. Enter into the mystery of the gospel, go to the heart of the subject, allow God to touch your life. Turn mere reading into conversation as you spend quality time with God.
Prayer makes sense when we realize that ours is an open universe, not ruled by fate. As coworkers and partners with God, we are actually given a role in shaping the future. Prayers are actions that God weaves into the course of events; he takes seriously what we pray for and cares about what we are concerned with. He answers our petitions on his own timetable in his own way, when they are in the direction of his kingdom. He even modifies his own actions to take us into account and prefers to do nothing himself that he can delegate to us or to others.
Christians need to mature in joyful thanksgiving prayers because we serve the Lord not with superficial cheeriness but in deep gratitude for our friendship with God. There is much to be sober about in this world, of course, but we are thankful because we believe that divine grace will ultimately triumph over evil and death.
Thanksgiving is basic to prayer. Even those who express doubts about God and the possibility of relationship with him still know how to say thank you. They may not admit that it is God they are thanking, but it is hard to be thankful to chance or matter or even a creative force. It is not easy to be an atheist when you feel thankfulness coming on!
For us thanksgiving is a response to grace. There is no room for it in the type of religion in which one earns salvation. It arises when we sense that we are experiencing something good and undeserved: when we respond to the beauty of creation, the delight of family and friends or any of the tender mercies of God. The term eucharist derives from the Greek word for grace, and we call Communion "the Eucharist" because it is an expression of thanksgiving for God's love and grace. The Eucharist unites the individual thanksgivings of the community and, by focusing them in the sacrament, strengthens worshipers to be even more thankful.
Thankful people are a joy to be with - they have an inner sweetness that invigorates others in the home, the workplace and social gatherings. People without thanksgiving can be crabby and unpleasant, but thankful people sweeten the social space.
Prayer and Sacrifice
Sacrifices are often thought of as ways to placate the deity to obtain favors. For us they are acts of thanksgiving in response to God's acceptance of us (Hebrews 13:15). For Christians, sacrifice focuses on reconciliation. Since the death and resurrection of Jesus, animal sacrifices have been replaced by Communion, where people fellowship around a table and remember God's self-giving love. But the ancient practice of sacrifice, when animals were offered to God before being eaten, still suggests an important meaning for us.
For an ordinary meal to be possible, normally the life of an animal is sacrificed. Love between persons is also sustained by sacrifice, by a willingness to be hurt. Children only realize later in life how much it cost their parents to love and care for them. The triune God too is hurt in the course of loving us - each person of the Trinity feels the hurt and the pain.
When we get hurt in relationships, we often introduce conditions to avoid such pain in the future: We say, "I will love you again if you are sorry and promise to act differently." God's sacrificial love involves him in a continual willingness to absorb, forgive and forget the hurt of loving.
Our experience of prayer therefore relates to the sacrifice of God. At first we have little conception of the sacrifice that welcomes us into trinitarian conversation, but every now and then we have an experience that enables us to understand it better and sparks a gratitude that enriches our prayer life. Prayer is based on sacrifice and enriched by further conversation that brings us into the heart of God.
In prayer God invites us to share the sacrificial love that he has for us. We talk to him about this in our prayer conversation. Like other animals, are willing to sacrifice for our children, but we do not find it easy to extend unconditional love to others. Paul puts it realistically: "Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person-though perhaps for a good person someone will actually dare to die" (Romans 5:7-8). God is seeking to draw us into ever more costly love. When we engage in acts of kindness, when we find ourselves helping a needy person at some cost and even danger to ourselves, a window opens for us into God's love. Once the first step is taken, we do not know how far it will take us, but it moves us in prayer down the path of Calvary.
Prayer and God's Plan
Some are concerned about prayer's relationship to the decisions we make. They may assume that God has a detailed plan fixed and laid out and that they have to find out what it is and carry it out point by point. But trying to find out in detail what God has ordained, even regarding major decisions, is difficult and can become an obsession that paralyzes us. [Garry Friesen, Decision Making and the Will of God: A Biblical Alternative to the Traditional View (Portland, Ore.: Multnomah Press, 1980).]
It is wiser to think of God as having a perfect plan, but not in the sense of a detailed blueprint. God's plan is a general one: for us to be set free to love. God is not the sort of monarch who has to run our lives for us. He is a fatherlike king who includes us in his business, gives us areas of responsibility and risks our making mistakes.
In the parable of the talents, servants are given money to invest according to their ability. They are not told how to invest it, whether in a train of camels or in the grain trade. They are free to invest it however they choose. The one thing required is that they not be afraid to take chances and that they not be afraid of their master. Had the third servant invested the money and failed, the master would have commended him for trying and would have given him more to invest (Matthew 25:14-23).
Faith involves risk. It is faith in the Father's love that frees us to take the risks of loving, and prayer is the way we share these plans with God. Sometimes God gives us clear direction, but often he wants us to take our own initiative. In the same way, Scripture offers no normative pattern, no blueprint, for governing the church and carrying out God's mission. We are expected to find creative ways to love God and humanity and to operate with the prayerful confidence that God will lead us into the future.
Many social services in the modern world began because Christians began praying and were able to take the risk of opening hospitals, orphanages, leprosy colonies, institutions of education, shelters for the abused, churches among remote tribes, aid projects and the like. Faith in a loving God has produced and still produces a variety of risk-taking actions in the service of others.
Genuine love for others leads to prayer on their behalf. Almost anyone whose child is in danger will express concern by sighs from the heart, even though such prayer may lack focus. Because we participate in a loving conversation with God, when we really care for another person it is natural to express our concern in prayer to our Father. We say, "Father, this is one of our family. You care about her even more than we do, and we pray for your hand of blessing upon her."
We also talk to Jesus about people in need: "This person needs your friendship and support. He is gripped by guilt and needs your forgiveness. Help him to enter into your sacrifice and find the peace of being willing to be hurt in forgiving his parents."
Conversation with the Spirit in prayer may focus on the deep sources of the person's feelings: "She needs your inspiration to see more clearly what is upsetting her. Please comfort and console her." We speak to the Spirit in prayer about issues of character - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. We speak about spiritual gifts needed for a particular kind of service.
The point is that the three Persons of the Trinity are involved in our prayer conversation. God is not impassive but is affected by our concerns. When a real prayer conversation goes on, the power of God's Trinitarian love is released.
Meeting in people's houses was a practice of the early Christians. Much pastoral care and loving service is the outcome of such small group meetings. In this context Christians can readily learn the simplicity and effectiveness of simple conversational prayer. As we pray together, we learn to look beyond a perceived need and discern the need for God's work in the person's social setting. Many people need liberation from feelings, situations, family relationships or systems that hold them captive. As several believers bring together their concerns and insights, they learn to see God at work and leave matters in God's loving hands.
A Family Conversation
There are no unheard prayers. All prayers are heard, even if all are not granted. It would not be good for God to grant all petitions. Often what we think people need is not actually best for them. The timing or the approach may be wrong. There may be a need for delay or for the concern to be met in a different way. Since God is loving and wise, we assume by faith that when the story is finished, we will have received more and far better than what we had asked.
It is hard to imagine how God can hear the prayers of every person. But if humans can design a computer for a banking system that can process thousands of transactions per second, the Creator of the universe can surely relate to each person who want to talk to him.
In conversational prayer we are not trying to force God's hand. We keep bringing loved ones to God until we see how the need should be fulfilled. We may find that since we talked to God yesterday, the situation is clearer and the need is cast in a different light. In prayer we listen to what God is saying to us. We have the assurance not only that God is hearing and responding to what we say but that he is addressing us as well.
Parents talk to a newborn baby even though it probably understands little of what they say. They say "You are so beautiful. We love you." But the child hears only sounds. Eventually distinctions are made and phrases begin to make sense. In a few years the child can engage in fairly complex conversation. Learning to converse is a skill that has to be learned. In a similar way it takes time for us to understand what God is saying.
A mother conveys her love to a child by various avenues. She can speak, sing, hold, hug, feed, massage, kiss the baby. The child learns to interpret her facial and body language. Understanding the mother's verbal communication takes longer. In our model of creative love theism God loves us and is concerned to foster love in everything we experience. He seeks to speak to us nonverbally through sunsets, trees, daffodils, a singing bird, flying gulls, a baby at her mother's breast, children playing, lovers hand in hand, a smile, a greeting, a hug. And God communicates verbally with us through Scripture, conversation, books, films, newspapers. We hear God speak through the experience of opposites: joy and pain, kindnesses and insults, justice and oppression, good sex and bad sex, sickness and healing, the good and bad consequences of behavior, the fear of death and the readiness to die. As we have these experiences and find ourselves talking to God about them, we slowly learn to interpret God's language.
The Bible helps us learn the language of God. For those unable to read, God's words are heard in public worship, in the oral reading and exposition of Scripture, in the washing of baptism and sharing in the family meal, in marriage and burial services, in fellowship, prayers and singing.
Whether can read or are illiterate, whether we understand or feel ignorant, prayer is our conversation with God, our Parent and Friend. In prayer the Spirit communicates with our spirit. The experience can be powerful and astonishing. Because God is our Father, prayer is never a work to earn his love. Though an autistic child may never be able to respond to conversation, the parents love and accept him or her. Nevertheless, all parents are right to long for the conversation of their children. And even more than earthly mothers and fathers, our heavenly Parent waits and listens for the voices of the children he loves.
Chapter 14 .....