Scared to Heaven

Most churches don’t preach fire and brimstone anymore. Some of you may not even know what this is or what it sounds like. In some old movies, like Pollyanna, you can get a taste of what it was like to sit in the pews and be scared to death of going to hell. Even though most sermons don’t sound like this, many sermons, books and devotionals are filled with subtle legalism, causing people to think they aren’t good enough, aren’t doing enough and need to work harder at being Christians.

Jesus didn’t operate that way – he loved people into believing, rather than trying to scare them. Paul knew this. In Romans 2:4, he tells us it’s the kindness of God that leads us to desire him and his kingdom, not images of devils, flames and torture. In The Passion Translation, Paul asks, “Do you realize that all the wealth of his extravagant kindness is meant to melt your heart and lead you into repentance?” The footnote says the Aramaic word for kindness can be translated sweetness! The New Living Translation puts it like this: “Don’t you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you? Does this mean nothing to you? Can’t you see that his kindness is intended to turn you from your sin?”

Even though most people don’t have to endure the scare-them-to-death strategy of evangelism anymore, we still need to beware of anything less than the total grace Jesus offers us through his saving sacrifice. Dr. Daniel Thimell, in Trinitarian Conversations Volume 2: Interviews with More Theologians (You’re Included), reminds us that “Grace is the basis for our life in God, not our works” and “The gospel invites us to look away from ourselves to what God in Christ has done.”

God’s kindness, sweetness and patience may not be as gripping and attention-getting as fiery, angry preaching, but it’s much more effective and more soothing to broken, hurting souls. May his kindness and sweetness envelop and comfort you.   

Praying to Whom?

When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray, he introduced a new way to address and even think of God – as our Father. Before then, prayers did not begin this way even though some verses referred to him as father. It wasn’t appropriate to do so as it was too familiar and didn’t show the proper respect. But Jesus went so far as to use the intimate term “Abba,” which probably shocked some of the Jews. We pray to him and we think of him as our Father both because of Jesus’ example and because we have been adopted as God’s children.

Some will tell you not to pray directly to Jesus or the Holy Spirit. Some will tell you to give the Father, Son and Spirit equal time and if you don’t, you may be guilty of neglecting one or the other. I’m addressing this because I quoted someone in a previous post who said exactly that – if we don’t pray to the Holy Spirit, we should repent and begin giving him equal attention. If you searched for this person on the Internet, you may have found his article and wondered about this. Is he correct? Should we repent of neglecting Jesus or the Holy Spirit if we are not giving equal attention to each person of the Trinity?

The answer is no. This kind of thinking is tritheism, separating the one God into three gods or three beings. He is indivisibly one with three distinctions. When we pray to the Father, we are also praying to Jesus and the Holy Spirit. When we commune with Jesus, we are communing with the Holy Spirit and the Father. We don’t have to worry that we’ve been neglecting the Spirit if we only pray to the Father or to Jesus. We do acknowledge and understand that Christian prayer is to the Father, through the Son and in the Spirit, but thinking of God as three separate beings who each demand equal time is to misunderstand his triune nature. God is one in three and three in one and hears our prayers no matter how we address him. Believing he feels neglected or gets offended is thinking he’s like us and making him over into our image.

(For more on the triune nature of God, go to www.gci.org/youre-included/, featuring interviews with trinitarian theologians.)

Divine Awareness

God, are you there? Are you listening? Can you hear me? Many prayers have begun this way, especially in movies and books, to show the character’s doubt or disbelief in God. If you’re reading this, you probably don’t wonder if God listens, because you know he does. We can be sure of this because of the many times we are told to pray, by even Jesus himself, and the many examples of prayer in the Bible. We can read of answered prayers and the times God has spoken to his people.

I read an enlightening little book called Whole Prayer by Walt Wangerin. In it, he says “God’s listening precedes our praying, so that we pray into a divine and merciful awareness, already waiting and knowing what we are about to say.” I found this encouraging for those times (I must admit) when it seemed I either wasn’t communicating very well with God or I wasn’t hearing anything back. Even though prayer is so simple children do it successfully, it can sometimes seem difficult and even uncomfortable.

To know we pray into a divine awareness can change our perspective on this mystery of prayer. He’s not just listening, but actively aware of us, already knowing what’s on our minds and in our hearts, and not just knowing, but understanding in a deeply intimate way. He doesn’t disconnect with us when we finish our prayer, like we’re on some kind of cosmic telephone call, and then wait for us to start praying again to reconnect. His awareness of us doesn’t end, has no limits, is divinely merciful, compassionate and loving. We don’t need formulas, positions or rules. Prayer is his mind to our minds, his thoughts to our thoughts, a more incredible experience than a Vulcan mind meld.

We don’t have to wonder if he’s listening if we remember we pray into his divine awareness. Wouldn’t it be great if we could be as aware of him as he is of us?

Not Merely Communication

Verbal communication is unique to humans. We communicate differently with the various people in our lives. I speak and share differently with my daughter than I do with the postal clerk. We don’t talk to babies the same as we would to a coworker. We seem to know instinctively how to communicate with people, but we sometimes have trouble knowing how to pray effectively.

Prayer is normally thought of as the way to communicate with God and it is. It’s how Jesus kept in constant contact with his Father and it’s how he told us to do the same. But it goes deeper than just casual communication, doesn’t it? Talking to God is more like communing or having communion with him. Dictionary.com says commune means “to converse or talk together, usually with profound intensity and intimacy” and intimacy is defined as “a close, familiar, and usually affectionate or loving personal relationship with another person or group; a close association with or detailed knowledge or deep understanding.”

Jonathan K. Dodson, the founding pastor of City Life Church in Austin, Texas, wrote in an article that communing with God cements us together. “Prayer fosters this bond [of closeness] with God, cementing our souls with him through shared delight in the gospel of grace.” I like that idea, being cemented to God.

I can’t give you three easy steps to deeper communion with him, but I do know it takes time, solitude and silence – good ways to start. Speaking with God is unlike any other communication we can or will ever have, but it’s not rocket science. Just start talking – and keep talking (listen too) – and trust the Holy Spirit to take you deeper.