Repent of Your Piety

I want to give a pep talk. Nothing fancy, nothing clever. Jesus makes some astounding promises in Luke 11. I want to clear out the clutter and convince you to believe Him and to act on it.

The chapter begins with Jesus praying and teaching His disciples to pray by giving them the Lord’s Prayer. He follows with a parable about a man persistently asking for help from neighbor. It’s late at night; the neighbor is in bed and his door is shut. But the man is so persistent – so “shameless” – that even the reluctant man gets out of bed and helps the man who awakened him.

The point of the parable, of course, is not that God is like the reluctant neighbor, too tired and comfortable to get up to help.  The point is that even a reluctant neighbor will respond to petitions. If that’s true, how much more your heavenly Father?

Then Jesus adds straightforward promises. Ask, seek, knock. Everyone who asks, receives. Everyone who seeks, finds. Everyone who knocks finds the door opened for him. He adds a further parable to reinforce the point. You fathers, you give good things to your kids. You don’t give him a stone when he asks for bread, or a scorpion when he asks for an egg, or a serpent when he asks for fish. You are evil, yet you know how to give good gifts to your children. How much more, then, does your heavenly Father, who is wholly, unutterably good, nothing but good, sheer and pure and absolute good – how much more does your heavenly Father give the Spirit to those who ask?

You see what Jesus does here. His disciples have asked, “Lord, teach us to pray.” And Jesus does. He gives them a prayer to use, a prayer obviously designed for corporate use because it has all those “us” and “our” pronouns.  But the rest of Jesus’ instruction for prayer is not how-to. He doesn’t suggest a prayer journal, or setting aside a particular time of day to pray, or keeping track of answered prayers, or using the acronym ACTS – Adoration, Consecration, Thanks, Supplication.

Nothing wrong with any of that. All of those have been used to great effect for effective, fervent prayer. But that’s not what Jesus teaches. Jesus wants to get across a more fundamental point. He’s not interested in the “how-to” so much as in the “who-to?” What gives shape and energy and fervency and effectiveness to our prayers is the confidence that we pray to our heavenly Father.

So the point of the pep talk is simple: Pray knowing that you pray to your heavenly Father. Pray in confidence that when you ask you will receive; when you seek you will find; when you knock it will be opened. Pray knowing that you pray to a God who doesn’t give stones or serpents to his kids. Believe Jesus, and pray accordingly.

The second part of the pep talk is: Live the way you pray. We always live the way we pray. If we don’t pray at all, we live without a thought to God or His will. Prayer is an admission of need, and if we don’t think we need anything we’ll avoid prayer. If we pray timidly, feebly, fearfully, pessimistically – then we’ll live that way. Life will give us exactly what we expect of it, which is not much. If we pray in faith that we pray to our good heavenly Father who gives nothing but good gifts, then we’ll live confidently, thankfully, joyfully, boldly.

This is not the way we pray or live. Our lives do follow the path of our prayers, but we don’t pray as Jesus taught us and so we don’t live as Jesus did. Worse, we excuse our disobedience with piety and theology. We look for excuses and loopholes and qualifications. We use our theology to justify our mediocrity.

We say, God is sovereign. He can answer or not answer. He does whatever He wants. So I can pray but there’s no guarantee that God will answer. We pray because we have to, but we don’t expect anything to happen. Or maybe we stop praying altogether.

There are variations on this theme. Sure, God gives all these great promises. The Bible is full of them. But I’m not sure they are for me. God is sovereign, and He may decide not to fulfill His promises. Sure, God has all possible good. He can do anything. But I don’t know if He’ll do anything for me. God is sovereign, so I’m not sure whether He’s going to do good things or bad things for me. God is sovereign and cares for His children, but I’m not entirely sure I’m His child. After all, God chooses whoever He wants, and how can I know He’s chosen me? It’s just a roll of the divine dice.So we end up using God’s sovereignty to excuse our pessimism, our laziness, our lack of vision.

And we say: I’m a miserable sinner. I don’t deserve anything from God. I can barely lift up my head in His presence. I’ll pray, but I won’t get my hopes up. We use our sinfulness to justify our stoicism.

It’s almost as if we think poor God has over-committed, and we need to protect Him from His enthusiasm. Jesus was a bit rash, and we need to provide the qualifications that He left out.

God doesn’t need our loopholes. He doesn’t want our excuses. He has committed just as much as He wanted to commit, and He committed everything. We repent of our piety. We need to repent of our orthodoxy.

God is sovereign. Yes, absolutely. God does as He pleases. The Father does all He does for the delight of the Son in the Spirit, and the Son does all He does for the delight of the Father in the Spirit. God is so absolutely sovereign that He can freely, graciously commit Himself to us. He is sovereign, and He has sovereignly determined before the foundation of the world to be our God. He is sovereign and infinite, and He has put all His infinite resources to work for us. God is absolutely sovereign, but the only God that is is the God who has committed Himself to us by sending His Son to a cross. Does that sound like a God who’s worried about being over-committed? Does that sound like a God of the small print and the loopholes?

God’s sovereignty is not an excuse for stoicism or pessimism or inaction. It’s the opposite: Because God is sovereign, we can be absolutely sure that God hears and answers our prayers.

Are you a miserable sinner? I don’t think so. Yes, you sin, perhaps often. But “sinner” is a classification. That is not the class of persons you are in. Hear this word from Paul: “There is now therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” No condemnation. Surely there has to be a little condemnation, maybe only a teeny bit. But some condemnation. Nope: No condemnation! God judges you in Christ. He looks at you in His beloved Son. You are as beloved to Him as Jesus in whom you stand. If God says there is no condemnation, that you are righteous, who are you to continue to condemn yourself? How dare you condemn yourself?

God favors His children, but you say, “I’m not sure I’m His child. He elects whomever He wants.” But you are God’s child because He brought you into His family in baptism. When God says in baptism “You are mine!” who are you to doubt it? Who are you to say, “Well, I’m not sure.”

If you think that God has good things but refuses to share them with you, then you have fallen to the devil’s temptation. This is precisely what the serpent told Eve: God wants to keep His gifts for Himself. He won’t share. God is not the Father who gives to those who ask, but a cheap and selfish Father, a dragon holding his treasures in his lair.

Let’s give the right label to this sort of piety and this sort of theology: This is unbelief. We can surround it and support it with pious Bible-talk, but it’s nothing but unbelief. It’s unbelief to doubt that the sovereign God gives Himself and all His good to you. When God says “no condemnation” and you answer “give me a moment for some further self-flagellation,” that’s not just false humility. It’s unbelief. It’s unbelief to doubt that God has placed His family name on you in baptism. When you think that God withholds good from His children, that’s unbelief – and an insult to the character of God to boot.

So repent of your piety. Repent of the faithless way you use your theology. Repent of twisting God’s word into an excuse not to pray, or to pray cautiously, or to pray timidly. Repent of your false humility. Repent of your piety.

Pray and live remembering Jesus’ promise: Everyone who asks receives. The one who seeks finds, and the one who knocks will get an open door. God does not give snakes when we ask for fish; He doesn’t give scorpions instead of eggs. He doesn’t give stones for bread. He doesn’t do that. He never gives evil things to His children. Ever. Never, ever, ever. He always gives good things to His children. Always, always, always.

Here’s the promise in a nutshell: God always gives you what you ask, or something better.

You’ll say: I’ve prayed for a lot of things that I never got. You may really want something, pray diligently, and be disappointed. You may want something now, and it doesn’t show up. You pray years, and it doesn’t happen. Good things; unselfish things. You’ll say: I’ve prayed for God to do good things and all I get is suffering and frustration and failure. I’ve prayed for relief from suffering and trial, but it keeps coming and it keeps getting worse.

What’s happening? Have Jesus’ promises been nullified? Do we have to qualify after all? Is there fine print after all? No. What’s happening when our prayers aren’t answered?

It’s possible that you were asking for a snake or a scorpion? Were the things we asked for really good for us, the best for us? He may say No because No is the best answer. It’s possible that He is giving us good things that don’t appear good to us, not at first. If you ask for relief from suffering, and get more suffering, that means that God has given you the gift of tribulation.

He may want to purge away sin. He may put you on the cross to strengthen your faith. Whatever tribulation He brings, you can rejoice; you can be triumphant because “we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Romans 5:3-5).

When you suffer, you’re on the cross – where Jesus was, and that’s where the living Jesus will meet you. You ask for relief, and He gives you more suffering, not only to work these virtues into you, but to make you a living witness to your crucified Lord. By your patient, joyful, persevering, honest suffering God demonstrates in your life that His power is made perfect in weakness. He makes your life a living witness to the power of the gospel. He proves in your life that the gospel is real.

What’s going on when we don’t get what we ask? It may be many things, but Jesus makes it clear that one thing is definitely not going on: This is not God giving you stones for bread, a snake or scorpion instead of a fish. This is not God giving you the short end of the stick. This is not God keeping the door locked. He doesn’t do that. Ever, ever, ever. He gives good gifts to His children. Always, always, always. Nothing but good.

God always gives you what you ask, or something even better.

Pray in faith, and then live in the same faith. Your Father is with you every step you take and every decision you make. When you pray in faith, you start living as you pray.

Pray, and then start looking for answers. Faithful prayer leads to expectant living. Pray for the Spirit, and wait to see the Spirit work all around you. Faithful prayer leads to Spiritual living. Pray, and know that whatever God brings is exactly the fish and bread and eggs you need. Prayer in faith leads to thankful living. Pray that your Father would be with you, protect you, guide you, and put away timidity and fear and anxiety. Prayer leads to bold, fearless living.

This is your Father’s world. He has your back, He goes before you, He is the rock beneath you and your heavenly Father above. This is your Father’s world, and He has created this wide world as a playground for His children.

So: Go pray; and go play.

Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis.

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