Usually, I wear a bicycle helmet. I hear they keep your brain from becoming mush if you happen to kiss the pavement. Now, most everyone knows this, but still, it is a rare sight to see a teenager (I have two in my house) with a bike helmet. Diane and I have fought the battle of helmets, and…I think we’ve lost.
Turns out the officials in the Australian state of Victoria read the studies also and made helmets mandatory for all bike riders. And it worked…sort of. Head injuries went down, but something else happened: the number of teenagers riding bikes decreased as well. It seems that teenagers think it’s better to walk or beg for a ride than appear unfashionable. Guess what, final studies showed that less bike riding and more car sitting led to poorer health. Now that wasn’t what they wanted.
This is called the perplexing problem of unintended consequences. You try to make something better, and it ends up only making the situation worse.
Now imagine a church which devoted itself to prayer…only to sense God seeming farther and farther away.
How might this come about? Prayer is, after all, the way we communicate with God, the lifeline to the Almighty. How could prayer be detrimental to knowing God? Well, certainly true prayer, combined with study of God’s Word, is the key to knowing God, but sometimes, when prayer is misunderstood, it can indeed be harmful to the spiritual life.
Our church is on the cusp of a campaign we are calling 40 Days of Prayer, where everyone is being encouraged to commit him or herself to a daily prayer time each day over the period. I’m fired up about this – I’m excited about it not just because I know that God answers prayer and we’ll see Him do great things, but I’m also excited because I want everyone who participates to learn the incredible value of prayer and the truth – you do not have, because you do not ask. (James 4:2) In short, I want us to become pray-ers! Whether you are part of Edgewood or not, I hope you’ll take part in it with us. We start on Monday, January 23rd, and finish on March 2nd. I’ll be writing some articles about it here off and on throughout the 40 days.
The Surprising Danger
But there is a surprising danger in devoting oneself to prayer; it is the danger of “performancism”, a word I’ve taken from Tullian Tchividjian (cha-vi-jin) in his book, Jesus + Nothing = Everything. He writes:
“The Bible makes it clear that the gospel’s premier enemy is the one we often call “legalism.” I like to call it “performancism.”…Legalism happens when what we need to do, not what Jesus has already done, becomes the end game. Our performancism leads to pride when we succeed and despair when we fail.”
Here’s my point: It doesn’t take too much imagination to see pride and despair becoming part of a 40 Days of Prayer emphasis. At the end of it all, can you see some group of folks saying, “I did it! I made it! I accomplished 40 days of prayer. I’m sure God is smiling.”
And can you see another group feeling like spiritual losers? “I blew it again. I started something and I didn’t finish. I failed miserably. I’m sure God doesn’t want to hear from me again.”
“(Performancism) becomes all about us and what we must do to establish our own identity instead of resting in Jesus and what he accomplished to establish it for us…A Christian may not struggle with believing that our good behavior is required to initially earn God’s favor; but I haven’t met one Christian who doesn’t struggle daily with believing – somehow, someway – that our good behavior is required to keep God’s favor.”
In light of that truth, chew on this – there are at least two good reasons to pray, and one lousy reason to do so:
The first good reason to pray is that “in (His) presence there is fullness of joy” Psalm 16:11 (ESV). In other words, we pray because we have come to know the incredible love and mercy and grace of God in the gospel, and prayer gives us the opportunity to bask in the presence of the God of love. David went into the sanctuary in Psalm 63 and said, “Because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you” Psalm 63:3 (NIV).
The second good reason to pray is that God answers prayer. This was Jesus’ point in Luke 11: “And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.” Luke 11:9,10 (ESV)
Translation: God will answer your prayers…so pray.
But there is also a bad reason to pray – some pray so that God will be impressed with them. Others pray to get on His good side, so that they might have His smile. However, if we pray in order to gain God’s favor, we show that we are misunderstanding the gospel. In Christ, God the Father is already smiling. The gospel teaches us that we are loved because we are in the Beloved. You cannot “qualify” yourself for His love. He has already “qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the Kingdom of light.” Colossians 1:12 (NIV).
So join us over these 40 days and pray…but never forget: we pray not to gain God’s love but because we are loved…and we pray not to gain His smile but because our Heavenly Father is already smiling and delights to answer the requests of His children.
And so, as Freddie M. once said, “Get on your bikes and ride.”