Personal view 2: Think about paganism!
No, not the range of pagan practices resurgent in our nation, from superstition, astrology and divination, through to overt worship of Satan. Rather, pagan thinking of which we are guilty, for we are as yet imperfectly sanctified sinners; and wrong thoughts of God – pagan thoughts – are endemic to our fallen nature.
Two examples of this. First, regarding evangelism. We know with full conviction, because the Bible tells us so, that the Lord is sovereign in regeneration. Therefore, we know however much we evangelise or however well we do it are not the crucial factors for success. Sinners will be saved as God chooses.
We would stoutly claim to believe that the number of times a person hears the gospel, or how well it is presented to them, makes no final difference as to whether the Lord will save that person.
Yet it as if our brain is split in half. Believing this, we multiply programmes, paying much attention to how the gospel is presented, and even the environment in which it is presented, down to the room temperature or the seating arrangements to make people comfortable. Yet we so easily find we spend much more time in planning like this than in prayer – yet we believe that salvation is wholly a work of God.
This is neither Arminianism, nor Pelagianism (it is not that we believe that sinners will in any sense help to save themselves). It is, rather, paganism – the belief that the better the quality of our act, or the more frequently it is performed, the more pleased that God (or the gods) will be with us and the more likely to bless us. God is rewarding us for our efforts.
We would never avow that this is our motive; we would sincerely disown it. Yet, is it not lurking there, controlling much of our evangelistic method?
So, we should make sure that we rely more on prayer that God will save sinners for his glory, and make sure we are not hoping that he will save them because we have pleased him and earned their salvation as a reward.
There are churches that try to insist on as many people-hours spent in prayer for the lost as on evangelism. This is a healthy reaction to frantic activism. However, if we think God must then reward us for this change of emphasis…!
The second danger is in prayer itself. Have you ever thought that there is a tension between the Lord’s words warning against empty repetitions (Matthew 6:7-8), with which he introduces the Lord’s prayer; and his teaching after it, where he enjoins us by parable and precept to persist in prayer (Luke 11:5-10)?
If we are not heard because of our many words, why are we taught that God answers because of persistence, so that we are to keep on asking, seeking, knocking?
We can understand the first part of this teaching quite easily. For the pagan idea of prayer is simply: the more that you ask, the more likely you are to persuade God (or the gods) to grant your request. We are not to be like that.
Yet, because the Lord tells us in Luke 11 and 18 to persist in prayer, we find many Christians make the same request daily for many years, and become puzzled and discouraged when God does not answer.
It is here that pagan thinking could be creeping in – the idea that God must respond because he is pleased with the quantity and sincerity of our prayers.
So where does the solution to this paradox lie? To answer that, we need to ask: what makes the pagan’s empty repetition, empty?
Empty repetition is when we keep on asking for something which is ultimately selfish, whether in content or motive (see James 4:3). Pagan thinking is that we can get whatwe want if we ask God long enough.
But Christian prayer, as taught by the Lord in his model prayer, is that we are to persist in prayer for God to be glorified; and then, for those things which are necessary for us to live and live aright for him. Motive and content are everything in this distinction between God-honouring and pagan-type prayer.
We are still sinful. Our prayers are never pure; they must be mixed with the incense of Christ’s righteousness before they ascend to God (Revelation 8:3-4). Yet we are called on to guard both our hearts and tongues, to ensure that our prayers are acceptable to him, reflecting a filial rather than a pagan relationship with our great High Priest and Saviour.