Lewis: ‘Prayer is irksome’ (pt 3)

I am therefore not deeply worried by the fact that prayer is at present a duty, and even an irksome one. This is humiliating. It is frustrating. It is terribly time-wasting—the worse one is praying, the longer one’s prayers take. But we are still only at school. Or, like Donne, “I tune my instrument here at the door.” And even now—how can I weaken the words enough, how speak at all without exaggeration?—we have what seem rich moments. Most frequently, perhaps, in our momentary, only just voluntary, ejaculations; refreshments “unimplored, unsought, Happy for man so coming.”

But I don’t rest much on that; nor would I if it were ten times as much as it is. I have a notion that what seem our worst prayers may really be, in God’s eyes, our best. Those, I mean, which are least supported by devotional feeling and contend with the greatest disinclination. For these, perhaps, being nearly all will, come from a deeper level than feeling. In feeling there is really so much that is not ours—so much that comes from weather and health and from the last book read. One thing seems certain. It is no good angling for the rich moments. God sometimes seems to speak to us most intimately when He catches us, as it were, off our guard. Our preparations to receive Him sometimes have the opposite effect. Doesn’t Charles Williams say somewhere that “the altar must often be built in one place in order that the fire from heaven may descend somewhere else“?

– C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm (Mariner Books ed), 116-117.

Lewis: ‘Prayer is irksome’ (pt 2)

. . . The painful effort which prayer involves is no proof that we are doing something we were not created to do.

If we were perfected, prayer would not be a duty, it would be delight. Some day, please God, it will be. The same is true of many other behaviors which now appear as duties. If I loved my neighbor as myself, most of the actions which are now my moral duty would flow out of me as spontaneously as song from a lark or fragrance from a flower. Why is this not so yet? Well, we know, don’t we? Aristotle has taught us that delight is the “bloom” on an unimpeded activity. But the very activities for which we were created are, while we live on earth, variously impeded: by evil in ourselves or in others. Not to practise them is to abandon our humanity. To practise them sontaneously and delightfully is not yet possible. This situation creates the category of duty, the whole specifically moral realm.

It exists to be transcended. Here is the paradox of Christianity. As practical imperatives for here and now the two great commandments have to be translated “Behave as if you loved God and man.” For no man can love because he is told to. Yet obedience on this practical level is not really obedience at all. And if a man really loved God and man, once again this would hardly be obedience; for if he did, he would be unable to help it. Thus the command really says to us, “Ye must be born again.” Till then, we have duty, morality, the Law. A schoolmaster, as St. Paul says, to bring us to Christ. We must expect no more of it than of a schoolmaster; we must allow it no less. I must say my prayers today whether I feel devout or not; but that is only as I must learn my grammar if I am ever to read the poets.

– C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm (Mariner Books ed), 114-115.

Lewis: ‘Prayer is irksome’ (pt 1)

. . . by talking at this length about prayer at all, we seem to give it a much bigger place in our lives than, I’m afraid, it has. For while we talk about it, all the rest of our experience, which in reality crowds our prayer into the margin or sometimes off the page altogether, is not mentioned. Hence, in the talk, an error of proportion which amounts to, though it was not intended for, a lie.

Well, let’s now at any rate come clean. Prayer is irksome. An excuse to omit it is never unwelcome. When it is over, this casts a feeling of relief and holiday over the rest of the day. We are reluctant to begin. We are delighted to finish. While we are at prayer, but not while we are reading a novel or solving a cross-word puzzle, any trifle is enough to distract us. . . .

The odd thing is that this reluctance to pray is not confined to periods of dryness. When yesterday’s prayers were full of comfort and exaltation, todays will still be felt as, in some degree, a burden.

Now the disquieting thing is not simply that we skimp and begrudge the duty of prayer. The really disquieting thing is it should have to be numbered among duties at all. For we believe that we were created “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” And if the few, the very few, minites we now spend on intercourse with God are a burden to us rather than delight, what then?

– C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm (Mariner Books ed), 113-114

Observing 1Sam 7 — What sorrow is this?

Israel was being Israel. It’s doubtful that there was ever a time when she was whole-heartedly devoted to the Lord.

1 Samuel 7:2-4 From the day that the ark remained at Kiriath-jearim, the time was long, for it was twenty years; and all the house of Israel lamented after the LORD. Then Samuel spoke to all the house of Israel, saying, “If you return to the LORD with all your heart, remove the foreign gods and the Ashtaroth from among you and direct your hearts to the LORD and serve Him alone; and He will deliver you from the hand of the Philistines.” So the sons of Israel removed the Baals and the Ashtaroth and served the LORD alone.

The Philistine domination of Israel (chpts 4-6) coupled with the Lord’s judgment on the people of Beth-shemesh (6:19-21) scarred the national psyche. As a result, Israel is said to have “lamented after the Lord” for twenty years (7:2). Since this Hebrew verb (and corrsponding noun) is used to signify the kind of mourning that accompanies a tragic loss (see Jer 9:17-19; Ezek 32:18; Micah 2:4), it seems safe to say that Israel was convinced that she had lost the Lord. Even though the ark’s return to Israel signified the Lord’s return to the land (see 6:20), the people still labored under a sense of divine opprobrium.

Twenty years is a suprisingly long time to lament after the Lord without any kind of response unless you take into account the people’s continued dalliance with their idols. In that case, what’s surprising is that the people needed a prophet to state the obvious: remove the idols, return to the Lord, and all will be made right.

It’s tempting, and not entirely unreasonable, to interpret Israel’s duplicity as an OT example of what Paul calls worldly sorrow (2Cor 7:10). That is, Israel was more concerned with what she had lost—possessions, security, status—than who she had lost. While there might be something to this line of thinking, it’s hard to square with the text’s assertion that the people lamented after the Lord.

Another approach would be to read 1Samuel 7 in light of Ezekiel 20:

“I said to them, ‘Cast away, each of you, the detestable things of his eyes, and do not defile yourselves with the idols of Egypt; I am the LORD your God.’ 8 “But they rebelled against Me and were not willing to listen to Me; they did not cast away the detestable things of their eyes, nor did they forsake the idols of Egypt. (20:7-8)

“Also I swore to them in the wilderness that I would not bring them into the land which I had given them, flowing with milk and honey, which is the glory of all lands, 16 because they rejected My ordinances, and as for My statutes, they did not walk in them; they even profaned My sabbaths, for their heart continually went after their idols. (20:15-16)

“When I had brought them into the land which I swore to give to them, then they saw every high hill and every leafy tree, and they offered there their sacrifices and there they presented the provocation of their offering. There also they made their soothing aroma and there they poured out their drink offerings. (20:28)

Reading 1Samuel in isolation, we feel as if we’re coming across a unique instance of spiritual dimwittedness; but Ezekiel indicates that this supposed anomaly was, in fact, the norm for a nation with divided loyalties. Israel was being Israel. It’s doubtful that there was ever a time when she was whole-heartedly devoted to the Lord.

With the added light from Ezekiel 20, I take away three reminders from 1Samuel 7.

First, God is (unfathomably) “slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness and faithfulness” (Exod 34:6). So much so that “if we are faithless he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself” (2Tim 2:13). My apathetic and guilt-ridden heart needs to hear and believe these truths.

Second, God’s promise of forgiveness isn’t conditioned on perfect penitence. If his forgiveness depends on the quality of my repentance, there is no forgiveness to be had. God help me, I need to repent of my repentance!

Third, in God’s economy one day of repentance is more than sufficient for twenty years of habitual sin because one sacrifice was sufficient for all sin (Rom 3:21-25).

We were over an abyss

You probably all know the legend of the rider who crossed the frozen Lake of Constance by night without knowing it. When he reached the opposite shore and was told whence he came, he broke down horrified. This is the human situation when the sky opens and the earth is bright, when we may hear: By grace you have been saved! In such a moment we are like that terrified rider. When we hear this word we involuntarily look back, do we not, asking ourselves: Where have I been? Over an abyss, in mortal danger! What did I do? The most foolish thing I ever attempted! What happened? I was doomed and miraculously escaped and now I am safe! You ask, Do we really live in such danger? Yes, we live on the brink of death. But we have been saved. Look at our Savior, and at our salvation! Look at Jesus Christ on the cross. . . . Do you know for whose sake he is hanging there? For our sake – because of our sin – sharing our captivity – burdened with our suffering! He nails our life to the cross. This is how God had to deal with us. From this darkness he has saved us. He who is not shattered after hearing this news may not yet have grasped the word of God: “By grace you have been saved!”

– Karl Barth, Deliverance to the Captives (quoted by Fleming Rutledge in The Crucifixion)

Observing 1Sam 4–6—YHWH in exile

1 Samuel 4:10-11 So the Philistines fought and Israel was defeated, and every man fled to his tent; and the slaughter was very great, for there fell of Israel thirty thousand foot soldiers. And the ark of God was taken . . .

In his commentary on 1-2 Samuel, Peter Leithart makes an interesting observation concerning the capture of the ark and its transport to Philistine country:

According to Deuteronomy 28:64ff, the climactic curse of the covenant was the curse of exile. If Israel persisted in idolatry and sin after the Lord brought all the other curses upon her, He would eventually cast her from the land. This was the curse looming in the background in the days of Eli, but this is not what happened. Instead of Israel going into exile, the ark did. Yahweh went into exile, taking on the curse of the covenant for His people and while in exile He fought for them and defeated the gods of Philistia. Israel suffered humiliating defeat at [the] hands of Philistines, but Yahweh shared in their humiliation, and by taking the most intense weight of that humiliation upon Himself, triumphed over the principalities and powers and rulers of the age. [A Son to Me, 56]

Leithart, of course, would have us recognize that this demonstration of solidarity and substitution in the time of Samuel was a foreshadowing the greater triumph that would come when God, this time in the form of a man, was once again handed over to the enemy.

Luke 18:32 For He will be handed over to the Gentiles, and will be mocked and mistreated and spit upon

Acts 2:23 this Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death.

Galatians 3:13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us– for it is written, “CURSED IS EVERYONE WHO HANGS ON A TREE ”

Colossians 2:13-15
When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. When He had disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him.

Hebrews 2:14-15
Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.

But the glory of the victory stands against the bleak backdrop of God’s people who bear a discomforting resemblance to the Philistines. Both the Philistines and the Israelites are said to be “struck” down by the Lord when the ark comes to town (5:6, 9, 12 cf 6:19), and both groups remove God from their midst rather than repent before Him. Credit the Israelites for having the sophistication to dress their response in the religious lingo of the day, but ultimately there isn’t much difference between God’s people and their pagan neighbors. Some days it seems that not much has changed.

 

Observing 1Sam 3—Seeing with the ears

1 Samuel 3:1, 21 Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the LORD before Eli. And word from the LORD was rare in those days, visions were infrequent. . . . And the LORD appeared again at Shiloh, because the LORD revealed Himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the LORD.

The word of the Lord forms an inclusio for 1Samuel 3, providing us with a framework in which to read the account of Samuel’s call. The story is replete with the kind of vocabulary we would expect in a passage given to the word of the Lord: calling, speaking, listening, tingling ears, etc.

But there are three instances where terms associated with sight appear:

“And word from the Lord was rare in those days, visions [Heb, chazon] were infrequent.” (3:1)

“But Samuel was afraid to tell the vision [Heb, marah] to Eli.” (3:15)

“And the Lord appeared [Heb, raah] again at Shiloh because the Lord revealed Himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the Lord.” (3:21)

This strikes me as curious since the text never says that Samuel “saw the Lord” nor does it provide a description of a vision as we might expect. It’s entirely possible that Samuel did, in fact, see something that night but the framing statements (vv 1, 21) seem to point in a different direction.

The last sentence in 3:1, has an almost poetic quality to it that borders on synonymous parallelism:

word of the Lord was rare
visions were infrequent

In fact, the Hebrew chazon (vision) is frequently used to signify a revelation without any indication of something seen, particularly in prophetic contexts (see Isa 1:1; Obadiah 1:1; Nahum 1:1; Hab 2:2-3). After surveying the background and use of the chazon root, the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament concludes:

Its primary meaning is a form of revelation . . . consisting in nocturnal perception of a divine voice during a deep sleep. . . . The verb was also used in the sense of perceiving God and his works, undoubtedly from the realization that in the prophetic experience the word refers to a kind of perception, i.e., hearing God. . . . Only rarely is seeing with the eyes meant. [TDOT 4:290]

So if we have good reason to understand vision along the lines of perception rather than literal sight, what are we to make of 3:21 which states that “the Lord appeared again at Shiloh?” The answer here is a little more obvious on closer reading. The Lord is said to have appeared because he revealed himself by the word of the Lord. God is where his word is.

None of this is to deny the biblical accounts of dreams and visions, but it’s a great reminder that the word of the Lord is no mere consolation prize and that anyone who would see the Lord must see him through his Word. And if God is to be seen by his word, what visions must now be available to us (Psa 119:18; Jn 1:14, 18; 2Cor 4:6; 2Pet 1:19)?

 

 

On conceiving God’s infinity

Whatever God is, he is infinitely so. . . . Conceive of him as excellent, without any imperfection; a Spirit without parts; great without quantity; perfect without quality; everywhere without place; powerful without members; understanding without ignorance; wise without reasoning; light without darkness; infinitely more excelling the beauty of all creatures. . . . And when you have risen to the highest, conceive him yet infinitely above all you can conceive of spirit, and acknowledge the infirmity of your own minds. And whatsoever conception comes into your minds, say, “This is not God; God is more than this.”  [emphasis added]

–Stephen Charnock, quoted by Mark Jones in God Is: A Devotional Guide to the Attributes of God

What might Luther think about our glut of Christian books?

. . . [Luther] sees the Christian life as one fueled by the reading and hearing of this Word, primarily in a corporate context. This is a great antidote to a number of perennial problems for Christians. First, there is the “need” for something more than the Bible. The success of books that offer something spectacular–whether accounts of dying and coming back to the land of the living or low-key claims to special, extra words from God–shows that the Christian world loves something out of the ordinary.

Luther would respond that such things are absolutely unnecessary, for what we need is the Word of God in the humble, mundane form that he has given it to us. Why read a book on a child who claims to have died and come back when one can read the Gospels and find there God, clothed in frail human flesh, dying and rising again? Why desire further, special words from God when the great Word of God, Christ himself, is offered to every individual as the Bible is read, preached, and sometimes applied individually through the confessional? Luther would see the market for such books as a function of our striving to be theologians of glory, unsatisfied with how God has chosen to reveal himself to be toward us, and always craving to make God conform to our expectations of what we need.

– Carl Trueman, Luther on the Christian Life, 113-114.

Observing 1 Sam 2:12-36—Worthless sons

1 Samuel 2:25 But [Hophni and Phineas] would not listen to the voice of their father [Eli], for the LORD desired to put them to death.

The warning falls on deaf ears because the Lord intended to judge the offenders. A good reminder that rejection isn’t always a sign of a defective message and/or messenger (Jn 12:37-40; 2Cor 4:3-4).

1 Samuel 2:29-30 ‘Why do you kick at My sacrifice and at My offering which I have commanded in My dwelling, and honor your sons above Me, by making yourselves fat with the choicest of every offering of My people Israel?’ “Therefore the LORD God of Israel declares, ‘I did indeed say that your house and the house of your father should walk before Me forever’; but now the LORD declares, ‘Far be it from Me– for those who honor Me I will honor, and those who despise Me will be lightly esteemed.

The interaction between Eli and his sons is hard to assess: (i) did Eli only rebuke his sons for their sexual immorality (1Sam 2:22-25) but ignore their abuse of the sacrifices (1Sam 2:12-17)? (ii) Was the apparent rebuke in 2:23-25 not an actual rebuke (3:13)? Eli doesn’t condone his sons behavior but he’s held responsible for it. I take it that Eli’s guilt was due to his unwillingness to take action against his sons. I wonder how much of our “speaking against” sin will be judged meaningless because we fail to follow through with action or, conversely, how much of our love and acceptance will turn out to be a cover for despising the Lord. On this point I’m only thinking of how the church disciplines its own (1Cor 5:12-13).

1 Samuel 2:35 ‘But I will raise up for Myself a faithful priest who will do according to what is in My heart and in My soul; and I will build him an enduring house, and he will walk before My anointed always.

The language about the Lord building an enduring house for his priest is mirrored in 2 Samuel when the Lord says he will build an enduring house for his king (see 2Sam 7:16, 26-27). Negatively, Eli’s house finds a counterpart in Saul’s house as both men see their respective offices taken from them and their descendants. But where sin abounds grace abounds all the more. God will not purge the priesthood and the throne only to leave it vacant. God’s people need more than just a good priest and king; they need those righteous office holders to be permanent and enduring. But where an endless succession of priests and kings exists, God’s people can have no garauntee of unending righteousness. This realization is one of the reasons we can confidently say that all of God’s good promises become better promises when the fulfillment is revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. The Son has been appointed to the office of priest and king and becomes the righteous minister and ruler they need. More than that, because he cannot die, this new Priest-King needs no successor so that God’s people no longer fear the loss of what they now enjoy (see Psa 110 and Heb 5:5-6).