When my sister walked away from the faith a few years ago, I resented her. Every conversation we had, filled with confrontations and questions, left me angry and bitter. When she hooked up with a non-believing boyfriend, I flipped out. I stopped talking to her. I looked down on her. And I started praying for her…asking God to save her, to “show her the way.” With white knuckles and deep spiritual conviction, I prayed and prayed.
Around that same time, I was talking with my close friend and mentor, Dr. Tom Hauff, who was writing a book about prayer. (Tom is a professor of Bible and theology at Multnomah University.) In one chapter of that book, he probes the idea of repetitive prayer for the salvation of the lost, and in our ongoing conversation, he has challenged me with a few mind benders.
On the surface, we probably make this request because we care deeply about people, and we want them to taste freedom and live the life Jesus offers. It is good to tell God what we care about. But below the surface, the repetitive request for the salvation of others might be born out of ill-conceived assumptions that conflict with our own beliefs about how salvation occurs, and it may show us that we do not know who we are, who God is or how he operates.
I started wondering if my repetitive prayer for the salvation of my sister was actually a waste of time and breath.
Consider the two prominent perspectives that have characterized Christian discourse about salvation for some time, say 2,000 years. We either understand salvation as a freely given way of eternal life that God long ago “predestined” some to receive, even before he built this world. He chose us and called us to himself according to his own decision making process; it is God’s choice. Or we understand our salvation as freely offered eternal life that we either accept or reject. God reveals himself and his Gospel to us, but, ultimately, it is our “free-will” decision to either accept or deny Jesus that determines our salvation. It is our choice.
Now, consider again the request for God to save my sister. If I hold the first view, I am asking him to change his sovereign choice. And if I hold the second view, I am asking God to overpower freedom and control her choice, which trumps “free” will altogether. From either perspective, then, the ongoing request for God to give her salvation conflicts with my own fundamental beliefs about God.
And here’s the real kicker. It seems like the New Testament writers were onto this same truth because you do not see them directly asking God to save other people. They express deep love and compassion for others. They ask that their lives could help people see the truth, that they might be part of the harvest, that doors might be opened for them to preach the Gospel, that there could be a witness of unity, love and wisdom among believers to the world around them. But their prayer is not, “God, please save so and so.” It is always, “God, please help us become the most accurate witnesses of Jesus that we can possibly be.”
The more I think about it, the more I understand that useful prayers for the lost are really prayers for Christians and the Church. I need to ask God to help me grow up. I need to stop repeatedly asking him to do something I believe would actually contradict his character and plan for saving people.
While I “faithfully” prayed for my sister’s salvation, I treated her like crap. ( I think I also prayed imprecatory prayers on her poor boyfriend: “Wreck that dirtbag, God! Make him hurt!”) When she and her boyfriend wanted to visit me, I said no. She ought to feel my disapproval, I thought. When she drifted even further from Jesus, I prayed even harder. “Please, please save her.” And then all of this dawned on me….
Maybe God answered my request to “show her the way” by putting me in her life.
“You’re supposed to show her who I am, to be my accurate witness, Ben,” he said. “What exactly are you telling her? That you would prefer to sit alone and keep hurling ignorant requests at me rather than love her as a friend and sister?” Whether I intended to or not, I had been telling her and her boyfriend that Jesus was a far-removed jerk who was annoyed by their questions and needed them to clean up before approaching him. If we need to get cleaned up before approaching Jesus, though, then we’re all in big trouble.
It felt so good, so empowering, to believe I could alter the very character and plan of God. And to vomit nonsense at God over and over was simply effortless. Learning to love, however, to shed pride and to seriously trust God was much more difficult – that was tough.
I finally quit the white-knuckled pleading for her salvation, and when I finally said, “My doors are open; welcome to my home and my life,” my sister and her boyfriend saw a more accurate witness of Jesus. They started to see that Jesus intended to know and love them, imperfections and all. They tasted in some small but real way the life Jesus offers. Now, they are both loving Jesus and seriously committed to learning about his Word.
The Apostles and Disciples seem to accept the fact that God’s plan for salvation is his own. They do not ask him to alter his sovereign decisions regarding the salvation of lost, nor do they suggest he ought to trample free will. It looks like they try to avoid such ill-conceived and contradictory assumptions. But as they write about loving and ministering to those who have not encountered the Gospel, they do seem to be praying for the growth and maturity of Christians in Jesus’ Church.
I needed to exchange wasted-breath pleas, however earnest, for useful requests. Carefully self-reflecting, now, I’m wondering if my life accurately depicts a Savior who loves Christians, who loves the Church, who cares deeply about all human life, who respects authority and who craves justice. As those inaccuracies surface, I spend time purposefully asking God to help me become a disciplined, effective, mature Christian who loves Jesus so that friends, family and everyone else around me might encounter an accurate witness of the Gospel. Unless I’m totally crazy, this seems like a wiser use of the limited breaths I’ve been given.