Bishop's Message

Mastering two prayers

On trusting GodAnd being grateful to Him

WHEN I ONCE ASKED the late John Stott what he considered to be the greatest problem in the church, he gave a one-word answer – superficiality. I cannot agree with him more. Connected to the epidemic of superficiality in the church is the problem of ingratitude. As William Ward asked, “God gave you a gift of 86,400 seconds today. Have you used one to say ‘thank you?’ ”

In the biblical account of the healing of the ten lepers by Jesus, we note in the lepers a faith that turned to God. For this they must all be commended. They turned to Jesus with an urgent prayer, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” (Lk. 17:13).

Jesus graciously healed them, and had their faith tested. When Jesus asked them to go to the priests to get a certificate of health (as required by the law), they must have noticed that their skin still looked leprous. But they believed Jesus and obeyed Him. “And as they went, they were cleansed” (Lk. 17:14). Faith had to be evidenced by obedient response before it was rewarded.

We can imagine how joyful those lepers were that day. They all had the faith that turned to God. But only one had the faith that returned to God with thanksgiving. He came back to Jesus, fell at His feet and thanked Jesus (Lk 17:15-16). We are told that he was a Samaritan. Jews and Samaritans did not mix, but lepers had no such divisions; adversity has a way of uniting people. But prosperity divides people. The Samaritan returned alone. When the lepers were healed, the line between Jew and Samaritan became thickly visible. Prosperity also divides those who are just happy with their changed circumstances from those who are truly grateful to God. As R. H. Blyth observed, “There is no greater difference between men than between grateful and ungrateful people.”

The ungrateful lepers were simply cleansed, but this grateful Samaritan was “made well” (Lk 17:19) – what a difference! All the lepers stood at a distance from Jesus, but only this man came close to Jesus and fell at His feet. Only the grateful believers come close to Jesus. The rest stand at a distance asking for blessings.

Consumer Christianity is made worse by the modern sense of entitlement. We think we are entitled to God’s blessings and His convenient interventions. Like the nine lepers who thought nothing more of what they had received from Jesus, how often do we eat food, or enjoy health, or receive daily blessings without a grateful thought to God?

We take ordinary things for granted. G. K. Chesterton astutely observed, “When we were children we were grateful to those who filled our stockings at Christmas time. Why are we not grateful to God for filling our stockings with legs?”

We are more thankful to human beings than to God – and for lesser things. Chesterton challenges us, “You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.”

There is great danger in treating God as a kind of divine ATM machine. We think that He exists for our good, rather than that we exist for His pleasure. We must remember that it is God who blesses us with all good things, and learn to live gratefully. Then only can we grow spiritually.

We can always find reasons for gratitude before God. Matthew Henry, the famous Bible commentator, was once robbed of his wallet. He wrote in his diary that night all the things he was thankful about: A. First, that he had never been robbed before. B. Second, that though they took his wallet, they did not take his life. C. Third, because even though they took it all, it wasn’t very much. D. Finally, because he was the one who was robbed and not the one who was robbing.

The ancient Israelites who were led by God from Egypt to the Promised Land were made of different stuff. Their 40-year trek through the desert was characterised by persistent ingratitude. They kept grumbling about the journey and died in the desert, stuck in their soul-shrinking ingratitude.

It is important to examine the operating principles of our lives. Many live their lives as consumers caught up with the world’s habits of self-gratification. They are misled by a spirit of entitlement and self-suffi ciency, a delusion that they are the authors of their own blessings. How important it is to discover God as the source of all blessings, and to live our entire lives (our directions, thoughts, attitudes, words, actions) out of gratitude to God.

LET US ASK GOD for a grateful spirit. We can pray George Herbert’s prayer: Thou hast given so much to me, Give one thing more, – a grateful heart; Not thankful when it pleaseth me, As if Thy blessings had spare days, But such a heart whose pulse may be Thy praise.

Meister Eckhart, the medieval German mystic, asserted: “If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.” I would modify that by adding the prayer “Lord have mercy!” The nine lepers prayed only one of these prayers, as their faith only turned to God when they were in trouble. But the grateful Samaritan leper prayed both prayers, for his faith not only turned to God but also returned to God with sincere thanksgiving. He knew both prayers, and learned deep lessons on both trusting God and being grateful to Him.

How we must master these two prayers. The more difficult prayer, because it goes against fallen human nature (as demonstrated by the nine lepers), is the prayer of thanksgiving. The grateful ex-leper was more than courteous; his “thank you” was not just for that exhilarating moment of blessing, but one that welled from deep within his heart. It was a spring of gratitude that would supply worship and thanksgiving every step of the remainder of his days. It would energise him to live for God and find expression in lifelong worship and service.