~ The Sinner's Prayer ~
Centuries ago European civilization espoused a geocentric world review. The earth was the center of the universe, and thus so were humans. It did look like that, but more importantly, we wanted to believe it.
Later we learned the earth was a tiny speck of life among trillions of stars in a galactic family. And we were not even close to the center of the galaxy, but towards the end of one of its stellar spirals.
Resistance to this discovery was actually violent. The egocentricity of human pride took a hit. Somehow, we thought that made us less important. We didn't understand that our astrophysical position has no bearing on our significance. The Creator might even say, “I put you in the most humble place among the stars because that is the most exalted one.” Jesus urges us to seek the most humble position, as He did. Perhaps our ancestors who understood the Gospel told each other, “Great going, Galileo! Having our source of life, our sun, at the center of our solar system and the earth on the outskirts makes more sense.” If they did, they shared in secret. Otherwise they would have faced inquisition, exile, torture, even death.
Egocentricity is still our religion, however. The prophets addressed clans, tribes and nations. Some societies still hold the community as the center of individual vitality. “Rugged individualism” and “I'm my own person” are fairly recent notions. Today's relationships are marked by casualness, self-fulfillment at the expense of the other and a “me-first” commitment. “I have my rights” and “Everybody owes me” are prevalent mind-sets. Although unintentionally, we teach these to our children. Mostly intentionally though.
Unsurprisingly, this ancient view of being the center of the universe is still infused in our modern religious culture. And like the ancients who watched the sun and stars move around us and figured we were the center of it all, we still see God circling around us, waiting for us to make the 911 call as we need Him. Sure, we praise Him, thank Him and go on our way. But when we are in need, we pray and, unlike our prayers of thanks, we are obsessed with whether He heard us the first time. It's as though we think, “Hey, I'm sure He heard my praise, but I'm not sure He's hearing how much I need this.” Ah, how wonderful if we were as concerned He heard our thank yous as we are our requests.
Professions of faith are ancient and necessary. A fairly recent (last 75 years or so) evangelical tool has become widely used in many denominations, known as “the sinner's prayer.” Such prayers are indeed useful in facilitating a convert's first step in conversion and spiritual rebirth. Here is a typical and widely used one:
“Lord Jesus, I need You. Thank You for dying on the cross for my sins. I open the door of my life and receive You as my Savior and Lord. Thank You for forgiving my sins and giving me eternal life. Take control of the throne of my life. Make me the kind of person You want me to be” (New Life Publications, 1994).
Here is another, that is never used, as far as I know:
“Here I am, my Lord Jesus, take me to yourself. I wish to be yours and to remain yours forever. Speak to your servant, and grant that I may obey. Say what you wish, and grant that I may find pleasure in it. Impose on me what you please, and grant that I may be equal to the task. Command what you wish, and grant what you command. May I be nothing that you alone may be everything” (Paradise of the Heart, 1667).
Note with appreciation the striking differences between the prayer representative of the 21st Century and that of the 17th Century. The first echoes the egocentricity of our times… “receiving…giving me…control the throne of my life…make me.” The second says… “take me…I’m yours…your servant…I may obey…Impose on me…command me…may I be nothing…You are everything.” The first is a response to gifts. The second is an outpouring of love and “crucifixion with Christ.” The first offers control of one's “throne of life.” The second offers all of the self into a nothingness, emptying the self into Christ as He emptied Himself into humanity. The first speaks of entering one's heart into Paradise. The second asks the Paradise of the Heart of Christ to consume one's own heart of contrition and servitude.
The first is easier to pray as it speaks of something in it for us. The second is more difficult as it is the yearning song of a self-denying lover who ardently desires the Beloved to be everything. If our desire for God is in the least bit a way to get something or someplace for ourselves, we are then using Him. To want Him so we can get another want met makes it impossible to love Him with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, all our strength. It means to value something more than even God Himself. Thus we fool ourselves and mock our Lord.
Therese of Lisieux lamented how no one in hell loved Jesus and how much she wanted Him to be loved from everywhere. In her sorrow for her Beloved, she shared how she told Jesus she would volunteer to love Him from hell so love for Him would shine from everywhere, even from the deepest darkness. Hers was not a safe prayer of empty words, as some of us might have heard the romantic rhetoric of “I would even go to hell and back for you.” Jesus took the little, young Therese at her word. If hell is a crushing agony of feeling abandoned by your most beloved, the soul-tearing anguish Jesus prayed from Psalm 22, “My God! Why have you forsaken me?” while burdened with the sins of all ages on the cross, Therese felt that during the last few years of her life. Coupled with her dark night of the soul was intense and chronic physical pain of the disease that ended her life after only 24 years. Yet true to her words to Jesus, her love not only sustained, but grew in intensity. She loved Him from hell, wanting only to love Him. Just before she died, the darkness exploded into brilliant, loving glory and Therese left her body for the Paradise of the Heart.
Since ancient times we have used water and fire to refine and purify what we obtained from the earth. Water and fire are also the spiritual elements of purification and sanctification. Water is the spiritual solvent of washing, of forgiveness and repentance. But fire is the consuming love of God. The herald of Christ, John, declared, “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Matthew 3:11, NIV). “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is completed!” Jesus exclaimed (Luke 12:49-50, NIV). “Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:2-4a, NIV). “Do not put out the Spirit's fire” (1 Thessalonians 5:19, NIV). “Let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:28b-29, NIV).
The Gospel or Good News is an invitation to enter the narrow gate, to undergo sanctification not self-improvement; regeneration not self-esteem enhancement; fiery consumption not self-fulfillment; loving without counting the cost, not loving for a pay out or reward.
I heard hundreds of the “sinner's prayer,” and am struck by how few times I heard or read “I love you” in them. Knowing God may well take us at our word, would there be any hesitancy in praying, “Lord, I love you. I want to love you more each day, with all my heart and mind, to the point where I become nothing and you everything. Take me into you! Just take me and do whatever you want with all I treasure, value, with my very self. Your will is my will, no matter what. With your grace, I won't resist you or what you require of me. I will obey you in all things, whatever the cost. Just because I love you” ? Any hesitancy or second thoughts mean great depths of reflection are needed and a different kind of prayer for us sinners: a reflection on who Christ really is to us, and a prayerful dialog with Him about that.
John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
Spiritual Resource Services
Weekly Reflections © January 25, 2003
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