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~ Among the Greatest Ways to Serve ~

“Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5, NIV). In his penitential psalm, David was not just talking about his own conception, but citing a universal principle regarding the flawed state of humankind.

We don’t think of little children as being sinners. Yet we find ourselves needing to teach them virtue. There is no need to teach them selfishness, to hit each other when they are angry, to not take or destroy property when they are jealous, or to not lie when guilty. Those things are not learned but come naturally. Children are as much in need of redemptive and restorative grace as any adult.

A familiar verse about the power of prayer is James 5:16: “...The fervent prayer of a righteous [person] is powerful and effective.” The three important descriptives to  understand are “fervent,” “righteous,” and “powerful and effective.” Let’s start with the middle one.

As scripturally defined, righteousness doesn’t proceed out of one’s character, accomplishments, or good works. “For no person will be justified – made righteous, acquitted, and judged acceptable – in His sight by observing the works prescribed by the Law. For [the real function of] the Law is to make men recognize and be conscious of sin [not mere perception, but an acquaintance with sin which works toward repentance, faith and holy character.]...[All] are justified and made upright and in right standing with God, freely and gratuitously by His grace (His unmerited favor and mercy), through the redemption which is [provided] in Christ Jesus...It was to demonstrate and prove at the present time (in the now season) that He Himself is righteous and that He justified and accepts as righteous him who has [true] faith in Jesus...For what does the Scripture say? Abraham believed (trusted in) God and it was credited to his account as righteousness – right living and right standing with God. [Genesis 15:6]” (Romans 4:20, 24, 26, 5:3, Amplified Bible).

“Righteousness” isn’t an earned quality, “For if Abraham was justified (that is, established as just by acquittal from guilt) by good works, he has grounds for boasting. But not before God!” (Romans 4:2, AB). So take comfort in that the most wretched sinner can be made righteous while the morality and uprightness of persons (and many atheists are, for example) have no standing in the eyes of God. Such is the dynamic of the Kingdom of Heaven where the least is the greatest, the first is the last and those that lose their lives gain them.

The second descriptive to examine and better understand is “fervent.” The original Greek word translated into the meaning of the combination of the English words “earnest, heartfelt, continued, fervent” is “stretched out.” It is so important to study the original languages and realize how impoverished our understanding of God’s word can be if we insist that only a particular translation is accurate and neglect all others. Here is a good example. When biblical translators of diverse denominational perspectives encounter a Greek term literally meaning “stretched out,” they know they cannot write “The stretched out prayer of a righteous man...” and have it make sense to English readers. The Amplified Bible translation includes all the various shades of meaning which provides great insight, but, of course, is too laborious for public (and most private) readings of Scripture. So they pick and choose what fits best in their perspective. And so we cannot argue over or insist upon the English (or other modern language) renditions as being the “truth” without looking at the original words.

“Stretched out” depicts the image of a fully prostrate person on the ground, crying to God in humility. Other images come to mind, like a track athlete stretching his or her legs over the hurdles or a climber on a cliff reaching high overhead for another handhold. Thus the Amplified Bible translation combines the English words “earnest, heartfelt and continued” to connote the Greek meaning of “stretched out.” The all-night prayers of Jesus were indeed “stretched out,” prompting His disciples to ask, “Lord, teach us to pray.” The prayers of the Psalter “stretch out” and remind us how lukewarm our own private and public prayers can be.

The third descriptive is “powerful and effective.” Some translations are really lukewarm, rendering the original language as “availeth much.” The original Greek term is best described as “makes tremendous power available, dynamic in its working.” (“Dynamic” is directly related to the Greek word for power, from which we get the word “dynamite.”)

So given a righteous standing before God by virtue of His grace through the redemptive work of His Incarnate Christ, and a stretching out in fervency, heart, earnestness, and steadfastness (continuous, unceasing), our prayers generate tremendous, dynamic power. To drive that point home to us, James points to the prophet Elijah, whose prayers resulted in powerful physical displays of miraculous phenomena, reminding us he was human, “just like us.”

Now we can return to verse 5:16 in James with which we began and note, “...pray for one another, that you may be healed and restored – to a spiritual tone of mind and heart.” What a calling to the service of the body of Christ! It is precisely an opportunity to fulfill Christ’s mandate, “Love others as I have loved you,” or in the exposition of James, “Help heal and restore others has I have done for you.”

I recently heard a radio preacher remark, “The Christian army is the only one that shoots its wounded.” We can, of course, take issue with any generality, but this one, like most, speaks some truth. Although it is frequently masked as loving concern, and sometimes as just pure condemnation, one denomination takes glee in the fall “into sin” of other’s leader or Church Board of Directors. Even within a small church, eyes follow the journey of a stumbling brother or sister and mouths are quick to pronounce, “See, I knew he was a hypocrite...not an authentic Christian like me.” They don’t remember that gossip and strife are listed along side of sexual immorality as grave sins in Scripture.

Perhaps they also do not recall James’ words, “If one of you should wander from the truth, and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins” (James 5:19, NIV). How does James say this should be done? “Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise. Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he shall be forgiven” (James 5:15, NIV). Prayer is the calling and the way!

Some criticize the Desert Fathers and those of the hermit and cloister traditions for withdrawing from the world “just” to pray. Let us ponder the possibility (and what I contend is the reality) that prayer is the foremost form and endeavor of service to our brothers and sisters, not the last resort in times of need and adversity. Christ Himself, our Way, Truth and Life, spent more time in prayer than in performance of physical good works and teaching, as evidenced by a review of the Gospels. He continues to be our High Priest, whose priestly function is to pray to the Father in intercession for us, as the Son of God and the Son of man. We are summoned to be like Him, and to love and treat each other as He loves and treats us. Being Christlike means being constantly, fervently, heartfully stretched out in prayer.

John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
Spiritual Resource Services

Weekly Reflections © September 12, 2003
Responses are welcome at: Reflections@prayergear.com

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