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Saturday, 27 February 2016

Paying Attention: Emotions

Here is my second address from our Silent Retreat:

Paying Attention: Emotions

Many of the great figures in the Bible seem to have viewed prayer as being more like a constant conversation with God than they did a scheduled time for making requests. In some ways there seems to be a greater understanding of this in Judaism than in Christianity. I’ve been helped and challenged by some of what Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi, has said about this understanding of prayer in a fascinating lecture called Judaism, Justice and Tragedy - Confronting the problem of evil.

He sees Abraham as being the starting point in scripture for this kind of dialogue between God and human beings and said that “there begins a dialogue between Heaven and Earth which has not ceased in 4,000 years”. He calls it the dialogue in which God and Man find one another and says that the mood of these dialogues between the prophets and God has been a never-ending feature in Judaism.

Have a look at the conversation between God and Abraham in Genesis 18. 16-33 and see what goes on there. The first thing to see in verse 17 is that God invites the conversation. He could have hidden his thoughts and plans from Abraham but he chooses not to. Instead he shares with Abraham and invites not just conversation but challenge from Abraham. Because that is what Abraham does in this conversation – he challenges God. What Abraham says to God, recorded for is in verse 25, is stunning - "God forbid that You should do such a thing! To kill the righteous with the wicked so that the righteous should have the same fate as the wicked, God forbid! Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice?" It sounds blasphemous that a human being, who as Abraham says of himself in verse 27 is “nothing but dust and ashes”, should speak in this way to his creator. It sounds blasphemous until we remember that God chose to initiate this conversation and this challenge.

What is God doing then through this conversation? Let’s go back to what God said about Abraham before beginning this conversation. In verse 19, God says that Abraham has been chosen to “direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just”. Remember that phrase, “what is right and just” because it the phrase that Abraham throws back in God’s face – “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” - “Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice?". Through their conversation, God is teaching Abraham to argue passionately for what is right and what is just. As Abraham learns to do this he becomes more able to righteousness and justice to his children and household.

In the same way, God wants us to be in conversation, in dialogue, in debate, in arguments with him so that we can find him for ourselves and actually embody his characteristics and interests ourselves. He wants us to learn to do right through discussion rather than by rote. If all we do as Christians is to learn a set of rules then we will never be able to apply those rules to real life. Because in order to do right we need to apply the Spirit of the Law, not the letter of the Law. Jesus did this constantly and his application of the Spirit of the Law continually brought him into conflict with the religious leaders of his day who were concerned with the letter of the Law. A good example is the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8. 1-11.

We can see this acted out for us by the people of Israel at Mount Sinai. Let’s look quickly at Exodus 19. In verse 6 we read of God saying that the Israelites “will be for him a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”. Priests in Israel were the people who went into the holy place, into God’s presence. So God is saying that he wants all the people of Israel to come into his presence and to speak with him face-to-face. But turn over the page to Chapter 20.19 and you’ll find the people of Israel saying to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die”. In other words, they are saying we’ll obey God’s rules but we won’t speak with him face to face. They appoint Moses to be their mediator, to go into God’s presence on their behalf.

Moses learns to mirror God from his conversations and debates with God. So much so, that his face begins to shine with the reflection of God’s glory. But the people never really learn what God is like because they will not speak with him face to face. They keep him at arms length by using Moses as the mediator and by trying to keep rules which they know but don’t understand. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3.18 that we, like Moses, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are to be transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. That transformation comes as we dialogue, debate, argue and converse with God.

Other people in the Bible who have these kind of conversations with God include: Jacob; Samuel; Job; Jeremiah; Jonah; Habakkuk; Jesus and Paul. The Psalms though are where most of the conversations between people and God are recorded. Virtually all the Psalms are conversations where it is assumed that the hearer is either God or the people of Israel. Some of the Psalms are actually written as conversations though e.g. Psalm 12. In verses 1-4 the Psalmist cries out to God for help, in verses 5-6 God answers and in verses 7-8 the Psalmist responds by expressing confidence in God. Psalm 77 is the record of a similar conversation with God. In verses 1-6 the Psalmist tells us how he cried out to God, in verses 7-9 he tells what he cried out, in verses 10-12 he tells us how God answered his cry, and in verses 13-20 he tells us of his response to God’s answer.

This approach to prayer is one that a number of Christian poets have picked up and used over the centuries:

•             DialogueGeorge Herbert
•             Love III – George Herbert
•             Bittersweet – George Herbert
•             Thou art indeed just, LordGerard Manley Hopkins

The conversations with God that are recorded for us in the Psalms are one’s that involve a whole range of different emotions. You might like to read through some Psalms and identify what is the emotion being expressed. Once you’ve done that then choose three of these different emotions that connect with you and think, if you were to have a conversation with God which involved that emotion, what you would be talking about with him and what you would be wanting to say to him. 

We are often quite restrained in our relationship with God and in our praying. Therefore, we often praise God and say that we will obey or follow him but we rarely argue, protest, complain or question him, at least not publicly. Would today be a good opportunity to start including some of these more difficult emotions in your prayer life?


Mark Heard - Strong Hand Of Love.

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