The FISHERS Magazine (Issue 226)

Praying to a Holy God

Christian Living

Praying is Difficult
Prayer is at the same time a most basic, and yet a most profound, discipline of the Christian life. It is so simple that a child can pray in such a way as to be pleasing to God. But it is also a vital work the church must do, and perhaps the most difficult as well. It is an almost universal reality that the worst attended meeting in western churches today is the prayer meeting.

Prayer requires a certain self-discipline which sadly eludes many. Our flesh seems to resist this means of grace more than others. We find it easier to study the Bible than to pray. We would rather enjoy Christian fellowship with others than pray. It is far easier to give money to a mission’s cause than to persevere in prayer for it. Some might even prefer to do street evangelism than to pray. Thus, unless we take prayer seriously as a discipline, we will end up doing anything else except pray. But it is precisely the lack of prayer that renders those “prayer-substitutes” fruitless.

Praying Right is Difficult
But our feebleness in prayer does not end there. Even when we do pray, we are severely crippled by our faint knowledge of the God to Whom we pray.

Think about this – there is nothing specifically Christian about prayer as all religions advocate prayer. For many, prayer is an activity in and of itself, hence they speak of “offering prayers” or “doing one’s prayers” or “saying prayers”. Some people even infuse mysticism into their prayers – how one feels when praying is the final test of whether prayers are “effective” or not. One creates a mental picture in one’s mind of a god one is comfortable with, a god one likes talking to, so that one finds times of prayer enriching and enjoyable. It is a frightening reality that such mysticism has infiltrated Christian prayers too.

What sets Christian prayer apart is the God to Whom we pray. A right biblical knowledge of who God is, what God is like, how God responds to prayer, should distinguish Christian prayer from all others. Consider the Lord’s teaching, “And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words” (Matt 6:7). We often mistake Christ’s teaching here as regarding how one ought to pray or not to pray. But actually, His main point is about what God is like. This is because He immediately clarifies the character and nature of God, “So do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.” (Matt 6:8). Knowing God aright is key to praying aright.

Christian prayer is different from pagan religious prayers chiefly because the God to Whom we pray is not up to us to conjure in our minds. He is God Almighty, the Triune Godhead Who has revealed Himself to us in the Bible. Having a right understanding of Who it is we pray to, is critical for the Christian. Getting this right will eliminate many of our problems with prayer.

Praying to God Who is Holy
God is holy, by which we mean that He is spotlessly pure and dreadfully awesome. The word “awesome” has been so abused that it has just about lost all its useful significance. When young people say “awesome”, they mean “terrific” or “thrilling”; but when the Bible says “awesome”, it means to inspire awe, to engender fear, to evoke dread in the heart.

The Bible portrays God’s holiness with an unmistakable gravitas. After the drowning of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea, Moses sang, “Who is like You among the gods, O LORD? Who is like You, majestic in holiness, awesome in praises, working wonders?” (Exod 15:11). The men of Beth-shemesh, looked into the ark of the covenant and 50,070 of them died; the rest spoke in fear, “Who is able to stand before the LORD, this holy God?” (1 Sam 6:20). On a different note, the psalmist praises God “For Your righteousness, O God, reaches to the heavens, You who have done great things; O God, who is like You?” (Ps 71:19). God is thrice holy – immaculate in purity, spotless in righteousness, blazing in radiance, and altogether separate from His creation.

Some conceive of divine holiness like this: there are good men, even better men, saintly men, and really godly men. Then beyond that, you have a holy God. Others think that the holiness of God is like the righteousness of the best of men, magnified a billion times. These do not even come close to defining God’s holiness. In reality, God exists in fundamental distinction from creation. God is altogether different from us. He “dwells in unapproachable light” (1 Tim 6:16) and man cannot get near Him. Even from afar, man cannot look into His blazing radiance to catch a glimpse of Him. Aiden W. Tozer puts it like this:
We cannot grasp the true meaning of the divine holiness by thinking of someone or something very pure and then raising the concept to the highest degree we are capable of. God’s holiness is not simply the best we know infinitely bettered. We know nothing like the divine holiness. It stands apart, unique, unapproachable, incomprehensible and unattainable. The natural man is blind to it. He may fear God’s power and admire His wisdom, but His holiness he cannot even imagine.

God is holy, we pray to a holy God and so we must remember this. But how did men in the Bible respond to God’s holiness when they realised the full force of it? Manoah, father of Samson, met with God in the following way, “For it came about when the flame went up from the altar toward heaven, that the angel of the LORD ascended in the flame of the altar. When Manoah and his wife saw this, they fell on their faces to the ground.” (Jdg 13:20). Right after this, he said to his wife, “We will surely die, for we have seen God” (Jdg 13:22). He was in terror, for he knew that if he saw God, God also saw him, and God is holy while Manoah was not.

Isaiah saw the pre-incarnate Christ sitting on His throne, high and exalted, and pronounced a curse on himself, “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.” (Isa 6:5). His eyes saw the King, so he knew the holy King’s eyes also saw his wicked self and he was terrified.

In the NT, the disciples were in a boat with Jesus sleeping therein when a gale came upon the lake which threatened to sink the boat. The disciples were afraid. They woke Jesus, who stilled the storm; then, the disciples “became very much afraid” (Mark 4:41). A storm outside the boat is less frightening than a holy God inside. On another occasion, a woman who haemorrhaged for 12 years touched Jesus and was instantly healed; and she was “trembling”. Knowing that she touched the garment of God in flesh, she realised that this holy God also came into physical contact with her sinful self and this terrorised her.

The consistent reaction of persons of faith discovering (or rediscovering) God’s holiness is deep fear. Their response is not flippant, casual, pathetic nor apathetic. They are terrorised, become lifeless like corpses, and they curse themselves. This is the same God to Whom we pray today. Knowing God’s holiness should dramatically change our attitude in prayer and our approach to prayer.

Contrition in Prayer
Our prayers must be characterised by deep humility and awe. We come before God repentant, in contrition, because His holiness makes us hyper-sensitive to our sins and our propensity to sin. We should learn from David’s repentance. Though he was confident of God’s forgiveness, he wrote, “I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me” (Ps 51:3). He sees his own present continuous sinfulness as he contemplates himself in the presence of God’s holiness. This attitude of ongoing repentance, contrition and humility, is vital.

Consternation in Prayer
Heb 12:28-29 says, “Therefore, since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire.” This was not written to non-believers, but to the regenerate, those who “receive a kingdom”, whose salvation “cannot be shaken”. What is the response of one who is saved? Out of gratitude, he offers to God servitude in the attitude of “reverence and awe”. Why does he do it? Because “our God is a consuming fire”. The fact that the “consuming fire” is our Heavenly Father is beside the point; it is still a cause and reason for us to fear of God.

For us who are in Christ, the gates of Heaven are flung wide open for us, and we are safe in the arms of Jesus. Our sins have been forgiven us. But it precisely because our sins are forgiven, that is why we fear God. Ps 130:3-4 affirms this, “If You, LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with You, that You may be feared.”

But why do we fear God when His divine judgement has been taken away from us? This is crucial for us to grasp. If we are fearful of God only because of the judgement due to us then this is a self-centred fear of God. But if we fear God even after our sins are fully and finally forgiven, this is a God-centred fear of God. This is a fear motivated by Who God is, by His awful holiness. If you do not understand this, you do not understand God’s holiness.

How does this fear of God despite being forgiven come about? First, we take full note of God’s holiness as we stare into the consuming fire that is God and we understand how in His holiness, God must be angry against sin with a fierce wrath. Second, we realise that the wrath of God against our sins, the sins we have actually committed, did not just disappear into nowhere, it was ferociously inflicted on the body of Christ in all its fullness. That thought ought to draw out of our deepest heart of hearts a gratitude and a desperate desire that we worship and please this Saviour God in a way that is fitting and proper. This is then what leads us to reverence and awe.

Capitulation in Prayer
For all the freedom we have in Christ, we must bear in mind that God is not one of us but rather, He is indescribably holy. We do not come to God as a peer, and we do not swagger into His presence as if we are dignitaries of noble stature. He is the all-sufficient Creator, we are dependent creatures. He is the God of the world, full of majestic grandeur; in His presence, all mankind ought to press their faces to the ground.

At times, we treat God too flippantly, even in prayer. For instance, we like to multi-task while praying (eg. we pray on the road, we pray in buses and trains, we pray in line at McDonald’s, we pray in the toilet). These are not necessarily wrong, but surely, we esteem God too lowly when the majority of time we spend in prayer are times when we are also doing something else. We should avoid multi-tasking when praying to God because God is awful in His holiness.

Compliance in Prayer
Since God is holy, our prayers must aim at the pleasure of God, and not the satisfaction of the one praying. God is holy; He will always do what is wise and best, to His greatest glory and our greatest good. Hence, we must learn to season our petitions with the attitude of Christ at Gethsemane “not as I will, but as You will” (Matt 26:39). We should pray, “God, I want this suffering removed, but not as I will, but as You will.” or “Lord this cross is too heavy for me to bear, it is about to crush me. Please take it off my shoulders, yet not as I will, but as You will.”. Because God is holy, we must pray with a submitted will.

We must never diminish God in our estimation, because a lofty view of God will affect how we pray and what we pray for. Let us come before Him in deep reverence and awe when we pray, remembering always that He is the holy and almighty Creator and that we are but His creatures.

Tan Soon Yong

- Tan Soon Yong is a pastor of The 'Fisherman of Christ' Fellowship and an editor of Fishers.

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