Sunday, November 22, 2009

Prayer and topics of illness and death

Yeah, if you have the feeling this is going to be another one of "those" posts, one that is a *thud* back to reality, your instinct is correct. Believe me when I tell you that I wish that all of my posts could be and would be like my series on the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, understanding God, understanding Jesus Christ, prayer, strengthening one's faith, and other affirmative crucial subjects necessary for a joyous believer to understand and embrace. But for every one of those posts that I issue, I know that misinformation and misunderstanding that is out there among both unbelievers and believers drags downward the efficacy of the joy and love that I present. And so it is time to make very clear an urgent problem that more of you have noticed, I would expect, than you would admit to. The problem is the decreasing efficacy of praying to God for support and intervention relating to illness and increased longevity in life.

First of all, remember that there are really two types of prayer. One is general prayer, which can be thought of as conversational, honoring, worshipful and glorifying of God in its purpose and content. The other kind of prayer is intercessory prayer, where one is basically asking God for something. One of the greatest failings among believers globally today is that there is much more of the second type than the first, and it ought to be the other way around. I am not being unkind, and neither is God, because every preacher and Sunday school teacher knows full well that people tend to forget about God day to day, but turn to him when they want something from him. That's human nature, and while "human nature" is a valid excuse for backsliding into that mindset, it is no excuse for remaining in that proportion or total lack of prayer once one is reminded that it is incorrect and showing lack of reverence and commitment in your relationship to God. So I am speaking about the problem of intercessory prayer that is directed to God asking for cures for one's self and/or for others and those that are related to asking for a long or a "longer" lifespan. The problem that I wish to address is that more of you than will admit to it, who are of a certain age and experience, know that God is answering in the affirmative less and less of those prayers now than he did previously. Young people (hi there!) you are not old enough, obviously, to remember when there seemed to be and indeed was a higher proportion of answered prayers relating to illness and lifespan, so just ride along in reading about this because it will give you a lot of useful insight and re-programming, so you can start to repair this problem and avoid the faults of the current generations' mindsets.

We need to start out with a reminder, which I have blogged extensively about, that scripture states very clearly that human lifespan is limited in time, no matter what humans may do regarding medical or technological achievements and advances. It is a generous amount of time that God has stated is the upper limit (one hundred and twenty years), when one considers he made that statement after Adam and Eve had disobeyed him in the Garden of Eden. God did not state that everyone would someday live to be one hundred and twenty (nor that those who died earlier than that are somehow cheated out of their right to a long life). God made clear that because Adam and Eve refused to live in obedience to God's Holy Spirit in Eden that they forfeited the supernatural extension of life on behalf of all of humanity. I recently blogged to explain that the dozen or so patriarchs who lived extraordinary centuries of life did indeed exist, and for several reasons they had this long life in God's service. I remind you of that because another reason a few, only a few, of God's children had this gift is that they bear witness to the overcoming of the flesh (and its eventual decay and demise) if filled with the Holy Spirit, which only God can give and cannot be "summoned" or otherwise gained or manipulated by humans via magic, "all natural living," or other false beliefs. So one has solid scriptural basis for understanding that God states that one hundred and twenty years will be the upper limit for humanity, but he makes no promises regarding any individual or group, and that he "proves" this to humans by having a small group live extraordinary live spans in the days of the great Patriarchs, for they were, for God's purpose, filled with the Holy Spirit to that end.

But already by the time of King David we see that even those who are blessed by God, but are now as all humans are, subject to natural laws regarding life span, able to "expect" only seventy years. In fact King David only lived to that age himself, and he was mightily blessed by God but again, recognize the difference between being blessed and being given supernatural presence of the Holy Spirit, which only those few Patriarchs had, and no one ever will again. How do we know that? There is extensive scripture regarding the shortness of life and the need to be prepared to suddenly meet God, but listen to what the human who knew God the best of all, since he often spoke with him face to face, said:

Psalm 90:10

The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labor and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.

This is a Psalm that was written by Moses. Moses is the only man to have frequently met with and spoken with God face to face, to have heard God speak his own Holy Name, to see God in passing in his glory, and to have a tent where he could ask God any question he needed, and ask for intercession on behalf of both large religious problems the Israelites faced, and squabbles where God's advice was needed. Last and not least, of course, Moses received the Ten Commandments and the Law from God. Besides Jesus Christ, was there ever anyone who knew God better than Moses? No, indeed. And here Moses writes in his Psalm that the life span of humans is seventy years, and that while some through their strength (health and what we'd call "good genes" today, ha) do live to eighty, that death will come fast nonetheless even for those oldsters, and that they achieve that lifespan often with discomfort and struggle (the sufferings of old age or a life of hardship).

Thus the Bible is filled with much observation, and remember all scripture is divinely inspired, often with direct "quotes" from God, regarding the upper limit (one hundred and twenty years) and likely limit for individuals (seventy to eighty years). It is imprudent and misleading, therefore, for people to expect otherwise.

Remember, as I've blogged before, up until one hundred years ago most humans did not live past forty years old, with men and women of good character and wisdom being eligible for being considered "elders" after the age of thirty! Through advances in medicine, better hygiene, and better food, water, shelter and energy supply, humans have in the past one hundred years added a good thirty years onto their practical expected lifespan: right on the mark what Moses observed and prophesied in his Psalm. One problem is that when through goodness of human charity and endeavor that lifespan was increased to reach its best potential, modern humans think that is an open ended "trend line." What I mean is they ignore the reality of how that progress was achieved, which is that more people are receiving what they previously "lacked," which was good food, shelter, hygiene, clean water and medical care, and it was that lacking that kept them from the natural life span they could expect. It was not a refuting of the fact that humans do have a real limit to their lifespan. In other words, even when what is lacking is provided, this does not open up a "gate" to indefinite length of life. To the contrary, abundance is sometimes a two edged sword where people often find new ways to lose their lives.

But let us stay on the point and not talk about risky behavior or the technical trade offs (such as whether automobiles versus horses or walking give more opportunities for long and safer life or not, which only God knows, of course). Let us stick to the point of 1) the reality of the human body and its frailty and limitation of life 2) God's stated intentions regarding human longevity.

As I've repeatedly advised people, when reading the Bible and thoughtfully trying to understand the events contained in it and God's will, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John containing the direct teaching of Jesus is the guide to proper discernment. So what did Jesus say about long life? What he said, undoubtedly preached many times, is actually repeated in Luke in two different contexts:

Luke 9:24

For whosoever will save his life, shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same will save it.


Luke 17:32-33

Remember Lot's wife.
Whosoever shall seek to save his life, shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his life, shall preserve it.

In Luke 9:24 three of the Apostles had just witnessed Jesus transfigured into his glorified body, accompanied by Moses and Elias, and being enveloped in clouds while hearing the voice of God. Upon descending the mountain where this occurred and joining the other disciples, they are immediately approached by a man seeking a cure for his son, who is wracked by spasms caused by a demon. The disciples had been unable to expel the demon and so Jesus does so and the boy is cured and restored. Having seen all these wonders the disciples start to discuss both out loud and in their own thoughts who of them would someday be the "greatest." It is then, in a longer discourse, that Jesus makes the remark in Luke 9:24. You should read the whole of Luke 9 on your own and study it. But with the context I have given you, you can now understand better what Jesus intends by Luke 9:24.

Jesus is both explaining and rebuking that the amount of miracles and cures that a person is part of is not the measure of greatness but, rather, in how much they serve God through Jesus. In other words, the disciples and others should not think of how great they are relative to each other or anyone else, but how totally they serve Jesus for the sake of God. Now, what does that have to do with lifespan and health? Two things. One, Jesus makes this statement immediately after curing a boy. Remember, one learns by the actions of Jesus in addition to his words. So Jesus is clearly saying that where possible it is God's will to cure illness, but that cure of illness must always be in the context of the glorification of God, whether that cure is miraculous, as only God can provide, or routine through good care and medicine. Remember that the woman who had been cured of bleeding by Jesus had gone for years to many doctors first. So Jesus by example demonstrates that God is all for good health and curing of ailments so long it is done for his glory. I do not mean just praising or thanking God. When someone performs medicine for the glory of God, it means two things: they acknowledge that all goodness comes from God AND they do not accomplish any cure via sinfulness or injustice.

Suppose that father had said, "Please cure my son. I've done everything, including killing some pagan kid and trying to transplant his brain into my son's head." That would be a stark example of someone not glorifying God in their search for a cure for their son.

So the second reason this passage spoken by Jesus has to do with lifespan and by implication medicine is that Jesus equates the disciples' argument and speculation about greatness with lifespan. In a time of great poverty often a person was viewed as "great" simply because he or she had a long lifespan. A long lifespan (again, remember that was being over forty years old for the average person) was viewed as a blessing, one that was often merited due to being in God's good graces. Whether that was true or not (and of course long lifespan can be a great blessing, but not always) Jesus of course spoke using concepts the people could understand. So Jesus is essentially saying that rather than worry about which of you is "greater," understand that even if you are cut dead after a short life, if you lose your life for my sake you will save your life through all eternity... but if you try to cling to a long life (cling to greatness), life will inevitably strip it away from you, especially if you are attempting to be great (live long) without God.

If humans had a hope of living beyond what God had previously stated and demonstrated throughout the Bible, this would have been the time that Jesus would have said so. Instead, Jesus with one very simple and powerful image conveyed much spiritual and worldly information. Jesus let people know that:

1. There is the life that one has as a living being, and then the eternal life afterwards, and the eternal life is obviously the one that a person should look to God for in hope of receiving, not the worldly life;
2. That if a person suffers a curtailment of his or her lifespan for the sake of God through Jesus, then he or she will save their eternal life and not perish in it;
3. That a person who attempts to cling to life shall lose it, one way or the other. Either the forces of natural life and/or the consequences of one's actions (including sin or injustice) will curtail the life that is so eagerly attempted to be preserved and/or the person will lose their chance at eternal life with God simply because they put their earthly life ahead of God and eternal life in importance.

Thus to apply the totality of Luke 9 to the question of praying for good health, cures or long lifespan, you see that Jesus:

1. Demonstrates what the glorified body will look like in eternal life and that two well known prophets, Moses and Elias, are indeed in heaven, so Jesus begins that day with affirming the primacy of one's eternal life and the reality of it, that it is not just an illusion or wishful thinking;
2. Demonstrates that one should, indeed, care about the health of one's loved ones on earth and seek responsible cures, as the father sought the help of Jesus to cast the demon from his little boy;
3. Chides the apostles for vying among themselves in search of a false hierarchy of greatness based on earthly life, even if that earthly life includes receipt of the authority from God to perform miracles;
4. Acknowledges that the greatest currency in the mind of the people of those times as far as measuring "greatness" among poor people was to have a long life or to save one's life from peril;
5. And thus debunks both the idea of relative greatness and the idea of preserving the earthly life as being of foremost importance;
6. Therefore explaining that attempts to save one's life as more important than focusing on God foremost will be futile, resulting in loss of earthly life and possibly eternal life;
7. While, therefore, if one thinks not of one's greatness or life span as of the utmost importance but instead thinks first and foremost of God might retain one's life on earth and definitely will have the promise of eternal life in heaven.

This is such an important concept of not only the spiritual sanctified life of serving God that all faithful believers should pursue that Jesus uses almost the same words but in a different context, both reaffirming and more so broadening their meaning. That is the significance of Luke 17: 32 and here is that context.

Jesus is having a long teaching and discussion session with the disciples. In previous chapters they have already discussed many things, culminating with telling the disciples about the rich man who was sent to hell for not having saved a suffering starving man outside of his gate. Thus Luke 17 is Jesus' summation of the importance that 1) people must avoid sin and offense at all costs and 2) people should be generous in forgiveness.

Then "The apostles said unto the Lord, 'Increase our faith.' Jesus does so by telling them a parable demonstrating that faith is first found through great humility while obeying all that God instructs. After this discourse they traveled through Samaria and Galilee and entered a village where Jesus heals ten lepers who had begged him to do so. Now, this is interesting so make note of it. Jesus healed them by sending them to the local priests. When the lepers went to the priests, without the priests doing anything each leper was cured (by Jesus) but out of the sight of Jesus and in the direct sight of the priest. Only one comes back to thank Jesus and that ends up being the focal point of this miracle, both in the subsequent actions and discourse by Jesus and also by most preachers in modern times. Yes, gratitude is a crucial point, but have you ever thought about why Jesus sent the lepers, uncured, to the priests, and then the cure by Jesus fell upon each of them in the sight of the priests? There are two reasons and these are essential to understanding Jesus and his teaching:

1. Sure, the obvious reason is true that Jesus was forcing the priests to witness the cure of the lepers and thus rubbing their faces in it a bit (the priests would have been shunning the lepers and so you can appreciate the humor if you understand that when Jesus sends ten lepers to the priests and right in front of the priests each leper loses his leprosy while the priests stare in horror and astonishment);
2. But here is the more important point. Even though the priests were of no help to curing the lepers, Jesus was demonstrating, even though some time had passed, what he had just spoken of to the disciples regarding humility and obedience to God. Thus Jesus sends the lepers to the priests of God first, showing all that one is supposed to focus on God first, rather than the "cure."

This event and of course the other events resulted in another confrontation with the Pharisees. Jesus gives a discourse to respond to their question of "When the kingdom of God should come" that Jesus again makes the statement about losing one's life or preserving one's life. Do you see how the context differs, but the truth is constant? In Jesus' discourse, Luke 17:20-37, Jesus first reminds the Pharisees of their history, from creation through the days of Noah and up to the destruction of Sodom and the saving from it of Lot. The reason Jesus mentions this history is to make two points that 1) God's kingdom is already here and always was, as his will is done whatever the circumstances, whether foreseen by humans or not and 2) the cycle of obedience/disobedience/chastisement that humans continually test God's patience with. The form of disobedience that Jesus is focused on explaining here is an excessive focus on material goods and activities and diminished obedience to God. It is in that context that he compares what happened when it rained fire and brimstone from heaven onto Sodom as being, in the future, how it will be when the Son of Man is "revealed." This refers to Jesus returning in the Second Coming as judge.

By the way, pay close attention to not only our theme about holding onto life/health but also I am going to explain one of the most misunderstood passages about the Apocalypse here too, so we have a dual benefit in studying this scripture.

In Luke 17:29 Jesus reminds the Pharisees that the righteous man, Lot, was saved from the destruction. Lot did so by fleeing, following the instructions of the angels, and taking nothing with him. So Jesus compares Lot following the instructions of the angels, running away from his earthly possessions and thus toward God with what righteous men and women will do at the End of Times, the Apocalypse, the Second Coming: they will flee all earthly attachment, follow the instructions of God's angels and look only to God:

Luke 17:31
In that day, he which shall be upon the house-top, and his stuff in the house, let him not come down to take it away: and he that is in the field, let him likewise not return back.

In other words, people (who spent a lot of time on their roofs, as many lived above their animals and other goods) should not go back into the house to get their stuff; they should be ready to go with God as they are. Likewise people who are working in the field should leave the field and not try to harvest some food for the road. This is NOT RAPTURE. Sodom was not "rapture," it was the handful of faithful fleeing on foot while the many unfaithful were burned and destroyed. When Jesus makes a comparison, he means it as it is, literally. Sodom was a bloodbath, not an "out of body" or "rapture" experience. Thus Jesus is saying that at his Second Coming people need to be ready in advance to leave all earthly attachment behind and attend to God.

How do we know this besides the obvious fact that like I said, Jesus makes his comparisons to be exact? That is the heart of the reference to Lot's wife and the problem of clinging to health/cures/lifespan/goods:

Luke 17:32-36
Remember Lot's wife.
Whosoever shall seek to save his life, shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his life, shall preserve it.
I tell you, in that night there shall be two men in one bed; and the one shall be taken, and the other shall be left.
Two women shall be grinding together; the one shall be taken and the other left.
Two men shall be in the field; the one shall be taken, the other left.

Now, all Jesus had to say is "remember Lot's wife" without expounding further because everyone indeed knew what he meant. Lot's wife was one of the just who was saved by following the warning of the angels and fleeing Sodom with her husband... except for one problem. She was just, she was saved, but she turned around to look back, whether by morbid curiosity or regret for her possessions, and she lost her life. Everyone would have immediately clicked and understood exactly what Jesus was saying.

Two just people, Lot and his wife, were saved from Sodom, but one at the last minute did not shed her earthly attentions and thus, even though she was just, lost her life. She disobeyed, having been told not to look back. It is a great sadness and reality that many just people do, in a pinch, disobey God, even (often) for the most stupid of reasons. We've seen that often. Remember when Moses was told to strike a rock once for water by God and he struck it twice "just in case," as if the number of times he struck the rock "made" the water come and not God? Likewise Lot's wife, though just, disobeyed in the ultimate "what was she thinking" moment.

Here is where the math comes into it. Lot and his wife were two just people, and both were saved by the angels. One just person obeyed everything God said and saved his life, that being Lot. One just person disobeyed the instructions and lost her life, that would be Lot's wife. So of two just people, one stayed just to the end, while one disobeyed out of weakness at the last minute. That's half and half.

That is why Jesus drives home the point that at the coming of the Kingdom of God, half of the just will obey to the end and be saved, while half will fizzle out and disobey at the last minute because of their attachment to the world.

1) Two men sleeping (no, not "that way," but in those days people shared blankets and mats on the floor), one will be taken (as in the Lot analogy) and one will not (as in Lot's wife analogy).
Half and half.
2) Two women shall be grinding together (no, not "that way," but in those days people had to pulverize their grains to make bread or gruel); the one shall be taken (as in the Lot analogy) and one will not (as in Lot's wife analogy).
Half and half.
3) Two men shall be in the field; the one shall be taken (as in the Lot analogy) and the other left (as in the Lot's wife analogy).
Half and half.

They then go on to ask Jesus where, but really, we need to stick to the topic here or this will turn into too long a single posting bringing in too many topics that need in-depth discussion on their own.

Jesus is once again explaining that life is good and should be lived with goodness and joy, but that even the just humans fall in great numbers to the often last minute weakness of earthly attachment and thus disobey God, often for the most dimwitted and minor of reasons, as Lot's wife demonstrates. That is what Jesus is saying and warning about, and it ought to be very sobering for you because Jesus is talking about two JUST people here, Lot and his wife: one obeys and is saved and the other is saved, but disobeys at the last minute, and is lost. Jesus isn't even talking about believers or non-believers, "sinners" or not: both Lot and his wife were just and were saved by the angels... but Lot's wife disobeyed at the end by looking back with longing on something of worldly possessions and attachment when it was time to let them go.

Jesus is not saying that half of the people will be "raptured" into heaven: he is saying that half of the just people will fail and fall in disobedient weakness at the very end. If you have been believing otherwise, you should be very concerned and worried right about now. (Past due actually!)

This is what you need to understand about prayers for heal, healing, cures, and long lifespan. Too often even well meaning prayers are like Lot's wife... they are just people who at the last minute cling too hard to the world. This does not mean you can't pray or should not pray for yourself or your loved ones health, sicknesses, ailments, or that they should be healed and live, but one MUST do that against an overall background of knowing that:

Whosoever shall seek to save his life, shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his life, shall preserve it.

I'm going to wrap up this post and continue in a subsequent one because believe it or not this was the context setting post, ha, for getting to the point I want to make about why God seems to be answering fewer prayers for healings and life savings than he used to, just in these past fifty years or so. In the next post I will explain that sure, I'm not saying to stop praying intercessory prayers regarding life and health, but I am going to explain to you why so many of them are not answered the way that many are hoping. For you to follow my "faith and reasoning" commentary this post's background and context is essential, so do think about it and read the recommended chapters to get the overall context renewed and refreshed.