The Path and the By-Paths
In the Psalms we find these words: Lord, teach me your way, so that I can live by your truth. Teach me to serve you with complete devotion. Teach me, Lord, the meaning of your laws, and I will obey them at all times. (Ps 86:11; 119:35)
We are following a path for the next number of weeks that will help us to explore praying and prayer not from a how-to approach but a who-to approach. We trust that we will come to find delight in prayer rather than just finding prayer a duty. We trust that we will come to a better understanding of the purpose of prayer and its place in developing and sustaining our relationship with God.
If you have never read John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, I urge you to do so. While it may seem dated, Bunyan’s allegory on the Christian life contains a wisdom that transcends time and space. While it may not correspond totally to your experience, it nevertheless paints a picture of the Christian journey in life that will no doubt resonate with many.
Today we are going to focus on the path of prayer and speak about the by-paths. Packer likens this focus to a hike. If you have ever set out for a hike on a well-marked trail and then seen a path to the side that looked like a real path and decided to take it instead of the well-marked trail, you may have found yourself on a by-path. I found one something like what he is talking about near Banff Alberta. I went for a hike with my oldest son. We expected to be gone 2 hours. Somehow we lost the main trail and found ourselves on what amounted to a goat path clinging to the side of a mountain that overlooked a deep valley. With no hiking sticks and no water we spent another three hours winding our way searching for a familiar landmark. Finally we scrambled up the side of the mountain where we found a campsite and a phone. We then called Diana to come and get us. The experience was one we would never forget but not long to repeat. By-paths can be great adventure but they can also bring great danger.
Just as Packer has encouraged us to come to a clearer understanding of who God is in his nature and begin to see that we are being invited to come to God in prayer as a friend, he wants us to find the authentic path of prayer so that we may not find ourselves on a goat path that leads us away from God but on a path that will keep our feet firmly on the way of God. He wants us to see our lives as one long hike – through all its ups and downs – in the company of God who is our companion on the journey.
So what are the marks of this true path of prayer? The first mark is to follow instruction we find in Scripture. Packer encourages us to read the Psalms and to read what Paul and others have said about prayer. The second mark is our commitment to a way of life. When we put our faith in Jesus Christ and decide to live as Jesus’ disciples, we are to follow his teachings and so commit ourselves to the way of life given to us by Jesus. The third mark is purity of heart. But by purity of heart he is not thinking of purity in the strict moral sense but rather heeding the first and greatest commandment of which Jesus reminded us: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. Purity of heart is a matter of willing one thing and that is to live every day of one’s life loving God – being single-minded and so being pure in our heart’s affection and focus. Now this may sound like an impossible path to follow, but Packer says that this is the path that God asks each believer to follow and that we can follow that path to God through prayer because God will be patient with us. Our study of Scripture, our commitment to the way of life revealed by the teachings of Jesus and our willingness to love God in heart, mind and soul will draw us along the path of prayer and help us to avoid the by-paths that would tempt us.
And what are the by-paths? The by-paths can be many and varied. They often come when we are seeking quick answers to life’s struggles; when we pray for immediate relief for a situation that is troubling us in mind, body or spirit. They also come when we offer a prayer and feel that we have not received an answer to that prayer; or when our prayer becomes more of a demand for a specific outcome rather than seeking to understand the way of God and how that may influence our prayer and the response we will receive. At other times it can be when we try a new method of prayer in the hope that it – by itself - will help us to a better relationship with God.
Consider this: does a good friend always do whatever you ask just because you think it is what is needed, or does a good friend listen, give advice or opinion and help you to truly discover what it is you truly need. So often we simply scratch the surface of prayer but fail to truly engage God in our prayers. And that can be the greatest by-path of them all.
Going back to the Pilgrim’s Progress, we need to note that the decision of the pilgrim to follow the path of God is not one that is taken alone. The pilgrim has a companion. Somehow we forget that Jesus sent the disciples out two by two – never alone. Yet somehow we have come to believe that our relationship to God and with God is a matter for ourselves alone. True, we each need to take the path of faith for ourselves but we are encouraged to take companions. The Camino walk in Spain says that even if you start the walk alone, you will end it with companions.
Jesus himself begins his ministry alone but he ends it with companions. True enough, the companions abandon him at what may be seen as his hour of greatest need but they return and he still considers them companions. In fact, he considers them friends. Packer feels that we need to capture this when talking about our life together as Christians in community. Rather than talking about our fellowship with one another, we need to talk about our friendship with one another and our friendship with God as articulated by Jesus. And what is a friend? Friendship is more than mere acquaintanceship; it is a bond of intimacy built out of mutual trust, truthfulness, care and accountability. James Houston – in a guide to devotional reading – said that “a true friend in Christ will wake me up, help me to grow, and deepen my awareness of God.” (Packer, Praying, pg. 52) For Packer this is the friend we have in Jesus.
So our decision to follow the authentic path of prayer will involve us in an understanding of prayer throughout the history of Scripture, it will encourage us to commit ourselves to following the way of God as revealed through Scripture and lead us to a true love of God that we may not find our heart, soul or mind divided but focused on that friendship that God seeks to have with us and we come to understand that we seek to have with God.