A seventeenth- century Roman Catholic Frenchman named Francois Fenelon wrote these words about prayer.
“Tell God all that is in your heart, as one unloads one’s heart, its pleasures and its pains, to a dear friend. Tell Him your troubles, that He may comfort you; tell Him your joys, that He may sober them; tell Him your longings, that He may purify them; tell Him your dislikes, that He may help you to conquer them, talk to Him of your temptations, that He may shield you from them; show Him the wounds of your heart, that He may heal them; lay bare your indifference to good, your depraved tastes for evil, your instability. Tell Him how self-love makes you unjust to others, how vanity tempts you to be insincere, how pride disguises you to yourself and to others.
If you thus pour out all your weaknesses, needs, troubles, there will be no lack of what to say. You will never exhaust the subject… People who have no secrets from each other never want for subjects of conversation. They do not weigh their words, for there is nothing to be held back, neither do they seek for something to say. They talk out of the abundance of the heart, without consideration they say just what they think. Blessed are they who attain to such familiar, unreserved conversation with God.”
So what can WE do to experience such “familiar, unreserved conversation with God”? We thought last week about “simple prayer”, asking God to meet our needs. “Ordinary people bringing ordinary concerns to a compassionate Father.” Consciously relying on God for all of our everyday needs. We thought about “praying the ordinary”, turning the ordinary experiences of life into prayer; seeing God in the ordinary experiences of life; praying throughout the ordinary experiences of life, learning to see every place as Holy Ground.
And we thought about prayer as a duty, our covenant obligation to God to make detailed resolutions to find the best time for prayer, the best place for prayer and the best heart preparation for prayer. Fixed times of prayer taking priority over everything else to remind us that God is more important than anything else. Place, finding a place which really is “Holy Ground” for you where you find it easy to pray with the minimum of distraction and disturbance. And heart preparation,. a PATTERN of steps we take which bring a holy expectancy in prayer – posture, a Christian book, or a prayer book, or a psalm, maybe even lighting a candle to turn your living room into your sanctuary.
As John Dalrymple said “The truth is that we only learn to pray all the time everywhere after we have resolutely set about praying some of the time somewhere.”
I hope that you have been trying to apply some of these ideas to your own praying in the past week. Practice makes perfect. The only way to learn to pray is by praying. As Richard Foster says, “Don’t worry about `proper’ praying, just talk to God. We learn to pray by praying.”
But where can we go beyond simple prayer? We should never stop asking and seeking and knocking, but what’s the next step in prayer. How do we move on to what Francois Fenelon calls “familiar, unreserved conversation with God?” The secret here is OPENNESS – we must learn to be open with God, to come to God “just as we are”.
Nobody knows us as we really are. Not our parents or our spouse or our children or our closest friends. Nobody else knows what any of us are really like, and what we truly think deep down. We are afraid that anybody who did know us as we really are would reject us. Or that they could use their knowledge of us to hurt us. So in front of anybody else all of us wear masks all the time. We say the things we think other people will want to hear. We don’t do or say things which might upset them. We all put on a front, to stop other people from seeing “the real me”. And for most of the time this pretence is completely subconscious – we don’t even realise the ways we’re holding ourselves back from other people.
All relationships demand honesty. The closer and deeper the relationship, the more honest we should be with the other person. And this is supremely true of our relationship with God. Prayer demands honesty. So we need to learn to come before God in prayer “just as we are”. To come to God “to lay before Him what is in us, not what ought to be in us.” “Just as we are” with openness and honesty and no pretence. We have to learn “not to pretend to be more holy, more pure, or more saintly than we actually are. Not to try to conceal our conflicting and contradictory motives from God – or ourselves. And in this posture of openness we can then pour out our heart to the God who is greater than our heart and knows all things.”
God knows us inside out. He knows what we are really like, and loves us just the same. So we don’t need to be afraid with God. But we can’t assume that openness and honesty will happen naturally or automatically. We need to take definite steps to open our life to God – definite steps to share our deepest feelings with God in prayer. So this morning we are going to think about the importance of prayers of self-examination and prayers of confession. Richard Foster talks about “THE PRAYER OF EXAMEN” but I think a better label is prayers of self-examination. Prayers that help us to know ourselves as we are – the priceless grace of self-knowledge. “To offer ourselves to God as living sacrifices we must offer ourselves as we really are, not as we would wish to be. As Richard Foster says, “We need to give to God not just our strengths but also our weaknesses, not just our giftedness but also our brokenness. “Our duplicity, our lust, our sloth, all laid on the altar of sacrifice.” “When in honesty we accept the evil that is in us as part of the truth about ourselves, and offer that truth up to God, we are in a mysterious way nourished.” “Through faith, self knowledge leads us to a self-acceptance and a self love that draw their life from God’s acceptance and love. So our soul falls towards its proper centre which is God.”
There are two aspects of prayer which are helpful in this process of self-examination. Both are equally important and both deserve equal time. But Christians tend to extremes, and depending on our personalities each of us tend to give most of our attention to one of these kinds of prayer and neglect the other.
The first aspect of prayers of self-examination is what classic spirituality called an examination of CONSCIOUSNESS – the remembrance of love – taking time to look back on the day and see how God has been present to us throughout the day, and how we have responded to Him. “Discerning the footprints of the Holy” on our daily lives
When upon life’s billows you are tempest tossed,
When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost,
Count your many blessings, name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord has done.
Count your blessings, name them one by one,
Count your blessings; see what God has done;
And when we recognise God’s touch on our lives we will be overwhelmed with thanksgiving.
The second aspect of prayer which can help us is an examination of CONSCIENCE – the scrutiny of love – discovering areas of our lives that need cleansing, purifying and healing and prompting us to confession. God searching our hearts within us – the purifying fire – a joint search so we can’t excuse our sins, but at the same time God will also assure us of His forgiveness.
Some of us dwell on God’s blessings. Others of us are preoccupied with our own sinfulness. Thanksgiving and confession – we need them BOTH! If you tend to spend all your time on one and neglect the other, try praying differently this week! Each of us could benefit from spending a little time this week in prayerful self-examination.
Psalm 139:1 O LORD, you have searched me and you know me. 2 You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. 3 You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. 4 Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD. …. Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. (Psalm 139:1-4, 23-24)
In the process of self-examination, set prayers of confession can be very helpful. They confront each one of us with the truth that I, like everybody else, am a miserable sinner! We all have our own “blind spots”. Things about us which everybody else can see but we ourselves are oblivious to. Set prayers of confession remind us of the kinds of sins people can fall into, so that the Holy Spirit can challenge our hearts just like that time when the prophet Nathan challenged King David over his crimes of adultery and murder: “you are the man.” True repentance begins when we genuinely `acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness’. And as a result we receive forgiveness of sins and assurance of pardon – your sins really are forgiven you, for Jesus’s sake. This will bring us to an ever increasing appreciation and fuller assurance of God’s grace and forgiveness and to a growing holiness and a deeper relationship with God.
So we confess our sins. “Before a loving and gracious Father we declare our sins without excuse or abridgement. Unbelief and disunity, arrogance and self-sufficiency, offences too personal to name and too many to mention.”
If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:8-9)
Hymn 488 Augustus Toplady’s hymn Rock of ages, cleft for me
Nothing in my hand I bring, Simply to Thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress; Helpless, look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly: Wash me, Saviour, or I die.
And these prayers of confession will sometimes bring us to what Richard Foster calls “THE PRAYER OF TEARS.” The godly sorry of a broken and contrite heart. When we truly recognise our own sinfulness we will weep and mourn. Not only metaphorically, but sometimes literally. The prayer of tears. Because prayer should always touch our hearts and not just our minds. We must not only “acknowledge” but also “bewail” our manifold sins and wickedness. As Foster says, “unless the emotive centre of our lives is touched, it is as if a fuse remains unlit.”
True prayer is emotional as well as rational. Time and again in the Bible men and women of faith wept in God’s presence. “Tears are God’s way of helping us to descend with the mind into the heart, and there bow in perpetual adoration and worship.”
Psalm 32:1 Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.
2 Blessed is the man whose sin the LORD does not count against him and in whose spirit is no deceit. 3 When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long 4 For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer.
5 Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD”- and you forgave the guilt of my sin.
So here are steps in prayer we can all take towards familiar, unreserved conversation with God. We all need to learn to come to God “just as I am.” “To lay before Him what is in us, not what ought to be in us.” To offer ourselves to God as living sacrifices as we really are, not as we would wish to be. For this we can all benefit from prayers of self-examination, discerning the footsteps of the Holy in our lives, and prayers of confession which cleanse our conscience and bring us closer to God. And sometimes we need to discover the prayer of tears – deep godly sorrow which leads to repentance.
Lord, teach us to pray!
JUST AS I AM, without one plea But that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bid’st me come to Thee, O Lamb of God, I come.
Just as I am, and waiting not To rid my soul of one dark blot,
To Thee, whose blood can cleanse each spot, O Lamb of God, I come.
Just as I am, though tossed about With many a conflict, many a doubt,
Fightings and fears within, without, O Lamb of God, I come.
Just as I am, poor, wretched, blind; Sight, riches, healing of the mind,
Yea, all I need in Thee to find, O Lamb of God, I come.
Just as I am, Thou wilt receive, Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve,
Because Thy promise I believe, O Lamb of God, I come.
Just as I am, Thy love unknown Has broken every barrier down;
Now to be Thine, yea, Thine alone, O Lamb of God, I come. (Charlotte Elliot)