Leave it to good old John Calvin to point me to Scripture that convicts and stirs my soul. This morning, in 365 Days With Calvin, I am uncomfortably aware of my need to repent, yet again, of my critical spirit. But to understand my messed up heart, you have to enter into two thoughts I have about today's devotion and how they both unravel me.
1. Asking While Abiding: Praying Confidently
John 15:7 states, "If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you." In my spiritual walk, you could say that these words have taken on new meaning at different phases of my life. Just as the leaves whither, change colors, fall and grow again, these words take root in my life and their weight changes when I am raw or when my heart is hardened.
The "slot machine" God
I confess that as a new Christian -- and sometimes, even now -- I interpreted these words to mean that he is some sort of "slot machine" God, because why not? He said whatever I ask is mine, right? I suspect this tension exists for many Christians in this instant-gratification-seeking, materialistic, always-wanting-the-next-best-thing American culture. But these words do not become heavier when I want material things or when I am charmed by this life: I attach complicated feelings to these words when I want my way because it seems noble or perhaps aligned with the gospel. Sometimes, the things I ask of a slot machine God are not entirely selfish -- sometimes I want to heal the sick, a more stable future for my husband or my family, an outward solution to a stressful situation. That's when Calvin's words regarding John 15:7 are hard to swallow. Scripture tells us that, whatever those who are in Christ may need, there is a remedy provided for their poverty as soon as they ask it from God. He points out that this a very useful admonition, for the Lord often suffers us to hunger to train us to be earnest in prayer. But if we fly to him, we shall never lack what we ask for; rather, out of his inexhaustible abundance, he will supply us with everything that we need (1 Cor. 1:5).
The sap of the Holy Spirit
Here's where it gets tricky: When he promises that he will grant whatever we wish, he does not give us permission to form wishes according to -- as Calvin puts it -- "our own fancy". He limits the wishes of his people to the rule of praying in a right manner, and that rule is subject to the good pleasure of God in all our affections. Calvin adds, "This is confirmation by the context in which the words stand; for he means that his people will or desire not riches, or honor, or anything of that nature, which the flesh foolishly desires, but the vital sap of the Holy Spirit, which enables them to bear fruit."
I love this perspective of the "sap of the Holy Spirit," because -- if I'm being honest here -- I do not always desire the sap that enables fruit. I want the fruit, and I want what I think is fruit in my life. Calvin reminds us that a Christian's prayer should ultimately be that God's will be done. Any petition that deviates from God's will is not appropriate. But what is God's will? He notes that the answer is found in these words: "If my words abide in you." With God's Word as our guide, we may pray in confidence, knowing that "it shall be done unto us." In saying, "If my words abide in you," Christ means that we must take root in him by faith; for as soon as we depart from the doctrine of the gospel, we seek Christ separately from himself.
The fine line
For me, there's a lot to reconcile here. Asking while abiding is such a fine line, and I tend to teeter on both sides: Placing my confidence in the slot machine God, expecting earthly blessings or him to give me what I deem as fruit; or placing my confidence in another contorted image of God -- the idea that earnest prayer is insufficient and unnecessary, because why would the Creator of the universe care enough about my petty problems? What a lie! We often buy into this lie during the most trying times, wondering how a loving God could allow so much pain. I am not going to pretend to know all the answers here, but I do know that God delights in his children, and he cares deeply for the details of our lives. "Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?" (Matthew 6:26)
2. Be the Doer, Not the Judge
I don't think it's a coincidence that the call in Matthew 6 to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness is linked to the words do not be anxious. I also don't think it's a coincidence that following Matthew 6 is a passage on judging others. I don't know what it is about anxiety and grasping onto this illusion of control, but there is some innate part of me as an anxious person that desperately tries to be a little god. Anxiety likes to sit on the throne of my heart and say, "I'm king here." It likes to say, "I'm in control." And guess what happens when you think you're in control of your own life? You become more than a little god -- you become a judge. Ta-da! Introducing my critical spirit. In Calvin's devotion this morning on asking while abiding, it is no surprise that the suggested further reading is James 4: a warning against worldliness and boasting about tomorrow.
The Greek word for devil means slanderer. Therefore, it's no surprise that his Word warns us: "Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?" (James 4:11-12)
Confession: I'm a judge
This passage truly wrecked me this morning. So often, in my unhealthy, anxiety-ridden state, I try to be a judge in my own life and others. My self-critical nature begins to seep out into my relationships, and suddenly I find myself being critical and judgmental of other people -- especially my brothers and sisters in Christ. I heard a man say that sometimes recognizing gossip is simply this: when you point out another person's sin in his or her absence. Sometimes, I confuse righteous anger with being a judge and not a doer of the law, which results in slandering other Christians and destroying fellowship. When I speak falsely against a fellow believer, I speak not only against the person but against the law of God. As a slanderer, I set myself above the law. . . and this is not okay. I want to bless and not curse; I want to repent. I see my critical spirit becoming a stronghold yet again in my life, and I hope that by posting these words I can remember to desire the sap of the Holy Spirit, which enables fruit and cuts off bitterness.
I hope these words encourage you. They may seem harsh, but James 4 tells us to "Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you." True repentance is found in a broken and contrite heart. There is a time for mourning and a time for laughter. If you find yourself moved by Calvin's message as I did, I hope you will reflect on the hope of Christ and dwell on how our Father refines us. We must let his Word abide in us, together -- and without destructive, critical words to one another.