7. How do we pray for guidance?
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Let us pray. This is how one engages in a time of Centring Prayer.
A company felt it was time for a shakeup, hired a new CEO. The new boss was determined to rid the company of all slackers.
On a tour of the facilities, the CEO noticed a guy leaning against a wall. The room was full of workers and he wanted to let them know that he meant business. He asked the guy, “How much money do you make a week?”
A little surprised, the young man looked at him and said, “I make $400 a week. Why?”
The CEO said, “Wait right here.” He walked back to his office, came back in two minutes, and handed the guy $1,600 in cash and said, “Here’s four weeks’ pay. Now GET OUT and don’t come back.”
Feeling pretty good about himself the CEO looked around the room and asked, “Does anyone want to tell me what that goof-ball did here?”
From across the room a voice said, “Pizza delivery guy from Domino’s.”
No matter who you are or how important you think you are, it’s always a good idea to get some guidance before you act. The writer of Psalm 25 asks God to guide him into the right paths. That’s what we’re going to talk about today, how we pray for guidance.
If you have your Bible open, please take a look at the text. Selected verses will appear on the screen behind me. If you are using one of the pew Bibles you can find Psalm 25 on page 502 of the Hebrew Scriptures in the pew Bibles and on page 856 of the large print edition.
This prayer begins, To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. Friends, not only is this the beginning of this psalm, this prayer, it is the starting place of all prayer. In a very real way this entire series of sermons about prayer come together in our consideration of the thoughts expressed here. We pray to express our praise to God. We pray to confess our sin. We pray in order to bring our petitions before God. But I think in the end it is true to say that all prayer is a lifting up of our souls to God.
It is interesting to note that among the people of God in the ancient world the posture that was part of prayer often mirrored this idea. The worshipper, the person praying, lifted up his or her hands in a stretched out position in order to physically symbolize the soul being lifted towards God.
Look first at verses four, five and six. The poet appeals to God to make God’s ways known to him or her, to teach the proper path, to lead within the truth that is God’s. Let me suggest an image that I hope will help us understand what is being said here. Some of you will know that I am a great fan of train travel. One of the many factors involved in the on-time performance of trains in North America is most VIA Rail and Amtrak trains run on tracks owned by freight companies like CN and CP in this country. Many times a passenger train must travel at a reduced speed behind a freight train because there is no place to pass. To state the obvious, a train can only run on the tracks.
The poet of the psalm that is attributed to King David is appealing for guidance, but notice how this is done. God is asked to deal with this worshipper according to God’s ways, God’s paths, God’s truth. Here is something that is impossible for our all-powerful God. God cannot guide you in a way that is somehow outside the tracks or the boundaries that God has set for human life. In other words none of us need bother wasting our time with this sort of prayer: “O God, guide me to discover the most effective way of meting out my revenge on that person who has wronged me.” That is a prayer that God cannot hear, that God can only answer, “No!”
One of the things I have emphasized at least twice in this series of sermons is the idea that all of us are being spiritually formed either positively or negatively. Spirituality is a process rather than an event. It is, I think, then unavoidable to talk about the time that it takes to understand the ways and the paths and the truth of God. One commentator put it this way: True godliness is not the outward conformity to God’s law but the spiritual application of God’s law to one’s life by God himself. Submission is not to a set of principles or to a legal system but to the Saviour.
I find that verse six has a very helpful insight. First notice that one of the things we often find in the prayers of the Bible is the worshipper reminding God of God’s nature or of God’s qualities. I assume God knows that he is merciful. I think God also knows that his love is not fickle but steadfast. Yet the psalmist reminds God of these qualities and in so doing tells God that his appeal for guidance is based on his prior awareness of God’s mercy and steadfast love. Christian, never, ever make the mistake of thinking you cannot ask God to guide you. You can, you should ask for this blessing, because you know God is merciful and abounding in steadfast love and desires to give you guidance that is within the framework of God’s ways and paths and truth.
Let’s turn our attention now to verses eight, nine and ten. Here we find an expression of witness that is based both on faith and experience. The acts of God on behalf of his people are characterized by these qualities. God is good; God is upright, all the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness. I think this underlines how important our witness is. Someone once said that God has no grandchildren, that every generation must decide for themselves to believe in the Saviour and serve his kingdom. And yet it was my mother who demonstrated to me that in her life God has been good and upright and faithful. In time I experienced that for myself and I hope have faithfully witnessed to this reality for my children and grandchildren. In other words we seek the guidance of God knowing that God can be trusted.
One of the things of which I need to be reminded on a regular basis concerning prayer is that listening is involved. Someone once said that humans ought to take note of the fact that God gave us two ears and one mouth and we should take this as a strong suggestion that we listen twice as much as we speak. I shared with the Wednesday morning study group that I can remember as a child and teenager Sunday morning pastoral prayers that either were or at least seemed as long as the sermon. I am sure those pastors probably told us at one time or another that we ought to listen to God, but the impression I got was that prayer was primarily a matter of telling God what I wanted. It appeared the longer the list the better.
I hope that part of what you have heard in this sermon series is that listening to God is a vital component of our prayer life. If we want to be guided by God we need to listen to God. One scholar put it this way. “The need of it is part of our dependence on God, so it must be the subject of prayer, as it is in the psalm. The life of prayer is incomplete unless there are supplications that say, ‘Teach me, instruct me, guide me, let me know.’ (Interpretation: Psalms, 126)”
How do we hear what God has to say to us? To state the obvious we need to listen. One of the things I said at the beginning of this series was regarding the great variety of spiritual practices that are meaningful to Christians. I admitted that one of the things that is a challenge to my spiritual life is how easily I am distracted. I also realize that I have the great luxury as a pastor of being able to book days off for spiritual retreat. None of you would think I was shirking my work if I took a day for prayer any more than you would think your cardiologist was slacking off if he went to a conference dealing with a new surgical technique. However, I think this is something that most Christians ought to be doing for themselves.
The Sisters of St. John have a wonderful retreat centre on Cummer Avenue just north of Finch, east of Yonge. And by the way, it is an Anglican convent. Some of you didn’t know there was such a thing. It is a fabulous place to spend a day listening to God. I realize how much I am opening myself to ridicule but some of the most spiritually profitable days for me have been spent on a train. Toronto to London through Kitchener and Stratford is a slow three-hour trip. Think how lovely that would be on a spring day. You can come home on the usual route through Brantford and Burlington. My point is that if you want to hear God’s guidance, when is it that you are taking the time to listen to God?