Hindered Prayers

“Husbands, likewise, submit by living with your wife in ways that honor her, knowing that she is the weaker partner. Honor her all the more, as she is also a coheir of the gracious care of life. Do this so that your prayers won’t be hindered.”

1 Peter 3:7 (Common English Bible)

During a semester of study in Coventry, England, I was told that a prominent cathedral hosted a guest pastor one particular Sunday. Anticipation of this guest was created by his reputation as a preacher of considerable excellence. The cathedral that morning was packed with worshipers, all eager to hear from a preacher of an unusual caliber. At the beginning of the service, he stepped into the pulpit, looked confidently at the congregation, and spoke the familiar words of the liturgy, “The Lord be with you.” The usual response that followed would be, “And also with you.” However, there seemed to be a glitch with the sound system. No one worshiping could hear the pastor. He grabbed the microphone and adjusted it upward—closer to his voice—and repeated the liturgy. Again, the sound system failed to capture his words. With that second failure, the pastor looked back to the sound technicians, slammed his hand down on the pulpit, and shouted, “There is a problem with the sound system!” The glitch was now corrected, and everyone heard the pastor. They responded, “And also with you!”

In this passage of scripture, Peter turns his attention to the relationship between wife and husband. It is unfortunate that some interpreters of the Bible reflect more on the misogyny of ancient times than the primary thrust of these words. The primary argument here is that one’s conduct must be informed by a new life in Christ for a vital experience of prayer. Peter uses marriage as an interpretive tool. In the ancient time of Peter’s writing, only the husband had privileges. Women had few. William Barclay writes, “If you were to catch your wife in the act of infidelity, you could kill her with impunity without a trial; but, if she were to catch you, she would not venture to touch you with her finger and, indeed, she has no right.”[i] The operative moral code of that day placed all responsibility on the wife and all the privilege on the husband. Peter objects to this view and provides a new relationship dynamic shaped by the Gospel of Jesus. Prayers, therefore, must be made from one no longer captive to the old world order. Unless we approach prayer with a Gospel-shaped life, we experience a hindrance in our communion with God.

The privilege of prayer always demands a corresponding obligation. Anyone who prays for recovery from illness must match that prayer with a responsible diet, exercise, and rest. An actor or actress who prays for an opportunity to perform on a Broadway stage must match that prayer with hard work in acting lessons and rehearsal for auditions. Anyone who aspires to publish begins by writing the first sentence. Ernest Hemingway once commented, “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”[ii] Effort must accompany prayer. Prayer without personal effort is merely wishful thinking or a belief in magic. That person remains captive to a sense of privilege without responsibility. It is a mindset that limits their access to God. Christian growth involves, among other things, getting rid of those attitudes, ways of speaking, and behavior patterns that elevate self above concern for others. Forbid yourself from indulging in thoughts that you deserve better. Those thoughts are self-destructive. Exchange such thoughts with gratitude and begin to affirm that God is active in your life, seeking to bless you.

The Gospel of Jesus has changed the moral code of relationships; the relationship of men to slaves and wives. For wives, this submission is one where men are to live with their wives “in ways that honor her.” More, the wife is now “a coheir of the gracious care of life.” The marriage is now hallowed and enriched, an equality of both the husband and wife established as sons and daughters of God. No longer are women inferior to men. This new relationship dynamic will be lived in a world that holds a very different view of the matter. This mutual relationship of honor creates a channel for God’s blessing to flow. Living as God intends, clothing one’s behavior in conduct that is in concert with God’s desire for us reshapes prayers that are made. Alignment of conduct with God’s values results in higher aspirations which experience fulfillment. If there is little room in one’s life for attention to Jesus, there is little room for the participation of God in such a life. If we feel that our prayers are hindered—are ineffective—the trouble may be that there is something wrong with us.


[i] William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible Series: The Letters of James and Peter (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1976) 223.

[ii] Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast: The Restored Edition (New York, London, Toronto, & Sydney: Scribner, 1964) 12.


Plants of Steel

“I can endure all these things through the power of the one who gives me strength.”

Philippians 4:13

The garden center of Home Depot features a selection of plants ideal for home or office called, “Plants of Steel.” They are plants that seem to thrive in apparent adversity. Where other plants would wilt for lack of water and sunshine these plants enjoy optimal vitality from neglect. I have purchased several of these plants and it is fascinating to watch them flourish in spite of – or because of – my inattention to their care. They seem to have a preference for hardship.

These plants offer encouragement for spiritual life.  Difficult circumstances, though never sought, can provide growth. Such growth is clear in the lived experience of the apostle Paul. In this letter to the Church of Philippi, Paul is in captivity in Rome. His supreme mission of preaching the Gospel of Christ appears to be at an end. No longer does Paul have the stimulus of travel, the joy of enriching itineraries, or the delight of preaching the good news over the broad landscape of Asia and Greece. That open road has been narrowed to the walls of a prison cell. Yet, there is an absence of gloom in Paul’s writing. Throughout this letter of Philippians there is present incomparable strength and beauty.

Paul’s imprisonment does not usher in a season of gloom. Rather, what Paul experiences is a time of spiritual graces.  He writes of losing everything for Christ only to realize that what he lost has no value compared to what he has gained in a relationship with Jesus. Within prison walls, Paul realizes the broad range and wealth of his spiritual inheritance.  While some of his friends referred to his misery, Paul writes of his joy. Though some regretted his poverty, Paul boasts of possessing all that he needs. What appears to be a season of winter for Paul is transformed into an opportunity to be clothed in a fleece robe of strength and hopefulness.

Some today become very poor in difficulty and adversity. When in the natural rhythm of life they reach desert places or what may feel like an endless winter of the soul, they live without any cheer. Sourness and fretfulness encompass them as the prison walls surrounded Paul.  All of life becomes a menagerie of unpleasant things. Worse, they feel left alone. Paul’s incredible witness is that this doesn’t have to be their story. Paul writes letters from prison not to share his misery with a sympathetic ear.  He writes to invest in others. Investments in other people, in the ministry of our Lord, scatter the gloom, brighten the place of our dwelling and preserve the leaf of our soul from withering. We become plants of steel! More, we will know such joy that the desert of the soul shall rejoice and blossom like a rose.



For Those Defeated

“After his deep anguish, he will see light and he will be satisfied.”

Isaiah 53:11a (Common English Bible)

I know someone who, after misfortune, comments, “Why does everything always happen to me?” Once, that comment was made following an unusual hailstorm that destroyed her roof. The roof had to be replaced. Her comment failed to include that nearly every roof in a half-mile radius was also destroyed. The storm was not located only over her home as a popular cartoon depicts a storm cloud only over a single person. The unfortunate loss of a roof did not, in fact, only affect her. The difficulty was less the hailstorm and more a view of life that was narrowly focused on her. Many today suffer from defeatism—the quality of their response to life. Most people will experience an occasional defeat. It is the quality of our response to defeat that determines whether we live victoriously or fail to live.

These few words from Isaiah speak of the anguish of the cross that Jesus will experience some time out in the future—a time beyond the period of Isaiah’s day. The cross will appear to be a defeat for Jesus. Following three years of ministry, a ministry of teaching, healing, the inclusion of those once excluded, and extravagant love, Jesus’ work will culminate on a cross. For those who are unable to see beyond the length of their arm, it’s all over. Nailed to a cross, Jesus draws his last breath and dies. Jesus is defeated. Yet, beyond the length of an arm, the narrative continues. Jesus is buried in a tomb that is sealed with a large stone. Night comes, followed by morning, followed once more by night. Then morning returns again. Except this morning is different. The defeat three days earlier is transformed into victory.

Here, Isaiah declares that after Jesus’ deep anguish, he will see the light of Easter morning, realize that the power of God has destroyed death, and will be satisfied that his purpose has been completed—the purpose of destroying the power of sin that separates us from God. In a single moment of time, the cross may appear to be a defeat. But single moments are not left scattered across time as unstrung pearls. God, a master jeweler, strings all successes and failures, victories and defeats together into a life that finally satisfies. Sooner or later, loss causes a win, and the defeated shall triumph and prevail. History is one grand demonstration of men and women who simply refused to permit defeat to speak the final word. What is required is that we rid ourselves of a defeated spirit and wait upon God.

In the last analysis, there are no defeats. The world may postpone or put off for a time what we strive for. There will be disappointments, letdowns, and failures sprinkled through our lives. We may feel battered in some moments, but there remains a voice of our common faith that God intends that we prevail. In those moments that feel like a crushing defeat, pay fresh attention to Isaiah’s words, “After his deep anguish.” From the anguish of what feels like a defeat, something of value is realized, something of life’s values is deepened or enhanced, and we take from the experience something of worth. It was when Victor Hugo was exiled from his beloved France that he created his greatest work. It makes all the difference in how we respond to life’s misfortunes that mark us as defeated or people who strive forward. 



The Plain and Simple Gospel

“‘Come, follow me,’ he said, ‘and I’ll show you how to fish for people.'”

Matthew 4:19 (Common English Bible)

We are all living a deeply entangled, complex life. As complexity increases, so does our exhaustion. We run faster, master complex planning calendars that were designed to make life less cumbersome, and come to the end of many days feeling that we have been defeated. Present is a growing nostalgia for a simpler world—a desire for a plainer, clearer path forward. This general desire includes the spiritual realm. The hope is that the church would provide a rediscovery of God, reclaiming God’s strength for daily living, and direction for a larger purpose to which we may attach our lives. Unfortunately, what many find are cumbersome requirements for membership and multiple invitations to serve on committees that multiple our exhaustion. With church participation, we discover that there are now more oars in the water that requires our attention.

How can we return to a simpler time? Jesus is instructive. Notice that Jesus does not invite people to register for a six-week member class. Jesus does not make committee assignments. Jesus does not examine doctrinal purity or demand conformity to creedal statements. Jesus quite simply asks that we follow him. To follow Jesus is to share life with Jesus in the fullest sense: to go where he goes, to listen to what he taught, and to participate in practices and disciplines that were important to him. An invitation to follow is the suggestion that there is something of value to be found. Naturally, to accept such an invitation begins with an acknowledgment that the present life isn’t working anymore. Unless we really believe that another approach to life is required, we will continue trying to make the present one work.

The one other thing that Jesus asks for is a posture of humility, a desire to learn, and a willingness to participate in Jesus’ work: “and I’ll show you how to fish for people.” All the work of Jesus is about one thing—looking for those who have wandered far from God and bringing them back home to the Father. As with any great work, there are multiple functions that must be accomplished. None of us are asked—or equipped—to do them all. Some of us are to be teachers, some will show hospitality, and others will be administrators, caregivers, and evangelists. Others will provide care and comfort to the broken. The various jobs to be done are many. But one goal remains: “to fish for people” so that they may return to God. Jesus will show us the way.

None of this suggests that boards and committees are without value to Jesus. Leadership boards must be populated with those who have demonstrated the capacity to respond to the promptings of God, to show people where Jesus is moving, and to call them to follow. Committees provide a responsible means for organizing a great workforce for accomplishing all that Jesus seeks to do in a particular community. But, in this over-complicated world, the church must not add unnecessary complexity to the simple call of Jesus to follow him and to participate with him in his grand redemptive purposes: a cup of cold water to the thirsty, a helping hand on the roadside, an encouraging word softly spoken. There are all within our reach. Nor are we called to carry the whole world on our backs. Our chief function is to point to the one who does, Jesus Christ. That is the Gospel, plain and simple.



The God Who Carries Us

Bel crouches down; Nebo cowers. Their idols sit on animals, on beasts. The objects you once carried about are now borne as burdens by the weary animals.”

Isaiah 46:1

One of the most moving—and inspiring—moments in any athletic completion is that one where an athlete stumbles and another competitor goes back to offer help. The tone of the moment is transformed from a test of strength and speed to one of mutual humanity, sharing in one another’s frailties. Such moments remind us of something nobler than defeating another in a game of skill, strength, and speed. Competition may push each of us to realize our best potential—and that is good. But more extraordinary are moments that reveal our common infirmities; moments where we strengthen one another in the storms of life.

This is not so with God; it must not be so. Unfailing strength is the very nature of God. Yet, here Isaiah fashions for us a sharp contrast between gods that are carried and a God that carries us or, as Henry Sloane Coffin once observed, “Between religion as a load and religion as a lift.”[1] In another of Isaiah’s tirades against idols, against imaginary gods, he provides the reader with graphic clarity of the gods of Babylon bobbing and swaying in an absurdly undignified fashion on the backs of animals. Weary from the weight of these gods, the animals strain to move forward as the frightened devotees lead the animals to a place of safety away from the invading armies. What a picture; ordinary, mortal human beings struggling to secure the safety of gods! Isaiah intends for this to strike us as absurd.

Isaiah then contrasts this ridiculous image with the living God, the God who bore Israel in his arms from its birth and has carried it ever since. The prophet would have us understand that a burdensome religion is a false religion; that a god which must be taken care of is not a faith that can sustain us. Israel needs, as do we, a faith that takes care of us. Communion with the God of Israel is a faith that always shifts the weight of life to God, not the other way around. And Isaiah wants us to know that if we ever feel that we are carrying our religion, that if faith has become burdensome, then our gaze has moved from the one, true living God.

The wonderful teacher of the Christian faith, Paul Tillich, once commented that we are not asked to grasp the faith of the Old and New Testament but, rather, are called to be grasped by it.[2] A Christian’s beliefs are not a set of propositions that we are compelled to accept. That would be a burdensome religion. The Christian faith is an invitation from a living God to come and be held in God’s grasp, to be lifted and carried along through the difficulties of life we must all face. We may struggle at times to free ourselves from God’s embrace, to go through life alone, in our own strength. But sooner or later, we will become as weary as the animals carrying the idols of Bel and Nebo. And when we are depleted, God will be there.


[1] Henry Sloane Coffin, “Religion That Lifts,” Joy in Believing (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1956) 8.

[2] Captured from lecture given by Thomas G. Long in summer of 1992, Princeton Theological Seminary.