Ch.2 The Paths and the By-Paths pt.1: Authentic Paths

I owe you all an apology. I know I said I had hoped to put this up in a few days (a few weeks ago) and I know it didn’t happen. It has been a rough few weeks for me spiritually. I honestly did want to put it up. But at some point of doing these chapter write-ups it had become a joyless, soulless chore that needed to get done, instead of a joy-driven, soulful, encouraging activity that I desired to do. The fact of the matter is that this heart issue stemmed from, not a lack of reading God’s word, but from a heart that begrudgingly read God’s word and begrudgingly prayed to Him. As if He (and I) would find pleasure and joy in me doing those things from a heart that desires not to. I believe that this begrudging submission would show through in my writing.  It was this past Sunday that the Holy Spirit gripped my heart again, and once more, reminded me that I get to pray to God, I get to understand God’s Word, and I get to walk with Christ because of what Christ did on the Cross. I don’t have to try to keep God’s moral law (which I will ultimately fail in keeping, and exhaust myself in doing so) but rather because of Christ (who fulfills the law), I desire to please God by following His commands. So thank you, dear readers (all 6 of you) for waiting patiently. Here is part 1 of Chapter 2 of “Praying” titled: The Paths and the By-paths.

J.I Packer starts out this chapter by talking about sheep farms in Britain. While describing these sheep farms he talks about how in the English countryside there will be two different kinds of paths. One of them will take you to a destination while the other will take you to a dead-end. The paths that lead to nowhere are in fact created by the sheep looking for food. By-paths can look like real paths or even shortcuts but in the end will not take you anywhere. J.I Packer then states that “as in walking trails, there are by-paths in life and in prayer, and some Christians get onto them and find themselves stuck. In this chapter we will take note of how that happens so that we may by God’s grace make sure that it doesn’t happen to us.”

To illustrate this point and show us how damaging it can be to follow a by-path to a Christian, J.I Packer uses a scene in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. In this scene Christian and Hopeful are walking along the path beside the river, drinking the water and eating the fruit from trees being watered by the river. After a moments rest they continue on the path, however the path soon diverges away from the river. This is how John Bunyan writes what happens next:

“The way from the river was rough, and their feet tender by reason of their travels; so the souls of the pilgrims were much discouraged because of the way (Num 21:4). Wherefore, still as they went on, they wished for a better way.
Now, a little before them, there was on the left hand of the road a meadow, and a stile to go over into it, and that meadow is called By-path meadow. Then said Christian to his fellow,
CHR. If this meadow lieth along by our wayside, let’s go over into it.
Then he wnt to the stile to see and, behold, a path lay along by the way on the other side of the fence.
CHR.It is according to my wish; here is the easiest going. Come, good Hopeful, and let’s go over.
When they were gone over, and were got into the path, they found it very easy for their feet…
[and so they went on for quite some time until] night came on, and it grew very dark…and now it began to rain, and thunder, and lightning in a most dreadful manner. And the wather rose amain. Then Hopeful groaned in himself saying:
HOPE. Oh, that I had kept on my way!
CHR. Who could have thought that this path should have led us out of the way?…
By this time the waters were greatly risen, by reason of which the way of going back was very dangerous. (Then I thought that it is easier going out of the way when we are in than going in when we are out.) Yet they adventured to go back;but it was so dark, and the flood was so high that in their going back they had like to have been drowned nine or ten times.
Neither could they, with all the skill they had, get again to the stile that night.”

J.I Packer warns us that we need to be wary of trails that lead us away from true praying, if we desire and struggle to become men and women of prayer. It is here that J.I Packer makes a fantastic point to end off the introduction to the chapter. Packer writes “True praying is an activity built on a theology, so we cannot look at either the work of prayer or the study of prayer in isolation from each other. We need to detect the ways and attitudes and beliefs in regard to prayer that undercut the reality of praying. Though praying ought to be a means of grace and of fulfillment to the heart, it doesn’t always operate as such. Why not? Perhaps because we’re doing it wrong.” As I was reading that closing statement I didn’t quite agree with everything that was written. However after reading it multiple times, I now understand what J.I Packer was saying. The point that J.I Packer was making was essentially a challenge to us to wrestle holistically with our prayer lives. If our prayers are dry, lifeless, and joyless,  if when we pray it feels more like a chore, maybe we should take an honest look at our attitudes and beliefs towards prayer. It maybe because our starting point or what we pray for is wrong. It is through this paragraph that Packer transitions into his first sub-topic: Authentic Paths.

Authentic Paths

J.I Packer starts out this topic by stating “Counterfeits are always best identified by comparison with the genuine article. So before we loook too closely at by-paths, we need to take a careful look at the authentic path of prayer.” Packer states that there are 3 points we must focus on:
The first point J.I Packer states is that authentic prayer follows teaching from the Scriptures. In Psalm 27:11 the psalmist writes “Teach me your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path.” J.I Packer writes: “If we want to pray rightly, we must take instruction from God through his Word, the Scriptures. His path for us in prayer, as in the rest of our living, is not one we know by instinct but is a learned way, one he teaches. If  we want to walk the true path, we will diligently receive that instruction and heed it.” We must be taught how to pray rightly, just as we need to be instructed to live rightly. We learn to pray, as we learn how to live rightly, through His Word.

We learn how to pray correctly by the “Precepts and promises about praying” that “abound in both Testaments.” Much of the Psalms are models of praise and thanksgiving or of petitions and intercession or meditations. On this J.I Packer writes that the psalmist models “should lead straight into one of these modes of addressing God. But how many in our day have taken these prayer models seriously to heart?” J.I Packer then encourages us to use the Psalms as well as other prayers found within the Bible as a pattern for our own praying.

The second point of authentic prayer expresses a God-taught commitment to a way of life. What this statement, according to Packer, means is that “This is a way of living in accordance with the teaching that Scripture presents.” It is from the Scriptures that, we Christians, are taught and learn how to live Godly lives. Therefore, it is from the Scriptures that we are taught and learn how to pray correctly. J.I Packer states that the authentic path of prayer leads to “a happiness that I begin to enjoy from the time I take my first steps on that true path, by my personal repentance of sin and faith in Christ as my sin-bearing Savior. As the path to life is embracing God’s instruction, so the path of life is living according to that instruction…If our praying is authentic it will reflect throughout the fact that this is the constant direction of our life.” Packer then mentions that if our prayers are not learned through Scripture then it will be nothing more than by-path praying.

The final point of the Authentic path is that it requires a purity of heart. Packer begins by unpacking how the modern world views the word heart, as spoken in a metaphorical sense. He states that “In contemporary society, when we speak in the metaphorical sense…we are likely to be thinking of either a flood of emotions (I love you with all my heart) or a flow of robust enthusiasm (his heart is in what he is doing) and not of anything more.” However, Biblically, the word heart is used to indicate who we are “the deep source of our character and purposes, of our attitudes and responses, of our self-image and self-projection, in short, of the total human being that each of us is.” The God of the Bible looks at us from a unitary perspective, that is God looks at us from a holistic perspective (actions, thoughts, words, and motives) and Biblically we are judged by our heart. For it is from our heart that every thing flows. J.I Packer then describes the vast difference in how we look at others and how God looks at others. On this he writes “We today assess people from the outside in grading them mainly by their skills, and we label them good people, despite their moral lapses, as long as they use their skills to do what we recognize as a good job…God, however, assesses everyone from the inside out, measuring us entirely by the state of our hearts. It is with God’s method of assessment, which digs so much deeper than ours, that we must all finally come to terms…” To follow the “authentic path” of prayer, as J.I Packer labels it, our hearts MUST be assessed, not by human standards but by God’s. Which then of course leads to the question: if by God’s standards, we fail, how then can we pray? J.I Packer, and I believe this myself, that we first need to define what a pure heart is. Packer writes “If in everyday speech we refer to pure hearts, we are likely only to be identifying some people as not inclined, as others are, to sexual shenanigans or to the underhand exploitation of others for personal advancement or to cruel abuse of them fro some perverted self-gratification.” This is how we tend to define a pure heart, at least from a worldly perspective. However the Biblical definition of a pure heart is quite different. In Matthew 22:37-38 Jesus says “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.” Through this verse  as well as Matthew 5:8 in which Jesus says “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” J.I Packer concludes that “Purity of heart is indeed a matter of willing one thing, namely to live every day of one’s life loving God.”

In those verses it appears that Jesus is calling us to love God with everything that we are. Which essentially defines for us the purity of our hearts. Being pure in heart is desiring and valuing “fellowship….with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ”(1Jn1:3) more than I want or value anything else in this world…it is a matter of developing, as Jonathan Edwards developed, “a God-entranced vision of all things,” so that the thought of everything being God’s property and in God’s hands, and  of God as in reality doing all things well, despite short-term appearances, brings unending joy. And it is a matter of making knowing and loving and pleasing and praising God my life task, and of seeking to lead others into the same God-glorifying life pattern.” I think what Jonathan Edwards, as well as J.I Packer is getting at, to put it simply is that we must, I repeat, MUST take hold and press into the fact that what we were created for is worshiping God.If we grasp, desire and believe that, our lives will be forever joyful. It won’t always be happy, but Christ’s joy dwells deep. Or to use John Piper’s line “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him” That is what brings us along onto the authentic path of prayer. So from this definition the answer to the question: how can we pray? is every single renewed Christian can pray. And here’s why: J.I Packer writes “For in the new birth God re-creates our disordered, egocentric anti-God, anti-moral hearts in such a way that the personal disposition we have described and which we see perfectly embodied and expressed in the Lord Jesus’ earthly life and ministry, has now become our personal disposition at the deepest level, natural and normal to us in the sense that we only know joy, peace and contentment as we act out what we now find our heart prompting us to do…To behave in a Christlike way, forming habits of loving and serving God and neighbor, and resisting the promptings of sin in our spiritual system…” Because of Christ, what He did on the Cross, we have now been given a new nature, a new heart. We have been changed deeply, and once when we would have pursued selfishly our own desires, if we are God’s our hearts will move us into pursuing what God desires so that He maybe glorified.

J.I Packer then makes a point that I don’t necessarily fully agree with, and I’ll explain why after I put the quote up. Packer writes “Many Christians, it seems, do not appreciate what has happened to them in their new birth and are careless about obeying and pleasing God; many more have desperate struggles against long-standing sinful habits that in effect have become addictions to unrighteousness, and they often lose the battles they fight, and there are many who evidently think it does not matter whether one strives to perfect holiness of life or not. But it does!-for without a purpose of holiness(purity of heart, that is!)-there can be no authentic praying.” Now I agree with much of this quote. I agree that many Christians (I include myself in this as well) have not, or even now, do not really care about knowing or understanding the cost of their salvation. In the same vein, because of that indifferent attitude, they also do not understand the incredible importance of pursuing a life of Biblical holiness. However, what I don’t necessarily agree with the implication that a Christian struggling with sin, and desperately wanting to be freed from sin isn’t serious about pursuing a life of holiness. I know, of course, that God looks at the heart of the Christian that struggles and sees far more than I do. And in that context, I agree and believe it to be true. If someone should read (like I did) that quote without the context of God looking at the heart of the person struggling with sin, the implication would be that the person struggling with sin cannot pray to God, at least authentically.  J.I Packer then makes a final few points before ending off this part. He says that authentic prayer comes from “an all-around commitment to Christian living” whereas by-path praying comes from a lack of understanding about this commitment.

Next we’ll be looking at our walk with the Triune God in our lives and in prayer entitled The Hike

Some points before ending off:

– What is our attitude and beliefs towards prayer? Do we find it a chore, something we begrudgingly do because we ought? Or is it something we desire to do because we get to communicate with our Saviour, Creator, King and Friend? Wrestle with these, in prayer and with Scripture.

– J.I Packer mentions that the pursuit of God in everything we do (praying definitely included) should be our greatest joy and our main goal. Where have we lost sight of that (in our day to day lives, in our praying)? What we maybe praying for maybe good, but apart from God, it will become a joyless, soulless endeavour. Continue to pursue “a God-entranced vision of all things.”

– Finally, God calls us to a very high standard. One that we will never be able to attain on our own merit and strength. But thank God for Jesus, and all that He did on the Cross.  Because of that we can be transformed to pursue a life of Godly holiness, not on our own strength but because of the Grace of God. Press into the Cross. Preach the Gospel to yourself everyday. We need the Gospel even now, to permeate our hearts and our lives. It is the only way we can pray rightly, and pursue God fully.

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One thought on “Ch.2 The Paths and the By-Paths pt.1: Authentic Paths

  1. Pingback: Ch.2 The Paths and the By-Paths: The Hike « Broken, In Repair

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