I ate dinner once with Dallas Willard.
Dallas was one of the top theological minds of the 20th century; a brilliant professor, writer, and, better yet, a wonderful human being.
We had dinner in Estes Park, Colo. along with a few other spiritual heroes of mine. Everyone at this small dinner party had written groundbreaking books on complicated topics like spiritual disciplines, the Kingdom of God and the health of the soul.
And then there was me.
I didn’t belong at the table with these giants. There is a Sesame Street segment called “Which one of these doesn’t fit with the others? Which one doesn’t belong?” I was the easy answer. And I knew it.
But, you say, what a great opportunity to learn. Right?
It was. Except I don’t remember anything Dallas or anyone else said.
I spent the dinner attempting to sound smarter than I am and trying to act a bit distracted so my heroes would be fooled into thinking I routinely sat at these tables. A decade’s worth of maturity later, I realize I didn’t listen.
The problem with narcissistic ears is they don’t work very well.
Dallas on Prayer
But saying I remember nothing from the dinner is not completely accurate.
Toward the end of the meal, Dallas leaned over and looked at me, then asked:
You know why people don’t pray, don’t you?
He was, for the first time in the night, staring at me. I was suddenly, and oddly, aware my eyes were dry, caught between blinks, I suppose, and unable to get my mind to generate any coherent response, let alone an intelligent one. I finally pursed my lips to say, “Tell me why,” but he responded before my words came.
Because we don’t believe it works.
The table grew quiet.
Do I Really Believe?
The Old Testament’s 1&2 Samuel and 1&2 Kings describe the history of Israel’s kings and lay out a clear pattern. Israel is engaged in conflict with its neighbors, and the greatest predictor of success in battle is not the number of warriors, weapons or strategy.
The greatest predictor of success is… asking God first.
King David asks God on nine different occasions for guidance before he does anything. And then he shuts his mouth to listen and wait for God’s response. Apparently, David broke the pattern Dallas warned about. David believed God knows, cares and responds. His conversational prayer life with God stands out in these books and in the Psalms.
But other kings did not ask God for guidance although they sought it from other sources – other gods (1 Samuel 7, 1 Kings 11 and many others), a witch (1 Samuel 28) and superstitions (1 Kings 9). It’s human nature to want guidance in the face of uncertainty. If we don’t believe God will speak to us, or we are dissatisfied with his timing, our history shows we go looking elsewhere.
The sign we truly “don’t believe” is when we stop praying outside of occasional mealtime blessings, play the part of “good Christian” publicly, but lack true intimacy with God. We have a nagging sense our relationship with God is broken, but like many of our relationships, it’s easier to continue along in a false harmony than face reality. The cycle builds upon itself until we are unconsciously, or even secretly, convinced conversation with God is nothing more than a series of obligatory “prayer-speeches.” Prayer speeches rarely even consider the possibility God may speak to us.
Dallas’ dinner-time words echo through the pages of human history and our present lives.
I Trust… ME
Karin and I met with another couple recently with whom we share a passion for seeing teenagers develop a strong love of Jesus.
We were lamenting – the number of local teenagers in the Boulder, Colo. area who have a faith connection seems to have plummeted since we grew up here.
I was determined to leave the meeting with an action plan that would change the future.
My mind went to a few things:
· I should volunteer with Young Life
· We should start a network of parents who care about the same things we do
· I should coach high school baseball
· I should start a new non-profit focused on kids in our area
· I should do all of the above
My friend Scott had a different starting point.
“We should go up at 9 or 10pm at night to the school when no one is around," he said. "And cry out to God to do something. Something miraculous.”
Scott is like David: Ask God, believe he cares and expectantly open your eyes and ears.
I am like the majority: God doesn’t really respond to prayer, so I will do it myself.
Years later, my dinner with Dallas is still nipping at the heels of my belief in God’s power and His interest in me.
Sadly, “doing it myself” neglects the universe’s greatest Power Source – the Holy Spirit. While I am, in practice, worshiping my pragmatism, strategy and self-confidence, God would love to lead me, but lovingly refuses to force himself into my story.
In that light, it’s probably no coincidence those of us who pray less, tend to have less stories of God’s intervention. An undeveloped conversational prayer life with God also leads to an entitled heart that treasures personal accomplishments, although those victories are tiny in comparison to the more complex but awesome story waiting to be woven through the power of the Spirit.
I tend to trust one person… ME.
My friend Scott’s instinct is different. Like David, he believes “it works.”
If God is an infinitely powerful and wise being that actually loves you deeply, are you talking to him? Are you asking God like David, or is your life journey marked by a subtle narcissism?
You are contemplating challenging decisions today:
· A difficult conversation
· A job you are considering leaving
· A school you wonder if you should attend
· A relationship you may start, alter or end
· An important crossroads with your finances
Will you proceed on your own power? Yet again? How many fruitless self-guided escapades will we insist upon?
Dallas gave me a gift. As I’m contemplating these daily decisions, I remember his words and affirm, “Lord, I do believe. Help my unbelief.” And he is.
Jim Candy is the Regional Director, Central US for Stadia, a global church planting organization. He is a pastor, church planter, author and former professional sports announcer. He lives in Boulder, Colo. with his wife and two boys. Reach him at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.