On The Proper Use of Sickness (Pascal)

The Harvard Classics, vol. 48: Blaise Pascal: Thoughts, Letters, and Minor Works In a written prayer called “To Ask God the Proper Use of Sickness,” Blaise Pascal (d. 1662) reflected on health and sickness in the Christian life.  More specifically, Pascal confessed that when he was healthy, he didn’t thank God for it and use his health to serve Him.  When he became ill, Pascal prayed that God would use the illness to help strengthen his faith.  While I don’t agree with every aspect of this prayer, parts of it are quite good and edifying.  Here are a few sections I appreciate:

Thou gavest me health to serve thee, and I made a profane use of it. Thou sendest me sickness now to correct me; suffer not that I use it to irritate thee by my impatience. I made a bad use of my health, and thou hast justly punished me for it. Suffer not that I make a bad use of my punishment.

To whom shall I cry, O Lord, to whom shall I have recourse, if not to thee? Nothing that is less than God can fulfil my expectation. It is God himself that I ask and seek; and it is to thee alone, my God, that I address myself to obtain thee, Open my heart, O Lord; enter into the rebellious place which has been occupied by vices. They hold it subject. Enter into it as into the strong man’s house; but first bind the strong and powerful enemy that has possession of it, and then take the treasures which are there. Lord, take my affections, which the world had stolen; take this treasure thyself, or rather retake it, since it belongs to thee as a tribute that I owe thee, since thy image is imprinted in it

…Grant me the favor, Lord, to join thy consolations to my sufferings, that I may suffer like a Christian. …But I ask, Lord, to feel at the same time both the sorrows of nature for my sins, and the consolations of thy spirit through thy grace; for this is the true condition of Christianity. Let me not feel sorrow without consolation; but let me feel sorrow and consolation together, that I may come at last to feel thy consolation without any sorrow.

…Thou alone knowest what is most expedient for me: thou art the sovereign master, do what thou wilt. Give to me, take from me; but conform my will to thine; and grant that in humble and perfect submission and in holy confidence, I may be disposed to receive the orders of thy eternal providence, and that I may adore alike all that comes to me from thee.

Blaise Pascal, The Harvard Classics 48: Blaise Pascal: Thoughts, Letters, and Minor Works, ed. Charles W. Eliot, trans. W. F. Trotter, M. L. Booth, and O. W. Wight (New York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1910), 369-377.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Panic, Prayers, and Praise (Lloyd-Jones)

 In Philippians 4:6 Paul says “Do not be anxious about anything.  Instead, in every situation, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, tell your requests to God” (NET).  D. M. Lloyd-Jones noted that Paul was being specific with his order of words in this verse: prayer – petition (both with thanksgiving) – give your requests to God.  Here’s Lloyd-Jones:

“[Paul] differentiates between prayer and supplication and thanksgiving.  What does he men by prayer? This is the most general term and it means worship and adoration.  If you have problems that seem insoluble, if you are liable to become anxious and overburdened, and somebody tells you to pray, do not rush to God with your petition.  That is not the way.  Before you make your requests known unto God, pray, worship, adore.  Come into the presence of God and for the time being forget your problems.  Do not start with them.  Just realize that you are face to face with God.  In this word ‘prayer’ the idea of being face to face is inherent in the very word itself.  You come into the presence of God and you realize the presence and you recollect the presences – that is the first step always.  Even before you make your requests known unto God you realize that you are face to face with God, that you are in His presence and you pour out your heart in adoration.  That is the beginning.

But following prayer comes supplication.  Now we are moving on.  Having worshipped God because God is God, having offered this general worship and adoration, we come now to the particular, and the apostle here encourages us to make our supplications….”

I think perhaps Lloyd-Jones may have overstated the case.  I don’t think that it’s always wrong to start a prayer with petition or request.  For example, many Psalms start out with requests to God (e.g. Ps. 17, 69, 70, 86, etc.).  And there are other places in Scripture where God’s people begin their cry to the Lord with a petition (Elijah on Mt. Carmel [1 Ki. 18:36]; see also Judges 6:6, Mt 15:25, etc.).

However, Lloyd-Jones’ point is a good and solid one to take to heart: when we are anxious, we should often start our prayers with praise and adoration.  When worried, we should begin our prayers with worship and praise to put things in perspective: God is on the throne and he hear us for Christ’s sake.  How can we be anxious if God (who loves us in Christ) is on his throne?

The above quote is found in Spiritual Depression, p 267.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

None Shall Seek Thy Face in Vain (Cowper)

 I just love the hymns and poems of William Cowper.  In fact, I’d recommend a book of his hymns and poems to use as a short daily devotional.  My wife and I have used this one: William Cowper’s Olney Hymns (Curiosmith, 2009). It’s not expensive but it is a great resource.  Here’s a great hymn I read today that I’d like to share:

LOOKING UPWARDS IN A STORM

God of my life, to thee I call,
Afflicted at thy feet I fall;
When the great water-floods prevail,
Leave not my trembling heart to fail!

Friend of the friendless, and the faint!
Where should I lodge my deep complaint?
Where but with thee, whose open door
Invites the helpless and the poor!

Did ever mourner plead with thee,
And thou refuse that mourner’s plea?
Does not the word still fix’d remain,
That none shall seek thy face in vain?

That were a grief I could not bear,
Didst thou not hear and answer prayer;
But a pray’r-hearing, answ’ring God,
Supports me under ev’ry load.

Fair is the lot that’s cast for me!
I have an advocate with thee;
They whom the world caresses most,
Have no such privilege to boast.

Poor tho’ I am, despis’d, forgot,
Yet God, my God, forgets me not;
And he is safe and must succeed,
For whom the Lord vouchsafes to plead.

-William Cowper-

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54002

Prayer and Study, Study and Prayer (Shedd)

Homiletics and Pastoral Theology: With an Appendix (WGT Shedd)
Shedd, Pastoral Theology

Serious Christians are students of the Word.  We seek the truth in God’s Word, we find it there, and we learn more about it as we grow, study, and read.  We memorize verses, try to understand biblical concepts, and we desire to live as Scripture calls us to live.  We are students of the Word of truth.

However, as W. G. T. Shedd wrote about studying the Word, 

It is not sufficient to commune with the truth; for truth is impersonal. We must commune with the God of truth. It is not enough to study, and ponder, the contents of religious books, of even the Bible itself. We must actually address the author of the Bible, in entreaties and petitions.

There can, consequently, be no genuine religion without prayer. And the degree of religion, will depend upon the depth and heartiness of prayer. It does not depend so much upon the length, as the intensity of the mental activity. A few moments of real and absorbing address to God, will accomplish more for the Christian, in the way of arming him with spiritual power, than days or years of reflection, without it.

 Shedd then applies study and prayer to the pastor’s life:

Well, therefore, may we lay down, as the first rule for the promotion of piety in the clergyman, the great and standing rule for all Christians. Let him not be satisfied with studying, and pondering, the best treatises in theology, or with studying, and pondering, even the Bible itself. Besides all this, and as the crowning and completing act, in the religious life, let him actually, and really pray. Let him not be content with a theological mood, with a homiletic spirit, with a serious and elevated mental habitude. Besides all this, and as a yet higher and more enlivening mental process, let him truly, and personally address his Maker and Redeemer, in supplication. Let him not attempt to promote piety in the soul, by a merely negative effort,—by neglecting the cultivation of the mind, and undervaluing learning and study. If the clergyman is not spiritually-minded, and devotedly religious, with learning and studiousness, he certainly will not be so without it. Neglect of his intellectual and theological character, will not help his religious character. Let him constantly endeavor to advance the divine life in his soul, by a positive, and comprehensive method. Let him consecrate, and sanctify all his study, and all his meditativeness, and all his profound and serious knowledge, with prayer.

 William G. T. Shedd, Homiletics and Pastoral Theology (New York: Scribner, Armstrong & Co., 1872), 336–337.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015


If Thou Drawest Me Not (Huss)

John Huss Collection (7 vols.) In 1415 John Huss was in prison for “heresies” such as saying that belief in the Pope is not necessary for salvation, that laypeople should be able to drink the wine in the Lord’s Supper, and for pointing out other inconsistencies and immorality in the Church.  Huss also faced many false accusations, such as the one where he supposedly called himself the fourth person of the Trinity.

Although Huss was suffering terribly in prison (headaches, toothaches, vomiting, [kidney or gall] stones, and horrific nightmares), he would not recant.  Some thought he should just admit to the false accusations – since they were obviously false, everyone would understand.  Others even tried to sort of trick Huss into recanting.  But he continually said he would not recant of anything he taught that agreed with the truth of Scripture.  “I would not for a chapel full of gold recede from the truth,” he wrote.  Huss said that if he did recant, he would be breaking the 9th commandment and scandalizing God’s people who had heard his sermons.

The last letters Huss wrote from prison are very much worth reading.  He knew he was going to die, and at times he was afraid that he would waver in his faith.  Here’s one moving prayer he wrote in a letter to his friends at Constance in 1415:

O loving Christ, draw me, a weakling, after Thyself; for if Thou drawest me not, I cannot follow Thee. Grant me a brave spirit that it may be ready. If the flesh is weak, let Thy grace prevent, come in the middle, and follow; for without Thee I can do nothing, and, especially, for Thy sake I cannot go to a cruel death. Grant me a ready spirit, a fearless heart, a right faith, a firm hope, and a perfect love, that for Thy sake I may lay down my life with patience and joy. Amen.

Although many of us reading this are not in prison for the sake of the gospel, the attitude and ethos of this prayer is one we all should share as we call on the name of the Lord.  Indeed, we are weak, but he is strong!

[The above info and quote is found in  Herbert B. Workman and R. Martin Pope, The Letters of John Huss: With Introductions and Explanatory Notes (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1904), 253.]

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

A Pastor’s Prayer (Luther)

Luther's Prayers by [Luther, Martin] This pastor’s prayer of Luther is one that resonates very much with me:

“[Lord,] you know how unworthy I am to fill so great and important an office.  Were it not for your counsel, I would have utterly failed long ago.  Therefore I call upon you for guidance.  Gladly will I give my heart and voice to this work.  I want to teach the people.  I want always to seek and study in your Word, and eagerly to meditate upon it.  Use me as your instrument.  Lord, do not forsake me.  If I were alone, I would ruin everything.  Amen”

Martin Luther, Luther’s Prayers, p 89.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

He Will Not Send You To Purgatory (Ryken)

Philip Ryken’s When You Pray is a very helpful resource for studying the Lord’s Prayer and for learning more about prayer and praying.  When I recently studied the fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer (“forgive us our debts...”), I found the following paragraphs helpful:

“As soon as we start trying to figure out how to pay God what we owe for our sins, we realize how much trouble we are really in.  Obviously, we cannot pay off our debts by ourselves.  How could we ever make up for all the sins we have committed?  Yet this is precisely the error most religions make, including false versions of Christianity.  They all operate on the basis that human beings can do something to make things right with God.  Their reasoning goes something like this: ‘Lord, I know I keep messing up, but I’m trying really, really hard to be good.  In case you haven’t noticed, I have a list here of some of the good things I’ve done – charitable work, and that sort of thing.  Yes, I know my list isn’t as long as it could be, but why don’t we just call it even?’  This kind of approach is based on the principle of works righteousness, the idea that doing good works can make someone good enough for God.”

“The truth is, however, that forgiveness is not something we can work for, it is only something we can ask for.  Even if we worked for all eternity, laboring in the very pit of hell, we could never work off the debt we owe to God.  What could we ever pay to God?  Jesus posed the question this way: ‘What can a man give in exchange for his soul?’ (Mt. 16:26b NIV).  The answer, of course, is nothing.  Our souls are the most valuable thing we have.  When, because of our sin and guilt, we owe God our very souls, there is nothing left for us to pay.”

Later Ryken notes that “we owe God far more than we or anyone else could ever pay.”  So what can we do about our massive debt to God?  The only thing we can do is beg God for forgiveness: Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner! (Lk. 18:13).

“This is precisely what we do in the fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer.  We ask our Father to forgive us our debts.  With these words we declare our moral bankruptcy, freely admitting that we owe God more than everything we have.  Then we do the only thing we can, which is to ask him to forgive us outright.  Because he is our loving Father, God does what we ask.  ‘He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities… As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him (Ps. 103:10, 13 NIV).  God the Father offers forgiveness as a free gift of his grace.  When you go to him, weighed down with the debt of all your guilt and sin, he will not sit down with you to work out a payment plan.  He will not scheme to charge you more interest.  He will not send you to Purgatory or anywhere else to work off your debts.  On the contrary, God is a loving Father who offers forgiveness full and free.”

Philip Graham Ryken, When You Pray (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2000), p. 125-6.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015