The Prayer that Changes Hearts

Prayer does make a difference. But it’s not as much that God answers our prayers to change us but rather that He uses our prayers to change us.

StockSnap_O3WNR5BS7AThe question I asked in the previous post was how can we tilt the “how can we tilt the balance in this tug-of-war” that’s going on in our human nature (described in an earlier post). If you believe in God like I do, you may mention prayer and God’s help. Many think that prayer connects you to God’s supernatural power. Yes, it’s true but more than that prayer connects God to your failing, broken will power. More than you achieving something (that you pray for) through God it is God achieving something (character, the fruit of the Holy Spirit – Gal. 5:22-23) in you. In God’s eyes the latter is often more important than the former.

God has many good reasons not to display his supernatural power directly (and indeed most don’t claim to see direct miracles left and right). That’s outside the scope of this post but I will illustrate one reason that pertains to our topic. There are things that my two kids (a 3 and a 5 year old) find hard to do but instead of helping them I sometimes have them do those things themselves. Why? It’s because that’s how they learn. That’s how they become stronger and more skilled. The hard way is the best teacher. But God has in mind for us things much more important than what I have for my kids. God doesn’t want the answer to our prayers to be just a solution but rather a character builder. That’s particularly true when the solution has to do with our character and mindset as it’s the case with achieving our goals. Character is more than a solution or some means. It’s the end goal God has for you. It defines who you are. And it has a proper name: Jesus (Phil. 2:5; 3:10; Col. 1:27; Gal. 2:20).

Therefore there are some things God does for you and some things that you need to do for yourself. The saying “God helps those who help themselves” is often used to mean that you only have to rely on yourself. While helping yourself helps, for some goals that’s not enough. I either know or heard of many addicts who could just not help themselves. But some of them did their part in asking God for help and God and did the rest. The same is true for people who couldn’t forgive our couldn’t humble themselves.

Just as God has a part (like in the examples above), you, as a Christian, have a part as well and it includes prayer. James says: “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.” (James 4:8 ESV). Jesus says: “Abide in me, and I in you.” (John 15:4, 7). A few verses later “If you keep My commandments…” (v. 10, 14). In other words, if you do your part I will do Mine. Jesus died for all but not all people are saved. On the contrary, Jesus says that “broad is the road that leads to destruction” (Matt. 7:13). People need to believe (John 3:16) and belief is, in a way, like prayer. God doesn’t take over our free will. He takes us through a process of learning so that, in the end, we freely submit it to God. This happens when we come to the realization that He knows better, He sees farther and He loves more.

In conclusion, yes, praying to change indeed tips the tug-of-war that’s going on in our human nature in favor of mind and long term goals over body and instant gratification. But it’s not as much that God answers our prayers to change us but rather that He uses our prayers to change us. Soren Kierkegaard said that “prayer does not change God, but it changes him who prays.” The best prayer is not the prayer that changes things because, after all, they are just things. The best prayer is the one that changes hearts because, after all, they are more precious than all the things in the world (Mark 8:36). In the next post we’ll see how prayer works and how this change happens. I’ll end with an anonymous prayer, And God Said “No”, which includes the following verses:

I asked God to take away my pride,

And God said “No”

He said it was not for him to take away

But for me to give up

I asked God to grant me patience,

And God said “No”.

He said that patience is a byproduct of tribulation,

It isn’t granted, it is earned.

Why We Fail: The Immediacy Principle

Why do we fail at achieving our long term goals? Why is our internal conflict by our immediate gratification, bodily interests? The immediacy principle is your answer.

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We saw in the first post that, indeed, we often fail to achieve our goals. We saw in the second post that one reason for our failure is our internal conflict. We also saw there that the conflict is often between the mind (what we know we should do, usually pertaining to the long term) and the body (what we feel like doing now). A simple example is knowing that I need to be eat healthy or else I’ll regret it in the long run on one hand and the urge to go to the refrigerator to get the ice cream I just saw in an a TV commercial on the other.

It’s not just that there is an internal conflict but, worse, the short term and immediate goals have the upper hand. There is a lot more failure when it comes to long term goals. As mentioned in the first post, only 8% of people achieve their New Year resolutions. Even those who do accomplish their long term goals, they usually have to work hard at it. But for instant gratification you don’t even need to set it as a goal—it happens naturally. Why is that? The answer lies in the immediacy principle: the more immediate something is, the more motivational power it has. The more distant in time it is, the more distant it feels and less motivational power it has. Going back to the example above, when I see the ice cream commercial it is immediate, it’s right in my face. The reactions triggered by the sight of the ice cream are also immediate. They are present. They are right there. I can feel them. They are not a choice but an automatic reaction of the body to an outside stimulus. I don’t intend or decide to feel hungry or to have an urge for ice cream. On the other hand, the reaction of the mind (such as “No, thanks. My goal is to eat healthy this year and I’m sticking to it!”) is not automatic. It relies on me in order to happen. I need to remind myself my goal and I need to decide to act accordingly (and sometimes even that is not enough). I need to be intentional and purposeful. In other words, minds’ long term goals have more points of failure than body’s instant gratification. The body reminds me automatically that I have ice cream in the refrigerator. The mind doesn’t automatically remind me about my set goal and even if it does, I may decide not to honor my goal. By default, my weight loss goal is something distant in my mind, something that I decided a long time ago which somehow doesn’t have relevant to the present time. My goal is not the here-and-now kind of thing that my ice cream urge is. This makes instant gratification much easier and much more likely to happen.

People say “don’t judge a book by its cover.” Why? It’s precisely because people do that. Seeing the cover is immediate. It’s easy just as putting someone in a stereotype. But getting to know a book or someone is harder. It takes more time and more effort. Of course, it’s also much more accurate which is exactly why people bring up the saying. The same principle is expressed in the Bible. When God sent Samuel to anoint a new king and he saw David’s older brother he thought “Surely the LORD’s anointed is before him.” The Bible continues “But the LORD said to Samuel, ‘Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.'” (1 Sam. 16:6-7 ESV). God’s chosen one was David, the youngest in the family, who was not even invited and was out taking care of the sheep.

This bring us to the question for the next post: how can we tilt the balance in this tug-of-war? How can we give an advantage to the mind over the body, to the long term goals over instant gratification? Please feel free to comment.

Why We Fail: The Internal Conflict

Why do we keep failing at accomplishing our most important goals? One reason is a universal internal conflict which characterizes the human nature.

StockSnap_M5791YB6J9We now follow up on the question from the previous post: why do we fail at achieving our goals?

The first problem is that we don’t want just one thing. We want many things, including ones which are in conflict with each other. We want achievement but we also want convenience. We want productivity but we also like laziness. We want increased quantity but also increased quality. We want to accomplish our long term goals but we also want instant gratification. But reaching our long term goals takes sacrificing our instant gratification and waiting patiently without seeing results for a long time. Accomplishments don’t come easy but, on the other hand, we like the easy way. We like shortcuts and cutting corners. We want to enjoy the end result but we want to avoid the pain of the hard process that brings about the result.

These conflicting motivations is the first answer to the question why we fail. In the Bible James says: “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?” (James 4:1 ESV) We have many passions and desires and they are often at war with each other within us. There is a universal internal conflict within the human nature. An example of conflict James gives is the fact that Christians love God but, at the same time they want to be “friends with the world” (James 4:4). A few verses later he calls such Christians “double-minded” (James 4:8). We all experience this double-mindedness, these conflicting interests not only in spiritual matters but also in our life in general. Failing at accomplishing our top goals often just means that we succeed at accomplishing the opposing and less significant interests we have.

Apostle Paul also makes this point. Sharing his experience in the quote from the previous post, he points out this dualism: “For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” (Rom. 7:22-23) He not only mentions the conflict but also gives the source of the conflict. There is the “law of my mind” in opposition to “the law … in my members.” Indeed, the conflict is between what our mind knows we should do and what the body wants to do. The failure comes doing what we want instead of doing what we know we should. Much of our conflict falls along this line. The mind pursues long term goals. The body pursues instant gratification. The mind appreciates working hard for what’s important. The body likes convenience and dislikes tiredness, effort and pain. The body cares about the tummy to be filled and other bodily passions and desires to be filled. The body tries to take over and define a fulfilled life as a worry-free life—one with enough resources (such as money) so that the bodily desires will never lack fulfillment. This would be a life in which one could do whatever he wants. The mind defines a fulfilled life as one with meaning and accomplishments—a life that makes a difference. Not a life in which one can do whatever one wants but a life in which one can do the very things one purposed to do: one’s top goals.

Paul makes this distinction and contrasts the “old self” with the “new self” (Eph. 4:22 vs. 4:24; Col. 3:9 vs. 3:10; Rom. 6:6) and the “flesh” with the “spirit.” He says:

For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. (Gal. 5:17)

What keeps us from doing what we want to do, our most important goals? It’s the conflict within our hearts which becomes a battlefield of two opposing interests.

One may say that this conflict is not universal since people who are not born again don’t have the new self Paul is talking about. Yes, but they still have reason and conscience. They have the thought of eternity that God put in their hearts (Ecc. 3:11). In Rom. 8:16 Paul makes the distinction between the Holy Spirit and our spirit. Even without having the Holy Spirit one still has his own spirit and that is often in conflict with the body, the “flesh”. What reason and our conscience tells us that we should do often diverges from what the body demands us to do. This internal conflict is therefore universal.

In the next posts we’ll look at other answers to the question why we fail and we’ll also answer why we do the unreasonable and follow what the body wants instead of what the reason prescribes.

Why Do We Keep Failing at Achieving Our Goals?

Only 8% of people actually achieve their New Year’s resolution, such as weight loss. Why do people so often fail at that which they want the most?

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One of the important things I’m working on is developing a program and tools to help people achieve their goals, or, what I call the art of self-persuasion. This includes both a web site that implements the program along with a book I’m writing which presents the principles behind it. I’m very excited about it because it offers some unique features that, to my knowledge, are not offered by similar books or programs. These features have proved to be very effective both in my experience with them and when applied to areas other than goal achievement.

One thing that struck me as I was developing this is the high rate of failure when it comes to goal achievement. The majority of people are unhappy with where they are in their lives. Polls show that only 31% are really happy and studies suggest that “people may overstate how happy they really are.” Most Americans are unhappy with their job. The percentage of people who actually achieve their New Year resolutions is an abysmal 8%. Take weight loss which is the top New Year’s resolution. People by books, work out machines and videos, find new diets and some even take medications. But most don’t get the results they hope and then decide the diet or whatever they tried doesn’t work for them. Then they either move on to another solution or just give up. After concluding that nothing works, some resort to surgical solutions, liposuction, and even making one’s stomach smaller. I would say that’s a rather desperate, last resort solution.

Another example is living a life that truly glorifies God. My faith in God is very important to me. The primary reason I developed this was to help me and others to achieve spiritual goals that align with God’s will for our lives. But the program can be applied to whatever one’s goals are. I believe a believer has the help of the Holy Spirit in a way that others don’t but even for a Christian there are some steps that we need to do. God does His part but He doesn’t do everything. He doesn’t decide for you. He gave you free will. Joshua told the people of Israel “choose this day whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:15 ESV). Even faith is a decision as well.

Many times I heard sermon or I read a book, I got excited about the message and I made some decisions and set some goals. But it’s so often that my initial excitement wears off and I give up. All it remains just a memory of some good intentions. They were a seed which, just like in parable of the sower from Mark 4:3-20, fell on rocky ground or among thorns and never bore fruit.

Apostle Paul experienced himself this failure of reaching his goals. He describes it with powerful words:

For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (Rom. 7:15-24 ESV)

Faced with these facts, the puzzling question is: why is failure to achieve one’s goals so prevalent, both when we look in the church and when we look outside? How come people who what to loose weight so much that they are willing to go under the surgical knife are not willing enough to control their eating and exercising? That would seem totally irrational. The more I know people the more I’m convinced that irrationality is a universal characteristic of human nature. Everyone does irrational things at one point or another. We all find ourselves doing things that we know we will regret but we still go ahead and do them. I think this irrationality is ultimately rooted in the nature of free will. But despite my realization of the irrational side of the human nature I’m still find myself taken by surprise by it. That’s because despite my awareness of it I still yearn for sense and logic.

The question I’m putting forward is why do you think people keep failing at achieving what they really want? Is the problem of failure fundamentally different from a believer to a non-believer? Is it a problem with the systems peoples are following (for example in the example I gave above about weight loss) or is it a problem with the people themselves? If it’s with the people then what exactly is wrong with them? Simply calling them irrational doesn’t seem a very rational answer. Then how do you explain irrationality? Can one make sense of it? Please go ahead and bring your answers. Next time we’ll look at these answers.