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A Paradox In Prayer

by Nick Boone

BOLDNESS  out  of  humility

NickBooneOver and over again the Bible emphasizes the necessity of humility.  In Luke 18, Jesus provides a parable that specifically demonstrates the importance of humility in prayer.  In this parable, a respectable Pharisee thanks God for who he is while the lowly tax collector can only beat his breast and cry out, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  Jesus tells us that the tax collector, not the Pharisee, “went home justified before God.”

This sense of the need for humility in prayer can be contrasted with Hebrews 4, in which the writer tells us to “approach the throne of grace with confidence” (some versions say “boldness”).  How can one approach God in prayer with humility, but also with confidence, or boldness.  This seems like a paradox, but it actually is not.

Boldness can actually spring from humility, and there are plenty of examples from Scripture that suggest this.

Let’s explore the idea of humility first.  When I think of what Christ has done for me, I think of my position as much like that of the tax collector.  It’s what I call a radical asymmetry–God is the highest of the high, and I, in relation to him, am the lowest of the low; God is infinitely higher than me, and I am infinitely lower than him.  This position I am in is a position of absolute humility, and it is a humility that will accept nothing less than silence.  What could I say that would be worthy?  What could I even ask?  How could I presume to ask?

But, like the tax collector, I do not remain silent; for even as this humility threatens to silence me, I can see the powerful love of Christ.  This powerful love creates a desire in me, a desire for contact, for a relationship with Christ.  It forces me to see and feel my deep need, and out of that unquenchable, tortuous thirst inspired by Christ’s love, I am forced to speak, to plead with God out of my humility.

This speech that springs forth out of humility is a bold speech in its very essence.  Since I see myself as utterly lowly in relation to God, anything I say to him is already foolishness.  It makes no sense that the lowest of the low should speak to the Almighty, the All-Knowing Creator.  Anything I say is, therefore, bold.  How dare I say anything?  I cannot provide God with any new knowledge through my speech–he knows everything!   If I request something of his great power, I do not deserve anything that might be granted.  So how can I presume to ask?  Anytime a person sees himself as ultimately low, his prayer will be the most bold, because anything spoken to God out of such a lowly condition is said with boldness–it cannot be otherwise.

Both prayers in Luke 18 our offered with boldness.  The Pharisee’s prayer exhibits a boldness that springs forth from pride.  He is confident that God will hear his prayer and accept it since he is a respectable man, a Pharisee.  But the tax collector’s prayer exhibits a boldness that springs forth from humility.  He has no where else to turn–no recourse to himself, nor the world.  His only hope is in God’s willingness to hear his prayer.  He knows he is undeserving, so his humility nearly forces him into total silence.  But forced to speak out of unquenchable desire for God’s love, he beats his breast and cries out for mercy.  This, from his perspective, is a bold prayer.  It is a risk.  The lowest of the low dares to ask something of God.  But this is precisely the kind of boldness that God requires of us in prayer–the boldness that comes from a person knowing who he truly is in relation to God–a lowly sinner–and knowing how desperate he really is, and knowing he has nowhere else to turn.

This boldness that springs from humility can be seen throughout the Bible.  Numbers 12:3 says that Moses was the most humble man on Earth; yet in Exodus 33 he makes perhaps the boldest request recorded in Scripture: he asks that God would reveal to him His glory.  How is it that the most humble man makes the boldest request?  I think that what has been outlined so far tells us that Moses could only make such a bold request precisely because of his humility.  Moses knew his position, he knew his need for God, he was desperate for God–this made him bold.  And, amazingly, God granted Moses’ request.

The book of Ruth gives us another view of this phenomenon.  Ruth, in her humility, her absolute need, was driven to do something very radical.  She enters the threshing floor at night, where only men were typically allowed to sleep, and she uncovers Boaz’s feet and lies crosswise at his feet. What boldness!  But this was Ruth’s only recourse, her only hope; her humble position made her bold.  Of course, the book of Ruth tells a historically true story, but the story of Ruth is also true in an allegorical sense.  We are all Ruth; we have nowhere else to turn, but to the one who can be our redeemer.  Our helplessness, our humble position, allows us to be bold in reaching out to our Redeemer.  And out of mercy, he grants our request.

In the New Testament this humble boldness is seen in the faith of the Canaanite woman Jesus encounters in Matthew 15.  As this passage makes clear, though Jesus’s message was eventually for everybody all over the world, during his lifetime Jesus concentrated his efforts only on the Jews, and occasionally their cousins, the Samaritans.  The Canaanite woman calls after Jesus, but he ignores her.  He says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”  When the woman boldly kneels before Jesus, he in essence calls her people dogs: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.”  But because this woman is so humble, because in her lowliness she has no where else to turn, she takes Jesus’ metaphor and turns it into the most effective extended metaphor in history.  She says, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”  Then Jesus answers her request.  This was indeed a bold move by a desperate woman.  Hers was not a boldness that sprang from pride, but out of abject humility.  Christ sees such boldness and grants the request.  He can work with hearts that are so desperate for him that they resort to boldness.

We need to realize that because of our lowliness in relation to God, any prayer we offer will be bold.  The question is, with what kind of boldness do we approach God?  Is it the boldness of the Pharisee?  This boldness comes from pride, from a sense that God has blessed us with all kinds of ability, so we’ll just thank him and go about our lives as we see fit.  Such arrogant boldness really asks nothing of God in prayer because the attitude of the pray-er is one of confidence in his own ability to do what is best.  These are prayers that ask for things that we can really already do on our own.  But the prayer of boldness out of humility is a desperate prayer, from a person who has no hope in himself or in anything else.  This is the type of prayer that can be powerful and effective, the type of prayer that, though bold in its premises, God will be happy to grant.  We need to see ourselves as the tax collector, or as the Canaanite woman if we are to come to Christ with the appropriate brand of boldness.  The most bold--and therefore the most powerful--prayers come from  hearts that fully understand humility.

-Nick Boone is an Associate Professor of English at Harding University

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Philippians 4:13