Thinking Christian

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The Dangerous Prayer: Praying While Sinning

Posted on Sep 30, 2011 by Tom Gilson

Temptation begins with, “I want to …”

The second step is, “I shouldn’t …”

The third step is “But I really do want to …”

The fourth step is what determines the direction of my life, and it’s the great difference between Christianity and every other way of living.

Every religion and every secular system recognizes the reality of temptation and wrong-doing. Even in an age of “tolerance” there remain some things everyone knows to be wrong: overeating, throwing the milk carton in the trash instead of recycling it, over-spending, cheating one’s customers or employees, letting anger control us, hurting others, and whatever else may have came first to your mind when you realized this article was about temptation. We all face it. We all fail more often than we would like to admit. We all feel bad about it, and we deal with that feeling in different ways.

So what about that fourth step? Here’s how it usually goes. “But I shouldn’t!” which kicks in a cycle that goes from “I want to” around to “I shouldn’t” over and over again. It generally lasts as many times as it takes to get to, “But I think I will after all.” We don’t give in every time, but often enough we do. We battle with ourselves over temptation, and typically we lose. Other people downstream of our sins lose, too.

Christianity offers a completely different fourth step. Too many of us miss it, though; in fact, the apostle Paul wrote to a whole church that was missing it. It was a group of Christians in the Galatia who kept on trying to do the right thing by concentrating on “the works of the law”—which is another way of saying they were focusing on the rules: “I should do this, I should never do that.”

Paul excoriated them for it. “You foolish Galatians,” he wrote in Galatians 3:1, “who has bewitched you?” Later he told them they had “fallen from grace” (Gal. 5:4, NKJV). I’ll bet you thought “fallen from grace” was a label for pastors and governors who get caught with mistresses.God isn’t just an after-the-fact repair-man. He gave us the gift of himself, dwelling with us and in us through the third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, often called the Spirit of Christ.

That’s what makes Christianity different in the moment of temptation. I’ll explain by referring back to the Gal. 5:4 verse I mentioned earlier. Paul said there that the problem with these Christians who were trying really hard to do right, these foolish, bewitched Christians who were trying to do right (imagine that!), was that they were severed from Christ. Obviously that’s wrong; obviously we are to be connected to Christ instead (Christ himself speaks of this, especially in John 15).

This makes all the difference when we’re experiencing temptation. Say you’re in the third step: “But I really do want to …” Here’s how it might go from there, as you remain connected with Christ. Instead of trying to argue yourself out of giving in, you can say, “Let’s be honest. I really do want to give in to this temptation… and I also want to be connected to Christ. So right now I invite Christ to be with me in this, even while I’m at the point of really wanting to do something he wouldn’t like.”

Do you see how that breaks the cycle of “I want to — I shouldn’t — but I want to — but I shouldn’t”? It’s not just a psychological trick. It’s inviting the real goodness and power of God into the cycle. I experienced the result again just this morning: instead of fighting through the cycle, I found myself reflecting on God’s goodness, enjoying his company, and almost forgetting about the wrong thing that had seemed so powerfully motivating just moments earlier. The temptation evaporated. I didn’t fight it off. God did.

What if you’ve gone beyond that third step, though? What if you’ve given in, and you’re right in the middle of the sin? What if you’re enjoying it? Sin can be pretty fun for a while, after all. It wouldn’t be tempting if it weren’t. Even then it’s not too late to draw Christ in, though. It’s the right time for what I call the “dangerous prayer.” This dangerous prayer honest, it’s open, it’s prayed right in the middle of sinning, and it brings Christ nearby in the midst of it. It goes something like this: “Lord Christ, I know this is wrong, but I’m actually having a good time at the moment. Would you come and be with me here right now while I’m being tempted or while I’m sinning? And would you let me know what you think about it while you’re here?”

Can we pray that way? I believe we have to. I am a great believer in praying while sinning. (I do not believe in sinning while praying!) God is not shocked to learn we’re sinning, and he’s not surprised to discover we’re having a moment of passing fun with it. He’s there anyway, and he loves us no less then that at any other time. What this prayer does is wake us up to his presence, and make us open to his work in our hearts. In response, God wakes us up to reality so we can see the truth about how weak and transitory that sinful pleasure really is. I’ve found that when I pray that way, typically I can walk away from the sin with hardly any struggle. Christ does the fighting for me. He’s the rescuer (another term for Savior) from sin, after all. I’m inviting him in so he can draw me out.

You see, if resisting temptation means telling myself, “I shouldn’t want this!” it’s destined to fail, because temptation means I do want this, or at least I think I do at this moment. If standing up against sin means trying to think of something else I want more (“I’d rather be thin than eat this piece of cake”), that has a bit more power—but darn it, that cake still looks awfully good, and I’m not really all that sure how being thin next month stacks up against that cake right there right now. But if we can say, “You know I really do want this thing that’s tempting me, and I’m going to invite someone to be with me,” that’s not denying anything that’s true about ourselves. And if that person is the One with all spiritual power and righteousness, then we have an incredible ally on our side.

There is more on this later in the book of Galatians, where Paul talks about the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Trinity, as the real and powerful living presence of God in Christians. “Walk by the Spirit,” he says, “and you will not fulfill the desires of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16).

That’s what makes Christianity different. It’s a relationship, not a set of rules. I’m not saying the rules don’t matter, for they show us a picture of what it is to do right, but there’s no real power in the act of scrunching up our willpower to follow the rules. The power comes through Christ in us. We need to be careful that our relationship is with the genuine person of Christ, too, which is one reason among many for staying in the Scriptures and in fellowship with other believers. Scripture keeps us in touch with the real Christ, and other believers can help keep us from getting goofy ideas about both God and sin.

Christianity is different from every other religion and every other secular system. Every other system says it’s up to us to get right with God, the world, or ourselves. No other system has real power to break the temptation-desire-sin cycle the way Christ does. No other system includes such a powerful personal relationship at its core. No other system can rescue us in the moment the way Christ can.

Whether you’re already a believer or just checking out this strange phenomenon of a “thinking Christian,” I hope that sounds attractive to you, because it really is good. If you’re already a believer, I hope you’ll pray the dangerous prayer, and discover the power Christ has to come in and bring you out. If you’re not yet a believer, but you’ve experienced the pain of personal failure (as we all have), I hope you’ll give Jesus Christ a try. Read my free ebook What is Christianity? or look into “who is Jesus, really?” He makes all the difference.

Related: The Map or the Fuel?

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11 Responses to “ The Dangerous Prayer: Praying While Sinning ”

  1. G. Rodrigues says:

    The way I like to view temptation is as a contest with ourselves — I think I am borrowing from C. S. Lewis, but my memory is hazy. But how can we win a contest with ourselves? It is a loose-loose situation: we need external help to overcome ourselves. Thus prayer and the grace of God.

    At this last step, one could retort, what about external, merely human help? I am reminded that my younger self was once very interested in psychology, especially psychoanalysis. I have forgotten almost everything I have learned — not much to begin with, as I was very young and not exactly the brightest of people — but one of the concepts that stuck in my mind was that of repetition-compulsion, which broadly conceived, is the systematic repetition of a given pattern of behavior, a psychic overdetermination that thwarts freedom or the ability to begin afresh. Freud would invite us to lay down in his divan and cure ourselves of our delusions through therapy (which a well-known literary critic and a profound admirer of Freud termed another episode in the long history of xamanism), by which we would learn to hear ourselves and acknowledge the truth. One such delusion was of course, that God, the surrogate father, exists. Another, is that religion (and Freud’s animus was overtly and unashamedly against Christianity), is anything but the sublimation of the sexual drive to maintain social order. If I invoke Freud is not to refute him — even though I judge him a powerful atheist thinker, whose influence is short of overwhelming, he has fallen in disrepute — but to set up a contrast. Freud invites us to his divan; Jesus invites us to join Him via prayer. The difference? Chesterton wittily observed that “psychoanalysis is confession without absolution.” Even if we grant, and I am being very generous here, a healing power to psychoanalysis, to merely human help, the scar, the wound of sin remains. How shall we begin anew if guilt, the overpowering consciousness of the past errors cripples us? In my experience, the ability to lift up and keep on going is simply not enough; closure through forgiveness must be achieved. John 8:32.

  2. Tom Gilson says:

    Good thoughts. But don’t forget John 8:31. Verse 32 is misleading without it.

  3. G. Rodrigues says:

    @Tom Gilson:

    But don’t forget John 8:31. Verse 32 is misleading without it.

    My bad, you are absolutely correct. I can already imagine your average atheist, following Satan’s example when tempting Christ, pulling the verse out of context and plead us to embrace the truth that there is no God so that we are set free.

  4. markn12 says:

    Thanks for the inspiring and challenging article. I’d like to check your ebook out. Your words remind me a bit of a book I read recently called Honestly, by Johnnie Moore. Here’s a link: http://dld.bz/ansdr

  5. Charlie says:

    Great post, Tom. Very practical and lending well to spiritual development. Nice.

  6. You know, I’ve always thought Paul had it a bit wrong. It’s not that I’m doing the things that I hate – it’s that I’m doing the thing that I like. Acknowledging to God our desire for the things we should not do has to be part of the puzzle somehow.

  7. alozsax says:

    really good article, it helped me a little bit.

  8. Juliana V says:

    This is a very intersting article. I had however some issues with it. Mainly in inviting God to be part of our sinning. Yes God is with us in every moment of every day even when we sin, but God can never be part of our sinning. A sin is an insult and an attack on our relationship with God and others. There is also the importance of proper formation of conscience, we must realize when we sin that although it may feel good it is very wrong. Rather than asking God to sin with us, what we must do is ask God to help us to stop, to give us strength. The when we have stopped, we must ask God for forgiveness, and to help us to find a way to atone for the horrible break we have made in our relationship with God. We also need to ask God for help in reflecting on the sin and how to avoid this in the future. So yes we can and should be praying throughout the day, communicating with our God, but asking God for help not to participate in sin.

  9. Tom Gilson says:

    Juliana, maybe I didn’t explain it clearly enough. I’m going to go back and edit one phrase that has a high potential for being misconstrued. I’m changing “join me in it” to “be with me here right now while I am being tempted or while I’m sinning,” which is what I intended, though it’s not what I wrote. I never thought God would join me in the sin; what I meant was that God would join with me in the moment of my sinning. That’s metaphorical, of course, for by his indwelling Holy Spirit he is already with me at all times, whether I’m walking in the Spirit or walking in sin.

    Does that help?

  10. I liked the way you described the temptation cycle and how indeed Jesus is the only way out of it. I hope more and more people would try this. But I do think there are other dangerous prayers than this one. Because our God is wild and amazing. Thank you for the post. Blessings!

  11. Jared C. says:

    Thank you for this. For me, this was a very timely and helpful post. Breaking the cycle has been a real challenge lately, and this certainly helped me through it.

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