The Use of Prayer in Repentance (Hardship in Repentance. pt.3)

January 23, 2017

The Use of Prayer in Repentance

A sermon by Rev. Alan Cowley, Delivered on January 22, 2017 at The New Church at Boynton Beach, Florida.

Readings: Daniel 9; Matthew 26:36-46; Arcana Caelestia 2535.


“O My Father, if this cup cannot pass away from Me unless I drink it, Your will be done.” (Matthew 26:42)


We’ve spent the past couple of weeks talking about some of the really hard things that we deal with when we try to repent, and when we are really in the throes of temptation. First we looked at how it is often through brokenness that we finally turn ourselves to the Lord. Meaning that we often have to hit rock bottom before we are willing to make a positive change by truly repenting. Next we looked at how the pain and allurement of sin drags on far longer that we would wish for. It would be nice if we could just put down a destructive behavior and never again feel the urge to return to it… but that is almost never the case.

Temptation and repentance can be very painful, very trying, and very heavy. And what makes it seem even worse is that when we pray to the Lord about it, it often feels like there is no answer, like we are on our own, left in a puddle of sadness and guilt. Does the Lord not hear these prayers? Does he hear them but not respond?

This is what we are here to talk about today: The use of prayer in repentance. First of all, we should establish that this is a practice that we are encouraged by the Lord to do. And not only do we read in the Heavenly Doctrine for the New Church that praying to the Lord is a step that we must take in repentance after we “examine ourselves, [and] recognize and admit to our sins” (TCR 530), we can also see this practice modeled by the Lord Himself when He was in the world battling in the most grievous of temptations, how he prayed three times at Gethsemane.

We also see in this example one of the hardest things to overcome when we pray in times of temptation. The Lord started off by praying these words: “O My Father… let this cup pass from Me…” He is asking for the temptation to be taken away! And this is what we often do. When we are in pain, we want the pain to stop. In our minds it doesn’t matter how it stops… “just make it stop!!!” But it would be a mistake if the Lord were to step in at this time and take away our pain along with the temptation itself. Nothing would be accomplished by this. The work Arcana Coelestia states that it is in fact a law of Divine order

[C]oncerning those who are being molested by falsities [from hell] that they must be molested even to the point of desperation, and unless they are molested to despair, the real purpose of the molestation is lost. (AC 7166)

The purpose being to separate us from the hell that would otherwise drag us down with it in eternal life. But again, when we are in that much pain and despair, all we want is for the pain to stop! We’ve tried! We don’t have another ounce of fight left in us! We read again from the same work.

[W]hen people are in the throes of temptation they usually give up the fight (* literally “stay their hands”) and resort solely to prayers, which they then pour forth feverishly, unaware that such prayers achieve nothing. [The truth is that] they [really] should battle against the falsities and evils which the hells introduce. (AC 8179.2)

“Such prayers achieve nothing!” Ouch! They achieve nothing because, as we just explained, the state must be completed in order to achieve the Divine goal of our salvation from hell. “The Lord does not do what prayers ask for if what is asked for is contrary to the end, which is salvation” (ibid). But how do we continue to fight if we don’t have anything left in us to fight with?

The Lord’s prayer in Gethsemane continues. “O My Father, if this cup cannot pass away from Me unless I drink it, Your will be done.” “Thy will be done!” This is a prayer of openness to the Lord’s ways, to the Lord’s strength, and to the Lord’s wisdom. When we get to this stage in temptation our prayer must be that the Lord’s will be done, not our own. Knowing that God will bring about everything that, and only what, is conducive to that end. And then we get up and keep going.

So really, today’s message is very simple. It is something that we pray every time that we say the Lord ’s Prayer. “Thy will be done”. It is a very simple message, but it is perhaps the single most difficult thing to believe and do when the bottom has fallen out.

But if we truly recognize the meaning of that prayer, what we are asking for is that we are to be treated as angels are treated by the Lord. “As in heaven, so upon the earth.” Every angel trusts that what they encounter each day is a gift from God. Even if that were to be a day of struggle, that day is a gift from God, and everything that happens that day is a gift from God. So when we pray that His will be done, “as in heaven, so upon the earth”, we are asking that He give us the strength of character to take every moment as a gift, knowing that we would not be experiencing this moment, good or bad, if it were not for the possible end result that we might take a step closer from earth toward heaven.

There are some other things that we should notice about the Lord’s experience while praying at Gethsemane. It is rather important who it is that accompanies Jesus to the place where He prayed. It was Peter, James, and John. And what were they doing when the Lord prayed? They were “sleeping” and at “rest”. These characters and these words say some very interesting things about the human state when we are struggling in temptation. Peter represents our faith. James represents the love we have for our neighbor, or charity. And John represents the good works of faith and charity.

When we are really struggling, when we are in that kind of pain and confusion, these things are asleep and at rest in us. We are stuck. Our faith is challenged because we don’t see the Lord’s working in the moment, even to the point that we might even question His existence. And at the same time, this distraction pulls our attention away from our love for others as we wallow in the grief of loneliness and loss, and with it every good work of faith and charity is put to the side. And yet this story shows us that these are the things that we need to re-awaken! In between the Lord’s prayers He comes back to them and finds them sleeping. He asks them, “Could you not watch with Me one hour?” and then, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Behold, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going. See, My betrayer is at hand.”

Even in that moment, there is a deep heart felt knowing that the Lord is still there. Wake up Peter! Wake up your faith! Look around you to the people you love. You know you want to do well to them. Wake up James! Wake up your heart for charity! You may feel helpless and paralyzed, but you know that your faith calls for action, and the love you have for others drives you to get back up. Wake up John! Wake up your good works!

Jesus comes back from His prayers to tell them to rise up because “His betrayer is at hand”. You might remember the story. Judas comes to Him, betrays Him with a kiss, and the Lord is willingly carried away to His trial and crucifixion. He chose to drink the metaphorical cup that was given to Him. He quite literally lived the proverb that He spoke. “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:24).

Not my will be done, but His will be done. The Lord’s will is not to subject us to pain. The Lord does not “lead us into temptation” but He permits temptation for the sake of the end that He might “deliver us from evil”. For there is no other way that we could be delivered in freedom than our subjection to temptation and victories against hell through fighting against it, as if from ourselves, but with the knowledge that all of our power to do so comes from God.

And this is the main reason why our prayers within temptation seem to go unanswered. We must fight “as if from ourselves”, otherwise we would not accept the resulting states of goodness and peace in victory. This is the spiritual truth which fits well with the saying that “we appreciate something more when we work for it”. However, the spiritual truth carries a lot more weight. The fact is that we would not accept and make heaven a part of us, if we did not work for it as if from our own power, while still acknowledging that all power is from God.

But our prayers do effect something if we pray for the Lord’s will to be done. We may not see the end of conflict, or the exact path to victory, but we will be given the strength and comfort to continue in the fight, and a certain feeling that it will be okay if we simply do what we can and trust in the Lord. The Heavenly Doctrine explains that,

Regarded in itself prayer is talking to God and at the same time some inner view of the things that are being prayed for. Answering to this there is something akin to an influx into the perception or thought of the person’s mind, which effects a certain opening of his internals towards God…. If his prayer springs from love and faith, and if they are wholly celestial and spiritual things about which and for which he prays, something like a revelation is present within his prayer which manifests itself in the affection of the one praying in the form of hope, comfort, or some inward joy. (AC 2535)

This is what prayer can do for us even in the hardest moments. It can bring to us a sense of hope, comfort, and inward joy.

In our reading from the book of Daniel we saw this reflected perfectly. Daniel, in knowing what the prophesies stated about the duration of Israel’s captivity in Babylon, turned to the Lord and prayed. He did not pray for the captivity to end, He left that up to the Lord in His Divine wisdom and mercy. He simply acknowledged the wrong doings of Israel, and humbled himself as their representative before the Lord. Then after his prayer was complete, the angel Gabriel came to him with a message. He came to him, we read, to give him the “skill to understand”; perhaps this could be likened to a feeling of hope and comfort; and he reminded him of how much he is loved by the Lord, “you are greatly beloved” he said; an inward joy.

You are greatly beloved! And if we are willing and pray that the Lord’s will be done, we too will be given the skill to understand. The temptation will not end in that moment, it will endure for as long as the Lord sees is right for you, and that is okay! You can understand why, you can trust how, and you can stand firm in the Lord’s strength. “Do not be afraid,” the Lord said “I am your shield, your exceedingly great reward!” (Gen. 15:1).



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