Letting God be God in your life and prayers means letting Him remove that which steals His glory – especially false gods and idols. His pruning process in our prayer lives glorifies Him, grows us, and further shines His Light into the darkness of the world.
Little children, keep yourselves from idols (1 John 5:21).
The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually (Genesis 6:5 ESV).
Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them (Ephesians 5:11 ESV).
So let’s be clear, an idol represents a false god with varying forms, and the idea of having them in our prayers seems like a desecration. It is.
It is the profane existing beside the sacred. It is the darnel growing beside the wheat. Charles Spurgeon wrote:
"If you love anything better than God – you are idolaters. If there is anything you would not give up for God – it is your idol. If there is anything that you seek with greater fervor than you seek the glory of God – that is your idol. True conversion is a turning from every idol."
I’ve been asked, “Why would God listen to us if we aren’t even praying to Him?” Somehow, through His grace and mercy, He listens for our prayers despite our ignorance. Even so, He desires us to move from ignorance to Truth so that requires being in His presence through Bible study and prayer.
When we allow God to examine us against His holiness and His command in Mark 12:30 “…And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength’” then the enormity of our shortcomings become more easily apparent – if we don’t harden our hearts against Him.
Our sins should not seem insignificant and small when compared against those four uses of “all” and God’s nature and standards. Let His pruning of our prayers begin.
C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters on prayer
The Screwtape Letters is a fictional account by Lewis of how hell would run if it were a business.
This short work consists of 31 letters from a master demon, Screwtape, who is mentoring a junior demon, Wormwood, who also is his nephew. Wormwood is to guide the man (“the patient”) toward hell and if he cannot do that, then he is to prevent any growth of faith about God.
The fourth letter addresses the subject of prayer, and the gist of it is stopping the recently re-converted “patient” from achieving a “nakedness of the soul in prayer” through a variety of strategies. Many of these have ties to the way idolatry can appear in our prayer lives.
Even so, Screwtape warns Wormwood, “Wherever there is prayer, there is danger of His [God’s] own immediate action.”
1.) “The best thing … is to keep the patient from the serious intention of prayer.”
God’s Word clearly gives us instructions telling us to pray. See Ephesians 6:18, Luke 18:1, Colossians 4:12, Romans 12:12, and so many more. It was Samuel Chadwick who said of Satan, “He laughs at our toil, mocks our wisdom, but trembles when we pray.”
Prayer is the true test of a Christian’s devotion and intimacy with God according to James Houston, Senior Fellow, C.S. Lewis Institute. Then he adds, “Its absence is the evidence of a merely theoretical framework of faith.”
Isn’t ignoring God through prayer letting other objects, thoughts, or busyness take His place?
Let the pruning continue.
2.) Another approach was to stimulate a negative attitude to prayer by getting the patient to think of them similar to “the parrot-like nature of his prayers in childhood.”
While this isn’t true of all children’s prayers, I have heard an incredible trust and openness in them that has astounded me. Screwtape’s emphasis, however, is the negative attitude coming from pharisaical prayers. Whether as a child or adult, they may have prayed them or heard them repeated to either mimic them like a parrot or hold them in derision.
When Satan can attach anything negative in our minds to God, His kingdom, His glory, or His people, then he has won a battle, especially if it keeps us from spiritual devotion and disciplines like prayer.
3.) Encourage the patient “…to produce in himself a vaguely devotional mood in which real concentration and intelligence have no part.”
When creating, sustaining, or experiencing a mood becomes the reason why we worship, then we love mood more than God. Entire worship services have been designed to create an overall mood or atmosphere, so the idea of prayers being affected isn’t a leap in logic.
Do we love the mood more than the Master? The pruning continues…
4.) “Teach them to estimate the value of each prayer by their success in producing the desired feeling.”
Lewis shares an interesting thought:
“Whenever they are attending to the Enemy Himself we are defeated, but there are ways of preventing him from doing so. The simplest is to turn their gaze away from Him towards themselves. Keep them watching their own minds and trying to produce feelings there by the action of their own wills.”
The Bible presents God’s promises that hold true regardless of how we feel or what feelings we can create within ourselves. So, instead of experiencing forgiveness by trusting God, the person who falls for this trap would try to feel forgiven.
So what’s the key? It is this:
Who we worship is more important than any effect we might hope to have from worshipping Him.
Lewis shared one last strategy where Satan might lead us astray even as we focus on who we worship.
5.) Have the patient focus on their idea of God instead of God Himself.
So who do you worship and pray to? Lewis’ writing uncovered how I had been praying at God more than to God because of a mixture of my ideas – whether they held true biblically or not. Obviously, God is aware of when we pray to Him. However, Lewis shared the last one this way:
“But whatever the nature of the composite object, you must keep him praying to it – to the thing that he has made, not to the Person who has made him. … For if he ever comes to make the distinction, if he ever consciously directs his prayers ‘Not to what I think Thou art but to what Thou knowest Thyself to be’ our situation is, for the moment, desperate.”
A study in the names and the characteristics of God within Scripture really allowed some joyful pruning to occur as I let go of childish ideas and perceptions. While it is impossible for finite beings to totally understand the infinite, His Word shows us His glorious nature and love (Isaiah 42:8; Ephesians 1:17-21).
How much more is He glorified when we grow in our biblical understanding of who He is?
The power of prayer is from God
While this isn’t something Lewis addressed, it is a naturally derived thought from what he did share: Prayer itself may become an idol of worship.
Jesus warned against false prayers to false gods, so when I hear “I believe in the power of prayer,” I notice what gets the glory in that statement. It isn’t even God. Too often, prayer becomes a means to an end instead of being an ongoing part of an improving relationship with our Creator and Savior.
Letting God prune our hearts related to idolatry and prayer is allowing Him to remove that which steals His glory. It, like threshing or refining, can be an uncomfortable process that yields great joy, purity, and praise.