Tuesday, August 21, 2018

The Importance of the Individual

Church leaders have attacked a focus on the individual before, even from the Lord's prayer, and now it's coming from Albert Mohler, president of a conservative seminary. I have appreciated his worldview analysis on various issues, and on this I disagree, and I can show from Scripture why.

His premise starts with the Lord's prayer and emphasizing the first person plural pronouns used: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

His conclusion: “One of the besetting sins of evangelicalism is our obsession with individualism.”

There are several problems with extrapolating from the Lord's prayer a general anti-individual conclusion. One is better informed by taking a look at the broader context in both account's of the Lord's prayer and Scripture in general.

1. Jesus is talking to a group of people.
In Luke's account of Jesus teaching this prayer, he is doing so in response to his disciples who said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray.” If the “us” is asking the question, it only makes sense to give “us” the answer.

2. First person singular wouldn't make complete sense for Jesus.
It would sound really weird for Jesus to say, even in teaching, “forgive me of my sins” because (a) He has never sinned, and (b) He can't. Part of his use of first person plural may simply be a matter of being consistent with who He is.

3. Salvation is individual.
Do we pray “forgive us our debts” (or trespasses) because we only sin collectively? Do people only get saved as part of a group? No, of course not. First, much of our sin is against one another (which is also against God). Not all sin within a group is everyone's to confess. Sin committed against others is not the victim's to confess. Second, eternal salvation from the judgment for our sin only happens at the individual personal level. The Gospel is for all people in the for-anyone, for-each-person individual sense, not in a collective sense.

4. The Lord's prayer is not just for us.
This whole question of “Are the first person pronouns plural or singular?” misses another key point. Neither singular nor plural first person pronouns show up at all in the first half of the Lord's prayer as Mohler quotes it. The prayer is not about us. Prayer is not about us. Prayer is about talking to God. Prayer is talking to God. Believers have a relationship with God, and we can talk to Him about whatever is on our mind in that relationship. “I love you” is a good start or finish, just as it is in any close personal relationship. Thankfulness is good, too.

5. Prayer is not just for prayer meetings.
In Matthew's account of the Lord's prayer, it is preceded in the Sermon on the Mount with these instructions: “when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

I know English doesn't have a second person plural to differentiate “you” singular from “you” plural, but this context doesn't sound at all like he's telling people to conceal themselves behind closed doors as a group for prayer. God does not reward by group either. (He rewards individuals.)

6. Prayer is for all the time.
Mohler's book excerpt opens with his disclaimer, “I understand why we naturally turn to petition almost immediately upon entering into prayer.” This may disclose more than he intends in that it shows he views prayer as something we “enter into,” as if prayer is mostly a single-focus activity.

This reminds me of the old communications scenario of someone once asking a priest if he could smoke while praying. “No, you shouldn't smoke while praying; you should be focused on God.” Ask the question a different way, “Can I pray while smoking?” and the response is, “Oh yes, you can always pray; God is always available to hear from His children.” (No commentary about smoking intended; driving works in that scenario, too.)

Paul encourages us to “pray without ceasing.” One of the ways we do that is by bringing our needs or needs we see to Him. (And by “our” I mean yours, mine, anyone's.) I don't think God has any problem with us thinking of requests for Him as giving us a reason to talk to Him at any time.

7. God does not criticize us for asking.
To the 12 tribes of the Dispersion, James opens his letter by telling them, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” There are two words in the middle of that sentence that are easy to miss: “without reproach” or “without criticism.” Asking God, who is generous, for something you don't have is not a problem to Him. The Holy Spirit specifically makes a point of inspiring those words to be included on this point about asking God for something. If God specifically made a point of making sure we know He does not criticize us for making requests, then perhaps church leaders shouldn't either. And yes, the “any of you” in that verse implies this is for each of us as individuals.

8. There is precedent for first person singular references.
I've heard preachers say that “You can tell a lot about a person by how much they talk about themselves.” In writing, one measure of this, supposedly, is to count the use of references to the singular first person, “I.” This claim doesn't hold up to Scripture. Paul repeatedly referenced himself throughout his letters, and yet his parting from the church at Ephasus was accompanied by “much weeping on the part of all” who were sorrowful because “they would not see his face again.” That doesn't happen when someone overly self-centered is leaving.

Scripture teaches that asking God for things you need or desire, even continually, draws you closer to God and to others.

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