God Can Fix This: The Role of Prayer and Service

Recently, theDaily News New York Daily Times had on its cover the words “God Isn’t Fixing This.” The cover was quite deceptive as the article was more of a political rant than a religious polemic. Rich Schapiro, the writer of the article associated with the cover, argues that “Democrats—even those not running for office—slammed the GOP presidential candidates for offering prayers instead of action” (Schapiro 2015). While I will leave the political innuendos to the exchange of pundits in the field; as a theologian and pastor, I feel that I need to address the issue of prayer as it relates to service. Walter A. Elwell notes that “both Testaments insist that while prayer and service are not to be equated with each other, they are also not to be separated from each other. With this insistence goes the belief that only the prayer of the righteous is efficacious (Prov. 15:29)” (Elwell 1996, Logos). I believe that prayer propels the person of faith to do great things for the Lord. The Scriptures provide at least 5 ways that prayer impacts the service of the believer.

Prayer provides trust to serve.

In 1 Chronicles, it is shown that prayer provides the trust necessary to do incredible things for God. The chronicler writes that “when they prevailed over them, the Hagrites and all who were with them were given into their hands, for they cried out to God in the battle, and he granted their urgent plea because they trusted in him” (1 Chronicles 5:20).[1] Their victory came by the trust that they held in God, but it was a trust that moved the Reubenites, Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh (1 Chronicles 5:18) to serve. James also notes that the “prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (James 5:15-16). Note two important elements in the preceding passage. First, prayer was based on one’s trust in God. Second, the faith of the praying persons lead the people to action. Thus, a faithful prayer life provides one with the trust in God to serve.

Prayer provides encouragement to serve.

Luke notes that the Lord “said to Paul one night in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people” (Acts 18:9-10). Because Paul was a man of prayer, God spoke to Paul and provided him with encouragement to go and serve. This encouragement may also address the change of mind that takes place in the person of faith. When a person commits him or herself to prayer, God begins to change the mindset of the person (Romans 12:2). The person of faith begins to see people the way God sees them. This will move the person of faith to action in order to “learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause” (Isaiah 1:17).

Prayer provides direction to serve.

People often want to see action. They want to see results. “Do something! Anything!” Such is the mindset of many. However, it is easy for a person to move in the wrong direction if they are not careful. When speaking of cutting wood for a construction project, my grandpa always advised, “Measure twice, cut once.” This means that a person needs to make sure that what they are doing is correct before taking action. Prayer provides direction. Luke notes that “the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over and join this chariot’” (Acts 8:29). Why? An Ethiopian eunuch was contemplating the meaning of Isaiah 53:7, 8. Philip was able to lead the eunuch to a saving faith in Christ. Why? It was because Philip was led by the Holy Spirit in the right direction. The Scriptures warn that “where there is no vision, the people are unrestrained” (Proverbs 29:18, NASB).[2] Thus, prayer provides us insight and direction as the Holy Spirit leads us. In stark contrast, a lack of prayer may lead one to “quench the Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 5:19).

Prayer provides empowerment to serve.

Prayer is essential, in fact critical, if one is to see anything great accomplished. Why? It is because God provides empowerment to the believer to serve in extraordinary ways. Paul notes that “you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:15-16).

As a pastor, I have seen many people perform extraordinary accomplishments due to the empowerment of God. I remember a woman named Gaynelle. Gaynelle suffered from many afflictions. As fate would have it, her husband suffered dementia. Gaynelle’s husband fell and broke his hip. Her husband had to be placed in a nursing home where he could receive appropriate care. Gaynelle, despite suffering numerous physical maladies, drove countless miles each day to spend time with her husband. After her husband died, everyone asked her, “How were you able to do so much for your husband while being so sick?” She replied, “I prayed and God gave me strength to serve.” Gaynelle is but one example of prayer’s empowering capability.

Prayer provides opportunities to serve.

Luke notes that when Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch in Syria, they gathered the church together and “declared all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles” (Acts 14:27). Jesus says to the Church of Philadelphia, “I know your works. Because you have limited strength, have kept My word, and have not denied My name, look, I have placed before you an open door that no one is able to close” (Revelation 3:8, HCSB).[3] By prayer, God provides doors of opportunity. A person who is seeking to switch jobs does not want to proverbially “jump from the frying pan into the fire.” Rather, a person of faith will desire to follow the will and plan of God. Prayer provides the means of opportunity as God opens the eyes of the believer to the given opportunities at hand. Opportunities lead one to a chance to serve.

Conclusion

So, let us ask the question again; does prayer counteract action? Obviously not! Rich Schapiro obviously does not understand the biblical concept of prayer. Prayer and service are not antagonistic rivals. Rather, prayer and service—while not the same—are complementary. Prayer leads to great means of service. So, when we say, “You are in our thoughts and prayers,” one should not presuppose that service is negated. Rather, the believer is literally saying, “I pray that God gives you comfort in your time of need.” I make no political commentary for either side of the American political paradigm that Schapiro referenced. That being said, perhaps Schapiro is correct in noting that we cannot allow prayer to supplant action. Even James notes that “faith apart from works is dead” (James 2:26). However, we cannot allow action to override the importance of prayer either. Instead of demanding that one choose between prayer and service, or demeaning the practice of prayer; why not accept the biblical model realizing that prayer and service coincide? Could it not be that God will fix the issues of society by people of faith? Could it not be that God will use the prayers of the faithful to propel them to service?

 

© December 6, 2015. Brian Chilton

 

Sources Cited:

Elwell, Walter A. Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Baker Reference Library. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996. Logos Bible Software.

Schapiro, Rich. “GOP Presidential Candidates Offer Prayers—Not Solutions on Gun Control—after San Bernardino Massacre.” New York Daily News.com (December 3, 2015). Accessed December 6, 2015. http://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/gop-candidates-call-prayers-calf-massacre-article-1.2453261.

 

 

[1] Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture comes from the English Standard Version (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001).

[2] Scriptures marked NASB come from the New American Standard Bible (La Habra, CA: Lockman Foundation, 1995).

[3] Scriptures marked HCSB comes from the Holman Christian Standard Version (Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers, 2009).

O’ Christmas Tree: Is the Christmas Tree a Pagan or Christian Symbol?

My family and I participated in an annual tradition. We set up and decorated our Christmas tree. As I came home from church the other day, I noticed that traffic was heavy coming from the mountains. Car after car cruised down the road sporting a freshly chopped evergreen tied to the vehicle. While their evergreens were real and ours was more of the artificial flavor, a recent conversation caused me to ponder whether the tradition was a good idea. Many claim that Christmas trees hold a pagan past and represent anti-Christian beliefs. Is this true? Are evergreens symbols of paganism or are they symbols of Christianity? Well, the answer is “yes” to both. This article will investigate the origins of the Christmas tree tradition and will investigate the place of symbols.

Evergreens: A Pagan Symbol?

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, “The use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands to symbolize eternal life was a custom of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews. Tree worship was common among the pagan Europeans and survived their conversion to Christianity in the Scandinavian customs of decorating the house and barn with evergreens at the New Year to scare away the devil and of setting up a tree for the birds during Christmastime” (Encyclopaedia Britannica 2012, http://www.britannica.com/plant/Christmas-tree). To the Egyptians, the evergreen represented resurrection. For many other cultures, it was a symbol of eternal life. For the Hebrews, the evergreen had distinct representations which will be addressed in the next section. Many pagans would hang evergreen limbs in their homes to signify the winter solistice. The evergreens served as a reminder that the days were going to lengthen and were possibly used to worship a sun god. “Germanic peoples would celebrate the winter festival by honoring the pagan god Odin. Many believed he would fly through the night sky (on a magical flying horse) and determine who would be blessed or cursed in the coming year. Many decided to stay indoors, fearing Odin’s wrath” (Mintz 2014, International Business Times).

So, those who claim that the symbol of evergreens holds a pagan past are correct. However, what should be remembered is that evergreens holds a distinct symbol in the history of the Christian church as well.

Evergreens: A Christian Symbol?

As noted in the previous section, evergreens holds a symbolic place with the ancient Hebrews. Evergreens served as a symbol of God’s eternal nature. Hosea quotes God as saying, “O Ephraim, what have I to do with idols? It is I who answer and look after you. I am like an evergreen cypress; from me comes your fruit” (Hosea 14:8).[1] Isaiah considers the cypress to be a symbol of God’s blessings when noting that “Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall make a name for the LORD, an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off” (Isaiah 55:13). Some even hold that the evergreen could be a symbol for the tree of life.

So, how did the evergreen become associated with Christmas? Well, there are several theories. An ancient tradition laced with fact and legend supposes that Boniface could have been the one who initiated the tradition in Germany. Boniface, also known as Wynfrith, was appointed by Pope Gregory II as a missionary to the Germans in the early 700s. Boniface was an ardent defender of Christianity and sought to destroy paganism in any way possible. Boniface was aghast to find that the Germanic peoples were worshipping an oak tree devoted to Thor (some say it was to Odin). Galli and Olsen note that Boniface “immediately took an axe to it. After only a few blows, the tree toppled to the ground, breaking into four pieces and revealing itself to be rotted away from within” (Galli & Olsen 2000, 365). The aforementioned is documented historical fact. Legend has it that an evergreen had begun to grow inside or around the Oak of Thor. Legend states that Boniface taught that the evergreen served as a symbol that the old pagan ways had died and had renewed in the Christian faith. While this tradition could be true, the practice of placing evergreens inside one’s home did not come until later.

One tradition points the Christian practice of placing trees in one’s home to the Protestant reformer Martin Luther, which may explain why later Catholics saw the practice as a Protestant tradition. It is said that Luther saw the evergreen tree as it pointed to heaven. He believed it served as a symbol of God’s eternal grace as it pointed to heaven. It is said that Luther brought the tree inside his home and placed lights around the tree symbolizing the light of Christ (O’Neal & LaRochelle 2001, 22).

The practice continued to develop in Germany before being transferred over to England. Neil Armstrong in the writing German History quotes the Illustrated London News as saying that “As Christmas eve always falls on the evening of Adam and Eve’s day, an orthodox Christmas-Tree will have the figures of our first parents at its foot, and the serpent twining himself round its stem. By a bold stretch of theological fancy, the Tree, with its branches and tapers, is … understood to typify the genealogy of our Lord” (Armstrong 2008, 495).

Therefore, the Christmas tree finds itself a home among a rich history of Christian tradition. But, how can one decide whether the Christmas tree is a symbol of the Christian faith or a symbol of paganism as it holds a place both traditions?

Symbols and the Christmas Tree

It must be remembered that symbols hold no power in and of themselves. Symbols are a medium for communicating a particular truth. Often, the church has taken symbols that had pagan roots and transformed them in order to use them to present a Christian message. Such a practice does not mean that the church adopted pagan practices. It simply means that the church contextualized the gospel message so that the message would make sense to those who had not concept of Christ, God, or salvation. I would have to agree with O. Z. Soltes in that “symbolic imagery can transform visual particulars while preserving the underlying meaning and message across time and space” (Soltes 2009, 144). Jesus used agrarian symbols in his parables to bring forth a particular message. John used the logos principle, which had a deep history in both Jewish and Greek philosophy (even moreso with the latter), as part of his didactic to teach that Jesus was divinely incarnated. Paul addresses the people of Athens using the phrase “to the unknown God” (Acts 17:23) on a pagan place of worship in order to teach them that this unknown God was the true God of all creation.

Conclusion

There is nothing wrong for a Christian to own a Christmas tree. While the evergreen has some history in pagan religions, the evergreen holds an even deeper history in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Symbols are not good and evil in and of themselves. Symbols are what we communicate them to be as they are a medium of communication. The letters I use for this article are in fact symbols used to communicate a particular message. So, rest easy. Allow the rich history of the evergreen (representing God’s eternal grace) and the lights (representing the light of Christ) to deepen your Christmas traditions as you turn your lives inward and upward to God this Christmas season.

In the end, we must all remember that Jesus is the reason why we have a Christmas season!

 

© November 30, 2015. Brian Chilton.

 

Sources Cited:

 “Christmas Tree.” Encyclopaedia Britannica (2012). Accessed November 30, 2015. http://www.britannica.com/plant/Christmas-tree.

Galli, Mark, and Ted Olsen, “Introduction,” 131 Christians Everyone Should Know. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000.

 Illustrated London News (23 Dec. 1854). In Neil Armstrong. “England and German Christmas Festlichkeit c.1800–1914.” German History 26, 4 (2008): 486-503. Accessed November 30, 2015. doi:10.1093/gerhis/ghn047.

Mintz, Zoe. “Winter Solstice 2014: 3 Things to Know about Pagan Yule Celebrations.” International Business Times (December 19, 2014). Accessed November 30, 2015. http://www.ibtimes.com/winter-solstice-2014-3-things-know-about-pagan-yule-celebrations-1763756.

O’Neal, Debbie Trafton, David LaRochelle. Before and After Christmas. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2001. p. 22.

Soltes, O. Z. “Symbols of Faith Within the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Traditions. Religions (2009):140-159. Accessed November 30, 2015. http://ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/898917750?accountid=12085

[1] Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture comes from the English Standard Version (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001).