In recent weeks I have been noticing the multiplication of commissions of inquiry by which our government strives to run the country. The Royal Commission into child sexual abuse springs immediately to mind, then the one into juvenile detention in the Northern Territory, the ongoing saga into investigating the big banks, the three inquiries into the state-wide power blackout in South Australia, and so on.
Important as these issues may all be, more often than not we are left with compounding levels of bureaucracy and limited outcomes. For instance, whatever became of the 330 recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody (1987-91)? Savvy politicians know that it is best to look active even if you know that government can't fix a problem. After all, the general public expects solutions rather can a confession of impotence. In my observation the behaviour of the Church is often as misleading as that of government.
Have you ever been invited to an advertised prayer meeting at your local church, or a larger gathering, and found that most of the time was taken up with a combination of singing and talking rather than intercession? This is a reflection of the seeming increasing inability of Christians to pray corporately for extended periods of time.
Whereas the order of service in sort of church I attend makes congregational prayer compulsory, most contemporary churches have little or no such intercession in their Sunday services. An impartial observer would have to conclude that whilst Christians say that prayer is a high value in Church life their deeds show something else.
Why is there so little earnest seeking after the Lord today amongst Christians as-a-people? A clear and unpalatable answer is found in the prophets.
Idols in the Heart
"In the seventh year, in the fifth month, on the tenth day of the month, certain of the elders of Israel came to inquire of the LORD, and sat before me. And the word of the LORD came to me: "Son of man, speak to the elders of Israel, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD, Is it to inquire of me that you come? As I live, declares the Lord GOD, I will not be inquired of by you." (Ezekiel chapter 20 verses 1-3).
The spiritual leaders of Israel were not truly seeking the LORD because they had "taken their idols into their hearts", as such God refused to be found by them (Ezekiel chapter 1 verses 2-3).
They were not truly seeking God's Word but a confirmation of their own selfish desires. There was no way the true God would play this game; but sadly it is a game like this which has been stripping away the holy character of the Western Church for decades. Let me use a very contemporary example to illustrate my point.
Pray and Enjoy
I recently received an invitation to a prayer afternoon for pastors in a venue that overlooks the city of Perth. The panorama from this location is an excellent one to inspire intercession for a metropolis that is very beautiful on the outside but penetrated by darkness and spiritual wickedness on the inside.
To gather for prayer is a good purpose, but what I find intensely disturbing is that our period of prayer will climax in a free lunch in the flash restaurant where we will be praying. Culturally, the organisers of this meeting are very canny; everyone knows that a free meal will draw more ministers.
Spiritually however I struggle with the attempt to combine serious intercession with feasting in our current climate of spiritual depravity and the need for urgent divine action. If we are truly to inquire of the Lord in such a way that he will answer us, our hearts must be cleansed from our idols of enjoyment so that they are clean and receptive to whatever he may want to say. The spiritual depravity of our national situation calls for a very definite change of outlook on the part of the people of God.
Reading through Leviticus in the past few weeks I have been struck by how on their high holy days Israel was commanded, "afflict yourselves" (Leviticus chapter 16 verses 29 and 31; chapter 23 verses 27 and 32). Such affliction under the hand of God seems to have involved self-examination, prayer and fasting (Psalm 35 verse 13). Which Christian community practices such disciplines in an ongoing way today? This is a sure sign that few churches are serious about inquiring of God. The good news however is that Christ afflicted himself for us.
When Jesus emptied himself of heavenly glory and became one of us, eventually to be crucified, his whole earthly experience was one of sustained fasting and prayer (Philippians chapter 2 verses 7-8). For the Son of God to become a human being like us was an act of immense self-deprivation. Such self-willed affliction meant that whenever Christ inquired of the Father on our behalf he was always heard and led by the Spirit (John chapter 11 verse 41).
The ultimate outcome in Jesus' painful inquiry after God on our behalf was the release of resurrection power into the world (Matthew chapter 16 verse 21; chapter 27 verse 41).
What do you want?
In my ministry I am used to sincere Christian folk insisting they are seriously seeking the will of the Lord. Almost always however they feel blocked in their spiritual growth; my role is to help them see where they have taken idols into their hearts. Idols of pleasure, popularity and prosperity, self-created images of marriage, family, ministry, and so on.
Until such idols are repented of sentiments of inquiring after God may superficially seem sincere, as with the elders of Ezekiel's day, but they will prove unfruitful. Inquire of the Lord about these things for yourself and see what he may say to you. "You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart." (Jeremiah chapter 29 verse 13).
The Rev. Dr John Yates is an Anglican minister in Perth and has 5 children and 5 grandchildren. He spends time in praying, mentoring and writing.
John Yates's previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/john-yates.html