For whatsoever work is not directed to the sole end either of keeping under the body, or of doing service to our neighbor – provided he require nothing contrary to the will of God – is no good or Christian work. Hence I greatly fear that at this day few or no colleges, monasteries, altars, or ecclesiastical functions are Christian ones; and the same may be said of fasts and special prayers to certain saints. I fear that in all these nothing is being sought but what is already ours; while we fancy that by these things our sins are purged away and salvation is attained, and thus utterly do away with Christian liberty. This comes from ignorance of Christian faith and liberty.
– Martin Luther, Concerning Christian Liberty
When I was little, sitting in Wednesday night “Prayer Meeting”, I remember being a bit mystified by some of the prayers I heard. Like when someone would pray for God’s presence to be with us that night, or to be with someone who was sick. I would think, But didn’t Jesus promise to always be with us and never forsake us?
Now I understand that we often ask for what’s already been promised to us when we don’t currently feel it. Despite my childhood skepticism, I often pray for God’s presence in times of fear, stress, or when I’m especially conscious of my powerlessness. But since God promised to always be with us – is the prayer more of an acknowledgement from me that I’ve noticed my need for His presence… rather than a prayer that to forego would also mean to forego His presence?
My latent uncertainty is perhaps why the above words of Martin Luther stood out to me when I read them. There are a lot of good works – spiritual disciplines and acts of service – that I’ve often done because I felt like God would be displeased with me if I didn’t do them.
Do I read my Bible to continue in the sanctification and death of my old nature and to be ready to give an answer to others who will ask me, or do I do it because I think God will be angry with me if I miss a couple days of reading?
Do I pray because I enjoy the time of purposeful practice of God’s presence and to intercede for family and friends, or because I imagine He will shun me somehow if I do not pray for as long as I did yesterday?
Do I serve my neighbors for their benefit, that they might be drawn to the light, or because I feel I will be unloved if I fail in seeing to their good?
In short – am I doing these things in a truly free and “Christian” way or to seek to gain “what is already ours”?