The “What do I lack?” prayer.

by K.W. Leslie, 04 April

Just in case we’re sinning and unaware of it, or we’ve left anything undone.

Matthew 19.16-20 KWL
16 Look, someone came to Jesus saying, “Teacher, what good deed could I do
so I’d have life in the age to come?”
17 Jesus told him, “Why do you ask me about goodness?
The One God is good. If you want to enter life, keep his commands.”
18 This teenager told him, “Which kinds?”
Jesus said, “Don’t murder, adulter, steal, nor testify falsely;
19 honor father and mother, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
20 The teenager told him, “I follow all these. Am I missing anything?”
21 Jesus told him, “If you want to be perfect, go sell your possessions. Give to the poor.
You’ll have treasure in heaven! Come follow me!”

This comes from the “rich young ruler” story: A wealthy neanískos/“teenager” (KJV “young man”) whom Luke identifies as a ruler Lk 18.18 wanted to know how to be part of the age to come, and was astute enough to know following God’s commands wasn’t gonna be enough. Something was lacking. He had a blindspot, and didn’t know what it was. He figured Jesus would know, and went to him for a diagnosis.

As we know from this story, this particular teen really needed to ask this question. He did have a deficiency—a lack of generosity, and too much dependence on his worldly possessions. Mt 19.21-24 True, at the end of the story the teen went away, and we don’t know what happened to him thereafter. I hope he repented, but the gospels don’t say.

Anyway. His sad story besides, he reveals a type of prayer which we make to God from time to time. Lots of Christians call it an examen, a formal examination of the conscience, a fearless moral inventory: What am I missing? What blindspot do I have? What actions have I left undone?

Psalm 139.23-24 KWL
23 Search me, God. Know my heart. Test me. Know my worries.
24 See whether there’s a path of pain in me. Lead me in the eternal path.

Usually they’re sins of omission. Stuff we should be doing, but don’t realize we should. We don’t realize they’re among our responsibilities. Like the teenager: He didn’t realize he should also be giving to the poor. A lot of wealthy Christians likewise don’t realize that, ’cause they’ve bought what our wider culture has taught us: “People are poor because they don’t work hard enough. Don’t give them anything; it won’t help them but harm them and make them dependent. Besides, only losers and parasites take charity.” Christians call it “good stewardship” instead of stinginess, but we know what we mean by it. And Jesus identified it as a work of the flesh; exactly the sort of poisonous attitude which’ll keep people out of his kingdom.

Giving to the needy actually is in the Law, believe it or don’t.

Deuteronomy 15.7-11 KWL
7 “If there’s a needy person among you—one of your brothers, at one of your gates
in your land which your LORD God gives you,
don’t close your mind. Don’t shut your hand to your needy brother.
8 Open, open your hand to him. Promise, promise whatever he needs, whatever he lacks.
9 Watch yourself, lest there’s this useless thought in your mind,
saying, “Sabbath year is near—the year debts are canceled,”
and you eye your needy brother warily, and won’t give to him.
He’ll call to the LORD against you. It’s a sin for you.
10 Give, give to him. Don’t do evil in your mind in giving to him.
For this reason, your LORD God blesses all your work, all your hand creates.
11 There will never stop being needy people in the land. Therefore I command you,
saying: Open, open your hand to your brother, to your poor, to your needy, in your land.”

So that’s what the “What do I lack?” prayer does: Asks the Holy Spirit to root out our real problems. What are we blind to? What are we missing? Hopefully when he brings our flaws to our attention, we repent. Otherwise entering his kingdom might prove just as hard as it was for this wealthy teenager.

“But I do obey the commands.”

Like I said, it’s not about obeying God’s commands. We already know his commands. And if you don’t, they’re not hard to find. They’re in the bible. Everything God told this man to do came straight out of the bible. All these came from the Ten Commandments, which Jewish and Christian kids know from Hebrew school and Sunday school:

  1. Honor your parents. Ex 20.12, Dt 5.16
  2. No murder. Ex 20.13, Dt 5.17
  3. No adultery. Ex 20.14, Dt 5.18
  4. No theft. Ex 20.15, Dt 5.19
  5. No perjury. Ex 20.16, Dt 5.20

“Love your neighbor as yourself” is another regularly-quoted one, which Jesus called the second-greatest command, and Paul said summed up the Law in itself. Lv 19.18, Mk 12.31, Ga 5.14

But you knew these commands already. We all do. Or should.

We shouldn’t need to have the Holy Spirit inventory us in case we’re breaking his commands. These are basics. Besides, most of God’s moral commands are found in every culture—even cultures which don’t know or recognize God, but realize society can’t hold together when we allow murder, adultery, theft, perjury, or dishonoring our elders. Invent all the excuses or exceptions you want, to get out of doing ’em: You know better. Everybody knows better. These commands are so obvious, most of us figure they’re self-evident. Paul figured they were natural Ro 2.14-16 —and nobody has an excuse.

Back to the wealthy teenager with the question for Jesus. He knew the commands; he was following ’em. That wasn’t the issue. But “What do I lack?” isn’t about the rules. It’s about what more we have to do, beyond following the rules. The rules don’t cut it. They never did; their purpose isn’t to save us, but to point us to the God who does save us. Ga 3.11 As demonstrated by the fact a person could follow every rule to perfection… but because they do it with an angry, rebellious, “I’m doing this because God’s making me” spirit, it gives God no pleasure and brings him no honor. And it doesn’t do anything for the legalistic Christian. Following the Law isn’t a fruit of the Spirit. Any Pharisee could follow the Law.

The teenager was following the Law, but God wasn’t properly getting his worship. Hence Jesus told him to ditch the wealth because it was in his way. And like a lot of wealthy people, he likely confused his prosperity with God: He figured he was wealthy because God blessed him. He didn’t realize wealth has nothing to do with God. When God blesses people with wealth, it’s always for the sake of spreading the wealth, never hoarding the wealth.

But let’s not just criticize the wealthy. There are plenty more blindspots than wealth. (Like feeling morally superior to wealthy people, right?)

All of us have our blindspots. All of us have problem areas which go beyond God’s commands, dip into works of the flesh, and try to disguise those works under a veneer of Christianity. The greedy will quote all kinds of bible to defend their wealth. The sex-crazed will claim their obsessions are totally okay ’cause they’re practiced within the bounds of matrimony. Those who hate gay people will point out they’re just defending God’s moral standards. Those who hate foreigners will find some biblical-sounding excuse to defend our borders, or English, or culture, or whatever. Self-justification always finds an excuse.

That’s why we ask the Spirit to expose these self-justifications as the hogwash they are.

“But I’m doing just fine.”

Too often Christians don’t bother with any prayers of self-examination because we think we’re honestly not self-justifying ourselves; we honestly are living good, authentic, fruitful Christian lives. We’re doing just fine.

Plus God’s grace and Jesus’s blood covers our sins, putting us in right standing with him… so we’re good. We’re righteous. We’re right. Even though we’re really not.

It’s not necessarily about taking God’s grace for granted; it’s simply that we have blindspots. We presume we don’t, and that’s the problem with blindspots: We can’t detect ’em. It’s why we need fellow Christians who are honest with us, who can warn us where we’re fumbling. It’s why we need the Holy Spirit, ’cause sometimes our fellow Christians aren’t gonna catch things, but the Spirit catches everything.

So like this wealthy teenager, we might figure we’re good and obedient. We don’t murder, don’t cheat on our spouses, don’t steal anything (not even office supplies), don’t dishonor our parents (well, not blatantly), aren’t malicious to our neighbors (although we’re sometimes apathetic), and never committed perjury. We’re good enough.

But simple obedience to God’s commands isn’t enough. We’ll have lousy attitudes which need rooting out. We’ll have resentments buried way down in there, buried so deep we can’t recognize them. Often the Holy Spirit wants us to be more radical than we are, but we figure those practices are too radical, and what we’re comfortable with is plenty devout enough. The Spirit never challenges us to do something we can’t do in his power… but we don’t wanna. The wealthy teenager sure didn’t wanna.

For these reasons and more, we gotta ask the Spirit, “What do I lack?” What’s my blindspot? What challenges have I left unmet? What more does he have for me? What more can I do? Do you figure I’m ready for more? In what ways am I holding myself down?

Worse: Is my blindspot harming me? Harming others? Am I passive-aggressively treating other people in a less-than-Christlike way? Am I unwittingly alienating pagans or fellow Christians? Am I lying to myself, deceiving myself, hurting myself?

Some of us already know our blindspots. But we stopped looking at ’em a long time ago, or scratched the surface on them and figured that was plenty. Some of them are downright embarrassing. But we need to turn to the Holy Spirit, and ask him to expose them no matter how painful they are. (And no matter how everyone else in my church may react to my newfound repentance—when they still do the same things, but have convinced themselves there’s nothing wrong with what they’re doing.)

We’re not fine. We have to accept the Spirit’s fair critique. Not make excuses for them: “I have a very good reason for it,” or “How’s that wrong? Everybody does it,” or “When you look at it this way, it’s actually a good thing,” or “That’s just who I am.” Yep, these are all excuses I’ve made. They’re all crap. We deceive ourselves so easily.

When the Spirit told me to get rid of my sarcasm, fr’instance, I tried the “That’s just who I am” excuse. His response: “I didn’t make you that way.” No he didn’t. I made myself that way; sarcasm was my way of getting away with anger, and justifying it because it was so funny and clever of me. I liked that trait in myself; I liked being Mr. Sarcasm. But the Holy Spirit was insistent: It had to go.

So the Holy Spirit must lead the moral inventory. And the result will be a balanced one. I tend to be either far too proud of my successes, or far too hard on myself about my failings. The Spirit is far more realistic and gracious. (Stands to reason: Kindness is one of his fruits.) I may hate what he shows me, but I need to hear it from him. I can risk his piercing analysis because I know he’ll be infinitely kind and entirely honest about it. Good is good, evil is evil, and the Spirit will call it as he sees it.

And, as Jesus did with the rich young man, the Spirit will encourage me (and you) to do better. It might be difficult. But it always has the goal of a closer relationship with him—and life in the age to come.