Beauty Series

Beholding the Glory of Christ in Prayer

This is Part Two in our beauty series.

I had to learn the hard way.

Isn’t that sometimes the best way though?

I remember as a child learning the importance of prayer. Bowing your head, folding your hands, and closing your eyes were all key elements. My friends and I made a game out of the process, sometimes accusing each other of not following protocol. “You had your eyes open,” someone would exclaim. “How would you know that if you had your eyes closed like you should have!” I would reply. It was fun at the time, but I didn’t quite grasp the importance of prayer until much later on in life. What started as a harmless game would later become a magnificent burden.

TSWL-AFTERThe Importance of Prayer

One of the challenges I have as a father is teaching my children to pray. In the Garwood home, we pray before we share a meal, before bedtime, and usually in the car when the occasion arises. My seven year old son enjoys thanking God for the great day he had, especially if it involved him getting to go outside for a while to play. My three year-old daughter likes to pray about things she wishes were true, like the family going to the water park or traveling to see the grandparents. My two year-old son prays in tongues (I’m kidding). Actually, the only thing I can understand with him is “Amen” at the end, as he moves on with his day.

All joking aside, when I pray with my children, I try to convey one of the most important reasons for prayer—the beholding of the glory of Christ. Why is this important? Take a look at what Jesus prays in John 17:24, “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.” God the Son prays to the Father and asks that those who belong to him would behold his glory.

The goal of our praying ought to be the beholding of Christ.

What It Means to Behold

What does it mean to “see” Christ’s glory, and why would this be something worth pursuing? Ultimately, the Bible teaches us that we will see Christ’s glory in two ways: by faith now (2 Cor. 5:7-8) and by sight in eternity (1 Cor. 13:12).1 The end result of our running the race is a face-to-face meeting with Christ. The challenge, however, is the running of the race. We live by faith, not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7), which means that our pursuit of God through the means of grace we call “prayer” involves faith. We must believe the promises of God. We must cling to the truths we find in the Scriptures. The beholding we do now by faith in prayer leads to the beholding we will do in eternity. One is temporary. The other is everlasting.

John Owen is helpful,

No man shall ever behold the glory of Christ by sight in heaven who does not, in some measure, behold it by faith in this world. Grace is a necessary preparation for glory and faith for sight. The soul unprepared by grace and faith is not capable of seeing the glory of Christ in heaven. Many will say with confidence that they desire to be with Christ and to behold his glory. But when asked, they can give no reason for this desire, except that it would be better than going to hell. If a man claims to love and desire that which he never even saw, he is deceiving himself.2

What Owen is getting at is the connection between what we do by faith here and now, and what will eventually be in eternity. “You wish to see Christ in the fulness of heaven? Great; live by faith now.” The correlation could hardly be clearer. Beholding Christ forever begins by beholding him by faith in this life. And what does it mean to behold? To gaze upon, cling to, focus upon, draw near to, and rely by faith on Christ. We must take him as our own today. Beholding is about attentiveness to Christ in the present.

Problems with Beholding

The truth of the matter is that we are busy. And it’s killing us.

“How are you doing?”

“Oh, I’m doing well, thanks for asking; I’ve been really busy lately!”

“Yes, me too. Life just seems to constantly get in the way!”

Ever had this conversation? Busy is the go-to answer in assessing ourselves. We’ve moved from “I’m fine” to “I’ve been busy,” as if either of those answers suffice. In our culture of discontinuous change, we simply cannot keep up. The next iPhone is out with a new processor and upgraded camera, and suddenly ours from just last year might as well be a bag phone. The struggle with gazing upon true beauty in the face of Christ today is our lack of attentiveness. We don’t have time and even if we did, we don’t.

Is this where you’re at today? Are you struggling to behold Christ by faith in earnest prayer because you think you don’t have time?

Prayer as a Means of Beholding

The reason I chose the means of prayer is mostly because it’s the one thing we almost all wish we did more of, and it’s the one thing we can do right now. You can’t read the entirety of the Bible this very second, nor can you figure out your entire life right this very second. But you can pray. And you can pray in faith. When we stoop before the Throne we can be assured that our prayers are being handled with care (Heb. 4:16). The Mediator who is both Priest and King invites us in to gaze upon his beauty as we pray in faith for wisdom, direction, and guidance.

We’re not too busy to behold the glory of Christ in prayer; we’re too dependent upon ourselves. Prayer is for people who are needy, not those who are self-sufficient. The way to behold Christ in faith through prayer is repenting of our self-righteousness and fall before him with tears. You may feel overwhelmed, busy, anxious, and stressed to the max. You may feel like you cannot go on. But let me reassure you: God gives you more than you can handle because the idol of self-sufficiency destroys you.

Drop the facade—we are not impressive, but Christ most definitely is. Beholding Christ by faith in prayer is a means of grace to strengthen your weary heart. Repent of excuse-making. Repent of self-sufficiency. Repent of feeling the need for instant gratification. Turn away from the need to indulge yourself with the newest and greatest, and instead behold Christ with patience wrought by the Holy Spirit.

1. John Owen, The Glory of Christ, abridged and simplified by R.J.K. Law (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2009), 4.

2. Ibid., 4-5.

Rev. Jason M. Garwood (M.Div., Th.D.) serves as Lead Pastor of Colwood Church in Caro, MI and author of Be Holy and The Fight for Joy. Jason and his wife Mary have three children, Elijah, Avery and Nathan. He blogs at www.jasongarwood.com. Connect with him on Twitter: @jasongarwood.

The Forgotten Essential of the Kingdom

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We are starting a series that will explore the intersection between beauty, discipleship, mission, and the Kingdom of God. We will answers questions like: Why is beauty important for Christian living? Can we get by without it? What does the gospel teach us about beauty? How does the beauty of God inform lesser beauties? What is beauty in the Kingdom of God? This is part one.

We hiked through the tangled woods searching for something beautiful. The trees had changed. We started on an open path with towering trees and far reaching boughs. As the path made its way closer to the water, the trees changed becoming smaller and reaching over the path which narrowed. These branches were bent and gnarled like the hands of my grandmother.

As the path descended, the air become cooler. We also heard the gurgling of water which grew into a growl as we approached our destination—a magnificent waterfall with a devastating 420-foot drop. This natural wonder is not the kind you walk by without awe at its beauty and danger. It demands you stop. We found a rock at the edge of the river looking over the waterfall and sat. We admired the beauty and danger of this tour de force of water.

Christians above all should be the kind of people who stop in awe of beauty.“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Ps. 19:1). The earth below and heaven above teach us how to declare the glory of God. They are beautiful for him. Yet some Christians think very little of beauty. Or maybe it’s not that they think little of it, but they don’t see where beauty intersects with their ordinary life. Our world is full of beauty. We have just lost the eyes to see it all around us. We are like a man who can only see the world in muted colors. We cannot live without beauty. We shouldn’t live without it.

Experiencing Beauty

In a recent article “Why Do We Experience Awe?” in The New York Times, Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner get at just this,

Why do humans experience awe? Years ago, one of us, Professor Keltner, argued (along with the psychologist Jonathan Haidt) that awe is the ultimate “collective” emotion, for it motivates people to do things that enhance the greater good. Through many activities that give us goose bumps — collective rituals, celebration, music and dance, religious gatherings and worship — awe might help shift our focus from our narrow self-interest to the interests of the group to which we belong.

They go on to introduce new research that may backup this initial thesis. In the research, people who regularly experienced awe in their life were more willing to help others. And it didn’t have to be ridiculously hard to reach Mount Everest type beauty. One group in the study spent time “on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, which has a spectacular grove of Tasmanian blue gum eucalyptus trees, some with heights exceeding 200 feet — a potent source of everyday awe for anyone who walks by.” This research tells us what Christians have been teaching for millennia, but many have forgotten: Beauty empowers love of neighbor. Let’s smooth the wrinkles even more: Beauty energizes love of God and, therefore, love of neighbor—because God is beauty and all beauty ultimately has its origins in his divine perfections. In the third century, St. Basil wrote, “Let us recognize the One Who transcends in His beauty all things."[1] And in the sixth century, St. Maximus the Confessor states,

Nothing so much as love brings together those who have been sundered and produces in them an effective union of will and purpose. Love is distinguished by the beauty of recognizing the equal value of all men. Love is born in a man when his soul's powers—that is, his intelligence, incensive power and desire—are concentrated and unified around the divine. Those who by grace have come to recognized the equal value of all men in God's sight and who engrave His beauty on their memory, possess an ineradicable longing for divine love, for such love is always imprinting this beauty on their intellect. (Philokalia, II)

Seeing the beauty all around us opens our eyes to seeing the beauty of the imago dei in all humans. In The Weight of Glory, C. S. Lewis plucks this same string:

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations - these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit - immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously - no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.

Beauty Must Not be Ignored

Some Christians today might consider spending a day hiking through the woods a waste. Some might be too busy to stop to gaze at 200-foot-tall trees. They might finding reading great fiction boring or might say, “I just don’t have time.” They might scoff at spending money at a museum. Or laugh off traveling to the Grand Canyon to sit and wonder at its terrible beauty. Others may want to do these things, but not have the means. Others might not see the importance. Beauty, however, is all around us and must not be ignored. It is essential for making, maturing, and multiplying disciples of Jesus Christ.

The same New York Times article ends:

We believe that awe deprivation has had a hand in a broad societal shift that has been widely observed over the past 50 years: People have become more individualistic, more self-focused, more materialistic and less connected to others. To reverse this trend, we suggest that people insist on experiencing more everyday awe, to actively seek out what gives them goose bumps, be it in looking at trees, night skies, patterns of wind on water or the quotidian nobility of others — the teenage punk who gives up his seat on public transportation, the young child who explores the world in a state of wonder, the person who presses on against all odds.

Christians, we must insist on experiencing more beauty—even in the smallest ways like sharing acts of kindness or admiring that “mundane” summer lightening storm. Find beauty wherever you can and stand in awe.

Beauty and Sadness

But what do we do when the most beautiful things in our world are littered with sadness? What happens when a mother dies giving birth to a child? What happens when a terrorists group destroys an ancient and awe inspiring cultural artifact? What happens when war breaks out and priceless art is destroyed? What happens when a loved one dies and you cannot see the beauty in that thing you once shared with them? Because truth and beauty cannot be divorced for now, Christians must acknowledge this uneasy union between beauty and brokenness. Sometimes we need permission to experience beauty in the midst of our sadness and suffering. When sadness intersects with beauty, gaze at the cross of Christ for permission. It embodies beauty and brokenness. J. R. R. Tolkien called the cross the ultimate eucatastrophe (eu = good and catastrophe you know). There we have the brutal, de-humanizing Roman cross and the Savior of the world sacrificing himself for our sins. The truth is we live in that kind of world and our Savior came to show us how to find joy in its midst. The writer of Hebrews says,

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. –Hebrews 12:1-2 (italics mine)

This tension then between beauty and brokenness creates more longing for a true and lasting beauty, for the kingdom of Jesus Christ to come fully to this earth. Until that day, we cry out “Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is heaven.” When the Kingdom is fully realized, all sadness will be undone and all things beautiful will be eternal. We will gaze at the beautiful unfiltered by sadness. We will truly see beauty because in the new heaven and new earth the King will return in all his beauty and majesty and his presence on earth will change everything forever.

Until that day we pursue the beauty we have. Not just for its own sake, but because God himself is beautiful, because beauty moves us with compassion for our neighbors, and because it creates longing for true and lasting beauty. Do not treat beauty as a luxury or something far off. Find beauty where you are and take the time to stand in awe of it. Consider how much more work we have to do in the world as we strive for the Kingdom coming.

It is meet and right to hymn Thee, to bless Thee, to praise Thee, to give thanks unto Thee, and to worship Thee in every place of Thy dominion: for Thou art God ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, ever existing and eternally the same, Thou and Thine Only-begotten Son and the Holy Spirit. — St. John Chrysostom

[1] All quotations from the Church Fathers come from http://www.antiochian.org/node/23896

Mathew B. Sims is the Editor-in-Chief at Exercise.com and has authored, edited, and contributed to several books including A Household GospelWe Believe: Creeds, Confessions, & Catechisms for WorshipA Guide for AdventMake, Mature, Multiply, and A Guide for Holy Week. Mathew, LeAnn (his wife), and his daughters Claire, Maddy, and Adele live in Taylors, SC at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains with their Airdale Terrier. They attend Downtown Presbyterian Church (PCA). Visit MathewBryanSims.com!

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