Scotty Smith

Leave the Throne of Guilt: Three Better Reasons to Pray

Calloused knees. Prayer closet. Answered prayers. Prayer warrior.

These four phrases don’t exactly trigger me with spiritual PTSD, but they do represent markers in my journey of moving from prayer-guilt into the grace of praying. For many years, I felt more like a D-student in the school of prayer than a beloved son in the presence of God. I was afraid to not pray, but I had very little delight in actually praying.

As a young believer in the late sixties, the joy of my new life in Christ was palpable and plenteous. But pretty soon, I started to feel the pressure of a new burden to “get it right.” I had consistent quiet times, underlined verses in my Bible (in three different colors), and engaged in Scripture memory. I fellowshipped, witnessed, and prayed. Unfortunately, these crucial spiritual disciplines functioned more as a means of guilt (or pride) than as a means of grace. Many of God’s good gifts are misused and disused until they become rightly used. This is certainly true of prayer.

A part of the problem — no, the biggest issue — was that I began the Christian life with a limited understanding of what happened when God gave me faith to trust Jesus and hid my life in his Son. I was certain of going to heaven when I died, but I knew little of what God thought about me while I lived.

United Forever with Christ

In Christ, all riches were already deposited into my account, but I was clueless about them. I knew Jesus died for my sins and that I was fully forgiven. But only years later did I come to understand my union with Christ, the imputation of his righteousness, and my adoption into God’s family — to name a few of the glorious benefits of our life in Christ.

I don’t blame anyone for not teaching me about union with Christ. I’m just eternally grateful I finally learned about it, came to rest in it, and now live out of its glorious implications. It wasn’t a game changer, but an everything changer — not a new day, but a new forever.

“The effort I now invest in praying has become a delight, not a burden.”

Our union with Christ is the foundation and fountain for knowing God, and the spiritual disciplines — including prayer (when shaped and fueled by the gospel) — are the means by which we deepen our knowledge of God and learn to “glorify and enjoy him forever.” Though the gospel has freed us from all earning, it certainly doesn’t free us from all effort. But the effort I now invest in praying has become a delight, not a burden.

Moving on from guilt and fear, I now focus on three callings that have radically transformed how I engage in prayer.

Fellowship with Your Father

“Fellowship with your Father” is exactly how my spiritual father, Jack Miller, reframed prayer for me, keying off of Jesus’s glorious invitation to say, “Our Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:9). How many times did I hear (and need to hear) Jack say, “Scotty, our Father wants to spend time with you more than you are even confident and comfortable in his presence. He loves you. You’ll never shock him, and he’ll never shame you. He knows your need is greater than you realize, and his provision for you in Jesus is exponentially more than you have yet grasped.”

Indeed, the gospel frees us from thinking of prayer as a way to get God’s attention — an effort to convince him of something we need or something we want him to do. Prayer is God’s nonstop welcome to us — a grace-subpoena into his presence (Hebrews 4:16).

“The gospel frees us from thinking of prayer as a way to get God’s attention.”

Our Father is always initiating and resourcing our communion with himself. As we spend both quality and quantity time with him, all the incomplete and wrong notions we’ve had about him get exposed and expelled. He also re-parents us through unrushed time in his presence. Abba is the Father we always wanted, and he alone can be to us what no human father could ever be.

The better we know God as our Father, we more we begin to embrace how big and good his prayer-answer vocabulary actually is. Answered prayer is no longer equated with a yes to our petitions. We begin to rest in our Father’s multiple wise answers, like no, not yet, and yes, but not exactly as you are asking. The burden is off our shoulders. We can ask with abandon and trust with even greater abandon. Our Father is always doing all things well, even when he doesn’t do all things easy. Our Father’s no is sweeter than any yes we can imagine — or demand. We start giving more yeses to him rather than “needing” yeses from him.

Jack also made it abundantly clear to me, “The more you fellowship with your Father, the more you will rejoice in his plan for the nations and live as his partner in world evangelism.” Jack could not think of prayer, the gospel, and our Father without seeing and rejoicing in the day when God’s every-nation family will stream into the New Jerusalem.

Behold Jesus’s Glory

The apostle Paul’s words are as riveting as they are compelling: “We all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18). Many centuries earlier, King David expressed a similar heart orientation and single passion — even making it his number-one prayer request: “One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord” (Psalm 27:4).

Prayer as contemplation of Jesus’s glory reorients us away from prayer as consternation about getting results. Adoration of Jesus must not be relegated to the first letter of ACTS: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication. Adoration is the meaning and essence of each and every other aspect of life. Indeed, fixing our gaze on Jesus isn’t a warm-up exercise to prayer; it is prayer.

As we marinate in the truth, goodness, and beauty of Jesus, we are changed — we become more like Jesus, which is the goal of our salvation (Romans 8:28–30; 1 John 3:1–3). Our hope is fueled, because we discover more fully what the Scriptures mean when they declare Jesus to be the emphatic Yes! to every promise God has made (2 Corinthians 1:20). Our praying becomes less about claiming God’s promises and more about seeing how God’s promises claim us — and all of history. We think less about becoming prayer warriors, and we rest in Jesus as the prayer-warrior extraordinaire — ever living to make intercession for us and in us by the Holy Spirit (Hebrews 7:25; Romans 8:26).

Adoring Jesus also deepens our intimacy with him and intensifies our longing to be with him in eternity — the better-by-far-ness Paul writes about in Philippians 1:23. It also fuels our courage to go with Jesus into a life of missional living and loving. We cease thinking of doing anything merely for Jesus; rather, we begin to live as those who do everything with Jesus. Only Jesus can, and is, making all things new. Prayer frees us to find our place in his story, now that we’re already in his heart.

Listen to the Spirit’s Testimony

Lastly, thinking of prayer as listening to the Holy Spirit’s testimony helps us include in our prayer times not only talking but hearing. In Romans 8, Paul highlights just how vital this aspect of our fellowship with God actually is: “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs” (Romans 8:16–17). The Spirit is always preaching the gospel to us — nonstop, 24/7. As we linger over God’s word, do we take time to listen?

In fact, it is by the Spirit’s voice we most clearly hear God singing over us with great rejoicing (Zephaniah 3:17). How is this so? Because the Spirit is always making much of Jesus and is constantly applying his finished work to our hearts. As we experience the wonder of God’s great delight in us, we move more fully into the true blessedness of the convicting voice of the Spirit, the voice that is now and forever void of any condemnation (Romans 8:1). Confession and repentance become a way of life and a liberating joy.

Unfortunately, too much of the time we allow other noises and voices to drown out the Spirit’s voice. We tune the frequency of our hearts to our fears, disappointments, and anger. We indulge the whispers, shouts, and lies of the devil. We let the siren songs of our world and our lusts mute the peace-giving, joy-fueling, hope-enlarging testimony of the Spirit. We pay to hear an out-of-tune kazoo band, while the triune God has graciously made us members of his every-nation orchestra that gets to play and enjoy the grand symphony of the gospel.

Let’s get still and know that our God is God (Psalm 46:10). He does all that he pleases, all the time and everywhere (Psalm 115:3). Hallelujah, it has pleased him to make us his beloved daughters and sons through the work of Jesus.

Dear Burned-Out Pastor: Seven Steps Toward Long-Term Health

“Scotty, I understand. There was a time when the pressure I felt from church concerns was overwhelming and, unfortunately, daily. The stress was crushing — far beyond my ability to endure. I despaired of life. I assumed death wasn’t far off. The main attacks didn’t come from four-legged beasts in an arena, but two-legged ones roaming the world and church. I became so weak, and I burned within.”

I can’t overstate how much the honesty and vulnerability of “my friend” meant to me. The gift of “me too,” has been a vital part of my healing. His story gave me the needed permission to begin the process of diagnosis and care at a desperate point in my pastoral ministry. But why the quotation marks around the words “my friend”?

Some of you, no doubt, heard echoes from 2 Corinthians 1 and 11. In a most profound way, the apostle Paul became a very close friend of mine during my most disheartening, disillusioning, and despairing season of life and ministry. His second letter to the Corinthians became, and remains, a kiss from heaven and my GPS setting for gospel-sanity — an invaluable conduit of peace, healing, and hope. It’s an honor to be able to pass on his mercy and comfort to others in faith crises and heart depletion.

In 45 years of ordained ministry, I’ve never walked with as many weary leaders. So, what do you do when darkness begins to hide the lovely face, voice, and hand of Jesus? Here’s a bit of my story, and what I learned from Paul.

Severe Mercy Is Still Mercy

After experiencing eleven years of a church planter’s grandest dreams, bad dreams became more the norm, and then nightmares. Paul talked about “fighting wild beasts in Ephesus” (1 Corinthians 15:32) — gladiator imagery describing intense relational conflicts and spiritual warfare.

Since I love the ocean, I’ll use aquatic imagery. I never encountered what might be likened to a great white shark attack: a cataclysmic church blowup or full-bore assault of evil. Some of my friends have. My experience was more like an occasional moray eel chomping down on one of my limbs, and a steady stream of piranhas nibbling away at my heart, joy, peace, and sleep. The cumulative effect left me burned out, used up, and running on empty.

“Severe mercy is still mercy, and hard providence is still directed by the heart of our loving Father.”

I remember praying, “Father, ceasing to exist looks really attractive right now — heaven or no heaven. I just want to stop feeling this way. I want to stop feeling anything.” I never had “a plan,” and I never put myself in a position to “easily die.” The brevity of this article won’t allow for all the details, but thankfully, I found the help I needed. Sometimes we have to cry “Uncle” so that we can cry “Abba.” Severe mercy is still mercy, and hard providence is still directed by the heart of our loving Father.

Triage Care

Gleaning from different portions of 2 Corinthians, here’s what I learned, and the advice I now share with other weary leaders. There’s usually a need for both triage and long-term care.

1. Tell a good friend what hurts.

Don’t suffer in silence, isolation, or pride. Gather your friends, and get a proper diagnosis.

Paul gave us this important gift: “We do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia” (2 Corinthians 1:8). He let others know just how difficult his situation had become.

Who knows how bad you are hurting? Some of us fear being labeled “soft” or “whiny.” Some of us fear losing our jobs. Some of us are too proud to be known and seek help. Some of us are clueless about how dangerously ill we have become. I needed medical, emotional, and spiritual care. Start with your most trusted friends. My journey to health began with falling apart in front of a couple of old friends.

2. Be more honest about your pain.

Resist the temptation to minimize your suffering or discount your pain by reading Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, or by comparing your suffering to the suffering of others. The gospel makes us more human, not superhuman. Listen to Paul: “We were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death” (2 Corinthians 1:8–9). If this sounds like your trauma, pain, and weariness speaking, take it seriously — period.

When I experienced burnout, our church was doing great. But I wasn’t aware of how much backed-up pain, emotional exhaustion, and spiritual depletion I was carrying. It’s not just our bodies, but also our hearts and minds that keep score.

3. Surrender any sense of self-sufficiency.

Take your turn on the mat, like the paralyzed man with mobile friends, and let others carry you to Jesus (Mark 2:1–5). Get over the myth and cult of self-sufficiency.

I love this. I needed this. “That was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us . . . [as you] help us by prayer” (2 Corinthians 1:9–11). No one better modeled an aversion to self-reliance, and a constant surrender to praying friends, than my spiritual father, Jack Miller. In time, I followed his example.

When in triage mode, there’s no need (or time) to start with the most gifted counselor. Who are your praying friends? Who’s in the gospel-posse you’re walking with? Get on the mat and let them carry you to Jesus. Humble yourself.

I was far better at caring for others than letting others care for me. That wasn’t nobility; it was stupidity. Self-reliance and the gospel are antithetical. Grace always runs downhill, and sometimes through unexpected means. “Our bodies had no rest, but we were afflicted at every turn — fighting without and fear within. But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus” (2 Corinthians 7:5–6). Learn to receive comfort from whomever the Lord sends.

Long-Term Care

After my “bleeding” stopped, and I began walking again with the help of good counseling, mutual burden-bearing friendships, and the appropriate medical care, here are some of the long-term measures I put in place — disciplines and delights that remain with me today.

1. Spend more time looking at Jesus.

Spend more time than you ever have before beholding and contemplating the beauty of Jesus. Don’t just appreciate Paul’s spirituality; practice it. “We all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18). Leading up to my burnout, I replaced abiding in Jesus with working for Jesus.

“Leading up to my burnout, I replaced abiding in Jesus with working for Jesus.”

Satan’s main goal is to rob us of intimacy with Jesus. “I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:3). Communing with Jesus and adoring him must always take precedent over the demands of a job description, people’s expectations, and the tyranny of the urgent. This conviction led me to transition out of being lead pastor at least a decade before I had originally planned. I have zero regrets.

Jesus is true, good, and beautiful. Often, the convergence of prolonged spiritual attack, relational conflicts, and mental/emotional stress first robs us of Jesus’s beauty. Then we lose our sense of his goodness. Finally, we can begin to question the truth of the gospel, and the trustworthiness of Jesus.

2. Prepare yourself for the pain of the not-yet.

Develop a greater appreciation for the “already and not yet” of life and ministry between the resurrection and return of Jesus. Consider Paul’s wisdom: “We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything” (2 Corinthians 6:8–10).

The ministry of the gospel, this side of life in the new heaven and new earth, will include incredible blessing, and unimaginable difficulty. If you stay in any church or ministry long enough, you will be both disappointed and disappointing. Because we enjoyed a nearly eleven-year gospel renewal when we planted Christ Community Church in Franklin, Tennessee, I was naive to assume it would never be different.

3. Receive your weaknesses.

Learn to accept and delight in your weaknesses. Don’t wait for broken-downness to start living in gospel-brokenness. We matter, but we’re not the point.

We have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. (2 Corinthians 4:7)

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. (2 Corinthians 12:9)

I have never been more aware of my weaknesses, brokenness, and limitations. Hallelujah! I now live and minister with much less stress, even though my schedule is just as full as when I was a young church planter. Your competency is not your sufficiency.

4. Visit the home to come.

Become a curious, childlike explorer of the hope of heaven, and the fullness of the new creation we will enjoy forever when Jesus returns.

Following Paul’s example, I have never spent as much time meditating on heaven and groaning for our coming life in the new heaven and new earth. “In this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling. . . . He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. . . . If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:2, 5, 17; see also Revelation 21:1–22:6).

Nothing helped me overcome my spiritual depression, deep shame, and emotional pain of ministry more than connecting my head and heart with the glorious hope of heaven.

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