Wednesday, March 08, 2017

The most unselfish prayer ever made

In the opening verses of Romans 9 the apostle Paul turns his thoughts to his Jewish countrymen and women and in particular their rejection of their own Messiah Jesus. As his heart breaks for his native people he utters one of the most extraordinary prayers in the entire Bible.

I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it through the Holy Spirit— I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, the people of Israel.

It is an astonishing prayer, and one Paul is at pains to show was not a pious throwaway line or some holy flannel – ‘I am not lying, my conscience confirms it through the Holy Spirit’. In it Paul expresses that such is his love for his kinsfolk that he would be willing to forfeit his own salvation if it could save them.

A challenging & chilling prayer
It is a prayer that is both profoundly challenging and chilling. Challenging because it takes an axe to the root of self-love and asks us how much do we really care about the fate of others? Chilling because of what is being contemplated - to be ‘cursed and cut off from Christ’. For the Christian so aware of their sin, awed by God’s holiness, and sensible of the coming judgement, such a prospect is frankly terrifying. To be shut out of heaven and to face a lost eternity is everything we have fled to Christ to escape.

To lay down your life in the here and now for another would take love and courage enough – but to dam yourself for eternity – that’s a thought surely too dreadful even to consider. Could I ever be so unselfish, so sacrificial, so devoted to others and so pre-eminently concerned with their welfare to be willing to forgo my very soul?

An unattainable prayer
Yet, and much to my relief, such a scenario could only ever be rhetorical. Not that Paul wasn’t sincere but the reality is, for him and for me, that even if either of us were to dam ourselves it wouldn’t actually help anyone else. To think otherwise would be like a self-deluded life-prisoner volunteering to serve the sentences of others – nice offer, but you can only meaningfully serve one sentence, i.e. your own. My damnation would be no more than justice – it would have no power to absolve anyone else of their own sin.

A fulfilled prayer
There was one, however, who could fulfil Paul’s prayer – the only one who could genuinely offer innocence in exchange for guilt. Jesus the sinless, whose rightful place was to enjoy the blessings of untainted fellowship with God the Father. Only Jesus, the faultless Son of God sharing in our humanity, could ever take the place of another in a way that could uphold justice.

But if the thought of being cursed and cut-off from God is terrifying to me – it was all the more so for Jesus. He alone knew the unsullied blessings of God from eternity. He was the one whose fellowship with the Father was to share the very substance of deity. The one whose uncorrupted eyes could see the true vileness of sin, and the one who truly understood the implacable hostility of God towards it. For Jesus the prospect of being cursed and cut-off was unimaginable horror and incomprehensible loss.

And yet he went to the Cross – the place of curse. The one who knew no sin becoming sin, the closet companion of God forsaken by God.

The most unselfish prayer was fulfilled - by the most unselfish person. Jesus offering up his soul for others. Castaway and cursed that they might be rescued and blessed.

Bearing shame and scoffing rude,
In my place condemned He stood;
Sealed my pardon with His blood;
Hallelujah! What a Saviour!