People are not the point of the Bible, God is.
The Bible tells the story of a glorious Triune God who shows himself to be glorious chiefly by dumping his grace on ill-deserving creatures. This is a far cry from the typical evangelical take, which is more like a rom-com story of a heart-smitten God who had stars in his eyes for us, and just couldn’t be happy until heaven was inhabited by us. Nope. That’s not where you and I fit in here: we are not the much-needed company to solve the problem of celestial loneliness.
Rather, we are the needy, ill-deserving recipients of God’s grace, whose persistent wickedness creates the backdrop for God’s mercy to shine with more brilliance. We are not the heroes of our stories. We are the complete idiots, and God is the hero who keeps saving us. God is not an instrument for our happiness; we are instruments for his glory.
That’s the story of the Bible, and it’s told in miniature in the prayer of Nehemiah 9:6-37. We would all do well to shape our prayers after the Levites in Nehemiah chapter nine in the following ways:
A Sober Understanding of a Massive God
“You are the LORD, you alone. You have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them; and you preserve all of them; and the host of heaven worships you.” (Nehemiah 9:6)
This is the God to whom we pray. He is God, “from everlasting to everlasting.” He is not merely a tribal deity, temperamental and wishy-washy. He does not have a jurisdiction that comes only so far. He is not constrained by anyone or anything. Nor does he depend on anyone or anything.
The biblical worldview places all reality in two distinct categories: God and everything else. The Creator and his creation. The Creator is intrinsically, eternally happy in himself, contingent upon nothing, and everything else derives its existence from God. Creation’s trademark is absolute neediness and dependence on God. Nothing in this universe exists independent of God’s active, sustaining will. God didn’t create us and then step back to leave us to do our own thing; he keeps the universe together moment by moment. Nothing—and I mean nothing—has existential autonomy.
Think about it. We came into existence by God’s providence as a fertilized egg due to the combined efforts of a father and mother we did not choose, under the parental judgments we did not make, in a home we did not build, in a country we did not decide on, on a planet we do not keep spinning around a sun we do not keep burning in a universe we could never dream up.
This means that all the arrogance of our age about “self-actualization” and “choosing our destiny” is utter foolishness. It’s all a delusion. We are not gods. We are part of a fabric of reality that is all spoken into existence by God—he is the speaker, we are his words.
And praise God for that! Because his absolute self-existence means that his love for us is absolutely free. We could never twist his arm into being “ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, abounding in steadfast love” (Nehemiah 9:17). We could never convince him to become the kind of God who is righteous and “keeps covenant and steadfast love” (Nehemiah 9:32). He simply is that God. Our confession of sin and need doesn’t make him into that kind of God—we don’t give him the idea to act a little more gracious—he is maximally gracious in his very nature, and it is only because he is that kind of God that we have any reason to confess and seek after him in the first place.
We would never know God to be this way if he had not told us about himself in his Word. This prayer is the product of a twenty-four day intensive Bible study (cf., Nehemiah 7:73, 9:1), and the whole thing oozes biblical language. These Levites are praying the very words of God back to God, and they could do so seamlessly because of how deeply his word had taken root in their hearts. Their thinking about themselves and about God was conditioned by Scripture.
This is important for us to remember, since all culture is in the business of disciple-making, and secular culture disciples us to think about ourselves, our feelings, and God in all sorts of ways that are not biblical. I have the right to have this opinion about myself by virtue of it being my opinion. You may think that God is one way, but in my opinion, he is this way.
But what makes us think we are entitled to wrong conceptions of ourselves? Did we create ourselves? Do we own ourselves? Are we our own lords? Even more importantly, we are not entitled to wrong conceptions of God. He is who he is, and he has told us who he is; we’re left simply to submit our opinions and ways of thinking to his authoritative Word. And, if you’re looking for help with this outside of the Bible, good luck. The word of God cuts in the opposite direction of the world’s conditioning and it reorients us back to reality: where the world tells us evil is good and good is evil, Scripture sets the record straight. Where the world tells us the ceiling is the floor and the floor is the ceiling, God’s word reminds us of gravity.
The Levites who constructed the prayer of Nehemiah 9:6-37 had such a reverence for God’s word that their conception of reality was totally conditioned by what they read there. Glad-hearted submission to God’s judgments is the flavor of this prayer. In this confession, they are trusting God’s assessment of them. We are what your word tells us we are, and we make no objections to your discipline. You have acted righteously, we have acted wickedly.
A Suspicion of Self
Perhaps the best thing this prayer has going for it, though, is its deep and resounding suspicion of self. As these Levites look backward at human history up to that point, they saw the very best human effort had to offer, and it looked pretty bleak. This prayer, swinging like a saloon door on conjunctions like hinges, places God only and always on the side of faithfulness, and Israel only and ever on the side of faithlessness. “You gave them bread…” (9:15), “but they and our fathers acted presumptuously…” (9:16), “but you are a God ready to forgive…” (9:17), “nevertheless, they were disobedient and rebelled…” (9:26). Swing, swing, swing. Because of this, the Levites knew that any hope they had for the future depended not on themselves (they had pretty well proven themselves incapable by then), but on God’s gracious mercy. The story of the Bible.
But, I ask you, is the highpoint of his merciful and gracious nature simply found in his forbearance of Israel’s sin? Of course not! The display of his gracious nature ratchets up a thousand notches when he condescends in the person of Jesus to not only forbear the sins of his people, but to atone for them.
This means Christians have every reason to pray with the kind of humility and boldness these Levites showcase. We who cling to Jesus by faith confess our sins in prayer like these Levites, but we do so altogether differently. For us, there ought not be the slightest uncertainty in our minds that God will receive our confession from a kind disposition. We are in Christ!
The Father could no sooner turn a cold shoulder to us than he could the resurrected and ascended Son. Christ already experienced all the rejection you deserve when he hung on the cross and cried, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” All that’s left for you, Christian, is kindness. So with a sober understanding of this massive God, and with biblically informed prayers that still drip with the cleansing and atoning blood of Jesus, may we pray with confidence.