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Willard: The Posture of the Request

9 June 2008

Forgive me for writing off the top of my head here, but I want to unpack a bit more what I hinted at in my previous post.

I seldom like to say that anything I’ve read has been “transformative” – usually that just means that it confirmed what the reader already thought, and so reinforced the reader’s existing outlook – but in this case, what Willard draws out of the Sermon on the Mount has transformed the way I interact with everyone, including my children.

In The Divine Conspiracy, Willard eventually gets to Matthew 7:7-11 and identifies what I now believe to be a universal truth of discipleship to Jesus:  the posture of the request.  This posture, undertaken with humility and not cynicism, will turn the world upside down.  (That would be a good thing.)  Would you be willing to read it, and then continue with what follows?


The centurion implored Jesus, saying, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, fearfully tormented.”  The exchange that followed makes it clear that the centurion was asking Jesus simply to speak a word; he did not want to impose on Jesus, or to presume on Jesus’ time or physical stamina, or perhaps to let Jesus see his home’s disarray.  (That last one is clearly anachronistic self-projection on qb’s part!)

What is interesting to me about the exchange is the contrast that Matthew draws between the centurion’s posture toward an itinerant, homeless rabbi and the centurion’s posture toward his professional inferiors and servants.  With his underlings, the centurion is demanding and prescriptive; with Jesus, he places himself at Jesus’ mercy by means of the posture of the request.  Clearly, Jesus is autonomous, and the centurion respects that.  But it goes further, much further:  the centurion gives Jesus the option of declining his request.  If Jesus does not respond favorably, the centurion’s servant suffers horribly and endlessly, presumably to the point of death.  The centurion has left the possibility on the table that he will be turned down, even though the implications would be unbearable.

That is the nature of all sincere and consequential requests.

The more important it is, the more likely I am to demand it.  The higher the stakes and the urgency, the more strident my demand will be.  And if I am refused, the affront is personal, and it is a violation of my dignity.  I am so important, what right do you have to refuse me?

To Willard, Jesus would have us lay all of that down, and his half-brother picked up on the implications:

What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members?  You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. You are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel. You do not have because you do not ask.  You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures.  You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God?  Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.  Or do you think that the Scripture speaks to no purpose: “He jealously desires the Spirit which He has made to dwell in us”?  But He gives a greater grace.  Therefore it says, “GOD IS OPPOSED TO THE PROUD, BUT GIVES GRACE TO THE HUMBLE.”

I wish I knew precisely what sweet ironies were in James’ mind as he wrote what we now have as Chapter 4.  But the pervasiveness of asking in the NT is astonishing and enlightening.  It is, on a moment’s reflection, a necessary part of humility; it says, “what I want may be important to me, but it is not so important that I will presume to override what you want.  Refuse me if you will, and I will be content nevertheless.”

In fact, the posture of the request emphasizes the dignity and autonomy of the other, not my own.

Paradoxically – and this causes me to wonder about what ironic James was thinking – we tend to elicit more favorable responses when we issue a gentle request than when we pull rank and make a demand.  The request is a powerful, social lubricant that stands over against the cultural norm of entitlement.  If we are really Christ’s, what we want is unity and mutual affection for the long term, not simply to have our own way in the moment.  Christ shows us how in Matthew 7:7ff:  we should place ourselves beneath others in every dimension of our lives.

The posture of the request is central to discipleship to Jesus.  Thank you, Dr. Willard, for pointing that out so wonderfully.


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