The Real Sinner’s Prayer and Our Need for Control

There is a true sinner’s prayer and then there is the real sinner’s prayer. The true sinner’s prayer is, “God be merciful to me a sinner” (see Luke 18:13 KJV). The real sinner’s prayer is, “God, if You get me out of this mess, I promise I’ll be good.” The first one is the right one, of course. But when we are most honest about it, the one we use most often is the second: “Lord, I’m in big trouble. And if You’ll just get me out of it, I’ll never do it again. I promise.”

I think we’ve all prayed that prayer in one form or another over the years. You’ve got a kid you can’t rein in; you’ve got an illness you cannot beat; you’ve got a relationship that goes irretrievably sideways; you’ve done something terribly wrong and you can’t find your way out . . . time to pull out all the stops with the real sinner’s prayer.

We all know it. When we find ourselves in a circumstance beyond our control, we cry out to God. We make promises about turning over a new leaf or doing something for God that we’ve long neglected to do. It’s really not the sinner’s prayer. It’s the bargainer’s prayer. We try to cut a deal with God. And it’s always a deal we try to make exclusively on our terms.

But then, when the crisis has passed, when we’ve got things back under our control again, we go back to the old status quo way of living. The pressure lifts and life is manageable again. It’s not perfect, but we’re getting by. And the promises we’ve made get forgotten.

In Genesis 42, Joseph’s brothers were caught in a situation beyond their control. Accused of being spies, thrown in prison, threatened with death, made to feel completely powerless. All of it, of course, could be traced back to their sin against their brother Joseph when they sold him into slavery.

But once they were free from it, what would they do? Once they were back in control of life, how would they live? Perhaps the question should be asked of us: How will you and I live once the immediate crisis is passed? There is a sinner’s prayer and a bargainer’s prayer. Which one will you rely on to resolve all the unprocessed stuff of life? The text holds answers to such questions.

I think most of us are willing to endure a lot of things in life so long as we can control the situation. The trouble comes when control over our life passes from our hands to somebody else’s. When we lose the power to determine our own way, we turn in just about every direction to find answers. But as James Boice once wrote: “We resist necessity.” And we don’t like to submit to a will other than our own.

My wife is a case in point. On a Canadian winter Sunday morning in church, with a packed sanctuary, I was struggling with a terrible sore throat, losing my voice with every word I spoke as I went along. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw my Marilyn get up and leave the sanctuary. A few minutes later, she walked in, in front of everyone, came onto the platform, and presented me with a cup of hot tea with lemon. While the whole church was saying, “Ahhh. Isn’t that sweet?” I read aloud to the church the Post-it note that she had attached to the saucer: “Please don’t mistake this for submission.” After the laughter died down, I commented on how it takes real love to submit our will to another . . . to give up control to determine our own way takes both submission and self-giving love of the highest order.

That is why when we find ourselves in a circumstance beyond our control, usually in desperation we are extrinsically motivated to submit and acknowledge that it is God’s world, not ours, and we must ultimately come to terms with Him. And that is what happened to Joseph’s brothers in Genesis chapter 42.

They were starved into going down to Egypt—the last place on the planet they wanted to go. They got a bucket of ice-cold water thrown onto their drowsy collective conscience as Joseph’s harsh treatment of them awakened every detail of their harsh treatment of him. They were arbitrarily thrown into prison, rendered powerless, their pleas ignored . . . they lost control over their own lives, just as Joseph lost his because of them.

Then, when they were freed—all but Simeon, of course—and they found their silver in their grain sacks (that grace of God coming through Joseph, the grace of getting what they did not deserve), it triggered an awareness that God was afoot in their lives. And it frightened them because (as Genesis 42:28 says) they now knew that God knew their secret sin, their sin against Joseph, and there was no telling what God would do. “What is this that God has done to us?” They found out what happens in a circumstance where they were not in control. They suddenly were made to acknowledge that it was God’s world, not theirs. They were not in control anymore. They had to ultimately come to terms with Him.

There are a thousand ways God could have placed His people in Egypt. But He did it this way for the benefit of the brothers and, frankly, the whole family. This was the family God had chosen to make into a great nation. And yet this was the poster family for dysfunction. God needed to heal the family’s brokenness before He could make anything great out of them.

Could that be why He is doing what He is doing in your family these days? He has plans to bless you, make more of your life together, but there is some groundwork that needs to be done. Have you thought of it in those terms?

This is an excerpt from Joseph: A Story About a Family written by Stephen V. Elliott. Essentially, all of life revolves around two sets of relationships: ours with God and ours with one another. In the pages of Joseph: A Story About A Family, Elliott unpacks one of the most commonly shared Old Testament stories, helping readers discover that God is findable in the midst of the relationships that shape and misshape everyday life. When all is said and done, Joseph’s story is a story about a family. Maybe even your family. When you buy a copy in November, we’ll send you one for free to share with a friend!

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