Tag Archives: Prayer

Prayer and the knowledge and sovereignty of God. What’s the point?

Q: What’s the point of prayer? After all, if God already knows what we need before we ask, why do we need to ask?

A: First, prayer includes more than simply asking God for things. It also includes praise, thanksgiving, and confession of sin. Still, it’s right to focus on specific requests, since such prayers dominate Scriptural examples and instructions.

As to the question about God’s knowledge: Prayer – even the request – is not simply a way of getting what we want/need from God. It’s a means of forming a personal relationship with him. God knows what we need, but he wants us to ask him for it. In doing so, we learn to be dependent on him. We learn the proper relationship between Creator and created. We need. We ask. God has. God gives.

Q: I have heard it said: “We pray, not to change God, but so that we ourselves might be changed.” Is that what you’re saying above? Is the primary purpose of prayer to bring about an internal change?

A: Prayer does change us, and it’s good that it does. But I’m hesitant to say that the primary purpose of prayer is internal change. That’s simply not how the Bible usually puts it. Take, for instance, Paul’s instruction in Ephesians 6:18-20. Paul asks the Ephesians to pray for the Lord’s people, and to pray specifically for him, that he would preach the gospel without fear.

Now, there’s the possibility that by praying in this way the Ephesians would be changed internally: They would become more dependent on God. They would see God’s hand in missions. They would become less self-focused and more others-focused. They would see the need for boldness themselves. Etc.

But Paul’s main point isn’t that they be changed, but that their prayers for him would lead to his boldness in sharing the gospel. In other words, Paul is implying a cause and effect relationship here. The Ephesians pray. God answers. Paul preaches fearlessly.

Q: I’m uncomfortable with using the phrase “cause and effect” relationship when talking about prayer. It seems too much like magic. Are you saying the Ephesians’ prayers caused Paul’s boldness? Does that mean that without the Ephesians’ prayer Paul wouldn’t have been bold?

A: That seems unlikely in this case, given that Paul’s whole ministry prior to his work with the Ephesians was characterized by boldness. Still, it does seem that there might be some instances where God will only give us something if we pray for it. James writes “you do not have because you do not ask.” (James 4:2)

I don’t think that Paul is drawing such a straight line between the Ephesians’ request and Paul’s boldness. Perhaps we could say that the Ephesians’ requests “contributes” to Paul’s boldness. But even then, it isn’t the request itself that contributes, but God’s response to that request.

Here it’s important to remember that God is not a formula but a personal being with an independent will. We are called to address him as Father and the father-child relationship is the lens by which Jesus instructs his disciples to approach prayer. The Father is not bound to our requests, but neither is he deaf to them. He hears and then chooses his own response. To the extent his response is connected to our request, our request contributed to that response. But we must always remember that God is able to act apart from our request.

Q: You speak of God “responding” to our prayer requests. Does such language impinge upon God’s sovereignty? Is it right to say that the Creator responds to his creation?

A: It may be that we are now in the realm of mystery, where language begins to fail us, but this is the way the Bible speaks. God is outside of time, but we experience God in time. And, in time, in relationship, we see an interplay. God’s people call out for help. God hears. God acts. If “response” is not the right word to describe what we experience, I do not have a better one.

Q: It still doesn’t make sense. How does God’s sovereignty relate to our prayers? God knows all things and can do all things. Why should prayer matter?

A: We might as well ask why anything we do matters. God knows I need food and he has the ability to make it appear on my table. Does that mean that my work for that food is useless? Obviously not. We have the capacity to see that two things contribute to my stomach being filled: (1) God’s divine provision and (2) human actions. God’s provision is the ultimate source of food. Human action is often the means by which God provides. It’s a secondary, but usually necessary step. We see that God is able to work apart from human action, but he often works through it. The two actions – human and divine – are not mutually exclusive – but find harmony in the will of God.

This principle is harder to see with prayer, but it’s still there. I think it’s hard to see because prayer sits at the intersection between human action and God’s action. That is, when we pray we act, but our action is indirect, it’s merely a request for God to act. Perhaps this is why prayer can seem confusing to us. Still, the principle applies. Like other human action, prayer becomes the means by which God acts in the world. God can act apart from prayer, but sometimes he uses it in a more direct way, as we see throughout the Bible.

Q: Ok, it’s starting to make sense. Can you summarize this for me?

A: It’s good to see how prayer fits into a robust picture of God’s sovereignty, but the primary lens Jesus gives us to see prayer is the parent-child relationship. My own children have taught me a lot about prayer (good and bad). They come to me with requests all the time. This demonstrates dependence. It shows that they understand that I can provide. As a father, I won’t always give them what they ask for, because I know that they don’t always ask for things which are (ultimately) good for them or for others.  Often, I give them things without them asking for them. But there are some things that they only get if they ask for them.

There could be a danger in thinking of God too much like a human father. Human fathers can be manipulated and worn down. Human fathers sometimes need their kids to ask because they don’t already know what their child needs. Human fathers lack the perfect will of the heavenly father. “God is not a human” (Num 23:19).

Dangers noted, and with proper reverence in our hearts, we ought to come to God as our Father, through the Spirit, in the name of His Son. Understanding these relationships ought to help us understand prayer. Hopefully, it also helps us pray.

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What does it mean to “Pray in the Spirit”?

“And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.” Ephesians 6:18

What does Paul mean when he says that we should pray “in the Spirit”?

First, we should not be surprised to see prayer connected with the work of the Spirit. The Spirit makes spiritual conversation possible and effective. The Spirit empowered the prophets to speak God’s words. He speaks through the Bible. He testifies to us about Jesus’ identity as God’s Son (John 15:26). The Spirit empowered the disciples to preach the gospel at Pentecost. So, if prayer is conversation with God, then it makes sense for the Holy Spirit to be involved.

Yet, it’s still unclear what it means to pray in the Spirit. After all, God speaks to us through the Spirit, but if we think of prayer primarily as us speaking to God (which Paul seems to do in the rest of the context of Eph 6:18) then what role does the Spirit play?

The most extensive teaching on the connection between prayer and the Spirit is found in Romans 8:26-27.

26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.

The entire chapter of Romans 8 is about the work of the Spirit. We have been set free because of the “law of the Spirit” (8:1). Those who are set free live, not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit (8:4). They “have their minds set on what the Spirit desires” (8:5). They are therefore “in the realm of the Spirit” and the Spirit lives in them, just as they belong to Christ (8:9).

This inner spiritual reality creates in us an obligation, to “put to death the misdeeds of the body” (8:12).

The Spirit also brings about our adoption as children of God (8:14-15). The Spirit communicates this reality directly to our own spirit (8:16) so that by the Spirit we can come to God as our “Abba, Father” (8:15).

This glorious reality – our freedom, our adoption, our inner transformation – is set aside present suffering, and not only our own suffering, but the groaning of all of creation. Yet, since we know that we are God’s children, and therefore heirs of the promised glory, then we can continue to live with hope (8:18-25).

This is the context for the “weakness” Paul refers to in 8:26. In the midst of our present suffering, we do not even know what to pray for. Along with the rest of creation (8:22), we can only groan inwardly. Things aren’t right, and we’re stuck in the tension between suffering and hope. It’s here the Spirit steps in and enables our communication with God. We may not know what to say, but the Spirit is able to search our hearts and minds and intercede on our behalf (8:26-27).

This context of struggle and suffering in Romans 8 is not too far from the context of Ephesians 6. In Ephesians 6:10-17 Paul instructs his readers to prepare for spiritual battle in advance of a “day of evil” by putting on God’s armor. In Ephesians 6:19-20 he specifically asks the readers to pray for him in his own spiritual battle, that he will remain fearless even though he is in chains for the gospel.

And, when he asks them to pray, he asks them to pray “in the Spirit.” In light of Romans 8, what does he mean?

1.       Pray with a recognition of the indwelling Spirit. Seeing that the personal presence of God is with you as you pray should change your outlook, from simply reciting a list of requests to communing with the living God.

2.       Pray that the Spirit will search your heart and mind. You may not know what to pray. Ask God to bring the right things to mind and, when you can’t even do that, ask the Spirit to intercede on your behalf.

3.       Pray, confessing your sins and asking for a renewed Spirit. By the Spirit we put to death our sin and we do that through confession. One evidence of praying in the Spirit, then, is a recognition and hatred of our sin.

4.       Pray to your Abba. Through the Spirit we are adopted as God’s children. We approach our Abba with the same confidence and trust a young child approaches a good and generous parent.

5.       Pray with hope. Are you in a time of present suffering? Are you in the midst of a spiritual battle? The Spirit helps you know that your suffering is incomparable to your future glory, that your temporary defeat will be swallowed up in Christ’s ultimate victory.

Law and Prayer, a meditation on Psalm 119

Most prayer books include regular readings of Jesus’ Greatest Commandment to love God and love neighbor. This command has been a regular part of personal and corporate prayer and worship for centuries throughout the history of the Church. But, modern concepts of prayer ask us – why include this command (or any “law”) in a prayer book? What does meditation on the Law, the commands of God, have to do with prayer?

To answer that question I turned to Psalm 119, one of the most robust passages on the goodness of the Law in the Bible. Since Psalm 119 is also a prayer, in that it is addressed to God, I thought it would be an ideal spot to find the answer.

From Psalm 119, we learn that meditating on the commands of God in prayer…

  • Leads us to plead for personal holiness (5-6, 10-11, 18, 29, 133)
  • ….especially, perseverance in holiness (33-37, 112)
  • Leads us to ask for mercy (8, 132, 176)
  • Causes us to rejoice and delight in God (12-16, 171-172) and His law (23)
  • Leads us to ask for understanding (27, 66, 169) in order to deepen our meditation
  • Causes us to be bold and confident in our obedience, especially in the face of evil men (30-32, 84-88, 109)
  • Causes us to look longingly for salvation (41, 81, 174)
  • Leads us to rejoice in God’s freedom (45)
  • Helps us receive comfort (52)
  • Causes us to thank God that He Himself is our portion (57)
  • Reminds us of the goodness of God (68, 137)
  • Puts our suffering in context (71, 75)
  • Reminds us of what is truly valuable (72)
  • Reminds us of God’s faithfulness to all generations (89-91, 152)
  • Makes us wise beyond our years (98-100, 104)
  • Increases our zeal and love (113, 119, 126-128, 139)
  • Helps us put our hope in the right spot (114)
  • Builds within us a fear of the Lord (12)
  • Helps us as we call for justice (153-154)

It can be tempting to view commands and relationship in opposition. Since we value (rightly) a “relationship with God” so highly we can sometimes downplay the importance of meditating on God’s commands, especially in prayer. For the Psalmist, however, it is clear that his love for the law and his love for God were nearly inseparable. I am thankful both to the Psalmist, and to the historical tradition of the Church, for balancing my own understanding in this regard.

Praying with the Church, for the (my) City

Tonight at 7:00 a group from our church will be meeting together for our weekly prayer meeting. I have the privilege of leading it for the next few months with a study called Praying with the Church, for the City. The contents of the class will roughly cover the content and prayers of the book Prayers for My City: A Fixed Hour Prayer Guide for Wyoming, a book I worked on last year with colleague Jeremy Bouma, as part of a larger West Michigan series.

The books bring together a couple of concepts which I think work quite nicely together (and I can say that, because bringing together these concepts wasn’t my idea). These prayer guides combine the historical prayers of the Book of Common Prayer along with prayers written specifically for the particular city, in this case, Wyoming.

Why historical (common) prayers?

As a low-church evangelical I was wary of using historical prayers in my devotional prayer life but I’ve become convinced (obviously) of their value. I don’t recommend only using pre-written prayers, but incorporating many of these prayers has added value to my prayer life. Here are three reasons why:

1)      We can learn a lot about prayer from historical prayers. They are deep, balanced (including praise, confession, supplication, etc.), and biblical – literally, most of them are passages from the Bible.

2)      Praying common prayers gives us continuity with the Church across history. When praying the psalms, we participate with Israel’s prayer life. When praying the Lord’s prayer, we participate with the early Church.

3)      Praying common prayers gives us continuity with Church all around the world, and with believers of other denominations. It reminds us that the Body of believers, the Church Universal, though separated by space and denominational distinctive, find unity in, at least, our prayer life under the Lordship of Christ.

Why pray for the city?

It was easier for me to offer initial intellectual assent to having a prayer guide for a city. I like to think I care about my city. But, actually consistently praying for it is another story. My repeated failures in this shows that I still have a hole in practical theology. Here are two good reasons to pray for your city.

1)      You care about your city. In the case of our church, we believe we have a specific mission to our neighborhood, especially to the youth. We want to see God work. We want to see change.

2)      The only way change – real, lasting, God-honoring change – is if God Himself does it. Hence, prayer.

Why Together?

I don’t think these two concepts are unrelated. One is universal (in the sense that common prayers are shared by the universal Church across time, space, and denomination), the other is local. Our little group of Baptist believers is going to spend about 30 minutes a week praying for a city of about 70,000 people.

But that’s the beauty of how God works. He is Lord of the Universe and yet he works on the individual. The local matters and it matters in the context of the universal. The life of our local church, insignificant on its own, is significant in the context of God’s work in history. The common prayers remind us that God works across time and space. The local prayers remind us that God works in our time and in our space.

Please join us, in person or in spirit, in praying for your city.

Glory to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.

Book Review: Draw the Circle by Mark Batterson

Draw the Circle: The 40 Day Prayer Challenge by Mark Batterson is a forty day devotional guide and a companion of sorts to the author’s earlier book The Circle Maker. It takes the ideas from The Circle Maker and applies them in a 40-day prayer challenge. I have not read The Circle Maker but, from what I can gather, it is an exhortation to persistent, faith-filled prayer. Furthermore, while reading The Circle Maker might be helpful, this book really does a pretty good job of standing on its own. I never felt lost or confused.

The style of the book is devotional and pastoral. You can tell it was written by a preacher. It’s filled with some catchy one-liners: “We’re so focused on God changing our circumstances that we never allow God to change us! So instead of ten or twenty years of experience, we have one year of experience repeated ten or twenty times.” The style works well for a daily devotional guide.

Draw the Circle has a lot of good insights on prayer and I honestly say that on numerous occasions I was challenged, inspired, and encouraged.

Theologically, I read with my guard up. Batterson relies heavily on the concepts of “divine appointments” and “Spirit promptings.” His theology of prayer is extremely experiential. It has a lot to do with recognizing and responding to the spontaneous work of the Holy Spirit. He encourages use of Scripture but it’s clear he expects a lot of our decision making process to include special (individualized) convictions, “prayer fleeces,” and even some prophetic words. My old professor, the author of Decision Making God’s Way (a book I highly recommend, by the way), would probably have a conniption reading this book.

I don’t think, however, that Batterson crosses any lines theologically, though he sometimes comes right up to it. He is clearly aware that his stories and content might lead people down the wrong path and so he explicitly states on numerous occasions that prayer is not magic, that it’s not about getting what we want but about learning God’s will, and that we need to test to see whether our feelings or “promptings” are from God or are only products of wishful thinking. It’s clear he sees Scripture as authoritative and wouldn’t recommend following anything contrary to Scripture.

Ultimately, the book is a good lesson in persistent and faith-filled prayer. The practice of “drawing circles in prayer,” for Batterson, is a metaphor for persistence. At one point he says, “Drawing prayer circles is a metaphor that simply means ‘praying until God answers.’ It’s a determination to pray as long as it takes, even if it takes longer than you ever imagined.” Despite some of my theological reservations, the book moves the reader in the positive direction of faithful and fruitful prayer.

Update (1/13/2014): As I stated in my review, while Batterson makes me nervous, theologically, I don’t think he crosses the line into “name-it-claim-it” theology. Challies, on the other hand, believes Batterson’s technique is not only “extra-biblical” and “un-biblical,” but also “anti-biblical.” He’s a good thinker, so I commend his thoughts to you, which you can finder at his post “Don’t Pray In Circles

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com <http://BookSneeze®.com> book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 

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Modernity and the Spiritual Disciplines: Fasting

Fasting challenges self-gratification. In fasting we are telling our bodies to temporarily give up one of our most basic needs in order to seek first the kingdom of God.

Confession: I am speaking purely theoretically. On a few occasions I have fasted a single meal, never more than that, and I have not done so recently. Indeed, this little study has convicted me of my own bent toward self-gratification. Perhaps I should put some of this into practice. Another word of warning: Since I haven’t incorporated this practice into my regular Christian life, and because I don’t know many people who have, I haven’t had to refine my thinking on the subject. The thoughts below are brief and preliminary and open to critique.

I first started thinking about fasting after reading Maslow’s A Theory of Human Motivation (see an introduction here). Essentially, Maslow postulates the so-called pyramid of needs, the fulfillment of which lead to health and happiness. These needs are fulfilled in order. Our most basic needs are physiological needs – hunger, thirst, etc. These needs are “pre-potent,” that is, “higher” needs (esteem, love, self-actualization) do not become conscious until we have gratified these basic needs. For a chronically hungry man “freedom, love, community feeling, respect, philosophy, may all be waved aside as fripperies which are useless since they fail to fill the stomach. Such a man may fairly be said to live on bread alone.” (emphasis mine) [1]

Immediately I thought of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11). “After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.” By far Jesus’ most pressing need was for food. By Maslow’s estimation, he should have had no other thought, no other desire, than to fill his stomach. At that moment, “The tempter came to him and said, ‘If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread’” Jesus, being the Son of God, could have made it happen. Instead he responded:

“It is written: ‘Man does not live by bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

I don’t believe Jesus was invoking some superhuman ability at this point. He did not lay aside his humanity for the moment while he was being tempted. He was able to resist temptation because he relied on the Holy Spirit and, I believe, because His values were aligned with the values of the Father. He knew that his greatest need was not to fill his belly, but to be sustained by the very word of God and walk in obedience to the Father.

This brings us to what I think it is one of the most interesting paragraphs in A Theory of Human Motivation. In seeking to explain why his ordering doesn’t always appear to translate in the real world he states:

Perhaps more important than all these exceptions are the ones that involve ideals, high social standards, high values and the like. With such values people become martyrs; they give up everything for the sake of a particular ideal, or value. These people may be understood, at least in part, by reference to one basic concept (or hypothesis) which may be called ‘increased frustration-tolerance through early gratification’. People who have been satisfied in their basic needs throughout their lives, particularly in their earlier years, seem to develop exceptional power to withstand present or future thwarting of these needs simply because they have strong, healthy character structure as a result of basic satisfaction. They are the ‘strong’ people who can easily weather disagreement or opposition, who can swim against the stream of public opinion and who can stand up for the truth at great personal cost. It is just the ones who have loved and been well loved, and who have had many deep friendships who can hold out against hatred, rejection or persecution.[2]

There are two essential points here for the Christian walk. First, commitment to high values is essential if we don’t want to be ruled by our base desires. This should not surprise us since central to obedience is the command to “love (value) the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength.” Re-ordered love/value is essential to spiritual formation. Jesus most certainly was a man of strong moral conviction. His ordered values allowed him to place obedience to God over filling his stomach in the midst of what must have been crushing hunger.

Second, in the words of Maslow, “it is just the ones who have loved and been well loved… who can hold out against hatred, rejection or persecution.” While Maslow saw this from a human perspective, I think the spiritual principle holds as well. Because Jesus loved the Father and was well loved by the Father, he was able to stand in the midst of suffering. Because He was sustained by “every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” he was able to forgo, for a time, filling his belly with bread.

There are many implications for the Christian walk (maybe to be expanded later). But I set out to apply this to the spiritual discipline of fasting so let me try to fulfill that goal.

First, in the Bible, fasting was often accompanied with prayer. It’s a time to practice Jesus’ command to “seek first the kingdom of God.” It is a time to consciously remind ourselves that communion with the Father, through the Son, in the power of the Spirit, is more essential to our lives than even our most basic physiological needs.

Second, in an age of consumerism (You need to fulfill your desires now! Buy this product!) fasting can help us add some much needed self-discipline and teach us to wait on God and to seek obedience to Him over quick self-gratification, a skill that can carry over into other areas of the Christian walk.

[1] Abraham Maslow, A Theory of Human Motivation.

[2] Ibid.

Modernity and the Spiritual Disciplines: Prayer

See the introduction here.

Prayer challenges self-sufficiency. In prayer we call for help from outside ourselves. It also challenges materialism. Indeed, prayer is completely meaningless apart from the existence of a real spiritual world.

Another pastor said this to me the other day: “Everything seems more urgent than prayer.”

How true.

It is one of the tenets of modernity that the true power in the universe lies in man, individually or collectively. If we want some that to change we have to make it happen.

That kind of thinking easily finds its way into the Christian mind. Consciously or unconsciously we think things like, “I can make myself good.” “I can make the church grow.” “I can win enough arguments to win over skeptics.” “My political party can make our nation moral again.” “My church can bring about the spiritual renewal of the city.” “Our movement can end world hunger.” I’m not speaking just of rugged individualism (though this, too, is problematic) but of the belief that the true power of the universe to bring about positive change resides in human will and intelligence.

The truth is that God is the one in control of all things. He does, indeed, give us free will. By his common grace all people do act in meaningful and responsible ways – though more often than not our free actions bring disorder instead of order. And, by His special grace, God empowers His people for good works. But, any power we do have is strictly derivative. It all comes from God.

It takes energy to consistently remember this. It takes effort. It takes… discipline.

The discipline of prayer draws our minds to this spiritual reality.

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name

We have a Father in heaven who loves us. He is the uncreated Creator. All power comes from Him.

“your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

We seek His will, not the will of man. He will being about that will, not us.

Give us today our daily bread.”

He supplies all of our needs. Every good and perfect gift comes from Him.

“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors

When we do try to act independently, autonomously, apart from and in rebellion to the will of God, it’s only through Him that our sins can be forgiven.

“And lead us not into temptation,but deliver us from the evil one.”

There are other powers in this world (human and spiritual evil). God is able to deliver us from all sources of evil.