Saturday, August 9, 2014

A Question About Prayer

I received the question below regarding prayer. The writer had been studying Luke 11:5-13. (There is also another passage in Luke that is similar, 18:1-8). Here’s the question:

“I am having trouble with] this word "persistence,” [Luke 11:8] I was taught that when I prayed about something that it was a done deal and if I really believed that it would be answered, it would be wrong to ask again and again.  I don't know whether I've explained that right but in other words if there is no answer from God fairly soon, I've felt that I shouldn't bring it up again.  Sounds kinda crazy but I'm really confused.”

The first thing I want us to look at in the question are the words, “it would be wrong.” Prayer is relational. When we think about relationships and we think about things that would be wrong to introduce into a relationship I think our list can include: lying, deceit, using the other person, manipulation, and selfishness. There are of course other things that it would be wrong to introduce into a relationship, but the items I’ve listed are things that muddy communication, relationship and honesty.

Now if I am to have an honest relationship with God, is holding a request back from Him an action of honesty?

Unlike human relationships, our relationship with God our Father will never be an equal relationship. That is, we will never be God, and no matter how much we grow in Christ, at our theoretical most mature point we will always be infants in relation to God. After a zillion years in heaven He will still be God our Father and we will still be, relative to Him, infants. In light of this, does it make any real sense for us, the infants, to withhold our requests from God our Father?

Pagan religions often have certain prescribed ways to approach their deities. These ways are legalistic and ritualistic[i] and they are not based on intimate relationship. They are often based on fear and they involve manipulation and the pacification of the deity.[ii] The basic idea is, “If I do this then the deity will do that.” Prayer, sacrifices and such must be processed through a ritualistic and manipulative filter, with the worshipper often doing the thinking on behalf of the deity. In other words, “I must pray this precise way if I don’t want to confuse the deity or invoke the deity’s displeasure and judgment.”

This is simply not Christianity, even though many Christians fall into this type of thinking. When we buy into this mode of thinking we treat God not as our Father, but as some big prayer computer in the sky that operates according to the GIGO principle, Garbage In Garbage Out. When we think that we must make sure our prayers don’t confuse God by inadvertently saying something confusing, what does this say about our view of God?

Over the years I’ve heard people say, “Well, I don’t pray for so and so because I don’t know what to pray for, and I don’t want to pray for something that God doesn’t want.”

Isn’t God capable of turning the focus (the people) of our prayers to His glory and the benefit of others? Isn’t God capable of looking into the heart of our prayer and answering the prayer of our heart? Or is God really just a computer and we must be on constant guard not to confuse the prayer computer? Where is relationship in a ritualistic approach to prayer?

What matters to God is that we pray for people; God will sort the details out. Remember, He is the Father and we, relative to Him, will always be infants.

So the idea of “wrong” is an idea that usually is not very helpful when thinking about prayer.

Then there is the implicit thought in the question that “doubt and unbelief are to be avoided and ignored, and doubt and unbelief have no place in a prayer that is going to be answered.”

While the Scriptures encourage us to be not doubting but believing, nowhere am I aware of a place in the Scriptures where answers to our prayers are contingent upon us being free of all doubt.[iii] It isn’t the amount of faith we have that determines answered prayer, it is the object of our faith. If the object of our faith is our ritualistic approach to God, then we can have tons of faith but have little answered prayer. If, on the other hand, Christ is the object of our faith, then we may have large doubts and little faith but we can anticipate a response from God.

When we make our works the means of answered prayer we place our faith and trust in the wrong object; when we trust God and He is the object of our faith then we can be assured that our heavenly Father will respond to us.

Again, while I’m not advocating doubt, faith in the midst of doubt glorifies God and not us; answered prayer in the midst of doubt glorifies God and not us.

The words pray and prayer and associated words probably occur over 300 times in the Bible, and there are likely many more passages where prayer is taking place without the use of these actual words. For example, there are 150 psalms and each of them is a prayer. Many of these prayers have their own unique form and circumstances, and this should not surprise us since they are born out of relationship with the living and true God, the God who desires intimacy with His people, the Father who desires intimacy with His daughters and sons. While there are patterns for prayer in the Bible, the patterns can be quite different, relative to time and place and circumstance.

Romans 8:14 – 17 teaches us that we have received the Spirit of adoption that causes us to cry out, “Abba (Daddy) Father.” We are the children of God, we are not the offspring of a robot, nor of an impersonal deity, nor of a distant deity. We are also taught in Romans Chapter 8 that we are heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ – we have been called into the fellowship of the Trinity. (See also John 17:20-26 where we are taught that the Father loves us just as He loves Jesus). Are we really to approach God ritualistically having been called His daughters and sons?

As to the question of persistent prayer, the teaching of Jesus in Luke Chapters 11 and 18 do teach persistent and inopportune prayer. Therefore we know that we should engage in such prayer. Perhaps a natural question is, “Why is such prayer necessary? Surely God doesn’t need to hear me more than once?”

We know that there is no merit, in and of itself, in repeating a prayer, for Jesus teaches, “But when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words. Therefore do not be like them. For your Father knows the things the things you have need of before you ask Him.” Matthew 6:8.

So we see that repetition is not the answer and we also see that our Father knows our needs without us verbalizing them. (See also Psalm 139:4).

Perhaps if we consider the nature of prayer it will help us understand some possible reasons for us to engage in persistent prayer.

If prayer is, in its most basic definition, communication with God, then let’s ask what forms that communication can take. Some words that come to mind are: worship, adoration, praise, thanksgiving, supplication, requesting, and intercessions. Prayer can be spoken conversationally, it can be shouted, it can be wept, it can be written, it can be sung, it can be thought (unspoken), it can be dreamed.

Certainly there is no argument against persistent worship, adoration, praise, or thanksgiving. In fact, our problem in these areas is not that we do them too much and repetitively, but that we don’t do them enough, that they are not part of the fabric of our lives and of the life of the church.

Where is the concern then? It is with asking is it not? Need I to ask God for something more than once? Since Jesus’ teaching contains a “Yes,” then we ask again, “Why?”

Let’s expand the question into two questions, “Why must I ask persistently for myself?” “Why must I ask persistently for others?” We are asking two questions because while many of us have little problem with the latter question, since it is intercession for the benefit of others; many of us are legitimately concerned about persistently asking on behalf of ourselves.

I think one of the problems with both questions, though both questions are good and legitimate questions, is the problem with many questions about prayer - we tend to see prayer as a compartmentalized portion of life, as something we “do” when we need to do it, or feel like doing it, or think we have an obligation to do it.

When we talk about prayer we may talk about having (or not having) a “prayer life.” I don’t think Jesus had a prayer life, nor do I think Paul had a prayer life, and I’m not sure that we should have a prayer life – but I do think that Jesus and Paul lived lives of prayer and I do think that we should live lives of prayer. Prayer should be a natural part of our lives, it should be the rhythm of our lives, for if prayer is communication with God, then that is what we were created for, that is what we were redeemed for, that is what our eternal destiny holds for us – for at the heart of communication is communion, or as the Greek New Testament would have it, koinonia – relationship.

In the West we tend to think of communication as the transfer of data and information, and hence we no longer are good communicators in the traditional sense of the word. We think exchanging or sending and receiving data and information is communication – “let my cerebral computer talk to your cerebral computer” is the way we think of communication – little wonder we’re big on data transfers but our relationships are exponentially breaking down.

So rather than having “prayer lives” we should consider having “lives of prayer.” That is, lives in which prayer is woven into the fabric of who we are, embedded into our relationship with God and with others.

In this context, sharing with God our Father our needs and desires begins to take on a new meaning, for it is no more the image of a child you never hear from unless he wants something, or a friend you never see unless she is in crisis; rather our needs and desires are now communicated in the context of relationship, in the context of communion, in the context of koinonia, and in that context our Father God can speak into our hearts His thoughts, His desires, and His will.  And what is the end result of such communion, of such a life of prayer? It is first and foremost not our specific requests being answered, though we don’t want to minimize that, but it is rather our being drawn into ever-increasing intimacy with the Trinity. He becomes our desire rather than our requests, and our requests become not the centerpiece of our prayer life; but a facet of our life of prayer.

Persistent prayer is persistent intimacy.

Luke 11:1-13 begins and ends with an inclusio, that is, it begins and ends with the same thought, thus establishing a context for the teaching of the passage. That thought is that God is our Father. “When you pray, say: Our Father…how much more will your heavenly Father give…” So the teaching of persistent and inopportune prayer is given within the relational context of God being our Father and of we being His children.  

We are encouraged to ask our Father that our prayers and desires may be answered:

“And whatever you ask in my name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything in my name, I will do it.” John 14:13-14.

“If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so you will be my disciples.” John 15:7-8.

“…Most assuredly, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in my name He will give it to you. Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.” John 16:23-24.

The above verses are all from the same passage, Jesus speaking to His disciples in the Upper Room. The thrust of Christ’s Upper Room teaching is our communion/fellowship/koinonia in the Trinity. The Upper Room account begins with the Father (John 13:1) and it ends with the Father (John 17:25-26).

There is a heightened degree of intimacy in the Upper Room passage compared with Luke Chapter 11. In Luke we have not yet reached Holy Week, and while the Cross is on the horizon, its shadow is not yet ominous and the time of Christ’s departure is not yet imminent. The setting of Luke is perhaps more of a young child with a Father; the setting of John is that of adult friendship, an adult parent – adult child relationship. Both settings are Trinitarian, for in both settings not only do we see the Father and the Son, but also the Holy Spirit. In fact, Jesus’ teaching in Luke suggests that the end result of our asking, seeking and knocking should be our asking for the Holy Spirit. In John, the Holy Spirit is He who draws us into the Trinity, for He dwells in us and is the life of God.

This leads into our intercessions on behalf of others.

“Therefore He [Jesus] is also able to save completely those who come to God through Him, since He ever lives to make intercession for them.” Hebrews 7:25.

Jesus lived an intercessory life on earth and He has carried that intercessory life into heaven. Sustained, and therefore persistent, intercession for us is one of the things Jesus does as our High Priest.   

“For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Hebrews  4:15–16.

In Christ, our High Priest, we find sympathy, grace and mercy. We can find sympathy, grace and mercy not only for ourselves, but as intercessors who have been incorporated into the communion of the Trinity we can find sympathy, grace and mercy for others.

“Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men…” 1Timothy 2:1

Just as Jesus makes intercession for us; we are called to make intercession for others. Since we are made a priesthood in Christ, 1Peter 2:4-10; Rev. 1:6, it follows that we participate in the intercessory prayer ministry of our High Priest.

“Then he said to me, “Do not fear Daniel, for from the first day that you set your heart to understand and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard; and I have come because of your words. But the prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me twenty-one days…” Daniel 10:12-13a.

Intercessory persistence was necessary for Daniel. There were dynamics in the unseen realm of which Daniel was unaware, dynamics that required his persistence. The nature of intercessory living and of intercessory prayer is consistent persistence. Inconsistent living and inconsistent praying is not intercession, rather it is engagement and obedience at our own personal convenience. Importunity leads to opportunity to be a blessing to others.

Matthew 7:7 – 12 parallels Luke 11:9-13 with two notable exceptions. While Luke 11:13 points us to asking for the Holy Spirit, Matthew 7:12 points us to, “Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” While the “therefore” of Matthew 7:12 is quite likely connected with the entire preceding section of the Sermon on the Mount, its immediate proximity to asking, seeking and knocking and the goodness of our “Father in heaven” suggests that just as our Father gives good things to us that we ought to give good things to others, and that our asking, seeking and knocking should be not only on our own behalf but also on behalf of others.  

So back to our stated question, “Is it wrong to ask more than once? Is it wrong to be persistent?” Absolutely not. Now if God gives you peace about a request and tells you to trust Him for its fulfillment, rest in that assurance from your heavenly Father, in fact, then you can move from requesting to thanksgiving. But the timing of all answers to prayer lies within the hands of our heavenly Father, who desires only good for us and who truly knows what is best.

And to the implicit question that, “If I doubt or display any unbelief won’t that hinder my prayer?” God has called us into relationship with Himself, He will meet us where we are and He will bring us to where He is. He will be glorified in the midst of our doubts, anxieties and unbelief – and then there will be no doubt about who should receive the glory. The issue isn’t the amount of our faith; the issue is the object of our faith. Let us seek to live in relationship with our Father, with our Lord Jesus and with the Holy Spirit, and we can trust them to work their good will in us.

[i] To avoid any possible confusion, I am not talking about liturgies in Christian churches.

[ii] Such approaches are superstitious

[iii] James 1:2-8 might be viewed as an exception, however, I think the context of James has to do with the fabric of life and the fabric of one’s heart and mind, hence the term “double-minded.” The issue in James is whether our lives are consistent in Christ, if they are not, then the instability of doubt will permeate our prayers and that is a different matter.