Intercessory Prayer

I’m so excited that a number of people (even a few with whom I am not related!) have decided to join me in reading Celebration of Discipline. I also have a few friends who are currently reading this book in small groups (merely by coincidence, if you believe in such things), and I hope they will check in and maybe share some thoughts too. I have never read anything that so systematically addresses spiritual disciplines, and even though we are only on the second discipline, I’m already reassessing some things.

Foster focuses mainly on intercessory prayer, and I think it is important to limit ourselves a bit given the topic is simply inexhaustible. So what I’d like to discuss is the following question: what did you find most thought-provoking in this chapter? In other words, what has really stretched your thinking about prayer?
For me it was a great and needed reminder that prayer changes the course of human events. We cannot understand how exactly this change occurs, and we don’t need to. At least initially, we just need to accept it. Because until we believe that prayer makes a tangible, objective difference, we cannot pray with power. Once we start praying we can see results, and the how question becomes less a curiosity. I mean, in a sense, who cares how it works? I have no understanding of electricity. I just know when I flip the switch the light comes on. And that mystery, created by human hands, doesn’t bother me a bit. The divine mystery of determinative prayer should bother me even less.
Last month I blogged that the ultimate purpose of prayer is to align our will with the will of our Heavenly Father. At first glance that may seem to contradict the above paragraph, but if you look closely, it does not. The pivotal point, the point that I am so thankful Foster reminded me of, is that our Heavenly Father’s will is actually fluid. Foster writes that the Bible “speaks of God constantly changing his mind in accord with his unchanging love.” I think perfect alignment is usually struck by us doing most of the realigning, but amazingly, almost unfathomably, God’s will is subject to change too. A corollary is that neither Jesus nor His disciples prayed with my trusty proviso, “if it’s Your will.” And that makes sense to me now, because when we really know God we aren’t going to pray for things that would be outside His will, as defined merely by His character. But quite honestly, the idea of letting go of “if it’s Your will” is almost frightening to me. Maybe that reveals how “half-hoping” some of my prayers have been.
So what does all this mean for us? It means we have a daunting responsibility to pray. May we rise up and pray believing prayers for others this week.
And I know some of you probably got something totally different out of this chapter, and I cannot wait to hear about it.

Purposeful Prayer, Part 4

I’ve just returned from spending two weeks at Maranatha Bible and Missionary Conference which sits on the shores of Lake Michigan. I was privileged to take long walks on the beach pictured above without encountering another soul. The whole vacation, which is intentionally free of TV and video games and endless outings, is akin to stepping out of this world for a bit. Each year while I am there I am wholly uninformed about what is going on in the world, and there’s something really healthy about that. It is easier to commune with God when we take a break from the informational bombardment that so characterizes life in the 21st century. Most of what flows into our brains in day-to-day life is less than helpful. In fact, much of it only serves to distract us from what is truly important. On vacation, it was refreshing for me to have time to think, to walk without my iPod, enjoy God’s creation, pray and contemplate His plans for me.

One topic that I thought about a lot at Maranatha was purposeful prayer, and it occurred to me that Spur best be moving on to another topic. After all, many volumes have been written by great and inspired saints; I could hardly touch all that’s been said if I only blogged about prayer. So instead I’d like to close out this glance at how we communicate with God — how we go about communing with Him and making His will ours — with a few thoughts and a few book recommendations. And I’d love to know your favorite books on prayer as well.
I don’t believe purposeful prayer is formulaic, but I think we should regularly include certain elements in our prayers. A helpful little acronym is ACTS. A for adoration, which is really the kind of worshipful prayer I described in my last post. Many of the psalms are prayers of adoration, and we can easily adopt these prayers as our own. C is for confession. Obviously we need to confess our sins before a holy God and we should aim to be specific. The higher call is really for repentance, not confession. And since repentance requires turning away from our sin, not just laying it out there, we must know what we are turning away from. T is for thanksgiving. If you’ve ever tried to innumerate the blessings in your life, I’m sure you’ve quickly realized that it is an impossible task. But a heart of gratitude is a heart that God speaks to so spending some time recognizing how God has been faithful to us personally is essential. Finally, the S is for supplication. This is our list of action items, where we want God to intervene, to change our circumstances or the circumstances of others (click here to listen to a great sermon about how and when God intervenes in our lives which was recorded on 8/16/09). Many times our tendency is to skip right to supplication, telling God what we want and need, but if we let requests dominate we will miss the ultimate purpose of prayer, communing with God and making His will ours. Psalm 19 comes to mind, which reminds us that the goal is to have the words of our mouths, and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing to God.
As for books, one entitled Prayer Power Unlimited by J. Oswald Sanders is a good overview of prayer and is written in a very accessible style. Ken Boa’s Handbook to Renewal is a useful aid when you find it difficult to pray. And although it might seem rather surprising I have found inspiration in two very different autobiographies. George Muller’s is an amazing testimony of dependent prayer, and Chuck Colson’s, Born Again, beautifully recounts the life-changing power of corporate prayer. I highly recommend both of these transformative books.
May we spur one another on to love, good deeds and purposeful prayer.

Purposeful Prayer, Part 3

The last few weeks I’ve been blogging about prayer. It started when my almost six-year-old was ill. He was coughing his darling little head off but he didn’t want me to pray about it because he said, and I quote, “it won’t work!” This thought-provoking and heartbreaking statement keeps coming to mind, and my last two posts have been spurred by Nate’s fear of unanswered prayer.

This week I’d like to focus our discussion a bit and begin looking at the purpose of prayer. Take a minute to think about why you pray. Many people, whether they are Christ-followers or not, pray in times of crises. Others pray because they seek peace; others seek relationship. Some pray to change their circumstances, others to change their hearts. Some seek forgiveness, others direction. It is good to think about why and what we pray, but I believe the ultimate purpose of prayer is to align our will with the will of our Heavenly Father. The Lord’s Prayer illustrates this submission (“thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”) and the prayer of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane is radically submissive. (My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” Matthew 26: 39).

I don’t know how often this alignment of wills is the driving force behind my prayers, but certainly not often enough. Yet as we walk with God, as we are sanctified through the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, our pleas and our desires should more and more reflect this vision of unity: “Heavenly Father, let my will be yours.”

But how do we get there? We don’t wake up one day and simply decide that our self-centered ways are over, that His good, pleasing and perfect will is now ours. There is no victory in mere human effort. No, this is a work of God. Yet we are also somehow partners in the endeavor—our spirit needs to be willing to embrace and live according to His Spirit. We cannot expect our will to reflect His without dedication and discipline in pursuing Him.

A smaller, more manageable step, we can take in pursuing His will for our lives, is to worship our Heavenly Father in prayer. A cursory glance at any section of the Bible reveals God’s desire to be first in our lives. It is the first and greatest commandment and is a constant theme throughout God’s Word. J. Oswald Sanders noted that we “should worship God in gratitude for what He has done for us, but our worship reaches a higher level when we adore Him simply for what He is, for the perfection and excellence of His own being.” (Prayer Power Unlimited).

And because God is always giving us the tools we need to accomplish His will, He has given us the Psalms. Sanders, and other great saints, recommend reading the Psalms and turning them into our own personal prayers.

I do this on occasion, but not as often as I should. My favorite Psalm to pray is 103 because He has indeed redeemed my life from a pit and crowned me with love and compassion.

This week may we worship our God (our loving Father, our devoted Savior and our omnipresent Counselor) through purposeful prayer.

Purposeful Prayer, Part 2

So how did it go? Were your prayers fervent and filled with vision this last week? I’m sorry to report that I could’ve done much much better. Sometimes life is very busy — my middle son was fighting off pneumonia last week, my oldest son had swim practice everyday and a divisional meet on Saturday, and my mom and my in-laws both came for a visit. But is busyness really an excuse not to pray? Hardly, right? If anything, busyness is a reason to pray.

And I crave busyness — it is just how I operate. I like having a lot going on and I cannot sit and watch TV without sinking quickly into a mildly depressive state. I abhor the idea of being a mere spectator, and I try to live life to the fullest everyday. The tragedies in my family (click here to read my story) were and are a reminder to live in the present, to embrace the blessings God has for me today. But even though I love it, my schedule (and I’m sure many of you feel the same way) can be stressful at times. Getting three boys out the door to do anything takes effort and concentration, getting them out the door multiple times a day clothed and ready to do whatever is next can be pretty taxing. After spending a few days helping me out, my sweet niece, Caitlin, once quipped, “I don’t know how you do this without me!” Ahhh, but she’s not yet a mother. One day she’ll understand that God gives you this incredible maternal multitasking mental energy only when it is needed.
But we are all busy, so what does that have to do with purposeful prayer? Two things. First, we need to carve out time for more devotional, meditative prayer. I have heard people claim success with this at night, but for me this absolutely requires that I get up before the boys, and this is not easy for me. I love my bed and I love staying in it, but when I drag myself, however reluctantly, out of bed and read my Bible or devotional and spend time in prayer I am incredibly blessed by it. I am drawn to Psalm 119 which so beautifully depicts the blessing of devotion and the fulfillment found in meditating on God’s Word.

In addition to a time of quiet devotion, we need to hem our busyness in prayer. It is through this supernatural conversation that God gives us His peace. And we so need His peace, especially when our lives are more frenzied than contemplative. Philippians 4: 6-7 is such a perfect verse to memorize on this topic. It says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, with prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
This week may we know God’s peace in our hearts and in our minds, may it transcend all understanding because we have come to Him in purposeful prayer both in our busyness and in our quiet moments.

Purposeful Prayer, Part 1

My family has been fighting some kind of a nasty virus for the last few weeks, and the other night, a little while after Nate went to bed, he started having a terrible coughing fit. You know the kind when the coughing will not subside and it sounds like there is a real possibility that a lung might come flying out? I rushed into his room, and stood next to his bed. Since he sleeps in the top bunk he is right at eye level for me. I made him sit up, and rubbed his back while he coughed away.

“Aww, sweetie boy,” I said, “I’m so sorry you’re sick…I’m just going to say a prayer for you right now.”

“No, no don’t,” he yelped between hacks. “It won’t work!”
As I sit here and blog about it, Nate’s no-prayer plea is almost comical, but in the moment it made my heart sink. Thoughts began rushing through my brain about what was wrong with Nate’s picture of God and the purpose of prayer, and I made copious mental notes about the theological concepts we would need to discuss when he was well again. But that would have to wait. We weren’t going to address anything too profound right then.
“You know, Nate, ” I said, “praying isn’t just about getting God to fix things. The Bible says that we are supposed to pray, to tell God what we need, even though He already knows what we need. So I’m going to pray for you right now.”
And I did. I prayed that God would allow Nate to stop coughing and get a good night’s rest. God graciously answered my prayer. Nate didn’t cough at all for hours, and slept peacefully until morning.
When he finally did wake up for the day, I looked forward to talking to him about the true purpose of prayer. I wanted Nate to understand that just because our prayer the night before was mercifully answered just as it was prayed, that God hears and answers all our prayers–whether we see it right away or not. But when I tried to talk to Nate, he didn’t remember anything from the night before. Nothing. Zero. Zilch.
My perfect teachable moment was lost in Nate’s slumber, but the whole thing really got me thinking about prayer–how, what, when, and why we pray. I thought it would be a great series to talk about prayer for a few weeks here at Spur. After all, what better to spur than prayer itself?
So I hope you’ll feel free to share some great quotes or resources about prayer today and in the coming weeks.
For now, I’ll leave you with thought and a verse. The quote below was inscribed on an English church in the Eighteenth Century. I think its application is almost universal, and certainly applies to prayer.
A vision without a task is but a dream;
a task without a vision is drudgery;
a vision with a task is the hope of the world..
“Be joyful always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” 1 Thessalonians 5:17
May you pray fervently and with vision this week.