God's Lightning: A Seminar on Prayer
SOME MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT PRAYER
It was in the early days of the Lebanese Civil War. We were about two thirds of the way across the valley in between the Lebanon and the Anti-Lebanon Mountains about thirty miles east of Beirut and home on our way back from Jordan when we came to a barricade across the road. It had not been there when we came out of Lebanon. A young man dressed in militia fatigues carrying an AK-47 (Kalashnikov) automatic rifle stopped us and looked into the car. His eyes flicked from one thing to another like the tongue of a snake, tasting the air. He saw all our clothes and the sacks of sugar and flour and other provisions in the car. He looked carefully at me and my family. His eyes grew hard and narrowed to slits. It seemed most likely that he would order us out of the car and take it and all its contents as spoils of war and to do whatever he wished with us. It was time to pray very specifically, and pray we did. What would the Lord allow to happen to us, we wondered? How did we ever get into this difficult situation? The answer is that we got into it by following God’s will to come to the Middle East and allowing Him to work through us to the best of our ability and our understanding.
In the fall of 1975 two ladies from the U.S. had come to Lebanon to help us update the library of the Arab Baptist Seminary and to train my wife to become the librarian. The seminary is situated in the foothills of the Lebanon Mountains overlooking the city of Beirut and the Mediterranean Sea. One of the ladies was a retired professional librarian. She was accompanied by her sister, a retired teacher. For about two and a half months everything went fairly smoothly but in December fighting began again in Beirut. The airport was closed. Leaving by sea was also impossible because we couldn’t get to the port even though we were only a few miles from it and could see it easily across the city.
The ladies were not used to the noise of battle. Shells began exploding up in the mountains behind us, between us and the city and in the city as well. Each day it seemed as though a noose was tightening around us and the areas in which it was safe to drive became smaller and smaller. The ladies were not sleeping well at night when the noise was at its worst. One of them had high blood pressure and as the days went by it rose perilously. Her face became permanently flushed. It was obvious to all that she, especially, and her sister needed to get out of Lebanon.
One day she asked if there was any way that they could leave. "Yes," they were told, "We can take you through the Syrian army lines and over the mountains across the Beqaa Valley and into Syria and then down to Jordan. Our missionaries there will arrange for you to fly back to the States." They agreed and on the following Saturday we loaded the Peugeot station wagon with their suitcases and our clothes, our children and our little white dog, Frosty, in his wire-mesh cage. Our seminary friends and colleagues promised to pray for our safety as we left.
We climbed the mountain and reached the area controlled by the Syrian army. As we approached the first checkpoint we saw that the soldiers were building a fire in a 55 gallon iron drum to warm themselves from the cold and the recent snowfall. We fell silent as we wondered what they might do to, or with, a carload of Americans traveling through their territory. As we slowed down we prayed for God's protection and guidance. In fact, as we drew alongside them, they remained intent on their fire-building and never even looked in our direction. We continued on up the winding road with thanksgiving in our hearts.
We went over the crest of the Lebanon range and descended into the Beqaa Valley where the Lebanese army was in control up to the first town. They stopped us and asked to see our identification and then waved us through their checkpoint. As we crossed the Beqaa we passed through territory controlled by a radical leftist militia but no one stopped us so we drove on across the fertile fields and vineyards of the Beqaa, now lightly covered with snow. We climbed the Anti-Lebanon Range and passed through the two Lebanese and two Syrian checkpoints at the Syrian border without any unusual problems and then descended into Damascus on the edge of the Syrian desert. From there on the trip was much more relaxing. We were out of danger and laughed and talked freely, arriving in Amman, Jordan, about nightfall.
The next day was Sunday, which is a working day in Islamic countries. We spent the day arranging for the ladies to fly back to the States and buying supplies to take back to Lebanon with us. Among those things we were asked to bring back was a large amount of Lebanese money--some ten thousand dollars' worth--because the banks in Lebanon had been closed for weeks, the seminary employees had not been paid and funds were needed for buying food for the staff and students. We bought a large bag of rice and one just like it of sugar and one of flour along with several smaller bags of beans, pasta and other non-perishable and canned foods including five gallons of olive oil. We also got the money and put it in a large flat envelope which we hid under the floor of Frosty ' s cage between the metal pan and the wire mesh of the bottom.
Monday morning we started back to Lebanon in spite of the protests of our missionary colleagues in Jordan who urged us to stay with them a few days for R & R. However, we felt that we needed to get the supplies, and especially the cash, back to the people in Lebanon as soon as possible. Our colleagues promised to pray for us as we went on our way. Everything went well as we drove north from Amman along the plateau of Bashan where Moses had conquered Og. We drove very carefully through the villages so as not to hit any of the many donkeys and children who thronged the roadway alongside the basalt stone houses typical of the area. We had no trouble finding our way through Damascus--just wished we had time to stop and shop in one of our very favorite cities for shopping.
After climbing the Anti-Lebanon Range, which forms the border between Syria and Lebanon, and passing through the four checkpoints at the border, we began to wonder what was ahead of us in the Beqaa Valley and up the Lebanon Range. We listened on the radio and could get no clear report of what was happening. When we came to a point where we could look out over the valley (about 10 miles wide), we pulled off and opened the windows and listened for sounds of gunfire. We heard none. But one thing troubled us -- no one was traveling on the road across the valley! That meant that there was trouble somewhere. Maxine and I discussed what to do and decided that as long as there was no shooting we would go as far as we could and hope and pray that God would get us through safely. As we started to leave, our daughter, Jeanne, at that time about 10 years old, said, "Daddy, can we sing 'Safe Am I' before we go?" So we sang,
"Safe am I, Safe am I, in the hollow of His hand.
Sheltered o'er, sheltered o'er, with His love forevermore.
No ill can harm me, no foe alarm me, for He keeps both day and night.
Safe am I, Safe am I, in the hollow of His hand."
Then with that assurance in our hearts and a prayer on our lips, down we went. That’s when we came to the barricade and the young man with the AK-47.
Prayer does release God's power to change people and circumstances. But before we discuss prayer and the release of God's power and how God answered our prayers in the situation we have described, it will be helpful to consider some of the common misconceptions people have about prayer.
Some people think that prayer is really wish-thinking; that is, that when we pray we are really expressing a very strong wish. They believe the words of the little song "If you wish long enough, wish strong enough you will come to know--wishing will make it so." Of course, when we pray we do express a strong wish or desire for whatever we are praying for, but prayer is much more than a simple wish; it is a deep desire for God to arrange, or re-arrange, the circumstances of our lives or of someone else's life so that the result will be what we long for, hopefully for the good or the better or the best for whoever we are praying for. In our case we were not just wishing for the young man to let us go without harming us, we were asking God to intervene on our behalf and to influence his heart and mind so that he would not do the harm that he might have been tempted to do.
Some people believe that prayer is nothing more than auto-suggestion; that is, that when we pray we suggest to ourselves what we want to see happen--at least we visualize the end result of our prayer. Then as we pray we realize that there are things which we can do to make our desires come true. We suggest to ourselves ways to make it happen.
Sometimes this is true, especially if we believe that God expects us to do whatever we can to answer our own prayers. We speak of "putting feet to our prayers" by which we usually mean that we must exert all the effort of which we are capable to make our prayers come true. However, in our desperation, there really was nothing we could do to change the circumstances around us -- neither the war, nor the battle, nor the check-point nor the attitudes of the people who were manning that check-point. What we needed was not auto-suggestion to make us effective negotiators to get us through the check-point without harm by using all our powers of persuasion, but the intervention of a God of love who controlled all of those circumstances and the people involved.
Some people think that prayer is just programming our minds to think in a specific way to get the results we desire. Psycho-cybernetics is the teaching that if you practice a skill, such as baseball, or golf or some other sport or activity in your mind and repeat it enough, then it will actually improve the way you play or perform. Thus, we often see athletes pause before making a run or a jump as they go over in their minds exactly what it is they plan to do and how they will do it and what the results will be. For some, prayer is like that. It means that we simply review in our minds the circumstances as we want them to be and then program our minds to accomplish that goal--such as praying for victory over temptation or for freedom from some addiction or praying for the poor and hungry to be fed and housed.
There may be an element of this in our prayers but what we needed in Lebanon was not a way to program our minds but a way to influence someone else's mind -- and that was beyond us. We needed God to affect the mind of the young man holding us at gun-point and for him to release our car and its contents.
For the benefit of the pray-er only
Some people say that prayer is really only a spiritual exercise for the benefit of the one who is praying. It is good for us to pray because it brings us closer to God and improves our spiritual lives. It enables us to overcome temptation and to grow into better people, to realize our potential. It goes along with the power of positive thinking. All of this is true, of course, but prayer is much more than self-improvement by the power of positive thinking. Prayer releases the power of God to affect people and circumstances in our world in ways which would not be possible if we had not prayed. In our case we needed God's power to be released to get us safely back home in spite of risks and dangers.
Involvement in the spirit world
For some people prayer seems to be the positive side of involvement with the spirit world. We are more familiar with the negative side: black magic, voodoo, spiritism and the occult. For them prayer is "white magic" or the ability to communicate with the spirits of good people ("good spirits") for our own personal advantage and benefit. It has nothing to do with God but only with spiritual forces and, in new age terminology, "The Force." But in our case what we needed was not some mysterious force that could bend spoons or boost us over obstacles, but a spiritual force which could overrule all the other forces and conditions we faced in order to get us home in safety. We call this ultimate spiritual force, "God." But He is much more than just a force; He is Creator and Savior. He is personal, revealing Himself to people, sometimes directly, and even through events in history.
Talking with God
It is true that prayer is talking with God but it is much more than a mental exercise. A person may talk with God as a friend about any subject at all--whatever concerns us--but that does not necessarily release God's power to work in any given situation in our world. We did not need to explain to God the details of our circumstances--He already knew all about them. What we needed was for God to act on our behalf to get us back home safely.
There are those who feel that prayer is a kind of mental telepathy; that our prayers go up to God, much as a radio beam goes up to a satellite, and then back down to the mind of the person for whom we are praying. In this way God is a kind of passive reflector of our own mental powers which influence others by the concentration of mental energy. But in our need no amount of human mental energy was likely to change the circumstances or the likelihood that the young man with the gun was going to take us in, confiscate our possessions for his own purposes and mistreat us in any way his sadistic mind might wish. What we needed was the release of God's power to change his mind and to influence him to release us and to let us continue on our way home.
To continue the story:
The young man asked for our identity cards and looked at them for a long moment. Just as he was about to speak, an older man in civilian clothes, who had been sitting on the curb talking to some friends, looked up and saw us. As he came walking over to the car the younger man made room for him to look in. Amazingly, in perfect English, he said, "Are you Americans?" When we confessed that we were, he turned to the young man and said, "Let these people go." (God’s lightning!) The young man gave him a dirty look, but obeyed without argument. Obviously the older man outranked him. We felt sure that people both in Jordan and at the Seminary were praying for us at that time. We lost no time moving on!
As we started up the mountain, we came to a Lebanese army checkpoint. We stopped and presented our ID cards. The soldier walked around the car, noting what was inside. He opened the back and started to tease Frosty who snarled at him and barked fiercely. How could the soldier know that the $10,000 worth of Lebanese money was in an envelope between Frosty's metal pan and the wire-mesh which held it! He laughed at Frosty, closed the back, and waved us on! Praise the Lord! (God’s lightning again!)
Once again we had to go through the Syrian army checkpoints at the top and on the downward slopes of the Lebanon range facing toward Beirut. As we approached it, we noticed that many cars were turning around and coming back and not permitted to go on! When we got to the stopping place, we were told that we could not go on, that the road down to Beirut was closed. However, when they heard that we lived just about a mile down the road about five miles above Beirut, they allowed us to pass. We arrived at the seminary tired, but happy, at about sundown,
When we drove in, people came running from all directions. "How did you get here?" they asked. "We came across the Beqaa Valley." "No! Surely you did not come that way. The radio here has been reporting a big battle in the Beqaa all day long. We thought you would have to wait at least until tomorrow to come back." When we assured them that we had neither seen nor heard any gunshots they were incredulous. One neighbor walked away shaking his head and raising his hands to heaven saying, "SubHan Allah!” (Arabic for “Praise God!”) It's a miracle! It's a miracle! Only God could have brought you safely home today." He didn't know the whole story, but certainly we agreed with him!
While it is impossible to prove that prayer had anything to do with our safe return to the seminary the unusual circumstances associated with the trip are enough to suggest, at least, that supernatural power was at work on our behalf. If not, why was it that the Syrian soldiers never looked at us as we passed them? Why did we not see or hear any signs of battle, when we returned, when observers had reported heavy fighting in the very area we had crossed? Why did the older man just happen to be sitting on the curb when the young man with the gun stopped us? Why did he have such a good attitude toward Americans and such a favorable attitude toward us when we were in an area well-known for its anti-Americanism? How come the Lebanese soldier did not search our car for money or other valuables which he might have taken from us? Some-ONE was watching out for us and prayer is what made His presence real and His influence on those who might have harmed us so strong that they did things they would not normally do. They released us to go home and to take with us all that we were bringing for the people at the seminary. God was faithful. He answered the prayers of His people and released His power to accomplish His purpose and to advance His kingdom; may it be so with each of us today.
As you begin this workshop, please write your name and the date at the top of the page. Then write the answers to the following questions and suggestions:
Have you experienced the release of God's lightning power in answer to your prayer(s)? If so, please write it down in your notebook and thank God for His action on your behalf.
Write a prayer of thanksgiving to God for His answer to a specific prayer. Keep a prayer journal as you work through this seminar. In your journal (diary) write notes about what you have read in God’s Word each day and what God is saying to you through His Word.
Listen for elements of misconception in prayers you hear or pray. Record them in your notebook. Do you agree or disagree with the response of the author to each one?
Also list your prayers for each day and leave space to write the answers when God gives them.