God's Lightning: A Seminar on Prayer
THE MYSTERIOUS NATURE OF PRAYER
Story: "Paying Good Money to Get Shot At"
I was standing beside the car waiting for the gate to open so we could go across "no-man's land" to west (mostly Muslim) Beirut when a young man in a militia uniform carrying an M-16 automatic rifle came up to me and asked, "Aren't you Dr. King?" When I assured him that I was, he said, "I thought so. I was a student at Beirut Baptist School a few years ago and you came and spoke to us in chapel. Are you crossing over today?" I told him that we hoped to do so. Then he said, "Let me get in the car with you and you go where I tell you to go." So he squeezed in, although every seat was full! After driving for several blocks and following his directions to make each turn, we came to an open lot where several young men, also in militia uniforms, were kicking a soccer ball around. He told me to stop the car and get out and go with him to the group of young men. They came to meet us. He spoke to them: "This man and those in the car with him are my friends. Please don't shoot them as they cross over."
At times during the civil war in Lebanon the main road between east and west Beirut was closed completely. At other times it was open, but only temporarily. When we had enough people who needed to travel across town to the west, mostly Muslim, side for family or other business, we asked the Lord to show us when would be the best time to go. When we felt that the time was right, we loaded up our nine-passenger Peugeot stationwagon and went down to the border where travelers were required to pay a tax before crossing. On this occasion we were confronted by the young militiaman with the M-16. Before we continue this story to find out what happened, let’s consider some reasons why prayer seems to be so mysterious.
Prayer is a mystery because we can seldom see it work or see immediate results . Usually when we pray, nothing happens immediately. We know that we have made our requests known to God (Phil. 4:6), but then we have to leave the results to His discretion as to whether to act or not and when and where. As someone has said, “Prayer is like an egg; it takes time to hatch!”
God has plans for our lives and for others and for our world, but we have free will so we can and sometimes do thwart His plans for us or for our world. The purpose for prayer is not to change God’s plans, but to cooperate with Him in what he is doing to fulfill His plans for our world. Yes, prayer changes both things and people, but the main reason for prayer is for us to develop our relationship with Him. When we live in relationship with Him, when we stay “prayed up,” as Miss Bertha Smith used to say, we will often not have to pray for specific needs but will find that He is with us to intervene on our behalf even when we do not ask for it (as in the story above, continued below).
Often our prayers do not seem to have any effect on anyone; but how can we know? God's timing is not like ours. Often God waits until other factors develop which will affect the fulfillment of His purpose. (Ex.: Abraham and Sarah's prayer for a son: See how long they waited! But it was all part of God’s plan. Hannah's prayer for a son had to wait until God was ready for Samuel to become the spiritual leader of His people! Zechariah and Elizabeth prayed for a son long before the angel told Zacharia, “. . . Your prayer has been heard” (Luke 1:13). Zacharia may have answered, “What prayer?” Perhaps he had long ago given up on his prayer for a son thinking the answer was “No.”
Prayer is mysterious because our lives may hinder our prayers . If it seems that God is not answering our prayers, It is hard to know if He is waiting to answer or if we have disqualified ourselves from receiving an answer by "asking amiss" (KJV) (“with wrong motives” NIV) (James 4:1-4) or by not being right with God ourselves as in the following scriptures:
James 4:1-3 (TNIV) 1 What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? 2 You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. 3 When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. These verses emphasize the need for us to ask God for what we want or desire (John 16:24) with the right motive. Why are we asking God to do something? Is it for our sakes (a selfish motive), or for someone else’s sake, or for the sake of His kingdom work? James indicates that the believers were quarreling among themselves. If we pray for victory in our quarrel with others, our motives are probably wrong.
Isaiah 1:15-18 (TNIV) 15 When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood; 16 wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, 17 learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow. 18 “Come now, let us reason together,” says the LORD . “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool. Isaiah tells us that sin, including evil deeds and even violence like the shedding of blood (fighting and wounding or killing others) will cause God to close his eyes (and His ears) so that He cannot hear or answer our prayers. He strongly encourages us to repent, stop doing evil and find ways to encourage and relieve the stress on the orphans and widows. Selfish sins can and will be forgiven and cleansed from our record if we submit to God’s reasoning and follow His will.
Isaiah 59:1-4 (TNIV) 1 Surely the arm of the LORD is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear. 2 But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear. 3 For your hands are stained with blood, your fingers with guilt. Your lips have spoken falsely, and your tongue mutters wicked things. 4 No one calls for justice; no one pleads their case with integrity. They rely on empty arguments, they utter lies; they conceive trouble and give birth to evil. Once again scripture tells us that sin prohibits God from hearing and answering our prayers. Notice that these are mostly social sins, taking advantage of other, often defenseless, marginalized people.
Psalm 66:18-20 (TNIV) 18 If I had cherished sin in my heart, the LORD would not have listened; 19 but God has surely listened and has heard my prayer. 20 Praise be to God, who has not rejected my prayer or withheld his love from me! The Psalmist agrees with Isaiah that our sin makes a barrier between us and God so that He cannot listen to or answer our prayers.
Mark 11:24-25 (TNIV)
24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. 25 And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.” In this passage of scripture Jesus clearly conditions the answer to our prayers on our forgiving others. Jesus also teaches the same thing in Matt. 6:14-15 and 18:21-35. This may seem like a paradox. If salvation is by grace, through faith (Eph. 2:8-9) then why is His forgiveness conditioned on our forgiving others? Is this not making our salvation depend on our good works in forgiving others? It may seem contradictory, but our salvation by grace through faith is demonstrated by our forgiveness of others. If we do not forgive others it seems obvious that we have not experienced God’s forgiveness ourselves and something is wrong with our salvation experience.
Prayer is a mystery because it involves communication of spirit to spirit. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth (John 4:24). We are spirits living in bodies. 26 As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead James 2:26). In some ways this is like the fact that this very room at any moment is filled with pictures and sounds, but we can neither see them nor hear them without a radio or a television tuned to the right frequencies! Just so, spirits are invisible to us, but they are real. In this life personal spirits exist in people’s bodies, but when death occurs, our spirits, which are eternal, leave our bodies and return to God who gave them (Eccl. 12:7).
But what is spirit? Is it out attitude? Yes, our attitudes reflect our spirits, but more than that, our spirit is our essential nature and personality. Spirit communication is deeper than speech (like a couple in love). Hear what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14:14-15 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. 15 So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding. Paul separates praying in his spirit and praying in his mind or with his understanding. Both elements are necessary in proper praying, but praying with or in the spirit goes deeper than the mind or understanding. Often when people pray “in tongues” (a spirit language, not a known language) they do not understand what they are saying to God and others do not understand them either unless they have the spiritual gift of interpretation of tongues (I Cor. 14:27-28). Paul seems to be referring to praying in the spirit in Romans 8:26-28 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. So prayer is communication of our spirit with God’s Spirit. Likewise in Ephesians 6:18 18 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. Here again Paul talks about praying “in the Spirit” as it indicates that the Holy Spirit helps us to connect with the Spirit of God in order to make our prayers harmonize with His will and purpose.
Prayer is a mystery because it often involves asking God to change people's minds or attitudes; but God has created us with freedom of will, freedom to choose for ourselves. When we pray for someone's salvation, or to be delivered from bad habits or to make a right decision, that means that he or she must repent and change his or her mind about God, self, sin and/or salvation. It involves admitting that one is wrong and needs forgiveness and help; but most people resist making such admissions. If God has created us with free will and He will not violate that freedom, then it would seem that our prayers for the salvation or deliverance of others would be useless; but prayer for others somehow releases spiritual power, not to force others to repent and believe, but to encourage them in that direction.
Prayer is a mystery because it is not limited by time or space. It cannot work until we pray, but then it is immediate over any distance. Consider the following scriptures:
John 4:46-53 Once more he visited Cana in Galilee, where he had turned the water into wine. And there was a certain royal official whose son lay sick at Capernaum. 47 When this man heard that Jesus had arrived in Galilee from Judea, he went to him and begged him to come and heal his son, who was close to death. 48 “Unless you people see signs and wonders,” Jesus told him, “you will never believe.” 49 The royal official said, “Sir, come down before my child dies.” 50 “Go,” Jesus replied, “your son will live.” The man took Jesus at his word and departed. 51 While he was still on the way, his servants met him with the news that his boy was living. 52 When he inquired as to the time when his son got better, they said to him, “Yesterday, at one in the afternoon, the fever left him.” 53 Then the father realized that this was the exact time at which Jesus had said to him, “Your son will live.” So he and his whole household believed.
The answer may be delayed, but the prayer is heard immediately and evaluated in the light of God's total purpose and plan (as in the case of the birth of John the Baptist and in this case).
Prayer is a mystery because the promise of an answer must be balanced against submission to God's will. Healing is not always within God's will. We often learn much from our suffering. Paul’s testimony in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 is: 7 . . . in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the LORD to take it away from me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. 10That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
Joni Erikson Tada has written about her diving accident which left her a paraplegic. She became very bitter about her condition, but finally yielded to the Lord’s will. As a result she has been able to minister to millions as a very seriously physically challenged, disabled person to those who are equally challenged and disabled. God has used her to bless people in spite of her un-healed condition perhaps more than He could have through healing her and restoring her normal body!
What seems reasonable and right to us may not be best for others. Let me ask you to think about this: Is it right to pray for Israel to thrive at the expense of Palestinians or vice versa? Or for Republicans to be victorious over Democrats? Or for our school teams to win over our opponents? So much of our praying is really selfish, more for what WE want than for what God wants.
All prayer must ultimately end in "Let Thy will, not mine, be done." Matthew 26:39 39 Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (cf. Mark 14:36; Luke 22:42).
On the other hand, look at all the promises that if we ask for whatever we will, it will be done for us: John 14:12-14 says 12 Very truly I tell you, all who have faith in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. 13 And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it. The key phrase is “in my name.” What does that mean? Of course it means much more than closing a prayer with the words, “In the name of Jesus, Amen.” To do anything in the name of someone else means to do it as his representative. Ambassadors serve their kings or presidents as representatives of their sovereigns. To pray in the name of Jesus is to pray as His representative asking for what He would ask for if He were right there. Ultimately all our prayers should be what Jesus would ask for if He was there in our place.
John 15:16 says 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you
might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.
Likewise John 16:24 encourages us to ask and pray in Jesus’ name: 24 Until now you have not
asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete. And Mark 11:24 says´24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. 1 John 5:14-15 adds more encouragement by saying: 14 This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. 15 And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him.
Faith and submission are always in tension. We need to pray with enough faith so that we will receive everything that the Father wants to give us but also with enough submission that we do not insist on something that the Father knows is not good for us or for His kingdom’s purpose.
Prayer is a mystery because it is often difficult to distinguish between answers and coincidences. (God does, most often, use natural means to achieve His purposes although He may still occasionally use miracles.) If we pray for someone's healing and they take their medicine as directed or have the needed surgery, wouldn't they be healed without our prayers? Doctors are reasonably reluctant to admit to miracles. They say, for example, “Miracle/prayer had nothing to do with it! I diagnosed the problem, prescribed the necessary medicine or surgery and healing was the natural result.” For every result there is USUALLY a very natural cause. (We tend to pray in probabilities--for what is probably going to happen in the natural course of events.)
It is easy to claim answers to prayer when all we are seeing is the natural results of God's loving laws in action. There are natural laws in the spiritual world. That is, righteousness always brings its reward. The fruit of the Spirit produces such good results that there is no law on earth against them (Gal. 5:23). People who live by God’s principles/laws will usually live happier, healthier and longer lives and those who violate them pay a price for such violations. We reap what we sow! (Gal. 6:7-8: 7 Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. People reap what they sow. 8 Those who sow to please their sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; those who sow to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. And Hos. 8:7 reminds us that some people “ sow the wind and reap the whirlwind.” They get more than they expected.
Conclusion.--Prayer is mysterious, but that does not mean that it is not valuable or not effective. We make use of things we do not understand every day--like electricity, micro-waves, radio, TV, computers, the internet, etc. We may not understand prayer, but IF we practice it, we will surely benefit from it--and so will those for whom we pray and also the world around us; thus the whole world will be moved closer to God and to what is good for everyone.
To continue the story above, our militiaman friend was speaking to those who would be the snipers shooting at cars going across no-man’s-land to the west side that morning! The previous day they had shot and killed a man who was bringing newspapers from the west to the east side! After our conversation with the snipers, he directed me back to my place in the line to cross over. Thankfully, no one shot at us while we were crossing, but we heard some shots being fired before us and after us.
After we finished our business, about mid-afternoon, we started back home to the east side. Just as we turned up the side street to go through the check-point which was our starting place in the morning, POW! A shot rang out and a bullet whizzed right over the hood of the car! The sniper crew from the morning had been replaced with a different crew for the afternoon and they had not heard our friend tell them not to shoot at us! When we got to the checkpoint, I asked the guard why they had shot at us. His answer, AOh, they just wanted to scare you!@ They succeeded in that! But we praised and thanked the Lord for the young man who had been at the right place at the right time to give us protection in the morning and had brought us home safely in the evening in spite of allowing us to be shot at!
This is one occasion when, because we had been in a prayer-relationship with Him, the Lord had intervened to keep us from being shot or injured while we carried out what we felt was His business that day.
Prayer is mysterious, but it is God’s instrument for releasing His power.
I would like to close this session with the words of the poet, Alfred, Lord Tennyson:
"More things are wrought by prayer
Than this world dreams of. Wherefore let thy voice
Rise like a fountain for me night and day.
For what are men better than sheep or goats
That nourish a blind life within the brain,
If, knowing God, they lift not hands of prayer
Both for themselves and those who call them friend.
For so the whole round earth is every way
Bound by gold chains about the feet of God.”
Alfred Tennyson in "Morte de Arthur"
Do you think of other ways in which prayer is mysterious? Do you have questions about this session and its statements about the mysterious nature of prayer? Please write them in your notebook.
If God knows what we need before we ask Him, why do we pray? Please write your answers in your workbook.