God's Lightning: A Seminar on Prayer

Session Three


(Note: This section is based on The Cycle of Prayer by Dr. Ralph Herring, now out of print.)

Story: "The First Day of the Battle of Tell Azzaater"

The Crisis

The shelling began about 6 a.m. Most of the shells were exploding above the seminary. It was about 7 a.m. when our doorbell rang and one of the cook's daughters said, "Come quickly! My brother has been injured and we need to get him to a hospital." The shelling had stopped for several minutes, so I went with her. Their house was at the opposite end of the seminary campus about 300 yards from our house. I found the teenage brother with a bloody cloth wrapped around his hand. A small piece of shrapnel from the last shell had spun through the air and hit him in the hand as he stood in the back doorway of his house looking wide-eyed at what was happening. His hand was torn but we could not see whether any bones were broken.

The background

We woke up at dawn that morning in July of 1977 to the sound of mortars being fired from a small open lot in the village above us into the Palestinian refugee camp called " Tel Azzaatar " about a mile below us at the base of the hillside on which we lived. The camp was armed to the teeth and so was the village of Mansouriyeh above us. The Palestinians were mostly Muslims. The village was filled with Maronite (Catholic) " Christian " militiamen. Often the Palestinians would put barricades across the road at the bottom of the hill and demand money of those who were going down to or coming back from the city of Beirut. Now the militiamen had decided to wipe out the camp with its 5,000 refugee population and force its residents to flee or die.

It wasn't long before the first shells came slamming back into the village, at first exploding just above the Baptist Seminary where we lived in one of the two missionary houses on campus. Gradually the shelling came closer. One mortar shell exploded on the parking lot behind the seminary building breaking out almost all the windows on the back side of the building. Another exploded on the road in front of the building shattering almost all the glass on the front side. Two more shells exploded on the roof and blew two holes about eight to twelve inches across through four inches of concrete and steel rebar. The shrapnel tore up all the beds and furniture in the two rooms under the shell-holes. Fortunately no one was in the building at the time. School was out for the summer.

It was about 7 a.m. when our doorbell rang. The teenager brother was very, very fortunate that he had not been hit in a more vital spot which might have killed him. Spinning, jagged steel does terrible things to a human body.

The Teaching:

The Diagram

   Romans 11:33, 36


It seems that our experience of prayer goes through a cycle which may be diagramed as a circle:

Prayer Circle

The Teaching

The main idea is that all effective prayer originates in the heart of God. He answers the prayers which He Himself inspires. The key passage from the scripture is Romans 11:33, 36: 33  Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! . . . 36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.

At the center of the circle of the Christian life is the cross. At the top is God on His throne, sovereign over all (See Is. 6:1-3). Romans 11:33 expresses our inability to fathom God's ways completely, for they are above and beyond our ability to understand and to bring glory to His Name! ( cf . Is. 55:8-9 8  "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways," declares the LORD. 9  "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. )

The cross is at the center of both our salvation and of our Christian lives. Of course we understand that “the cross” includes the resurrection as well. Jesus died for our sins “according to the scriptures and rose again for our justification” (I Cor. 15:3-4; Rom. 4:25). The entire sacrificial system of the Old Testament looked forward to the coming of Jesus as the perfect Lamb of God who, like those animals, would pay with their death for the sins of the ones who offered them. However, in Jesus, the death of the perfectly sinless Lamb of God was for the payment of all the sins of all the sinners of all mankind for all time!

In addition, the principle of the cross points to the need for the sacrifice of our own selfish desires, attitudes and actions for the sake of others. Thus Jesus says in Luke 14:27 “And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” Following Jesus means living the kind of life he lived unselfishly, sacrificing oneself for the sake of others. It means living the kind of life He describes in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 through 7). Paul describes it in Gal. 2:20, I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Under the cross is the level of human life with all its ups and downs and irregularities. Along that jagged line we have points of need. When we lift those needs to God in prayer, He takes the initiative to meet those needs. The Holy Spirit then inspires the prayers which God answers (Rom. 11:36) . God's Spirit knows both our minds and God's mind. Rom. 8:26-27 tells us “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 with groans that words cannot express. 27  And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will. This is the divine initiative.

If we pray according to God's will we know that our prayers will be answered. I John 5:14-15 says: I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life. 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.” Of course there may be various answers. God may say, “Not now,” or “Yes” or “No” or maybe He will want us to make some changes before He gives an answer.

It is therefore crucial that we seek to know God’s will before we pray and ask the Lord for anything. Sometimes it takes longer to determine how to pray and exactly what to pray for than it does to voice our prayer. Being sure of God’s will is related to our offering ourselves to Him as living sacrifices, willing to be transformed by the renewing of our minds as Paul expressed in Rom. 12:1-2: “1 Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God -- this is your spiritual act of worship. 2 Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is--his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

On the other hand there are times when we do not feel confident that we know God’s will, and must therefore ask Him to act according to His will while we patiently and open-mindedly wait for His answer.

Although it is true that God delights to answer the prayers which He inspires, (the divine initiative) it is also true, from the earthly perspective that our prayers often stem from our sense of need (the human initiative). Take as an example the story in Mark 9:14-29. Jesus and His closest disciples (Peter, James and John) had just come down from the Mount of Transfiguration (9:2-13). When they approached the other disciples, they found a crowd gathered around them and a desperate father who had brought his epileptic son who was afflicted with a “deaf and dumb spirit” to be healed. The disciples had failed in their efforts to drive the “evil spirit” from him. After explaining the situation to Jesus, the father pleaded with Him, “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us” (9:22). This is the human initiative at the point of need.

Continuing around the circle, the point of our need or the needs of others at the level of human life is the primary impetus to many of our prayers. Jesus was a Master at meeting people's needs, both physical and spiritual. Even a casual reading of the Gospels makes this clear and He is just as interested and willing to meet our needs, if we will ask Him. God even inspires the desires for which He wants us to pray (Ps. 37:4 “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart”).

Then the request verbalizes the need (Mark 9:18, 22-24). Jesus asked the distraught father to express the need (vs. 16, 19, 21 -- “How long has he been like this?”). Jesus asks us to express our needs (John 16:24, 24  Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete).There are many scriptures which teach us to express our needs in prayer to God.

At the bottom of the circle we come to the crisis of faith which is often a spiritual struggle (Mark 9:23, 24; Ex. 5 & 6). As the father cried out for more faith, so must we (Mk. 9:24, 24 Immediately the boy's father exclaimed, "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!" The father’s ambivalence is quite understandable. Jesus’ disciples had not been able to bring healing to his son in spite of their best efforts. He knew that Jesus was the miracle worker, but questioned if He could do more than his disciples had done. When Jesus rebuked the evil spirit, commanding “Come out of him and never enter him again,” the evil spirit “shrieked, convulsed him violently and came out” leaving him limp, and lying on the ground. “The boy looked so much like a corpse that many said ‘He’s dead.’ But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him to his feet and he stood up” (v. 27)! What a hallelujah moment that was! What others could not do (because of their lack of prayer - v. 29) Jesus did because He was “prayed up” and prepared for whatever the Father brought to Him.

In regard to the crisis of faith it is worth noting that when we pray, things often get worse before they get better! The boy appeared to be dead. This was a test of the father’s faith (v. 24 again). As another example, when Jesus met a blind man as recorded in John 9, he made some mud and put it on the man’s eyes. That made his situation worse, not better! Jesus then told him to go wash in the pool of Siloam. This was a test of his faith in the word and work of Jesus. When he washed the mud off, he could see!

When God told Moses to go to Pharaoh and demand that he let the people go, the immediate result was that Pharaoh increased the burden of making bricks without straw and ordered the Israelite officers to be whipped when they failed to make the required number of bricks (Ex. 5:14). This was Moses’ test of faith. The Israelites blamed him for their added suffering (vs. 20-21). Moses, in turn, complained to God – a very human reaction! Nevertheless as Moses obeyed the Lord we know that He brought the ten plagues on Egypt which showed the utter impotence of the gods of Egypt so that Pharaoh finally pushed God’s people out of Egypt (Ex. 12:31-32).

God has various ways to test our faith. Such testing draws us back to God and increases our dependence on Him to meet our needs and to bring glory to His Name.

As we continue the process of prayer, the answer to our prayers must be claimed in faith. Mark 11:24 tells us 24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. Some translations say “believe that you will receive it” but the Greek text uses the aorist (past) tense, literally, “You did receive it” meaning an action completed in the past. You may not see it yet, but in God’s sight and in His plan, it is already done and it is yours! This is difficult for us “moderns” with scientific minds who depend so much on physical reality and have a hard time even admitting that there is such a thing as spiritual, invisible reality.

We are always in tension between faith in the promises of God and submission to whatever God wills. The important consideration is not what we want to see God do but how answering our request fits in with God's total purpose and plan for us and for our world (Mark 14:32-42). Just as Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane for God to spare Him from the agony of the cross but finally submitted Himself to the Father’s will, so we also must finally surrender our prayers to whatever fits into God’s eternal plan and purpose for us and for others.

Please note that the joy of surrender to God's will comes BEFORE the answer to our prayer! Perhaps this, after all, is the real purpose of prayer – to bring us to the point of joyful surrender to the will of God no matter what our request may be. This joy comes even in the midst of suffering because we can see beyond the suffering to the fulfilled purpose of God. This was true for Jesus. According to Heb. 12:2 "2  Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him (underlining added) endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God." Jesus was enabled to endure the crucifixion and to surrender Himself to the ghastly ordeal of the cross because He knew the end result would be the salvation of those who believe, both in the sense of preparation for eternal life in heaven and in the sense of preparation for the best kind of life on earth. Knowing the end made it easier to submit to the means.

As we come closer to closing the circle of prayer, praising and giving thanks for all things is a logical next step. Praise and thanksgiving are distinctly Christian virtues. Eph. 5:20 says,
20  always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ; and I Thess. 5:16-18 says 18  give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus.

We are sometimes troubled by the phrase, “for everything.” Does that include evil such as cancer or blindness? Sometimes it seems so when it happens to us. Of course evil is evil because it is wrong and harmful to ourselves or others; however, when it happens to us, God is able to turn all things to our ultimate benefit. For sure someone who dives into murky water and breaks her neck and becomes a paraplegic would have a hard time giving thanks for that accident, but God is able to use the situation which seems evil to bring good out of it. If that person submits the situation to God and prays for His wisdom, God can use him or her to minister to many thousands of people who have suffered the same sort of accidents or other diseases or accidents and are therefore somewhat disabled and live a difficult life.

Finally, the joy of surrender gives way to ecstatic praise (Eph. 1:3, 6-7, 12, 14)! In these verses the apostle Paul expresses the repeated idea of giving praise to God in the context of a passage of praise for the work of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. In v. 3 the Father is praised “because He has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.” In vs. 6-7 Christ is praised because of His glorious grace, redemption and the forgiveness of our sins. In vs. 12 and 14 the Spirit of God is praised because we are marked by Him with a seal guaranteeing our complete redemption.

In the case of the boy with the evil spirit, when Jesus healed him, everyone rejoiced! Giving praise for the answer before it comes is a wonderful act of faith! (Rom. 11:33)

The cycle ends back where it began: God on His Throne, ruler over all (Ps. 95:1-7, 99:1-3; Is. 6:1-4).

Prayer is not primarily for our need, but for His glory! (Ps. 115:1, -- 1  Not to us, O LORD , not to us but to your name be the glory, because of your love and faithfulness.) (also see Eph. 1:3, 6, 12, 14 -- above).

Prayer changes people as well as things and improves our relationship with God. Ps. 117 says: 1  Praise the LORD, all you nations; extol him, all you peoples. 2  For great is his love toward us, and the faithfulness of the LORD endures forever. Praise the LORD.

Psalm 150:1-6 1  Praise the LORD. Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens. 2  Praise him for his acts of power; praise him for his surpassing greatness. 3  Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet, praise him with the harp and lyre, 4  praise him with tambourine and dancing, praise him with the strings and flute, 5  praise him with the clash of cymbals, praise him with resounding cymbals. 6  Let everything that has breath praise the LORD . Praise the LORD.

Conclusion: The cycle of prayer is a helpful means of understanding the nature of prayer. Understanding the nature of prayer should help us to pray more effectively and release God's power more completely.

Additional Scriptures for the Cycle of Prayer

Mark 9:14-29 (TNIV) 14 When they came to the other disciples, they saw a large crowd around them and the teachers of the law arguing with them. 15 As soon as all the people saw Jesus, they were overwhelmed with wonder and ran to greet him. 16 " What are you arguing with them about? " he asked. 17 A man in the crowd answered, " Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. 18 Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not. " 19 "You unbelieving generation, " Jesus replied, "how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me. " 20 So they brought him. When the spirit saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth. 21 Jesus asked the boy's father, " How long has he been like this? " " From childhood, " he answered. 22 " It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us. " 23 " > If you can ' ? " said Jesus. " Everything is possible for one who believes. " 24 Immediately the boy's father exclaimed, " I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief ! " 25 When Jesus saw that a crowd was running to the scene, he rebuked the evil spirit. " You deaf and mute spirit, " he said, " I command you, come out of him and never enter him again. " 26 The spirit shrieked, convulsed him violently and came out. The boy looked so much like a corpse that many said, " He's dead. " 27 But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him to his feet, and he stood up. 28 After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, " Why couldn’t we drive it out? " 29 He replied, " This kind can come out only by prayer. "

The resolution

I went back to the house and got the car. We could not go down the hill to Beirut directly because that led straight to the camp from which the shells were coming, so we went up a mile or so and then turned down toward a Christian suburb of Beirut where we knew there was a hospital. On the way down two shells crashed and exploded near the road on which we were traveling, but we made it safely to the hospital. X-rays showed that the little finger was broken. It was set and properly cleaned and bandaged. Three hours had passed since the injury occurred and now it was time to go home. However, shelling had once again erupted. One shell exploded just across the street from the hospital. The black pillar of smoke was ominous.

We had prayed before we left the seminary. Maxine (my wife) and the boy's family were praying for us while we were gone. Now it was time to pray again and ask the Lord which way to take to get home safely and when to go.

When there was another lull in the shelling we started up the hill. When we were almost at the highest point on the return trip, one shell exploded to the right of us and another to the left. We stopped the car and waited behind and under a large tree, wondering if we had been spotted or if this was just random shelling. Finally, when no more shells exploded in our area for about ten minutes, we decided to go on and arrived safely home at about noon. It was a long, grueling morning, like many more which followed, but we rejoiced to be back home!

Now, would we have arrived safely even if we had not prayed? I don ' t know; but I do know this: prayer calmed our spirits and gave us a deep sense of peace even in the midst of danger and uncertainty. Prayer is a mystery, but it was surely good to know that our Heavenly Father was in control and that He knew the way which we were taking and He was watching over us all the way. Being able to pray strengthened my relationship with the Lord and deepened it greatly.

This story illustrates the need both to stay “prayed up” and to pray constantly!


Using the passage in Mark 6:14-29, please explain in your workbook the various points of the “Cycle of Prayer” as they occur in this passage.

What is the relation of Romans 11:33 and 36 to the points of the “Cycle of Prayer?” Please write your answer in your workbook.