Sunday, January 11, 2015

What happens when we pray?

If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you.
John 15:7

I remember the comment of a man, more than forty years ago, who said, “I tried prayer once, but it didn’t work.” There was much that was wrong in his theology, but there was so much wrong in his understanding of prayer. We cannot make out a list of things that we want, as we are want to do when we go to the grocery store, and then pray for them with any expectation of being answered. Most of us seem to understand this rather intuitively, but what would God have us to pray for? I know the question seems to point in a different direction, but we cannot expect things to happen when we pray unless we are praying as we ought. It is said that Mary, Queen of Scots, trembled whenever John Knox went to his knees in prayer. Obviously, John Knox had a sense of what to pray for, and therefore, when he prayed things happened. Though this short piece is not on what to pray for, the understanding should be that prayer intrinsically involves the prayer warrior with his God, or as John put it, we need to become creatures who abide in him with his words filling our hearts. If we expect answered prayer, there is no other way.

But let us say that we are abiding in him when we come to prayer. What happens then? In the Old Testament we are told of Daniel’s praying, and instantly God heard, though the angel he sent was hindered for 21 days. In the New Testament, a new dynamic to prayer is introduced. Jesus tells us that it is better for him to go away, for if he did not go away, the Comforter would not come to us. It is exactly that, the Comforter, or the Spirit of God, who makes the difference in our prayers. We are praying and the Spirit of God is within us! All of the power and grace that went to make this world is inside us, listening to us, walking with us, given to us to comfort us in an arid and lost world. What manner of changed people we would be, if we truly realized his presence in us.

God did not just leave his Spirit in us, but according to Romans 8, the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. In other words when we pray we have the very Spirit of God translating our prayers just as God would want, that those requests should be made perfect and holy before the Father we are directing them to. The “translated prayer” is the very assurance of our answer. God takes our prayer and transforms it into something that will bring glory and honor to his name, and will still answer our prayer. How many times I have heard saints confess an answer to prayer, but not quite in the way that they were expecting. When that happens to us, we should realize right away that God the Spirit has been busy translating our prayer into something that God the Father answered. How majestic is his name!

So we have two members of the godhead helping us with prayer, but how does the Son help? The Bible directs us with the direct command of Jesus to pray for things in his name. “My Father will give you whatever you ask in my name” (John 16:23 NIV). Jesus is telling us to come to the Father through our faith in Christ’s work on the cross; he is not, as so many seem to believe, going to especially answer our prayers because we remember the magic formula and pray “in Jesus name”. When we come to the Father through our having been saved by faith in his Son we are given a wonderful hearing from the Father. Thus, prayers are to be directed to the Father, and aided in interpretation by the Holy Spirit, and through our access to the Father, Jesus. The triune God is involved in each and every prayer that we make. Why? I do not pretend to understand why he has valued us so highly, but it does well for my heart to think about what he gave as the price of my salvation. His own Son came and freely gave what was asked of him to the Father. The Son, in his obedience, gave himself willingly that I might be set free forever from the penalty of sin. He could give no more than himself, and in giving himself he exerted more effort for our salvation than was given to the whole of the created world. Why? I can only answer that He chose to love us, and therefore to redeem us, and the why of it all is hidden in the purposes of God, perhaps to be revealed when we are changed into his image.

It seems to me that about every decade or so, a bunch of Christians somehow come together, reading the magnificent prayer promises of God, and get the idea that if they somehow just master prayer, then they can master God. Sometimes the prayer of Jabez is used as an excuse to sort of “commandeer” God, though I do not think those involved would use such a harsh term. The real beauty of the prayer of Jabez was his coming to his God with simple faith and a crying need. There are no magic words that will put a special whammy on our prayers and get them answered. But the essence of prayer is to recognize his mastery, and our subordination—we have access to the Father through what has graciously been given us. We can no more order God around than we can stop a hurricane, but we can get the sovereign God to listen to us, to consider that which we present to him faithfully in the name of his Son. In the late seventies, there arose what is sometimes termed, “the name-it and claim-it movement”. Saints of God had become convinced that they only had to present the right prayer to God, and then they could count on his blessing so much that they could just assume it would come to pass. Many grievous errors are made with much inevitable disappointment when we forget we are the petitioners, the “askers”, not ever the commanders. It is we who wait on the majesty of God, and try what magic formula we may, nothing is ever going to change who is the master and who is the petitioner.

How often does he listen? Every time! Every single time! At the beginning of the end of this present evil age, in The Revelation there is a passage that shows how God has saved the prayers of every saint: “He [an angel] was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all the saints, on the golden altar before the throne” (Revelation 8:3). God so values our prayers that he has saved every one of them, saving them to be ultimately answered when we finally see the presentation of the Son.

Which leads me to another thing I want to discuss that happens when we pray. How many times do we ask? I wish to submit, with lots of qualifications that once is sufficient. When we come in confidence to the Triune God presenting our petitions we can know and be assured that he hears our prayer. And we know that if he hears us, then we will get an answer. I know there are plenty of qualifications where repetition is needed. Indeed, I prayed for my father’s salvation for 35 years—but even there, if I remember correctly, it was the third time in my life, when I was in prayer for my father that I received assurance from God that it would eventually happen. Thereafter, when I prayed for my father’s salvation, it became a prayer of thanksgiving to God for what I believed he had answered. Notice I did not give thanks for my belief—some of those times I struggled with the believing—rather I gave thanks to him for what he had answered, remembering his assurance. I did not think that I had to have a certain level of faith before he would answer. Instead I knew that salvation of my father was beyond me, and that it lay in the action of God, who was pleased to give me assurance of its coming. I waited in expectation for that answer for 35 years, when during the last week of Dad’s life, he at last eagerly prayed to receive Christ.

Let me suggest a Biblical reference here. I believe that Nehemiah is one of the greatest of prayer warriors of the Bible, and I believe his greatest prayer was also his briefest. Caught with all his fellow Jews in a foreign land, he is distraught by the great God he knows, and the captivity that he sees. He prays and fasts for no end of days for his people, praying that God will have mercy and redeem them. That is the repeated part, and it ultimately leads him to confrontation. He is so distraught that the king notices his sadness and asks him why he is sad. The scripture records his praying, saying, “Then I prayed to the God of heaven” (Nehemiah 2:4) and immediately he answers the king with his request to redeem his people. I think the context is quite clear as to the time that Nehemiah had to answer just being mere seconds. In spite of that, he took time to pray. What did he pray? We can only guess, yet I think it might be something like “God help me now”, or perhaps, “May your will, God, be done”. Praying once, and expecting a great answer from God has a definite place in the prayers of a saint. There is room for us to be a little more like Nehemiah.

I am not trying to say that we are not to repeat our prayers here. Nehemiah did just that, earlier, in the beginning of the book. Rather, I am saying that we ought to have much more confidence in the God to whom our prayers are directed. Asking the God of all of creation for something that he would have me to ask for, oughtn’t I to have a small tincture of faith that he hears me? In light of what I have discussed above, I am to have every confidence that he hears me. And if I know that he hears me, then I ought to have every assurance and expectation that he is going to answer me—perhaps not in the way that I prayed, but in a definite answer that I will look for with every expectation. Sometimes, I think we do error in our bringing the same prayer time after time to God, but never listening for the answer. Sometimes I hear earnest prayers of saints that they have repeated for years, and I believe that they do need to come to terms with the answer of God that lies before them.

I do not want to go too far here. I am trying to emphasize the great majesty that has been given us. We have been given the privilege of prayer, of coming into the very presence of the God of all of there is, and sometimes we need to act like we really do expect our God to answer. Sometimes I wonder if we have misunderstood God, and think that if we just wear out a path of prayer to God, we will at last get the answer we want. I think that sometimes saints have the idea that if their faith were just larger, that somehow God would be compelled to hear and answer them, but that is such a poor understanding of faith. Our faith never rests upon ourselves—it would be on a sandy foundation indeed—our faith is in God, our Solid Rock. Putting our trust in Him is always the way of faith, and pretending that our faith is not large enough misses the problem entirely. Knowing God and knowing that he loves us is always the basis of true faith. He answers prayer because of who he is, and not at all because of our persistence, or our level of faith.

But I would not leave you thinking I do not repeat my prayers. Many of those who go to my church may remember that all of last year I was praying for renewal and revival for both our church and our community. I tried my best to pray for that an extra time each day last year, and I am continuing that prayer this year. I am watching to see what answer he is giving, and with much thanksgiving. Many more than usual decisions were made in my church last year, and inroads are being built into the community that may bring revival. I continue to thank God for those answers, even while being convinced that it is not quite what I am praying for. I am asking for much more, and I will continue to do so, looking towards God and his direction. Such a prayer is easy on two levels. I know that God wants us to learn discipleship and obedience, and I also know that God loves the world enough to send his Son. I believe in earnest daily prayer for this because I already have the assurance of God that it likely is something that he would desire. So my faith and hope are in the God who would save us, and teach us.

Finally, there is a sense in which all of our prayers are translated into something very nearly like, “Thy Kingdom Come”. The wants, needs, and aims of our prayers should always be in the character of what Jesus would have for us. Thus, there is a very real sense that ultimately our prayers are answered with the appearing of the Son. No wonder God savors the aroma of every one of our prayers! Translated as they are by the Spirit of God, they are petitions for us to have God’s will in our lives. That ultimately happens for every saint, and not one is lost (else the promise of God would fail) with the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Even so, come Lord Jesus!

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