The Struggle of Prayer (1)

 My title is taken from Donald Bloesch’s book, which is one of the best books on the subject.  I want to mention here that in my view the best book on prayer is either Prayer by John Bunyan, or How to Pray by R. A. Torrey.   Both books get to the heart of what it is to pray, though Torrey hits the nail on the head more quickly than the great Puritan.

a. Just what is Prayer?

Prayer is the most important aspect of the Christian’s daily life.  Above all else we should be praying Christians.   I do not pretend to know all its mysteries, nor indeed do I think we need such information in order to pray.  I do not understand how my computer works, but that does not stop me from typing out this meditation on it!  God has not whisked us off to heaven the moment He saved us.  He has left us to represent Him in “this present evil world” (Gal. 1:2); at least for a time.

Since we remain here and are not immediately in God’s heavenly presence, our communication with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit cannot be like our communications with other people.  When conversing with others we can hear their voice or read their words directed to us.  There is a clear sense of reciprocation based upon sight and sound.  But God has not called us to walk by sight, but by faith.  Faith does not have five senses to tell us we’re in contact.  Rather, faith trusts, and prayer articulates that trust in its constant reaching out to the God who is there.

b. The Character of God

The kind of trust which faith exercises depends upon the understanding of God we have before our minds-eye.  God’s character is holy, just, gracious, loving, faithful, and true. He deigns to call us His children in Christ.  We must always have this in mind when we pray.  We pray to a good God, and it is He who has ordained prayer.  Prayer is a gift of God.

Because these things are true all our petitions to the throne of grace must be brought with thanksgiving.  We must always acknowledge the great character of the Lord when we come before Him.

C. H. Spurgeon said,

“This blending of thanks with devotion is always to be maintained. Always must we offer prayer and supplication with thanksgiving. No matter though the prayer should struggle upward out of the depths, yet must its wings be silvered o’er with thanksgiving. Though the prayer were offered upon the verge of death, yet in the last few words which the trembling lips can utter there should be notes of gratitude as well as words of petition. The law saith: “With all thy sacrifices thou shalt offer salt;” and the gospel says with all thy prayers thou shalt offer praise. “One thing at a time” is said to be a wise proverb, but for once I must venture to contradict it, and say two things at a time are better, when the two are prayer and thanksgiving. These two holy streams flow from one common source, the Spirit of life which dwells within us; and they are utterances of the same holy fellowship with God; and therefore it is right that they should mingle as they flow, and find expression in the same holy exercise.” – Sermon: Prayer Perfumed with Praise

In Exodus 34:4-9, when Moses is told to come up Mount Sinai, we read,

“So he cut out two stone tablets like the former ones, and Moses rose up early in the morning and went up to Mount Sinai, as the LORD had commanded him, and he took two stone tablets in his hand. 5 And the LORD descended in the cloud and stood there with him as he called upon the name of the LORD. 6 Then the LORD passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; 7 who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.” 8 And Moses made haste to bow low toward the earth and worship. 9 And he said, “If now I have found favor in Thy sight, O Lord, I pray, let the Lord go along in our midst, even though the people are so obstinate; and do Thou pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us as Thine own possession.”

The Lord God who makes the covenant with Moses proclaims His own name to the prophet.  Look again at verses 6 and 7.  What wonderful attributes these are!  How they encourage us to approach Him.  Prayer “works” because this is who God is!  But notice the reaction of Moses.  He quickly worships God.  Doubtless there was praise involved, since what is worship without praise to God?  But then he asks God for what he wants, and what he wants is for God Himself to go with Israel.

c. God Himself

This is the first essential of prayer.  We must go to God for God Himself.  We must want to be in His presence and to be with Him.  Whatever trying matters are pressing us at this time we should realize that the initial reason for prayer is relational.  Left to themselves even Christians fall back into a spirit of independence, only coming to God when they need something from Him; when they need something fixed.  This is a misuse of prayer.  Not because we shouldn’t bring our requests before God – assuredly we should.  But because prayer is communication between us and God it is nothing if it is not God-focused.  “Hallowed be Thy Name; Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done..” is, you recall, the first supplication in our Lord’s Model Prayer (Matt. 6:9-10).  True prayer to God must indeed be to God.  How often this fact is set aside by us in our rush to get answers.  The answers are there, but never at the expense of the right relationship.

Part Two

 

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10 comments

  1. Hi Paul,

    If I may quibble again. You used *the* “most important aspect of the Christian life”. In my mind prayer is vital for the Christian and we are commanded to “always pray in the Holy Spirit, keeping ourselves in the love of God” (Jude). However, in my view, understanding the words of the Spirit (the Bible) takes priority. Remember Jesus’ prayer: “sanctify them by your truth, your word is truth” (John 17).

    Secondary sources are often helpful and they consist in a variety of teachings, insights, opinions on the multitude of aspects of the text. Secondary sources should be consulted for sure, but the primary source (the Bible) remains that which we should consult most by reading large portions of it usually systematically. The Bible explains itself, especially if aided by the Spirit. It is inescapable the many commands by the NT apostles to read and understand Moses, The Prophets, and the Writings. Every time a NT author quotes the OT, it is also a call for the Christian to be familiar with it (the OT). The promise of being taught by the Spirit is for us today (I John 2.27). In my humble opinion, being immersed in every part of Scripture, helps the Christian know God better than any secondary source. Knowing God better and abiding in Christ will make the believer’s prayers more meaningful and even more effective in my view.

    1. Well,

      This is the first installment so give me some time to ‘set the stall out’ so to speak. 😉

      I am not persuaded that Bible knowledge, in and of itself, is as important as prayer. In fact, I am sure I would rather have pray-ers in my church than Bible students (though both would be very desirable). As one who has devoted 25 plus years to studying the Bible in depth I am second to noone in advocating Bible literacy, and for some of the reasons you cite. But God wants us to communicate with Him and depend on Him, and that can’t be done if we are not regularly praying to Him. The personal dimension of creature to Creator is seen most expressly in ones prayer life.

      I shall have more to say about the role of the Bible in this little series. Sometimes (one thinks of D.L. Moody) great men of prayer have said that they should have spent less time praying and more time listening to God in the Bible. I get it. But Moody’s “less time” would be a good deal more than my time notwithstanding!

      Lastly, we must be clear on what is and what isn’t the doctrine of the Illumination of the Spirit. It is that the Spirit confirms His Word to us AS His Word; not that He interprets it for us. If the latter were the case one would have to say that those who disagree with my interpretation are not very spiritual; or that I am not very spiritual; or that the Holy Spirit gives conflicting interpretations to the saints.

      So, while you have an ally regarding the cruciality of Bible reading and study, I am yet of the opinion that prayer is the most important aspect of the Christian’s DAILY life”

      God bless you and yours,

      Paul

      1. Hi Paul,

        Of course I am not advocating some kind of mystical notions of interpretation. I do see more however than the narrow definition you give that it is “to us AS His Word.” Terms such as “open my eyes”, “teach” seem to say more than how you define it. It is not an interpretation either. Yes, I get the aspect of confirmation but there seems to be more though than just confirmation. Again, no mystical interpretations either.

        Absolutely agree with regular, daily prayer. I will side with Moody on this issue however and think that knowing the Bible better leads to better prayers and not necessarily the converse.

        Also, we should examine the prayers of the text and try to understand the import of what is being said and model our own prayers after those prayers. An example is Paul’s prayer toward the Ephesians in the first chapter of that book. Other prayers are more straight forward in that the idea is obvious such as the many prayers of Psalms.

        While on this subject, I could ask you a recommendation of an analysis of the Lord’s prayer. I have heard many of them without being fully satisfied as to its total meaning and reference. Yes, it is a part of my daily prayer, and I think I get the points somewhat but I desire to understand it better.

        I look towards your additional installments in this series.

        Alex

  2. Paul, thanks for this timely series. I’m struggling at this stage of Christian life on the teachings related to Christian prayer and God’s way of guidance. I have been getting acquainting myself to the subject of God’s providence and that God has spoken to us these last days through Jesus which is recorded in the Scriptures (in the Garry Frieson and Kevin deYoung mold). If you could help me over where I got right or require corrections that will be great. Also to Dan Phillips and many other Calvinists and non-calvinists who read this, I’m aware that many of you are active here, if you can share your thoughts on this that will be great.

    To give you a background, I was discipled when a new believer that God does do something personally to you and you can tell immediately afterwards of His providence and God does work through your inner peace and open/closed doors, even though it is not a charismatic background (I think it is more of the Chuck Swindoll or D.L. Moody model). And now immersing in the deYoung/Payne and Jensen/Friesen.

    It seems funny to me that the full Reformed or highly calvinistic world seems to have an aversion to God doing supernaturally in our time and world. I have noticed that the Christians in this world would be following the Friesen model in the form that is like:

    1. study and read the scriptures
    2. talk to other Christians for advice
    3. pray to God will help me understand the scriptures, and conversation will be full of passing on wisdom
    4. And then go on to life. [For the devout they will thank God with how things are carried out]

    I find that in the calvinistic circles, there is an aversion to using prayers to lay your concerns to God and having confidence He will answer our prayers. I’m not sure whether it is caused by they taking the Reformed notion of God’s all sovereign rule and interpreted it to mean God has all that sussed out, and if our prayers are not answered it’s because we are still minding our business rather than God’s business etc. And I notice this myself that, the longer I’ve been in the calvinistic church atmosphere, I find myself speaking like “Yes I will pray about [the upcoming decision] and see what is the wisest way to do it” as if God is out of the picture in my life other tahn helping me to read the Bible and understand His Word, while the non-calvinist will exhort me to know that “God has something in store special to you. Trusting in Him, He will certainly guide you to a particular decision”.

    The reason I’ve been asking this is that I did recall my more enthusiastic, trusting in God that His omnipotence means He is actively Lord and making things happening in our world back when I was less calvinistic in the whole theological camp. If the Lord is truly Lord in everything, He will make His rule manifest in ways all over the ages that you can see as the results of His pulling levers. Often (and I would say don’t expect Him to always do that) the open doors/signs are so coincidental that you can tell God’s working immediately after and you don’t need to wait 20 odd years to figure out it was God who did it. When these coincidence happened, I find the non-calvinistic will increase their trust in the Lord, while the calvinists or us calvinistics all appear like deists that “Sure may be God is doing it, but I can’t be absolutely certain…”

    This leads to a murkier subject: how to we make that God can do supernatural things? I personally see the preservation of the Jews, restoration of Israel as a nation aster 2,000 years kicked ourt of their ancestral homeland, the increase of earthquakes, all these are some supernatural signs of God telling us something about Him and His Son Jesus’ soon return, and we are to use this for our apologetics. However, the Calvinists always resort to philosophy and they don’t trust these things (because they are into replacement theology maybe, but once again it’s mroe of a “I don’t know if it’s God’s doing until the other side of Heaven” mindset). I find that most calvinists are also believe that God works exclusively on their intellectual side (they may pay lip service to the point that Christianity is a matter of believing in heart in addition to beleiving in mind, but many don’t in practice)

    I’m finding myself getting dissatified with the calvinistic model of prayer and God’s guidance as commonly taught by calvinistic authors. Feeling like I’m ready to move back into a more in-between position (and off the record: I cross paths with teachers in my own Christian circles, people who are respected in our local calvinist corner of Christendom, even they believe the Payne+Jensen/deYoung model doesn’t take into account of open doors and inner peace guidance and God does and will often work there). Am I getting the calvinistic assumptions wrong? Or is it my non-calvinistic past muddling up? Or do the non-calvinists have a point really? For the record I’ve never bought into the charismatic movement or pentecostalism, and the Christians who mentored me that “God will store up something very special for each Christian” are actually much closer to calvinism than arminianism – some of them are even 4-point calvinists in the Dallas Theological Seminary mold.

    Once again, many thanks in advance for any help.

    1. Joel,

      What you describe is familiar, although definitely peculiar in some ways. You say, “I find that in the calvinistic circles, there is an aversion to using prayers to lay your concerns to God and having confidence He will answer our prayers.”

      I cannot comment on your experience brother, and the newer authors may disappoint. But plenty of (let us call them) Reformed authors certainly advocated a living vital relational scope to prayer. If I may (although perhaps this will get clearer as this series continues), many Puritans held to a strongly relational (as against “intellectual”) view of prayer wherein God hears and acts in response to hearing, along the lines of Dan. 9 & 10. Your language is somewhat ambiguous, but let me say this:

      1. Prayer IS relational and is ordained by God to “move” God’s hand in line with His will. We MUST have this belief in the power of prayer! Prayer takes hold of God like Jacob with the angel.

      2. Prayer is therefore related to providence in that it changes things. If you don’t like that wording we might say that things which would have happened to the good do not happen because we don’t pray. “You have not because you ask not.” BUT as men like Flavel and Leighton have said, you never try to track providence for signs of God’s moving (more on this to come). You can thank God for what He has done, but it is not always easy to know what He is doing.

      3. I don’t think this is a Calvinist/Arminian issue. It is a consecration issue. Sure, you will have to pick out some things from these men, but because prayer deals with the heart-motives it is not always precise in its theological exclamations. Prayer is messy and hard and often we feel worthless because our prayers are so pathetic and our hearts so unmoved.

      4. Perhaps read anew biographies of men like Wesley, Whitefield, Fletcher, Payson. As Wesley said, “God does nothing but by prayer.” If you have Lloyd-Jones on Ephesians 6:10ff (2 vols) or J.C. Ryle’s books on “Practical Religion” and “Holiness,” they will be great encouragements.

      But above all, read what the Bible says about the matter and the character of God. It is His Name which is behind these promises.

      Brother, I hope this helps.

      Your brother,

      Paul

      1. Your point 2 is probably the one that I’m struggling with the most Paul. Looking at my issues from another perspective I find that many Calvinists I know in my local church circles say points 1 and 2, but then act as if God leaves us with His Word and the He works today by just helping believers read the Bible and arrange world events that help evangelism. De facto, I feel that they pay lip service to message that God answers prayers, but reality we are supposed to pray only things that we know are surely in line with God’s will – which in practice it means His explicit will that is recorded in the Bible (eg God’s kingdom come, and more people getting saved and mature in Christ).

        Case in point: do you pray for the healing of a 70-year old grandfather who has terminal lung cancer, and how? A lot of Christians in our own circles reason that since modern medicine is a gift from God, and God normally, and unless exception, only works through the hands of oncologists on matters as such, and given the survival rates of over-65 patients with terminal lung cancer is rather dismal, we shouldn’t really mean to pray for God’s healing hands on that brother. My non-Calvinist Christian brothers and sisters have said such sentimentis are in fact not trusting in God’s sovereignty: God’s hands can intervene and our prayers will not go in vain.

        It may be an issue of “You have Calvinists and then you have Calvinists”. I may have been living in a corner within the Calvinist world that overerr on God’s sovereignty in this world. Or simply that everyone is still growing to learn the truth fully about prayers and how God answers them. I hope that it is the case.

        Getting back to my primary theological concern, I’m feeling the heat of your point “never try to track providence for signs of God’s moving”. The Calvinists I encounter in my own local circles would err on the cautious side so much such that they will not abscribe anything at all to God for the simple reason that they aren’t certain any of these are His works! In contrast, the non-Calvinists will come around and often point out that these events show the personal sovereign hand of God guiding believers. My experience, and I caution them because they may not agree with the Bible, is that God does make Himself visibly manifest and known in some ways in every believer’s life because He is simply the Lord of all things in the universe and He loves to shower manifestation of His sovereignty to all who love Him, and we may not have to wait long to see something is so out of the ordinary that it can only be God’s providence at work.

        I personally know tales of no one at local church was hurt in a destructive that hit during a weekday’s lunch time, or a Christian sister alone and in a new country doing mission support showered with kindness and safe guidance very soon after she prayed for God’s protection. (these are true events and yeah I got them from first person accounts, only that I had changed the details a little here and there) I’m just feeling the common Calvinistic explanations seem to be discounting the significance of these types of events.

        But going back to the point, yeah I look forward to more learning, and look forward to get my hands onto the following parts of this series. Thank you Paul for sharing your thoughts and about the recommendations on Puritans’ biographies and J.C. Ryles’ books. Your help is much appreciated and I will following other posts with equal interest.

  3. Joel,

    I’ll just here say something on this:
    “do you pray for the healing of a 70-year old grandfather who has terminal lung cancer, and how?”

    My answer is that if we are in constant communion with God by prayer our sensitivity to these sorts of questions is more acute. There is nothing wrong in praying for healing, but since all true prayer is “in the Holy Spirit” I think one has to take this sensitivity thing into account.

    P

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