Nelson was one of my closest friends from college. We lived in the same dorm for the last two years and went to an urban semester in Philadelphia . I saw him become interested in his future wife, and was a groomsman at the marriage. Three years later we met at a conference in Milwaukee . He had attended a liberal seminary, as had I, but there was a difference. I had gotten a last minute scholarship to attend the conference and was telling him about how God was answering prayer. Nelson didn't believe in prayer, I discovered to my sorrow and consternation. None of my arguments carried weight. About ten years later I was able to contact him. He and his wife were divorced and he really didn't want to establish an ongoing relationship. He was working for the National Council of Churches, the last I heard. [There is not a 1:1 relationship, let me be quick to say.] If we believe in God, who we perceive God to be and who we perceive our self to be is pivotal to the practice of prayer.
The most effective prayer is based upon the deepest and most intimate knowledge of God. Prayer is normally directed to the Father, as Jesus taught us in the Lord's Prayer of Luke 11.
That knowledge is gained first through the Word of God, particularly its praise of God found in the Psalms. The best primer on prayer is the study of the Psalms, preferably a Psalm a day. One of the most helpful to me is Ps. 103, which reprograms my theology almost every time I meditate upon it. The first seven verses reveal God from His deeds and vs. 7-19 are a kind of palette of His perfections--the last few verses can't contain the praise.
The doxologies are another way to understand God's character. The Father is described in Revelation: READ 4:2-11. A favorite of mine is "Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!" (Rev. 7:12, NIV). Or "Great and marvelous are your deeds, Lord God Almighty. Just and true are your ways, King of the Ages. Who will not fear you, O Lord, and bring glory to your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come before you, for your righteous acts have been revealed." (Rev. 15:3b-4). Or "God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. To him be honor and might forever. Amen." (1 Tim. 6:15b-16).
You might try reading Job 38-42:6 aloud (especially ch. 38). We have largely lost the sense of the Otherness of God, of His overwhelming magnificence. This is why we have a crisis of worship in the evangelical church at large. We cannot give worship to One whose worth we do not understand. Nor can we pray to One we poorly understand. Paul prayed for the Ephesians, "I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better." (Eph. 1:17).
God also reveals Himself by what He does in our life, and in the lives of others. Job said, "My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes." (Job 42:5-6). It is wise to record what He does, both for us and for our posterity. I have kept notes of outstanding answers to prayer written soon after the events and tucked them into a large envelope and later compiled them. I've begun a file entitled "God's Ways", which are patterns of what God has actually done in my life. God said of the generation of Moses, "For forty years I was angry with that generation; I said, "they are a people whose hearts go astray, and they have not known my ways." (Ps. 95:10).
Sometimes we know God by what He does NOT do in our life. He hides Himself at times: "Truly you are a God who hides himself, O God and Savior of Israel." (Is. 45:15). His silence humbles us, and forces us to Himself, because we have, in truth, nowhere else to go. For a period of 3 months in the spring of 1994 I prayed and nothing happened. In fact, it was almost as if God was saying, "Not only am I not listening, I want you to understand that I'm not listening." That is almost terrifying, because the rug has been pulled out. There is no other real resource. It is like running toward the lawnmower. In such a case we should keep praying. "Come, let us return to the Lord. He has torn us to pieces but he will heal us; he has injured us but he will bind up our wounds." (Hos. 6:1). "Come near to God and He will come near to you." (Jas. 4:8). "And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?" (Luke 18:7-8). Faith is the equivalent to persisting before God. Finally, after showing me how little faith I had, and what pride I had, He again listened.
The ancient hymn writers seemed to understand God on a much higher plane. Perhaps they had fewer distractions and fewer opportunities to be entertained. Read and sing the lyrics of hymns through 1600 AD to know God. I'd recommend taking a hymnbook with you when you go off to pray. Try singing "All People That On Earth Do Dwell" (1565), a later one, "Immortal, Invisible" (1839), "All Creatures of our God and King" (1225, St. Francis of Assisi ). Granted, there are some great choruses and scripture songs, "Thou Art Worthy", "I Love You Lord", etc.
Until we are in the process of knowing God, we will not have the faith we need for our praying, and whatever is not of faith is sin (Rom. 14:23 ). Or our prayers will be too small. The prayers of St. Paul were outrageously bold. "And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge--that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God." (Eph. 3:16-19). Chew on that. He wants us to know love so deep that it cannot be known, and to be filled with all the fullness of God. That's all. Then, not content, he wrote, "Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus, throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen." ( 3:20 -21) Daniel prayed, "O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with all who love him and obey his commands..." (Dan. 9:4). Perhaps the limiting power at work within us is that of faith. Faith comes from hearing, and hearing from the Word of God (Rom.10:17). To be people of prayer, we need to be people who know the God of the Book. "Let us know the Lord, let us press on to know the Lord." (Hos. 6:2, NASB ). "This is what the Lord says: 'Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,' declares the Lord." (Jer. 9:23-24).
We also know God by spending time with God. This is frankly mystic, I realize. There are parallels. Jesus said that He would "disclose" himself to those who obey Him (John 14:21 ). Abraham knew more about God after praying for Sodom (Gen. 18:16-33). In that time we can ask Him to reveal Himself to us. We can wait upon God in silence (Ps. 62:1,5, NASB ). He can implant ideas and desires within us as we spend unhurried time with Him. It is good to havea pen and notebook or planner to remember to do what He may indicate. We can also record prayer requests for future reference.
As we learn who God is in Scripture, take note of His interventions in our life, and spend time in praise and fellowship, we have more faith by which to approach God and with which to pray. Our faith spirals upward. We lay hold upon God for ever greater mountains.
God is perfect, holy, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent and the essence of love, but we are not. "The Lord is exalted over all the nations, his glory above the heavens. Who is like the Lord our God, the One who sits enthroned on high, who stoops down to look on the heavens and the earth?" (Ps. 113:5-6). Yet in the next verse, the next breath, we learn, "He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap." (v. 7). He is concerned about even those WE are LEAST concerned about, generally. The poor, dazed victim of war, famine, pestilence and violence, He gathers up.
This is a great mystery. This is an unutterably great God. "Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket; they are regarded as dust on the scales; he weighs the islands as though they were fine dust." (Is. 40:15). Yet He raises the poor from the dust.
"Do you not know, Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom." Yet, in the next verse, "He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak." (Is. 40:28-29). The unutterably Other, condescends to intervene in the lives of the poor, the needy and the weary and the weak. And that is us.
One more example. "This is what the Lord says--the Holy One of Israel, and its Maker: concerning things to come, do you question me about my children, or give me orders about the work of my hands? It is I who made the earth and created mankind upon it. My own hands stretched out the heavens; I marshaled their starry hosts. I will raise up Cyrus in my righteousness: I will make his ways straight. He will rebuild my city and set my exiles free, but not for a price or reward, says the Lord Almighty." (Is.45:11-13). Isaiah's last dated ministry was in 701 BC. Cyrus II (The Great) did not ascend to the throne until 559 BC (New Bible Dictionary, 2nd Ed. p.521,258). He made the heavens, yes, also He'll create a man by name, even a Gentile, even 150 years down the celestial road. And give him a specific mission.
But He does not simply intervene at His convenience, leisure or whim so to speak. The profound and wonderful truth is that He invites us into His presence at our discretion. We are truly King's kids. We are always welcome into the Control Room of the Universe, at the knees of the King.
Jesus said, "When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what you have done in secret will reward you." Matt. 6:6-7. No hours are posted on the celestial doors, just when you pray.
Beyond that, God seems to delight in our presence. Daniel was a man "highly esteemed" by God (Dan. 9:23). It was his habit to pray three times a day, "giving thanks to his God." (Dan. 6:10). David prayed evening, morning and noon " when in distress (Ps. 55.17). He described himself as a "Man of prayer" (NIV translation) and wrote the majority of the Psalms. He was a man after God's heart. It seems that the closer we come to God, the closer He draws to us, "Come near to God and He will come near to you." (Jas. 4:8; 1 Chron. 28:9).
He seems to delight in communion with us (Lord's Supper) through prayer, since He already knows what we need (Matt. 6:8). He also seems to delight in faith. He rewards secret prayer openly (Matt. 6:6).
But beyond even that, God wants us to "pray without ceasing." (1 Thess. 5:17). Now even those I consider to be the neatest and best friends, even my wife, I would not want to talk with all the time. But such is God's love that He is happy for us to be with Him ALL the time. In fact, He will be doing just that in the New Jerusalem, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God." (Rev. 21:3). The servants of God "will see His face and his name will be on their foreheads." (Rev. 22:4).
What does it mean to pray unceasingly? It doesn't mean to be literally praying at every moment. If so we would be in sin to sleep. But as you think over the life of Paul or John or Peter, can you think of a time when they would not have been at least able to have prayed during waking hours? I cannot. The analogy of the "2-way radio" approaches this concept. Both the base station and the portable unit or both portable units are on the same frequency. They are not constantly talking, but monitor one another and are conscious of the presence of each other. One or the other breaks in unannounced at any moment.
Wesley Duewel gives some illustrations of this kind of praying:
General Stonewall Jackson said, “I have so fixed the habit in my mind that I never raise a glass of water to my lips without asking God's blessing, never seal a letter without putting a word of prayer under the seal, never take a letter from the post without a brief sending of my thoughts heavenward, never change my classes in the lecture room without a minute's petition for the cadets who go out and for those who come in." p. 30
A beloved English physician of the 1600's, Sir Thomas Browne, was an example of constant prayers of blessing. He said, 'I have resolved to pray more and pray always, to pray in all places where quietness inviteth, in the house, on the highway and on the street; and to know no street or passage in this city that may not witness that I have not forgotten God....I purpose to take occasion of praying upon the sight of any church which I may pass, that God may be worshipped there in spirit, and that souls may be saved there; to pray daily for my sick patients and for the patients of other physicians; at my entrance into any home to say, 'May the peace of God abide here'; after hearing a sermon to pray for a blessing on God's truth and upon the messenger; upon the sight of a beautiful person to bless God for His creatures, to pray for the beauty of such an one's soul, that God may enrich 30/31 her with inward graces and that the outward and inward may correspond; upon the sight of a deformed person to pray God to give them wholeness of soul, and by and by to give them the beauty of the resurrection. Touch the world throughPrayer, p. 31
Finally, we are invited into God's presence not only when we wish, and unceasingly, but as sons and daughters of God. In fact, it is just as if we said to God, "Daddy, I need something." That is the Aramaic equivalent of "Abba", which is translated, "Father". Perhaps the most urgent prayer of Jesus' life was prayed in the Gethsemanae Garden : "Abba, Father," he said, "everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will." (Mark 14:36 ). That was the only recorded time that Jesus used the familiar term for "Father". I have found that when the pressure is greatest, so much the more is intimacy needed with the Father. But do we have the same right to this term? "Because you are sons," Paul wrote, "God sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, 'Abba, Father'." (Gal. 4:6). So it is God the Spirit who cries out from within us, to the Father, in such intimacy. It is not only legitimate, but natural, for the child of God. "The fear of the Lord is clean.", but we are given the Spirit of Sonship to dissolve craven and crouching fear of God. We may come just as confidently as a hurting five year old into his father's lap, when we are hurting before God. This God of quasars and quarks.
There are essentially two barriers to such fellowship with God. First is our sin, which has made a separation between us (Is. 59:1-2). Christ has become our peace in His body on the cross, that by faith in Christ's substitutionary sacrifice, we might have "access to the Father by one Spirit". (Eph. 2:14-18). He died that we might have access to the Father. This is great news, but not new news to us.
The second barrier, for a Christian, is failure to use that access. From a theological perspective, the gap has been bridged by Christ; from an experiential one, the gap is bridged by prayer, through Christ (Eph. 2:18 ; 3:12 ). But what does that failure to pray imply? It might imply a defective theology. It might imply that we do not (1 really believe God's "very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires." (2 Pet. 1:4b) (2 our faith is such that not being able to see God, we don't believe in the efficacy of prayer ("faith...is being certain of what we do not see." (Heb. 11:1). (3 we don't believe, in fact, that God can help in our particular circumstances (4 we have not been able to learn who God really is (5 our darkness is such that, in brutal honesty, we think we can do well enough without God, as a rule. God offers us the vehicle of prayer, but offers little without it. "You do not have because you do not ask God." (Jas. 4:2). J.I. Packer put it this way:
Prayer, as we said at the beginning, is a confessing of impotence and need, an acknowledging of helplessness and dependence, and an invoking of the mighty power of God to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. In evangelism, as we saw, we are impotent; we depend wholly upon God to make our witness effective; only because He is able to give men new hearts can we hope that through our preaching of the gospel sinners will be born again. These facts ought to drive us to prayer. It is God's intention that they should drive us to prayer. God means us, in this as in other things, to recognize and confess our impotence, and to tell Him that we rely on Him alone, and to plead with Him to glorify His name. It is His way regularly to withhold His blessings until His people start to pray. 'Ye have not, because ye ask not.'" (Jas. 4:2)..."But if you and I are too proud or lazy to ask, we need not expect to receive. This is the universal rule, in evangelism as elsewhere. God will make us pray before He blesses our labours in order that we may constantly learn afresh that we depend on God for everything. And then, when God permits us to see conversions, we shall not be tempted to ascribe them to our own gifts, or skill, or wisdom, /123 or persuasiveness, but to His work alone, and so we shall know whom we ought to thank for them." "Paul was a great evangelist who had seen much fruit, but Paul knew that every particle of it had come from God, and that unless God continued to work both in him and in those to whom he preached he would never convert another soul." Knowing God, 122-123
There are dragons on the landscape of prayer that I'd like to cordon off. Here are a few smoking ones:
God cannot be manipulated by prayer. He is simply too big and too far above us. God does whatever He wants to do (Is. 46:10; Ps. 115:3; 135:6; Dan. 4:35 ). Prayer is relationship with God. God knows our motives, and those motives can nullify our prayer (James 4:3; "When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures."). Even if we are Christians, believe, ask often, use Jesus' name and pray with thanksgiving, the answer is "No.", with those motives. This separates the Bible from books such as I Ching, which contains formulas to control the supernatural. We cannot move God by a barrage of words, or repetitions, as the Hare Krishnas believe (Matt. 6:7).
We need to avoid a kind of gnostic cult of secret prayer principles. This or that method is a "deep secret" of the deeply initiated which guides us into what God does and does not respond to. Since prayer is so very experiential, we must beware the dragon of simple experience, that has no basis in fact, as known in Scripture or allowed in Scripture. It is good to begin prayer sessions with reading the Bible. It tends to anchor our prayer in reality. It helps to turn aside the wandering mind and to focus us above the plain of the mundane. It helps us to begin to worship. For instance, I used to teach, based upon my experience, that God does not use the likely channels to provide financial support. That had indeed been my experience. The church I grew up in doesn't support me, but a tiny one–room church atop Shut In Gap sought us out and did, as long as we stayed with Cedine. Events have proven me wrong. A very wealthy couple we know “dried in” our house. Prayer can lead to subtle pride.
We have to beware of formulas for the sequence of prayer, such as ACTS: Adoration Confession Thanksgiving Supplication. It is good to begin prayer with thanksgiving and praise. Does Scripture not teach to "Enter His gates with thanksgiving and His courts with praise."? (Ps. 100:4). In fact, it may be good to do both. But it may be good to do neither. When Christians prayed for Peter's release from prison, they began with quoting Scripture (Acts 4:24ff). There is no one right way to pray, except perhaps when we sincerely pray the Lord's Prayer, of Luke 11. Similarly, we have to beware possible bondage to prayer lists and other rituals. "Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom." Such lists can be very useful. I have one list that I use bi-weekly. Another that I use weekly. Donald A. Carson, Research Professor at TEDS, takes prayer letters, alphabetizes them, and prays through the sheaf, but not all at once. But we can come to dread lists.
God may have His own prayer agenda. In fact, we don't know what to pray for, so the Spirit must pray for us (Rom. 8:26 ). He may want us to concentrate upon a given agenda. We pray in the Spirit (Eph. 6:18 ). On one occasion I did not use my prayer list and found myself praying for the city of Chattanooga in various ways. That was not a conscious agenda. Rees Howells, a famous Welsh intercessor during World War II, said, "effective praying must be guided praying." (Rees Howells, Intercessor, in Decision Magazine, "The Mysteries of Prayer", John White, 10/94, p.14).
A subtle pitfall is to have faith in prayer, rather than in the God behind answered prayer. There is a similar idolatry possible with the Bible, that we elevate it above God. One writer on prayer exuded, "We were created to pray." (Duewel). No, we were created to glorify God (1 Cor. 10:31 , whatever we do, do all to the glory of God).
We can hide behind prayer, instead of meeting actual needs with our actual resources. "Be well." "I'll be praying." Sometimes the Lord may not direct our heart to help—which is fine. If we do say we'll pray, it is good to write it down quickly, perhaps at the beginning of a monthly calendar.
We can be selfish in prayer. People at times could care less about our prayer needs, just so long as we're praying for them. One lady asked me to prayer for her "every day". That was laying a snare, and I couldn't agree. I told her that I'd pray, "As the Lord leads."
We can demonstrate pride in telling answers to prayer. We can use prayer as a platform for attention, guilt-tripping others, and magnifying our self instead of God. I'm sure that I've been guilty of this.
Trying to replicate the prayer life of someone else. Praying Hyde, who spent days on end in prayer, urged others NOT to follow his example. God led him to specific disciplines, such as working all day and praying all night at times. We might not know the whole story. Those who get up at 4 AM may retire at 8 or 9 PM.
To fail to confess sin, thus being dishonest before God, either without really thinking about it or avoiding the issue. It is good to ask God to cleanse us from secret sins (Ps. 19:12 ).
To think that we know enough about prayer. One of the organizers of Concerts of Prayer in Chattanooga is Jim Millard. He almost invariably prays, "Lord, teach me to pray." We can always learn more. Often it will be through hearing or reading the prayers of others, which will conceptualize prayers that never occurred to us before. They expand our categories. Even a Book of Common Prayer can do this. Wesley Duewel has written, and I believe correctly, that we learn to pray by praying.