Monday, March 16, 2015

What is Prayer? A Matter of Techniques and Gimmicks?

Is prayer a spiritual force, which we can learn to unleash? In The Power of Prayer on Plants (1959), Rev. Franklyn Loehr tries to make this very point:

  • The discovery that prayer can measurably, and consistently, affect plant growth… is now recognized… Powers hitherto considered occult, extrasensory, or just plain magic, were given scientific proof… Man does have spiritual powers beyond this physical being. (9)
Similarly, Word of Faith TV preacher, Rod Parsley, also claims that prayer is a spiritual power that we have to exercise if we want to receive anything from God:

  • “When you ask God what He wants, He only tells you one time in the whole 1,166 pages of your Bible…’Here’s what I want: Ask of Me!’ Why does He say that? Because He Can’t do it on His own. He can’t get what He wants on His own because He placed you in authority on this earth. Did you hear me? He has to compel you to ask Him so that then He can answer, because He said ‘Call and I will answer.” (CRJ, Hunter) 
According to the Word of Faith preachers, even God depends upon our spiritual authority. This is so different from the teachings of Scripture. Jesus warned His disciples that we can do nothing apart from Him (John 15:5). Paul declared our utter inadequacy (2 Corinthians 3:5).

According to Parsley, God cannot answer our prayers “on His own” and is dependent on us. However, Job confessed the very opposite thing:

  • "I know that You can do everything, and that no purpose of Yours can be withheld from You.” (Job 42:2) 
Did God correct Job’s poor assessment of his own authority? No! Instead God affirmed Job’s words:

  • After the LORD had said these things to Job, he said to Eliphaz the Temanite, "I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. (Job 42:7)
Why did God affirm Job? What had Job said that mattered to God? He had repented:

  • “Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes." (Job 42:6) 
Sarah certainly didn’t exercise her prayer power when she overheard Yahweh promising Abraham that He would give Sarah a child at the ripe age of 90. Instead, she laughed in unbelief. This prompted Yahweh to declare:

  • Is anything too hard for the LORD? At the appointed time I will return to you, according to the time of life, and Sarah shall have a son." (Genesis 18:14)
Evidently, Yahweh did not depend on Sarah to accomplish His purposes. Nor did Jesus require Mary and Martha’s prayers. They had sent word to Jesus to come heal their brother Lazarus who was mortally ill. However, Jesus purposely delayed coming at the time when their faith was at its peak. Instead, He allowed Lazarus to die and only arrived after he had been in the grave for four days. By this time, they had given up all hope and even prayer. When Jesus finally arrived

  • "Lord," Martha said to Jesus, "if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask." Jesus said to her, "Your brother will rise again."  Martha answered, "I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day." (John 11:21-24)
While it seemed that Martha had faith that Jesus could raise up her brother, she only thought that this was possible as part of the future general resurrection. However, Jesus proved that He didn’t need her faith or prayers.

What then is prayer, and how does God desire us to pray? Clearly, it’s not about the exercise of certain techniques or powers. It’s not about controlling our brain waves or even our thinking. Prayer is about something more fundamental and relational.

The Roman Centurion Cornelius was heard by God. Why?

  • He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. (Acts 10:2)
They were “God-fearing.” God was first in their lives. As evidence of this, Cornelius “gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly.” As a result, God sent an angel to him announcing:

  • "Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God.” (Acts 10:4)
Our Lord therefore sent Peter to them to preach the Gospel. As they listened, He filled them with the Holy Spirit. There is no mention here or any other place in the Bible that they first had to learn a set of prayer or concentration techniques. 

In contrast with the biblical revelation, the Quaker mystic, Richard Foster, instructs that if we want to receive from God, we must exercise our imagination:

  • Imagine the light of Christ flowing through your hands and healing every emotional trauma and hurt feeling your child experienced that day. Fill him or her with the peace and joy of the Lord. In sleep the child is very receptive to prayer since the conscious mind, which tends to erect barriers to God’s gentle influence, is relaxed. (Celebration of Discipline, 39)
However, Scripture never identifies the failure to exercise our imagination as a reason for the failure of our prayers. Instead, Scripture consistently identifies our hard heart towards God as the problem. The Lord explained to His prophet Zechariah why He had turned His back on His children, Israel:

  • "But they refused to pay attention; stubbornly they turned their backs and stopped up their ears. They made their hearts as hard as flint and would not listen to the law or to the words that the LORD Almighty had sent by his Spirit through the earlier prophets. So the LORD Almighty was very angry. "'When I called, they did not listen; so when they called, I would not listen,' says the LORD Almighty.” (Zechariah 7:11-13)
Israel’s problem was not that they had failed to exercise their imagination, but that they had turned away from the Lord.

Prayer isn’t magical; nor is it a secret power or even a skill. Instead, it is a matter of being real with God (Psalm 51:6). Our words must express truth and sincerity. Why aren’t our prayers heard? Because they are insincere! The Lord explained His problem with Judah to Jeremiah:

  • “From the time I brought your forefathers up from Egypt until today, I warned them again and again, saying, ‘Obey me.’ But they did not listen or pay attention; instead, they followed the stubbornness of their evil hearts… Therefore this is what the LORD says: 'I will bring on them a disaster they cannot escape. Although they cry out to me, I will not listen to them. The towns of Judah and the people of Jerusalem will go and cry out to the gods to whom they burn incense, but they will not help them at all when disaster strikes. You have as many gods as you have towns, O Judah; and the altars you have set up to burn incense to that shameful god Baal are as many as the streets of Jerusalem.'  "Do not pray for this people nor offer any plea or petition for them, because I will not listen when they call to me in the time of their distress. (Jeremiah 11:7-14)
Only God could rescue Judah – not their gods or their various means of petitioning their God or even the prayers of Jeremiah. They had violated God’s covenant and refused to return. They had turned their backs on God, and now He would turn His back on them.

When Israel turned their back on the Lord, they also turned their back on the commandments of the Lord. Therefore, when the Lord charged Judah with unfaithfulness to their wives, He was also charging them with unfaithfulness to Him and the commandments He had given them:

  • Another thing you do: You flood the LORD's altar with tears. You weep and wail because he no longer pays attention to your offerings or accepts them with pleasure from your hands. You ask, "Why?" It is because the LORD is acting as the witness between you and the wife of your youth, because you have broken faith with her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant. Malachi 2:13-14 (NIV) 
Judah wondered why God wasn’t responding to their offerings and sacrifices, even to their cries and tears. If they weren’t living sincerely and obediently, a yardstick of their faithfulness, all of their fervency was for naught. They had not been faithful with their wives, and they weren’t making any moves to correct this matter. Tears wouldn’t rectify the matter; nor would achieving states of relaxation, but only sincere confession of their sins and repentance.

Some think that if they atone for their own sins by cutting or punishing themselves, they will gain merit before God. However, even these acts of self-sacrifice fail to engage God. If you beat up your wife, self-punishment or an expensive vacation will not take the place of humbly confessing your sins and tangibly demonstrating that you are truly repentant. God requires no less!

Peter echoes the same truth. When we give our sins safe haven, we build a wall against God:

  • Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers. Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing. For, "Whoever would love life and see good days must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from deceitful speech. He must turn from evil and do good; he must seek peace and pursue it. For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their prayer, but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil."  (1 Peter 3:7-12)
When we refuse His will and teachings, we also refuse Him. In effect, we tell Him, “I can live my life just fine without your meddling.” We are also telling Him, “I don’t need you to answer my prayers.”

What does it mean to be righteous? Does it mean that we have to achieve a certain level of spiritual perfection? This is an important question, because Scripture tells us that God is attentive to the righteous (Psalm 4:3; Proverbs 15:29). The righteous are not the morally perfect – none of us are! The righteous are those who turn from their sins:

  • Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it. The eyes of the LORD are on the righteous [those who turn from evil] and his ears are attentive to their cry; the face of the LORD is against those who do evil, to cut off the memory of them from the earth. The righteous cry out, and the LORD hears them; he delivers them from all their troubles. The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. A righteous man may have many troubles, but the LORD delivers him from them all. (Psalm 34:14-19)
Strikingly, King David counted himself among “the righteous” even after his adultery with Bathsheba and murder of her husband, Uriah (Psalm 32). He had been assured that God had forgiven him, and that made all the difference!

Prayer is not a matter of magic or of gimmickry, but rather a sincere and humble cry to a Father who can lift us up and wash us off.

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