Leading Question: Why are God’s answers to prayer so unpredictable?
The topic prayer is a huge one. The list of different kinds of prayer is impressive: Praise, thanksgiving, complaint, and petitionary are some of the more notable ones. For this lesson we will focus on two kinds of prayer. One is petitionary prayer; the other is well-known under the heading of “praying without ceasing,” but our understanding of it is less focused. I have elected to call it “purifying prayer” as a means of clarifying it’s role in our daily life.
Petitionary Prayer: Three Perspectives. In one of my classes, I ask my students to work through three different perspectives on prayer represented by three different believers. I will list them here briefly with their books, and quick summary of their position:
Harold Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Kushner is a Jewish rabbi who was so horrified what early aging disease (progeria) did to his little boy, and he took steps to preserve the goodness of God at the cost of divine power. He argues that God can listen, but cannot intervene. He does not believe in miraculous intervention. Prayer helps the believer understand, accept, and grow. But God cannot respond with specific acts of intervention.
Roger Morneau, The Incredible Power of Prayer. Morneau, a Seventh-day Adventist layman, has written several books. This one is an edited version drawn from several of them. After some harrowing experiences in the realm of the demonic, Morneau experienced a dramatic and miraculous conversion. In all of his books he argues that if we are right with God, God will answer our prayers. In other words, his is the opposite reaction to Kushner’s. Morneau does not address the question of unanswered prayers from worthy and devout people.
C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, and “The Efficacy of Prayer,” in The World’s Last Night and Other Essays. Lewis represents the middle ground between Kushner and Morneau. He knows that God intervenes. He experienced in the restoration of his wife. But then he watched her die a painful death. His essay, “The Efficacy of Prayer” is one of the best short descriptions that I know of. It was originally published in Atlantic Monthly, no less in 1959. Here are his three concluding paragraphs:
Prayer is not a machine. It is not magic. It is not advice offered to God. Our act, when we pray, must not, any more than all our other acts, be separated from the continuous act of God Himself, in which alone all finite causes operate.
It would be even worse to think of those who get what they pray for as a sort of court favorites, people who have influence with the throne. The refused prayer of Christ in Gethsemane is answer enough to that. And I dare not leave out the hard saying which I once heard from an experienced Christian: “I have seen many striking answers to prayer and more than one that I thought miraculous. But they usually come at the beginning: before conversion, or soon after it. As the Christian life proceeds, they tend to be rarer. The refusals, too, are not only more frequent; they become more unmistakable, more emphatic.”
Does God then forsake just those who serve Him best? Well, He who served Him best of all said, near His tortured death, “Why hast thou forsaken me?” When God becomes man, that Man, of all others, is least comforted by God, at His greatest need. There is a mystery here which, even if I had the power, I might not have the courage to explore. Meanwhile, little people like you and me, if our prayers are sometimes granted, be-[10-11] yond all hope and probability, had better not draw hasty conclusions to our own advantage. If we were stronger, we might be less tenderly treated. If we were braver, we might be sent, with far less help, to defend far more desperate posts in the great battle. – C. S. Lewis, “The Efficacy of Prayer,” in The World’s Last Night and Other Essays, 10-11.
Question: What biblical examples of prayer would shed light on these three different perspectives? Are there “truths” about prayer that one can find in all three?
Purifying Prayer: Practical applications. Anyone familiar with the New Testament knows about the admonition to pray without ceasing (1 Thess. 5:17). But how does that work in real life? I will attach a chapter from my book Beyond Common Ground (PPPA 2009) that deals with the question. For me, it represents an approach that has transformed my devotional life, turning into an eager, internal necessity, rather than an external requirement.
The Devotional Life
The Point: Diversity makes prayer more crucial but less visible.
Jesus says: “Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” – Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 6:5-6, NRSV)
Jesus says: “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”– Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 6:7-8, NRSV)
The Bible says: “In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.”– Mark on Jesus’ prayer life (Mark 1:35, NRSV)
She says: “Those who do not learn every day in the school of Christ, who do not spend much time in earnest prayer, are not fit to handle the work of God in any of its branches, for if they do, human depravity will surely overcome them and they will lift up their souls unto vanity.” – Testimonies to Ministers, 169
She says: “When men cease to depend upon men, when they make God their efficiency, then there will be more confidence manifested in one another. Our faith in God is altogether too feeble and our confidence in one another altogether too meager.” Testimonies to Ministers, 214
They say: “I am certainly unfit to advise anyone else on the devotional life. My own rules are (1) To make sure that, wherever else they may be placed, the main prayers should not be put ‘last thing at night.’ (2) To avoid introspection in prayers – I mean not to watch one’s own mind to see if it is in the right frame, but always to turn the attention outwards to God. (3) Never, never to try to generate an emotion by will power. (4) To pray without words when I am able, but to fall back on words when tired or otherwise below par. With renewed thanks. Perhaps you will sometimes pray for me?”– C. S. Lewis to Mrs. Ursula Roberts, Letters of C. S. Lewis, 256
This is an awkward chapter for me. The topic of prayer sets off several warning bells in my head. First, in at least two places, the Gospels warn of the dangers of advertising our prayer life. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus bluntly advises a private prayer life behind closed doors (Matt. 6:5-6). And Jesus’ story of the Pharisee and the publican is hardly a ringing call to convene a prayer conference (Luke 18:9-14).
I have always been intrigued by the fact that the Gospels tell us almost nothing about Jesus’ own prayer life. Mark tells us that Jesus got up very early, went to a private place and prayed. But Mark doesn’t tell us anything about what actually happened when Jesus prayed. When the disciples asked Jesus to help them with their praying, “as John taught his disciples” (Luke 11:1-4), our Greek New Testament puts Jesus’ answer into a 39-word prayer. That’s all, hardly the stuff to take you through a full night of prayer. The similar prayer in the Sermon on the Mount is a bit longer: 57 words plus the later addition of the 15-word doxology.
Coming down to my own day, I remember the wry comment of Gordon Balharrie, Dean of the School of Theology when I enrolled at Walla Walla College as a first-year theology student. “Young theology students are sorely tempted to preach their first sermon on the topic of prayer,” he said. “Don’t do it. You don’t know enough about the topic to preach on it.”
Finally, I remember the comments of two devout young women who attended a prayer conference led by a well-known Evangelical. In the course of the conference the leader presumed to specify how much time one “should” spend in prayer each day. “I was making good progress in my prayer life – until I went to the conference,” one of girls told me. “The conference put my prayer life into reverse!”
All that almost adds up to a convincing argument against saying anything about prayer!
But not quite. In fear and trembling, I do want to share a few insights that I have found beneficial, ones that are directly connected with my discovery of the diversity in Scripture and in the church. To be quite candid, in my earlier years, my devotional life had been quite ordinary. I had been following the basic plan popularized by a number of speakers and writers, but linked most prominently in my memory with the name of Morris Venden. In short, I followed the Big Three of the devotional life: pray, study, and share.
The plan is a solid one. My problem was that for me it had been mostly external, a check list rather than an internalized process. Pray? Check. Study? Check. Share? – the toughest one… Check. I imagined God to be something like a giant Scout master with a chart. If I could tick off my Big Three for the day, God would be pleased and I could get on with life. I didn’t want to admit it, but with that kind of external check-list approach I could miss my devotions and not even miss them. It was embarrassing, troubling, discouraging.
But when I began to realize the significance of the diversity in Scripture – matching the diversity in the church – a transformation was underway. I will simply lay out my conclusions under the heading of the three “conversation partners.”
Three Conversation Partners: Scripture, Reason, Holy Spirit
In my more traditional approach to prayer, my conversation partners in prayer found it easy to quarrel with each other, and for two reasons. First, if my reason told me that a particular passage of Scripture didn’t apply to me, I felt guilty for rejecting the “authority” of Scripture in favor of my own reason. Second, I had been programed as a child – probably as an adult, too – to turn to prayer as a last resort. Lost keys, for example? Turn the house upside down – exhausting all merely human resources – then pray. That’s prayer as a last resort.
The new plan is revolutionary, peace loving. My conversation partners never quarrel anymore. Each has a clear-cut task to bring to the table and we work it through. It’s a wonderful plan. Let me explain.
1. Scripture. Once I was able to say out loud that Scripture is more like a casebook than a codebook, then I could be perfectly honest with what Scripture can and cannot do. What came clear to me is the difference between a visit from a live prophet and a visit to the written record of the prophet’s work in Scripture. A great gulf is fixed between the two. If a prophet were to confront me, for example, as Nathan did David with his bony finger and an announcement – “You are the man!” (2 Sam. 12:7) – how could I possibly claim that the prophetic message did not apply to me but should simply be added to the casebook? To quote an Old Testament exclamation: Such a thing is not done in Israel! ( 2 Sam. 12-13, NASB).
But when the confrontation is over and all we have is the written record, then the event does indeed simply become part of an expanded casebook. In David’s case, of course, his guilt was clearly evident. There’s absolutely no question about that. But where the casebook would come in – for Nathan, for example – is the question of how to deal with David. Heavy hand or gentle? Sermon, story, or straight rebuke? In our day, the question might revolve around email, voice mail, regular mail, or a personal visit. Which one and when? From among the cases open to him, Nathan chose to open with a parable of the rich man who stole the poor man’s sheep.
So, to be perfectly blunt, Scripture can never tell me exactly what I should teach my students. The “cases” in Scripture can inform questions of content as well as questions of when and how. But nowhere in Scripture can I find a clear “Thus saith the Lord” to guide me in all my decisions day by day. Nor will Scripture tell me what I should include in this book. It provides me with a host of examples. But the decisions do not simply jump from my Bible into the manuscript. And that brings me to the next conversation partner, Reason.
2. Reason. Several thoughtful voices have suggested that my approach to Scripture exalts reason over revelation. That is a serious matter, to be sure. But if Scripture does not “self-apply” in my daily life (as noted above), just how are applications made? The hard truth is that my head (or heart – I use the terms almost interchangeably) is the only part of my body suitable to the task. I cannot use my elbow, my chin, or my knee. I have to use my head.
But one of the “truths” that is abundantly clear in a host of passages throughout Scripture – could I say a host of “cases”? – is that my reason (heart) is suspect, seriously suspect. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” exclaims Jeremiah (Jer. 17:9, KJV). The NRSV says it is “devious” and “perverse.”
So what does one do with a deceitful, devious, wicked, and perverse heart?
Our only choice is to bring it to God, and plead, as David did, for cleansing and renewal. In Psalm 51, for example, the cries rise heavenward again and again: “Wash me.” “Cleanse me.” “Purge me.” “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me” (Ps. 51:2, 7, 10).
My head, my heart, is the only part of me capable of evaluating and applying the cases I find in Scripture. Yet my heart is thoroughly incapable unless I come to God in brokenness and humility. The bitter truth of that necessity is vividly portrayed in these lines from W. H. Auden:
O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You must love your crooked neighbor
With your crooked heart.
– W. H. Auden, The Collected Poetry of W. H. Auden, via Roger Robbennolt in Carnival Tales for Blind Ben See (Leavenworth, KS: Forest of Peace Publishing, 1999), 111, 161.
A crooked heart is all I have. So I come to God for cleansing, for healing. Unless I do, I am in great danger of twisting Scripture, misusing it in my life and in the life of others, wreaking havoc wherever I might turn and greatly dishonoring my Savior. God’s spirit is quite capable of working through good people who do not even know him (Cf. Rom 2:14; Matt. 25; DA 638).But for those of us who claim to know him and claim to be acting on his behalf, the expectations are infinitely higher.
These stinging words from Ellen White are ones that I rarely share and for several reasons which you might surmise. But this is where they fit: “Those who do not learn every day in the school of Christ,” she says, “who do not spend much time in earnest prayer, are not fit to handle the work of God in any of its branches, for if they do, human depravity will surely overcome them and they will lift up their souls unto vanity.” – Testimonies to Ministers, 169
And so we come to the third conversation partner, the Holy Spirit.
3. Holy Spirit, invited through prayer. The role of this third conversation partner is so easily misunderstood because of our tendency to use prayer as a last resort. After exhausting all human resources, we pray. I don’t want to diminish the value of urgent and even last-minute cries to God. They are thoroughly biblical and entirely appropriate in their place. But “emergency” prayer is not the same as “purifying” prayer, a concept that comes much closer to what I have in mind. Let me explain.
The purpose of bringing my crooked heart to God for cleansing or purification is so that my head (heart) might be in a better position to perceive God’s will in Scripture. Purifying prayer enables my mind, my reason, to fulfill its proper role in the three-cornered conversation. A purified heart is the only kind that has a half a chance of understanding and applying Scripture in accordance with God’s will. In emergency prayer, I usually throw up my hands and turn everything over to God, dropping out of the conversation completely. The “emergency prayer” approach might suggest that I simply open my Bible at random and expect the Spirit to let my finger fall on the right verse.
I suspect that purifying prayer is what Paul had in mind when he admonished the Thessalonian believers to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17). When we are in a constant attitude of prayer we will be in a much better position to represent God’s character and will in our decisions. When it comes to our study of Scripture, “praying without ceasing” means that we will be using our heads more, thinking more, not less. Because we are in an attitude of prayer, God can guide our minds and hearts into proper attitudes and good applications.
In my conversations with other Christians I am constantly on the lookout for good metaphors to illustrate how prayer works in our lives. One friend suggested that we are like a radio playing God’s signal. I complained that a radio was too passive a model. Another friend suggested a control tower at an airport. That one works better, for it requires the “presence” of Someone in the tower, but also active decisions on the part of the pilot.
The metaphor I find most useful, however, is the Brita water filter or any kind of chemical filter across a moving stream. The idea of a water filter illustrates the difference between the life that is rooted in prayer and one that is not, for when we are not in communion with God, life goes on. We eat, sleep, talk, work, and play, regardless of whether we are in communion with God. But like the water flowing through a saturated filter that no longer filters, the life untouched by prayer keeps flowing; it simply is not purified by contact with the divine.
There is one other very “rational” part of this approach to prayer that I discovered when our two girls were young. On those relatively rare occasions when parental direction seemed necessary, I found myself saying, “Ask Jesus to help you.” Then I began wondering what I was expecting Jesus to do. Would he come with a giant 20cc syringe and inject some help?
I concluded that what would be most helpful for them – and for me, too, when I needed special help – was to ask for help and to remember asking for help. Somehow it is much more difficult to be nasty when I am actively praying for the other person’s good and remembering that I have prayed for that person’s good.
That same procedure applies when I come to Scripture with my crooked heart. If I can consistently remember that I am doing God’s work instead of my own, I will be using my mind, my heart, my reason, all the more, but under the purifying influence of God’s Spirit.
Does such an approach guarantee right answers? Not at all. Indeed, when Ellen White was counseling a brother to “educate” himself so that he would have “wisdom to deal with minds,” she concludes her counsel on a cautionary note: “Our heavenly Father frequently leaves us in uncertainty in regard to our efforts” (3T 420).
To my grateful amazement, my devotional life as been greatly enriched by my knowledge of the diversity in Scripture and in the church. Instead of an external checklist, I now know that study and prayer is intrinsic to the life of the Christian. Only through study and prayer will I be able to address the needs that I will meet during the day. Every student, every class, is a call to prayer, a fresh situation that must be brought before the Lord. Devotions are no longer a chore. I rejoice that I have the privilege of being in touch with God as I seek to be his faithful witness.
It is also a joy to know that I don’t have to feel guilty about deciding which part of Scripture is appropriate for any particular person or situation. Nor do have to “let go and let God” (whatever that might mean….). Instead of letting go, I hang on all the tighter, knowing that God expects me to be faithful in my witness for him.
To sum up, the Bible provides the cases, but never tells me what case I should use in any particular situation. My heart and mind must process the cases in order to make the proper application. But my crooked heart must constantly be brought in touch with God through prayer so that this deceitful chunk of humanity can be purified in God’s presence.
After I have done my homework, then I am ready to join my brothers and sisters to ponder the work of the church. If we have each done our personal work, then we will come together as the early Christians did in Acts 15. We will make important decisions when “it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28).
Question: How can we make “purifying prayer” a constant part of our daily life? Does it help clarify the role of “revealed” cases and “reason” as we live our life?