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A spiritual guide on how to pray cites the importance of focusing on God rather than on oneself, while it defines the basic theology of prayer and addresses such issues as unanswered prayers.
A spiritual guide on how to pray cites the importance of focusing on God rather than on oneself, while it defines the basic theology of prayer and addresses such issues as unanswered prayers.
I'm an expert on religion. It's what I do.
In fact, I'm probably one of the most religious people you know. I write religious books, do religious broadcasts, speak at religious conferences, and teach in a religious graduate school...where I teach religious students to be more religious and how to teach other religious people to be more religious.
(A friend of mine says that religion is for people who don't want to go to hell, and the Christian faith is for people who've already been there.)
While I am an expert on religion, I'm not an expert on God. Nobody is.
God confuses me, and when it comes to what he's doing, why he's doing it, and why it hurts so much, I'm long on questions and short on answers. Paul asked the rhetorical questions: "Who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?" (Rom. 11:34-35 esv).
The answer is, of course, "Nobody here!"
That doesn't mean that I don't know anything about God. He has, for some reason I've never understood, called me to be his servant and friend. For some reason, he has asked me to talk about him to others. I wouldn't do it for anybody else but him. I have too many sins and too many doubts, and I'm way too cynical about myself and about lots of other things.
That's why it was such a surprise when I was asked to write a book on prayer. The original publisher made the proposal and offered a fairly large cash advance to write it.
I laughed at him.
(I didn't laugh at the advance because I'm so spiritual. The advances and royalties from all my books go to Key Life Network, the ministry with which I'm associated. Not only that, they aren't that big anyway. Howard Books, take note.)
"You're kidding," I said, pointing to my library shelves filled with books on prayer. "We don't have enough books on prayer?"
"Plenty," he responded, "but they're written by experts."
He thought he was making a joke (well, maybe not), but his words were the only reason a flawed, sinful, and sometimes wrong old preacher like me would ever write a book on prayer. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I realized there really was a need for an honest book on prayer written by someone who wasn't an expert but was a "man of prayer."
A friend of mine told me once that he thought God had called me to be a teacher so that others could say, "If Steve can do it, anybody can!"
That's the reason for this book. It's from a man (me) who has been there, tried that, and is telling you about what he discovered.
One of the good things about a publisher's publishing a rewrite of a book (as Howard Books is doing) is that the author gets a reality check. I've often said to conferences and congregations, "Half of what I just taught you is wrong. I'm just not sure which half. So you're going to have to do some checking for yourself."
That's not true with this book.
I've made some changes here and there. I've expanded the book with some things I've learned since I wrote the first one. And I've added some of your own prayer stories. But, believe it or not, I haven't discovered anything majorly wrong with the first book.
So, if you've read the first one, you don't have to buy this book. The first one still works.
Uh...erase that. Buy the book. Key Life needs the money.
Approaching God © 2008 by Steve Brown
John Owen, the seventeenth-century Puritan theologian, wrote that we should have mutual communion with God and in "total giving up of ourselves to him, resting in him as our utmost end...[that we] walk together in a covenant of peace."
Does that make you feel guilty?
Mark Harris, in his book Companions for Your Spiritual Journey, writes, "Being a Christian means setting out on an inner journey — a journey of following Jesus. Along the way we learn to obey him and imitate him. Above all we become his intimate friends, and our lives are transformed by that friendship."
How does that make you feel? Still guilty?
A. W. Tozer wrote: "The universal Presence is a fact. God is here.... And always He is trying to get our attention, to reveal Himself to us, to communicate with us. We have within us the ability to know Him if we will but respond to His overtures. We will know Him in increasing degree as our receptivity becomes more perfect by faith and love and practice."
Still feeling guilty?
If you aren't, you should stop reading this book right now.
On the other hand, if you do feel guilty and at the same time wish you knew the reality described in the above quotes but have had your hope destroyed so often that you hesitate to go any further, don't stop reading.
I understand, and I think I can help. I've been there, done that, and still wear the T-shirt on occasion. Let me begin by telling you my story.
A number of years ago I came to the awareness that God wasn't very real to me. Perhaps that would be no big deal to you, but for me it was very important. You see, I was a pastor and my job was God. I was the leader of a congregation, and those people looked to me for information about God that was something other than hearsay. God was what I was about — and God was someone with whom I was not on familiar terms.
Don't get me wrong. I had long before this time determined that my faith was true. I had gone through a period of agnosticism and doubt and would not have remained a pastor had I not discovered the theological and doctrinal truth of the things I taught and believed. The Christian faith had become true to me in the same way the multiplication tables were true, and once I had seen the truth, I couldn't "unsee" it. But have you ever been comforted by the multiplication tables? Have you ever tried to find hope in a doctrine?
I knew a lot about God, but I didn't know God in anything other than the most superficial way. I had come to believe that the Bible was true, that Jesus Christ was truly the Son of God, that the Resurrection really happened, and that Christ would come back to clean up the mess. That in itself is no mean thing. Once we discover those truths, there are certain implications about those truths that we ignore only at our peril.
If I find out that two plus two equals four instead of five or three, there are certain implications of that truth for my life, my grocery price list, and my checkbook. Just so, if we discover truths in the spiritual and theological realm, there are also implications. I did my best to live out those implications. I wrote books on the implications. I lectured and preached on the implications. I knew that the Ten Commandments were from God and were not the Ten Suggestions. I knew there was a right and a wrong way to live, and I tried to live the right way. If God had revealed himself in Christ, then there were certain implications to be garnered from that truth: meaning and hope and forgiveness. If God was not a monster, then I could trust in his truth and act on his Word. The discovery of the truth was a major gift of grace in my life, and I will be eternally grateful for it.
However, I was only a tourist describing a country I had never visited. I was convinced that the country was there, I had read the travel brochures, and I had worked hard at learning the language of that country. I had even met people who lived there, and I had listened to everything they said about the country. The problem was that I had become an expert on a country I had never visited.
Do you know the story about the young man who wanted, more than anything in the world, to be a lion trainer? He read books on lion training, he talked to lion trainers, and every chance he got, he visited the zoo to look at the lions. Then one night he decided to test his knowledge. After the zoo closed, he climbed over the fence and into the lion section of the zoo.
The next morning they found some bones, bits and pieces of clothing, and a torn-up book on lion training.
My experience with the Lion of Judah was not dissimilar. I had gone about as far as I could with the book. I was tired of knowing a lot about the Lion. I wanted to know the Lion.
But the difference between my experience and the experience of the boy in the story was that I knew that lions could be quite dangerous. I knew enough about my subject to know that one doesn't go flippantly into the presence of a lion. Lions are not to be treated casually.
But there was more than fear that came from my knowledge of God and the truth he had revealed in Scripture. There was a longing.
I can remember the longing. I would be teaching the truths I found in the Bible and would look at the congregation and see people who were deeply moved by those truths.
Sometimes I even saw tears. I didn't understand that. I would wonder what was wrong with those who cried. One doesn't get emotional about truth. Truth is just truth. One doesn't shed tears over the multiplication tables.
You say, "Steve, you're a hard man."
You have no idea how hard. But I was not so hard that I failed to see in those tears a reality that simply was not my reality. When you don't have something or you're faking it and you meet the "real thing," it can be devastating.
So I got on my knees and I prayed. I knew the words and the formulas. I had learned those words from books, from my tradition, and from my experience. But this time I put aside the words and was honest before the Lion. I prayed:
Father, my sin is more real to me than you are. I believe that you have asked me to teach your people, to lead them, and to be their pastor. You have been gracious to me, and I have no complaint. If you are never more real to me than what I have discovered in your book and in the words of others, it will be enough, and I will be grateful for that much. I'm not going to leave, because there is no truth more important than your truth.
But Father, I want to know you. I want to speak from the depth of my experience of you, not my knowledge about you. Iwant our relationship to be more than a formal relationship. I desire intimacy with you more than anything else. I ask that, whatever it takes, you would reveal yourself to me and that you would allow me to be close to you and to trust you more than I trust a doctrine or a religious formula.
Up to that time, I had never understood the emotional and relational side of the Christian faith. Truth was true, and I taught that truth as best I could. I listened when people talked about the intimacy they had with God, but it was not my experience. I was a teacher of truth, not a creator of "warm fuzzy" experiences. A member of the church where I was serving at the time put it in a way that was sobering. He told me that he had been angry at me because of my lack of love. Referring to another minister in the church, he said, "I have decided that it is okay. Cliff loves us, and Steve teaches us." Another member of the church, a college student, was complaining to a friend about the coldness of the church. The friend told him within my hearing, "You don't understand. We don't come here to be loved, we come to be taught."
So I prayed. Not the cold, formal prayer of the liturgy but the prayer of a child in pain reaching out to Daddy. It was the cry of my soul for intimacy with the God of my life. I didn't bargain, I didn't pretend (I did enough of that with people), I didn't come with preconceived ideas of what God would do, and I made no demands. I simply came and asked to know him.
And that is how I began the journey that eventually led me to become the spiritual giant you see before you today...and if you believe that, you will believe anything. But let me tell you what happened. He came. God didn't come when I demanded it, but he came. On the other side of the silence, I encountered the God who is really there. It took me a long time to still the other voices in my mind, a long time to turn down the fires that had burned out my soul, a long time to learn to be quiet — but he did come.
Sometimes — not all the time, but sometimes — I can stand before a congregation, a seminary class, or a conference and say, "This morning I was with the Father," and mean that in the most literal way. Sometimes — not all the time, but sometimes — I can speak more boldly to others about God because I have spoken to God about others and have heard his concern and known his love for them.
For those of you who are afraid to pray because you are afraid he might not be there, I have some very good news: I've checked, and he's really there. For those of you who won't pray because you are afraid he might be there, I have some rather disturbing news: You have every reason to be disturbed — and overjoyed. He's there, he's really there!
No, I'm not a spiritual giant. I suspect that you, with me, find it hard to identify with spiritual giants. I'm not a contemplative. I wish I could claim the insight of Spanish mystics Saint Teresa of Ávila and Saint John of the Cross, and I wish I could walk the paths of English poet and pastor John Donne. I wish I had the facility with spiritual words of Bible translator Lancelot Andrews, the clarity of Puritan preacher Richard Baxter, or the ability to communicate with the winsomeness of writer and monk Thomas Merton. But I don't. I'm just a man who wanted to be serious with God, and God took me as seriously as I took him — and more. I'm just a traveler on the road who would point out some sights you will encounter if you decide to walk the same road. I am, if you will, one beggar telling another beggar where he found bread.
I once received a catalog titled Things You Never Knew Existed.It had ads for a Hocus-Pocus Card Deck and T-shirts with slogans like "Will play golf for food," "I'm not as think as you drunk I am," and "I don't suffer from stress, I'm a carrier," along with books exposing freemasonry and bottles of shark cartilage. In the midst of all this, I found an offer for a book on prayer. Given the fact that I was working on this book and looking for scholarly information on prayer, I read the advertisement.
It read: "Formula for Successful Prayer...Realize the spirit of God within you. Become one with God through successful prayer. Famous book tells you when to pray, how to pray, and what to pray for, so you get what you need. Also contains the magic formulas for health, success, money, luck, influencing others, and overcoming fear. Learn the secrets that have given thousands serenity and peace of mind."
A Story of Answered Prayer
On August 22, 2006, I was diagnosed with transformed follicular non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. I'd had my tonsils out the week before, and a "cyst" was removed. Turned out it wasn't a cyst, but a tumor.
I was so scared. I didn't think the cancer was going to kill me, but I thought the treatment would. I prayed and prayed. One time I closed my eyes, feeling the peace that passes understanding. While my eyes were closed and I was praying, I saw in my room two very large, white beings. One sat on my bed at my feet and the other stood by my window. The one on my bed spoke: We are ready to fight. The being at the window was dressed in a breastplate of armor and held a long spear in his right hand. He stood erect like a soldier.
As time passed, my head told me it didn't happen. I've even "tried to make it happen" again the way it happened that day in August, but I just couldn't do it. I have stopped trying to discount this experience and have accepted that I am truly loved by God. There have been other prayer incidents during this journey of cancer, but I will stop with this one.
— Jane C.
What in the world is prayer? Is it "magic formulas" whereby we can manipulate God and get what we want? Is it "getting in touch" with the God in you? Is it a psychological trick whereby we can feel better about ourselves? Is it a cheaper way to find serenity than Prozac? Definition is important, so let's start there.
At its most basic, prayer is simply the communion, the communication, and the contact between the creature and the Creator. It is the expression of a relationship between two persons, One who is infinite and one who is finite. Prayer is what happens when the soul cries out to its Maker. No matter what the words, no matter what the feelings, no matter what the method, when it happens, it is prayer.
Before we turn to some of the details about prayer, I think it is important to lay out some presuppositions regarding prayer. One of the reasons it took me so many years to find the joy of prayer is that people assumed that because I was a Mature Christian, trained in theological and philosophical truth, and a clergyman, I already knew about prayer. So at the risk of saying the obvious, let me give you those presuppositions.
First, prayer begins with God. I'm going to have a lot to say about prayer in this book, but the starting point is that God is...well...God. He is sovereign, he is all-powerful, allpresent, and all-knowing. If we ever know anything about him or have any relationship with him, it must originate from his side. Scripture says, "'My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,' says the Lord. 'For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts'" (Isa. 55:8-9).
The late A. W. Tozer, one of the most insightful Christians of the twentieth century, wrote:
We pursue God because, and only because, He has first put an urge within us that spurs us to the pursuit. "No man can come to me," said our Lord, "except the Father which hath sent me draw him," and it is by this prevenient drawing that God takes from us every vestige of credit for the act of coming. The impulse to pursue God originates with God, but the outworking of that impulse is our following hard after Him. All the time we are pursuing Him we are already in His hand: "Thy right hand upholdeth me."
Blaise Pascal prayed, "I would not have searched for Thee, had Thou not already found me." In other words, prayer is the natural response of the creature to the Creator who calls. It's like that old-fashioned saying: "I chased her and chased her until she finally caught me." It applies to our coming to God in prayer. We really did chase him and chase him until he finally caught us.
The second presupposition is this: before God calls us to a conversation, he calls us to a relationship. Jesus said, "You do not believe, because you are not of My sheep, as I said to you. My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me" ( John 10:26-27). In other words, a conversation follows a relationship.
Of course, I would not suggest that God only listens to the prayers of believers. I suspect that God does whatever he wants, and for some reason he has never checked with me about hardly anything. However, I do know that if your children approach me, my reaction to them will be quite different than if my children approach me.
There is a wonderful story about a young man during the Civil War who wanted to return to the family farm to help his mother with the harvest. He had lost two brothers and his father in the war, and there was no one to help his mother. He went to his captain and asked for permission to return home during harvest time. The captain said that he did not have the authority to grant that kind of request. "It must," he said, "come from a higher authority." Then the captain gave the young man some time to seek out those who could grant his request.
The young man, with the presumption of youth, decided to go to the highest authority, the president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. He journeyed to Washington and boldly made his way to the steps of the White House. He was stopped by an officer in the army who was serving as a guard there. The guard asked the reason he had come, and the young man told him his story.
"Son," said the guard, "don't you know that there is a war on? This is not the time to leave. Lots of us have lost those we loved, and many face hardship. You are a soldier. Go back to your unit and serve your mother and your country by fighting for freedom."
The young man was devastated. He turned and walked away. He was walking through the streets of Washington when a little boy saw him, noticed the depression on his face, and asked if he could help. The young man needed to tell someone, so he told the little boy the story.
"Sir," said the little boy, "I think I can help."
With that, the little boy took the soldier's hand and proceeded back to the White House, past the guard, up the steps, and directly to the office of the president. They walked into the office without knocking, and Lincoln, working at his desk, looked up and said, "Yes, Tad, what can I do for you?"
The point, of course, is that a son or daughter can make more headway with a father than can a stranger. That is true in prayer too.
I'm not an evangelist. Early in my ministry I asked God to allow me to have the kind of ministry Billy Graham had. I wanted to issue a spoken invitation to thousands and see them come to a knowledge of God. God told me that I was, as the late Episcopal priest and author Sam Shoemaker said, "to stand by the door" and help people find their way inside the house. I've done that as best I could.
But I still do like, on occasion, to issue an invitation, and right now is a good time. Jesus said, "Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light" (Matt. 11:28-30). Jesus said some very amazing things like, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.... For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners" (Matt. 9:12-13). He was called a friend of tax collectors and sinners — and he was.
Scripture says, "When we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for [that is, in the place of ] the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:6-8).
This is the bottom line: just as prayer is initiated by God, relationship is initiated by God too. He came to us when we couldn't come to him. He loved us when we couldn't love him. He reached out to us when we couldn't reach out to him. In other words, the only qualification for being in a relationship with God is to be unqualified.
I live in Orlando, Florida, which is near Daytona Beach; and Daytona Beach is the place where every year there's "Bike Week." Motorcyclists come from all over the nation and, for that week, there are motorcycles everywhere. (You know you are going to have a bad day when your horn sticks and you are behind a group of Hell's Angels.) At Bike Week some believers have been giving out a little pamphlet titled, "He Would Have Ridden a Harley." The text reads in part:
He was a lot like you and me. The government didn't like Him. The church thought He was weird. His friends were few. What friends He had denied Him. He was persecuted by hypocrites. He hung around people like you and me, not the goody-two-shoes Pharisees. Yes, if Jesus were on this earth in the flesh, He would be next to you on His Harley telling you He loved you...enough to die for you.
Whether or not you are a motorcyclist, he has come to where you are emotionally, spiritually, and existentially. He knows who you are, what you have done, and what you need. And — this is the best part — all you have to do is come to him in your need. Don't let the simplicity fool you. This stuff is deep enough for elephants to swim in, but it is also shallow enough for children to play in. It is profound but, like most profound truths, it is simple. Just go to him. That's all. Tell him that you know you aren't qualified, and ask him to accept you on the basis of Christ's sacrifice on the cross in your place.
He will do that. And as an old friend of mine, the apostle John, says, "As many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name" ( John 1:12). That's it. Just go to him, recognizing that you have nothing with which to commend yourself to him, and he will accept you. You will then be in a relationship with him. Don't listen to the "religious" people who tell you that you have to be a "better person" or that you have to "try hard." They are wrong. Just go to him, and he will welcome you.
The third presupposition concerns truth: if a finite being is going to communicate with an infinite God, there need to be parameters whereby we know that "real" prayer is taking place. We need to know when prayer is not some vain and silly exercise in delusion. Those parameters are found in Scripture.
This is not a book on the authority of Scripture, but I do want to say that I believe that the Bible is revealed truth and that it is the source of everything I know about God. My volitional decision about Scripture is not made in a vacuum or without clear, rational, and cogent reasons. I have dealt with those in other places and will only give you the bottom line here: all truth is built on presuppositions that are accepted as true. The presumption of this book is this: I know nothing about God on my own. Nature helps, but even that which is revealed in nature isn't very helpful if I am seeking intimacy with God. Not only that, my perception of nature is distorted. I can understand something of God's sovereignty, of his power, and of his rule from nature, but when I want to know something about him, his nature, and his plans for me and for others, he must tell me those things.
I believe that he has done that in the Bible. The Bible will tell you who God is, what he thinks, and what he requires. If, for instance, you believe God is a monster, you have gotten that from some place other than the Bible. If your prayer causes you to become angry, critical, and judgmental of others who don't always see things the way you see them, you need to go back to the God revealed in the Bible. If you, from your prayers, find no hope, no love, and no understanding, then you aren't praying to the God of the Bible. Just as the truths of mathematics will allow you to check out the accuracy of the profit-and-loss statement of your business, the truths of the Bible will allow you to check out the truths of your life of prayer.
And while we are on this subject, I must say one other thing that is important about the Bible. The psychologist Carl Jung said some things, in regard to prayer, that are horribly wrong. However, he was right about this: in the supernatural world, there is supernatural good, and there is supernatural evil.
If you are going to be a woman or man of prayer, you will be entering into a world where, without the Bible, there is no map. The demonic element is always a danger in prayer. There is really more to this thing than is "dreamt of in your philosophy" (as Shakespeare's Hamlet puts it), and it is important that you have some way to discern that which is demonic from that which is of God. You will find, if you are serious about prayer, that you have decided to engage in a supernatural battle. Paul says, "We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places" (Eph. 6:12).
I believe that prayer can be dangerous. It takes us to a place where there are all sorts of beings — some good and some evil. There are great opportunities for error and for horrible actions based on that error. That is why the Bible is so important. Let it be your guide.
The fourth presupposition concerns the way we come to prayer: we approach God in helplessness. In O. Hallesby's classic work Prayer, he made a recognition of our helplessness a key element of prayer. He wrote,
In the first place, helplessness. This is unquestionably the first and the surest indication of a praying heart. As far as I can see, prayer has been ordained only for the helpless. It is the last resort of the helpless. Indeed, the very last way out. We try everything before we finally resort to prayer.... Listen, my friend! Your helplessness is your best prayer. It calls from your heart to the heart of God with greater effect than all your uttered pleas.He hears it from the very moment that you are seized with helplessness, and He becomes actively engaged at once in hearing and answering the prayer of your helplessness.
When talking about prayer, what does it mean to be helpless?
To be helpless means that in prayer we can make no demands. Every once in a while someone will tell me they don't believe in God, and in answer to my query as to why, they tell me they asked God to do something for them (e.g., prevent the death of a mother or child, grant protection in a difficult situation, ameliorate the pain of cancer, etc.), and God didn't do what they asked. They will say something like, "I just can't believe that a loving God would do that to me, and I don't believe in him."
It is dangerous to set up the parameters of how one will come to God and what one will expect from the encounter. To bring one's own agenda before God and to define his existence, his character, and the efficacy of prayer by whether or not he accepts and affirms that agenda is not only silly, it is sinful.
Now, don't get me wrong here. I'm not saying that one who prays out of great pain should not take that pain to the Father in prayer. I am not saying that there isn't great disappointment when the prayer for help seems to meet deaf ears or that it is silly or sinful to express that disappointment to God. I'm simply saying that God is God, and the most basic understanding of our requests is that they are just that — requests. One must be very careful about making our belief in the efficacy of prayer dependent on whether or not God does what we want him to do. I know the pain of unanswered prayer, and I have also been tempted to say with Huck Finn, "There ain't nothin' to it." But that is a dead-end road, and it misses the point of prayer — that God is God, and we aren't.
Let me move from what can be a very painful experience of unanswered prayer to a less painful illustration of the point I'm making. I once received a letter from a listener to my Key Life radio broadcast (and I've changed the names),
Dear friends at Key Life:
Each year my friend Bill and I have a little contest based on the National Hockey League. Each of us selects teams in certain categories, and the player whose team performs best in the most categories wins the contest. The loser is required to make a $100 donation to Key Life.
We also select teams on behalf of Steve, and we have pledged that, if Steve's selections win the contest, both Bill and I would make a $100 donation.
Well, this year Steve won! As a result, enclosed are two checks for $100 to be used to spread the good news. Good luck, Steve, in the coming hockey season.
Dear Jack and Bill, Sara and Judy:
Sara and Judy, I do hope you know about your husbands' involvement in this less-than-godly enterprise. The money your husbands have given to Key Life is tainted money.... 'Tain't enough!
Does your pastor know?
For double, I'll keep quiet. Of course, having accepted the money, I am now culpable in this unsavory venture, and we have what can be described as a "Mexican standoff." I'll keep quiet if you guys keep quiet, and we won't hurt each other.
For an old cynical preacher to laugh as hard as I have is probably sinful too. I only wish I could share the whole thing on the air.
Now, some serious business. If you will send me the names of the hockey teams you have picked for me during the coming season, the entire Key Life staff and I will pray for their success.
Do you know something? The hockey teams that were mine didn't win. I don't think I believe in God anymore. I think that a loving God would know how much the ministry of Key Life needs the money for his work and would have granted our wish. I'm not ever going to pray again. It's all a sham.
It's sort of like the fly on the cow's tail that informed the cow that he was leaving. The cow replied, "Oh, really? I didn't even know you were there."
Silly? Of course it's silly. But take the silly illustration and apply it to some of the very serious work of prayer. God is God, and demands are inappropriate. One simply comes to him, understanding that his agenda is the only relevant agenda.
Does that mean he doesn't love us? Does it mean he wants to make us miserable? Does it mean he never says yes to our requests? Of course not, and we are going to say a lot about that later. But one must start properly, and the proper place to start is in the realization that God is God, and we aren't.
F. W. Faber said:
We must wait for God, long, meekly, in the wind and wet, in the thunder and lightning, in the cold and the dark. Wait, and He will come. He never comes to those who do not wait. When He comes, go with Him, but go slowly, fall a little behind; when He quickens His pace, be sure of it before you quicken yours. But when He slackens, slacken at once and do not be slow only, but silent, very silent, for He is God.
To be helpless is to be humble and broken before God. The psalmist said, "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart — these, O God, You will not despise" (Ps. 51:17).
Do you remember the story Jesus told about the clergyman and the abortionist who went to God in prayer? (Actually, it was a Pharisee and a tax collector, but I understand the story better my way.) The clergyman told God that he was thankful that he wasn't like the abortionist, and then he told God all that he had done for God. The abortionist could scarcely look up. In fact, he knew that he was in the presence of a holy and righteous God. He could only cry out for mercy. Jesus said that the abortionist went away having pleased God. Then Jesus said something that anyone who tries to pray needs to remember. He said, "Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted" (Luke 18:14).
To be helpless is to know that you can't do much for yourself and to trust in the mercy and the goodness of the One before whom one goes for help. We are going to talk a lot more about God's nature in the book, but it is necessary that we say something here. It is not enough to believe in God. If God is malevolent, then I don't want to pray. Praying to a malevolent God is like trying to pet a snake or caress a scorpion. If God is malevolent, my prayer will operate under the rubric of "I'll leave you alone if you leave me alone." Prayer presupposes not only that God is there, but that God is in some sense a God who is benevolent.
There is one other presupposition: form follows and defines function. In other words, don't worry so much about the posture of prayer, the words of your prayer, or the form of your prayer. Some of the best praying I have ever done sounded more like a moan than a prayer. One rabbi, when asked about the proper position for prayer, commented that he had once fallen down a well and that the best praying he ever did was standing on his head.
For many years I was a swimming and diving instructor. I remember teaching one little boy about diving. I explained that if his head was right, everything else would be fine, that the body would follow the head as he entered the water. The boy would try it but still manage only to belly flop. Coming up sputtering, he would ask, "Mr. Brown, did I keep my feet together?" Once again I would explain about the head, and once again he would make a mess of it. He would ask, "Mr. Brown, did I keep my hands aimed right?" I would explain that the trick was not in the hands or the feet and that if he got his head right, he wouldn't have to worry about the rest.
Prayer is sort of like that. Going to God, knowing that he is God and that you aren't, feeling the helplessness, and making no demands before God — in other words, bringing the cry of your soul to God — will eventually find its form. To start with form is to play the part of one who prays — it is not to pray.
I have a friend who had just joined a church and was anxious to learn how to pray. He tried and he tried, but he felt his prayers weren't getting much higher than the ceiling. Someone gave him a book on prayer, and he was excited. He said to me, "Steve, now I know the problem. I just didn't know the rules. Now that I know the rules and now that I understand the system, I'll finally be able to pray."
A few days later I saw him and asked him about his experiments in prayer. His face fell, and he said, "I followed all the rules, and my prayers were deader than ever. I threw the book away." I affirmed him in his choice of what books to throw away.
A number of months later, this same friend was in a horrible and painful situation. There was a chance that his business would go down the drain. He said to me, "The only good thing about this, is that my prayer life is dynamite."
I asked him what rules he had followed.
"No rules," he said. "I was too scared to remember the rules, and I told God that."
A Story of Answered Prayer
When I was young, my dad was my hero, and I wanted to be just like him. He was the son of missionaries in central Africa and spent much of his childhood there. As I grew up, my dad's luster dulled. He seemed smaller, pettier, and fraught with inconsistencies and shortcomings. We began to argue — about everything.
The situation became so bad that when my wife and I would visit my parents, my dad would withdraw in stony silence. I said to my wife after one of these visits, "If this is how it's going to be, I wish he would just die and get it over with, because it feels like he's dead already."
That sentence jarred me. Had I really said that? Did I really mean it?
Those questions repeated themselves in my mind again and again over the next few weeks.
Then one day as I was listening to Chuck Swindoll on the radio, the Lord impressed upon me that, although I had prayed about the situation with my dad, I hadn't really laid it all on the line. My prayers were weak because I really didn't expect God to do anything about these problems with my dad. A crazy thought entered my mind: what if I asked something specific of God and gave him a deadline? My mind raced with the implications of that thought: Was that good theology? What if nothing happened? I can't tell God what to do! But finally, I came to this conclusion: I'm his child. If it's wrong to pray like this, he'll tell me.
So I prayed, Lord, you know this situation with my dad tears me apart. I know you want us to have a relationship. I don't know what to do anymore. It's Wednesday night. Would you have my dad call me within this next week? Amen.
Almost a week passed. On Tuesday night, I was nervous. Tomorrow was Wednesday and no phone call yet. I prayed on the way home from work. I walked in the door, and within five minutes, the phone rang. My dad invited me to breakfast. He said there were too many things between us and that we should talk them out. We met the next morning and talked for about two hours. I told him the story I just told you. We both cried. The waitresses at the diner probably thought we were nuts! That was March of 2003, and since then, my relationship with my dad has been transformed. We're close again.
— Russell W.
I often counsel men on how to treat their wives. I used to give them a list of things a sensitive man should do for his wife. I told them to say "I love you" at least three times a day, to buy flowers at least once every two weeks, and to take their wives out to dinner without the kids at least once a week. I told them to give their wives a break every few days by watching the children.
I don't tell men that anymore. Do you know why? A wife told me, "Steve, I can't stand it anymore. When he does nice things, he does those things because you told him to. I've become a checklist. Once the list is completed, he gets a beer and, as always, vegetates in front of the television set."
Now I tell men to love their wives. That's all. I find that when they act from the base of love, they become sensitive husbands.
I learned that from God, who was glad when I threw away the checklist with which I went to him.
I'm going to devote a later chapter to some techniques of prayer. I'll tell you about the importance of forms and patterns — what some call liturgy — and I'll give you some suggestions on how to pray and what to say. We will discuss what some of the great contemplatives have said about the methodology of prayer. But never confuse the form with the reality. The function will make the form proper.
A friend of mine, after a few years away from God, told me she had started praying again. I asked her about her prayers, expecting to hear a description of how she had spent hours repenting, confessing, adoring, praising, and petitioning God. She said, "Steve, you aren't going to think it is much of a prayer. I just say to him before I go to sleep, 'Good night, Jesus.'"
In the silence of my surprise I thought I heard the laughter of a God who was pleased.
A Story of Answered Prayer
My wife and I tried to have children. We tried infertility doctors, two surgeries, many exploratory procedures, fourteen artificial inseminations, and two in vitro procedures that did not work.
My wife was later diagnosed with a fibroid tumor and had to have a hysterectomy. This meant the end of even the hope of having our own children.
Then God began working in our lives, and the subject of adoption kept coming up. I told my wife that I was going to pray for God to lead us. I prayed like I've never prayed before and said to God, I'm not that smart, Lord. If you are speaking to us, let us know in no uncertain terms.
The next day a pediatrician who attends our church called and said, "Would you like a baby?"
We interviewed with the grandparents of the baby at the hospital that day and then with their daughter, the baby's mother.
After getting all the legalities in order, we picked up our baby...one day from the initial call from the pediatrician and two days from the prayer!
He is the most beautiful child — fun and very loving. Our lives turned upside down for the better. God moved everything around. Be careful what you pray for, because God can be very loud when he speaks into our lives!
— Tom P.
Approaching God © 2008 by Steve Brown
Posted February 23, 2010
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