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He was a seasoned veteran of the Christian ministry, my first boss in the church, a respected mentor, and a dear friend. I had asked him what he had to say to younger pastors like me as he approached his retirement. It was one of those what-would-you-do-if-you-had-it-to-do-over-again questions. His answer came quickly: "Don't take it personally."
"Don't take what personally?" was my next question.
He told me not to take it personally when things get tough in the church, when I am attacked or tired or depressed. Things like that go with the territory. We're in a spiritual battle. When a soldier is shot at, he isn't shocked. His feelings aren't hurt. He doesn't peer over his foxhole at his adversary and shout, "Was it something I said?" He expects it, he plans on it.
That's spiritual realism. That's what impelled Paul to write the Ephesians that "our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms" (Eph. 6:12). Note that the apostle assumes his readers already know that the work of the kingdom is a struggle. He doesn't need to argue the point. The question is not whether we're in a battle, but what kind. The battle is spiritual. So we don't take it personally, we don't get hurt feelings when things get hard. We are spiritual realists.
Hunting lions with a squirt gunAnd realists that we are, we do something else. We pray. Paul urges us to remember this when he tells us to put on the full armor of God, towear such things as truth for a belt, righteousness for a breastplate, the gospel of peace for shoes, faith for a shield, and salvation for a helmet. The sword is also of the Spiritthe Word of God. Prayer plays a pivotal and unique role in all of this. For how does one put on the armor or wield the sword? By praying "in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests" (Eph. 6:18).
The command to pray is one of the few truly central and radical things God has called us to do in this spiritual warfare. It is central because it stands at the hub, the heart of our struggle. It's not all we are to be about, for there are many other wonderful and critical things to do in this spiritual warfare, such as preach the gospel, cast out demons, feed the hungry, care for the poor. But these great things are to prayer what the spokes of a wheel are to the hub. When the hub weakens, the rest of the wheel collapses. "You can do more than pray, after you have prayed," wrote A. J. Gordon, "but you can never do more than pray until you have prayed."1 It is a divinely ordered sequence. When Jesus called the Twelve, he called them so that they might do three things. The first was simply to "be with him." With that in place, and from that place, he sent them out to do the rest: "to preach and to have authority to drive out demons" (Mark 3:1415). All the work of the kingdom of God begins with simply being with Jesus. If it doesn't start there, it doesn't start at all.
The elders of the first church in Jerusalem understood this when they got so busy feeding widows and orphans that they weren't praying as they should (Acts 6:17). So they reorganized the church and delegated the feeding program to others, not because it was beneath them, but because it was so important. If prayer was crowded out of its central place in the church, so too would be the widows one day.
Bambi vs. GodzillaTo pray is also to engage in radical warfare. Merely human action touches only the surface of things, but prayer gets past the veneer, past mere appearances to the root of the matter. To make this point and to encourage us therefore to persist in prayer, Jesus told the story of a confrontation between a desperate widow and a heartless judge, opposites in a world in which relationships are calibrated according to power ratios (Luke 18:18.) The widow is raw weakness. The judge is raw and callous power. She needs his help against a ruthless oppressor. He won't give it, for he neither fears God nor cares about people.
What happens in this world when raw weakness meets raw power?
In the '60s there was a popular cartoon short called "Bambi Meets Godzilla." It opened with a cute little baby deer grazing in a flowery meadow. Pastoral music played in the background. Then a shadow came across the screen. It was the monster Godzilla! The little deer looked up innocently at the beast. The monster glared back as its giant foot came down and crushed him. End of cartoon. That's the way it is in the world. When weakness meets raw, callous power, it's Bambi meets Godzilla. Children are abused, whole peoples are enslaved and marginalized, senseless wars are fought, hatred is passed from generation to generation. The evil is endless and inexorable.
But Jesus' story has a surprise ending. The widow persistently pleads her case and finally gets justice, despite the judge's callousness. A victory is won! That's what prayer does, says the Lord. It's radical, it goes down deep beneath the surface to uproot evil and upset the status quo. History and the future belong to the intercessors.2 That's because the real struggle is spiritual, not physical. Those who know this are the true subversives, guerrillas of the Spirit, moving kingdoms and creation from their knees.
Whose work it isSo we praywe must praybecause we are in a spiritual strugglethat we must take personally. We must pray for another reason: the work of the church is God's work, not ours. Jesus made that fact clear from the very inception of the church. He asked his disciples who people were saying he was. They gave the report: some were saying he was John the Baptist, others were saying he perhaps was Jeremiah or Elijah or another one of the prophets. Then he asked the biggest question God ever asks anyone: "But what about you? Who do you say I am?" Simon Peter shot his hand up to answer that one. He said, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."
Pay close attention to what Jesus said in response to this first confession of faith in him. He first clarified how Peter came upon this momentous discovery. He let him know that it was not a conclusion that Peter arrived at on his own. He didn't figure it out because he had spent so much time with Jesus, listening to what he said, watching his miracles. "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven" (italics mine). Merely to have spent a lot of time with Jesus, up close and personal, as great as that must have been, was not sufficient for Peter to apprehend who Jesus was. It required a supernatural event, a divine revelation. God's work begins with God, not humankind.
And so his work continues, for Jesus added, "And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church" (Matt. 16:1318, italics mine). Of course we must pray! If God is the builder and we are his servants in the building of his church, it is presumptuous to build without prayer.
And completely ineffective. Jesus came down the Mount of Transfiguration to an argument his disciples were having with the teachers of the law. They were unable to heal a demonized boy, a pathetic child who was periodically seized by an evil spirit and thrown to the ground, foaming at the mouth. When Jesus was told what the brouhaha was about, he said something he must often feel when he looks at his prayerless church: "O unbelieving generation ... how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me" (Mark 9:19). Then he healed the boy.
When the excitement died down enough for them to ask the question, his disciples said, "Why couldn't we drive it out?" Jesus' answer is as devastating as it is brief. He said, "This kind can come out only by prayer" (Mark 9:29). They had to pray to drive the demon out! What on earth were they doing before Jesus walked up? Whatever it was, clearly they weren't praying. They were trying to cast out demons without prayer!
Reversed thunderChurches can run without prayer. Whole denominations can run without prayer. The question is: Is what they're doing worth doing if they can do it without prayer? I don't think so. Jesus commissioned his church to storm the gates of hell. The world is still full of the "this kind" that Jesus confronted in the story of the demonized boy. Evil and darkness are as intractable and entrenched as they were in the first century. Do we really believe that programs and committees and ecclesiastical exertions and pronouncements are going to change that? Jesus doesn't. I think that when he's not bored with them, he's as angry as he was that day with his disciples. Nor should we believe in them. "This kind" will come out only by the power of Godthat is, by prayer!
So we must pray, because the work of the church is God's work, not ours! We must also pray because prayer actually gets God's work done. That's the way prayer is seen in heaven. Ponder this scene in the throne room of heaven: An angel stands before God holding a golden censer, burning incense that is mixed with the prayers of the saints on earth. These prayers go up before God, and then are mixed with fire from the altar and hurled back down on earth. The amazing result is cataclysm on earth, "peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake" (Rev. 8:5).
Now picture the saints on earth, huddled in their prayer meetings. If their experience of prayer is anything like mine can be, they may often feel their prayers are barely making it to the ceiling, or are dribbling out and rustling across the floor like dry leaves. Prayer doesn't frequently bring with it the sensation of cosmic power unleashed, what poet George Herbert called "reversed thunder." But that is exactly what is happening! The whole creation is shaken by the prayers of the saints. Something is happening as they pray. Work is being done, whether they see it or not.
Or consider the words of Paul to Timothy in his first letter:
As first priority, Timothy's congregation is to pray for public officials that they make public policy decisions favorable to the church. Paul doesn't tell Timothy to pray that they be converted, although I'm sure he would be in favor of that kind of prayer too. He simply says to pray that these officials do the will of God, whether they know they are doing his will or not! This takes on even greater weight when we realize that the emperor at that time was the cruel madman Nero. Could a man like that actually do the will of God against his will? Paul tells Timothy to pray that he will. Clearly Paul believes prayer gets God's work done.
I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyonefor kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. (1 Tim. 2:12)
Harder work than doingMy favorite text in this regard is Paul's greeting at the end of his Colossian letter. He commends to his readers their pastor Epaphras, who is visiting Paul, and who is "always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured." Then he adds, "I vouch for him that he is working hard for you and for all those at Laodicea and Hierapolis" (Col. 4:1213). What hard work could Epaphras possibly be doing for these people, while he is away from them? His wrestling in prayer for them is hard work. Prayer actually gets God's work done.
Mary Slessor was a missionary to West Africa in the nineteenth century. Her work among orphans there was nothing short of remarkable. Single and an activist, her days were long and arduous and at times lonely. She did the work of ten "normal" people in her lifetime. But she named prayer, not mere "doing," as the real dynamic of her accomplishments. In letters home to her friends she wrote:
"Praying is harder work than doing." If Mary Slessor, the busy activist, could say that, it must be true. It is harder to pray than to simply "do." That's why Eugene Peterson says that the pastor who claims to be too busy to pray is really a lazy person. In busyness, he or she is procrastinating, avoiding the real work of prayer.
My life is one long, daily, hourly record of answered prayer. For physical health, for mental overstrain, for guidance given marvelously, for enmity to the gospel subdued, for food provided at the exact hour needed, for everything else that goes to make up life and my poor service.... I can testify with a full and often wonder-stricken awe that I ... know God answers prayer.... Prayer is the greatest power God has put into our hands for service. Praying is harder work than doing ... but the dynamic lies that way to advance the kingdom. I have no idea how and why God has carried me over so many hard places, and made these hordes submit to me ... except in answer to prayer at home for me. It is all beyond my comprehension. The only way I can explain it is on the ground that I have been prayed for more than most. Pray onpower lies that way.3
Why does God tell us to pray for the things he has promised to do anyway? For instance, he tells us to pray that his name will be hallowed and his kingdom come, things he has assured us he will bring to pass, anyway. After all, every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess one day that Jesus Christ is Lord (Phil. 2:1011). French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal suggests that God does it to give us the dignity of causality. When my children were young, they would "help" me mow the lawn. The grass was too thick and the mower too heavy for them to push. So I stood over them, hands on the mower handle with theirs, my body bent slightly forward, and pushed as they "pushed" it through the grass. I could have done the job better and more easily alone, but I wanted the pleasure of their company. I also wanted them to have something to do that mattered, to have the dignity of causality. I think God commands us to pray for much the same reasons.
God's methodSo we must pray, for prayer actually gets God's work done. We must also pray because prayer allows God to work on us. A great prayer text is 2 Corinthians 3:18: "And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory."
To stand in the presence of God is, as it was with Moses' shining face, to reflect his glory. Not only that, but it is to absorb his glory, to be transformed into his likeness. Like film in a camera, when the shutter opens to the light, we bear the likeness of the One who shines his light on us when we pray.
Perhaps one reason God delays his answers to our prayers is because he knows we need to be with him far more than we need the things we ask of him. I include myself among those who have prayed for years for someone or something with no apparent answer or resolution. But we can say that as we prayed long and hard, we found something we may not have been looking for when we began to pray, something better than the thing we asked of God. We found his incomparable presence. The praying can often be greater than the things we pray for.
Peter and John dazzled and scandalized the Sanhedrin with their courage when they were hauled before it to give an explanation for their wonder-working and preaching. After all, they hadn't been to seminary ("they were unschooled"). They weren't qualified to speak thus. Luke comments that the Sanhedrin "took note that these men had been with Jesus" (Acts 4:13, italics mine).
That's it! That's all we will ever really need to do the work of Jesus. The best thing we have to offer the world is not a seminary degree, not the preaching classes we have taken, not the books of theology we have read, not the management and leadership seminars we have attended, but the fruit of our walk with the Lordwhat is borne in us from the time we have spent with him. As helpful as these things can be, they are at best spokes in the wheelbut never the hub. That's why Dwight L. Moody said he would rather learn how to pray than how to preach. For Jesus' disciples never asked him to teach them how to preach, but how to pray. Beware the preacher, the theologian, the professor who does not pray.
Where did we get the silly idea that a graduate degree in theology qualifies one to pastor the church of Christ? The clergy of the North American church is perhaps the best educated clergy in history. The church itself has more money, more books, more media tools than the church in any other place on earth. Yet with all this, the church overall is shrinking, not gaining in numbers. One has to go to the poor and uneducated countries of the earth, to places like East Africa and Latin America, to find a growing church. True, they need and desire leaders who are better educated. But in all this God seems to be saying to us something like the thing Jesus said to Martha, "You are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed" (Luke 10:4142, italics mine). The one absolutely essential, nonnegotiable thing is to be with Jesus as Mary was. The church grows when its people attend to the one thing needed, not when it is preoccupied with the many things not needed.
That's because people are God's method, not techniques and programs. And people become usable to God only as they swell in his glorious presence. Emerson McKendree Bounds was alarmed at certain tendencies he saw in his denomination at the end of the nineteenth century. He would despair if he saw how what he then called a "trend of the day" has now become the order of the day:
So, we must pray! I recently went back to preach in the first church in which I worked, the place where I worked under my first boss, the man who told me not to take it personally, to remember the nature of the battle we are in. As I walked to the church on that Sunday morning, my mind was awash in memories, most of them embarrassing. Arrogant and foolish, I said and did many things there I wish I hadn't. But somehow God did some wonderful things both in and through me back then. Tears of gratitude and joy welled up in me. I said out loud to the Lord, "I was in over my head, wasn't I? You have been so faithful." I felt his smile with his rebuke as he answered, "So what makes you think you're in your depth now?"
We are constantly on a stretch, if not on a strain, to devise new methods, new plans, new organizations to advance the church and secure enlargement and efficiency for the gospel. This trend of the day has a tendency to lose sight of the man or sink the man in the plan or organization. God's plan is to make much of the man, far more of him than of anything else. Men are God's method. The church is looking for better methods; God is looking for better men.... What the church needs today is not more machinery or better, not new organizations or more and novel methods, but men whom the Holy Spirit can usemen of prayer, mighty in prayer. The Holy Spirit does not flow through methods, but through men. He does not come on machinery, but on men. He does not anoint plans, but menmen of prayer.4
I'm still in over my head. So are you. So we must pray.
2To borrow a phrase of Berkhof Hedrikus in his book Christ and the Powers (Herald Press, 1977).
3Basil Miller, 130, 138.
4E. M. Bounds, Power Through Prayer, in The Complete Works of E. M. Bounds on Prayer (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1990), 447.
Deepening Your Conversation With God
Copyright © 2001, Ben Patterson
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.