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Sometimes we forget that God is fire. We confuse him with fireplaces and fireworks. ERWIN MCMANUS
"Safe?" said Mr. Beaver; "don't you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about Safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you." C. S. LEWIS
God is a consuming fire. THE BIBLE
Prayer is what we do. It is our initiative to meet God, whether we are asking for favors, singing in celebration, or crying out in distress. Regardless of what shape or size it comes in, prayer is our effort to engage God.
Fire, on the other hand, is what God does. It is God's initiative to meet us. Fire comes when the self-revealing God chooses to give us a glimpse of His character, His activity, His purposes, or His presence. We experience fire when He takes the paper-thin membrane that separates heaven and earth in His hands and tears it from top to bottom, enabling us to look inside and giving us the privilege of seeing Him firsthand. Point-blank, fire is the manifest presence of God.
Because prayer is what we do, and fire is what God does, prayer on fire is what happens when what we do and what God does slam together. It is when God's initiativetoward us meets our initiative toward Him. Prayer on fire happens when the Holy Spirit gets His hands on our prayers and turns our common, ho-hum, everyday lives into a showcase for His extraordinary presence. As we will discover, prayer on fire is what God-seekers have experienced throughout biblical and church history and right up to this present day.
DESIRE ON FIRE
Let's face it. Most of us are all too familiar with fireless prayer. How many times have I lamented, If only I could fix my prayer life! Yes, I want to see answers to prayer, but even more important, I want to know Christ. I want to know the reality of His presence in my daily prayer and worship times. Yet prayer has often made me feel like a loser. And I find I am not alone.
Although we are sincere, many of us have had it all backward when it comes to prayer. We are prone to start with what we do-our techniques, our postures, our patterns, our efforts, our self-discipline. We have tried to generate our own prayer lives. Consequently we are bone-tired and empty inside. Surely our prayers ought to be a source of refreshment, yet too often they have become a source of exhaustion.
A recent survey of more than a thousand pastors and Christian leaders from a broad spectrum of the body of Christ asked, "What is your greatest perceived need?" They gave an almost unanimous answer. The single need that stood far above all others was for consistent, passionate prayer. One leader lamented, "We do pretty much everything at church but pray. Our focus is horizontal, not vertical." It is as if prayer has become the Achilles' heel of the modern church.
On one of his first audiotapes, "Managing Your Money," Larry Burkett told of a famous Chinese pastor who shared his gripping message in megachurches across the United States. At the end of this pastor's tour, his interpreter asked, "What impressed you most about the church in the United States?" He promptly replied, "The thing that impressed me most about the church in the United States is how much they can do without God." Ouch! I thought as I listened. The truth hurts.
Prayer without God's presence leaves us scrambling to see how much we can accomplish as we try to make up for what God is not doing. It is all too easy to conclude that fireless prayer is normal. This is tragic. Because this kind of prayer is all some of us have experienced, we have mistakenly concluded that it's all there is.
In many ways we are at a precipice. Will we settle for second-hand information about God, or will we rediscover prayer on fire and, thereby, come to know His tangible presence? We have heard the stories and read the books about mighty moves of God in the past, but have we been touched by the fire? It is not an overstatement to say we are currently experiencing a prayer crisis that is as serious as the AIDS epidemic in Africa. We recognize the need, but we don't know what to do about it. As AIDS attacks the body's immune system and makes it impossible to resist a simple virus, so fireless prayer leaves us anemic, vulnerable, and disease-ridden. Fireless prayer is the blight on the body of Christ today.
The word the Bible uses in the book of Revelation for fireless Christianity is lukewarm. This word picture from Jesus' message to the early church at Laodicea should work well in our Starbucks culture. "Serve us our coffee fresh, robust, full-bodied, and piping hot!" we request. Well, God doesn't like warmed-over people any more than we like a warmed-over brew. He wants our lives to be passionate, hot, aromatic, full-bodied. "Because you are lukewarm-neither hot nor cold-I am about to spit you out of my mouth," Jesus warned.
The human spirit becomes lukewarm when it has not recently been exposed to the white-hot presence of the living God. It becomes lethargic, anemic, and bored. A lukewarm heart breeds listless worship, casual commitment, and duplicitous obedience. Fortunately God does not give up on the lukewarm. Instead He offers us a cure: a fresh encounter with the blazing presence of the risen Christ. In fact, He invites us to welcome His presence. "Here I am!" Jesus said, "I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in." To put it another way, God's answer for the lukewarm heart is prayer on fire. It happens when God comes and manifests His presence to us.
SOULS ON FIRE
This afternoon I received an e-mail from one of my favorite people, Josh. He is my one and only son-in-law. "I have one request," he said in his typical straightforward manner. "Can you pray that the Lord would set me on fire?"
Yikes! I thought with admiration, what a bold request!
I paused, took a deep breath, and considered his words again. I thought of another huge request he had presented to me two years earlier: "May I have your daughter's hand in marriage?" (If you knew how protective I am, you would know how much guts that request required.) But he was asking for something that, I would dare say, is even bigger: He wanted me to ask God to set him on fire. You see, Josh is not interested in a mere intellectual understanding of fire. He doesn't want God to set his marriage on fire or his career on fire. That would be good, but he takes it one step further: He wants God to set him on fire.
"Pray that the Lord would set me on fire!" is one of those ultimate, no-turning-back requests. And it represents the heart cry of an increasing number of desperate God-seekers who are tired of mediocre prayers and lackluster worship.
What about you? Does your soul echo this desire for the fire of God's glorious presence to penetrate your life? Are you tired of lukewarm prayers? Are you hungry to know Christ better and better? If so, I have good news for you. If you are a Christ-seeker and desire a more relevant prayer life, God is already at work in you.
The Bible plainly says, "There is ... no one who seeks God." It even says, "All have turned away.... There is no fear of God before their eyes." This means that, left to ourselves, we lack the slightest motivation to pursue Christ. Therefore, if we are motivated to know Christ better, God is at work in us. Even if we are painfully aware of our ineffective prayers, the very fact that we want to do something about them shows the preliminary handiwork of God. In a sense, the desire for fire is the promise that fire will indeed follow. It's as if God takes the wood, hay, and stubble of our inadequate efforts to pursue Him and sets them on fire with His glorious presence. We may not yet see the fire of His presence, but at least there is smoke. And where there is smoke, you know what is about to happen!
Let me warn you at this point: Be careful not to confuse fire with a human emotion or with what is often called passion. Coaches tell their players to "fire up!" A romance novel talks about burning with passion. But as I use the term fire, I am not talking about excessive emotion or even honest, pure-hearted, spiritual passion. Such passion in the human soul is often the result of our spirits encountering the flaming presence of God's Spirit. The soul-made up of the mind, will, and emotions-does become zealous and passionate when it glows with the fire of God, but that will be the topic of another book. This book is not about our soul's passionate response; it is about the Holy Spirit's passionate initiative. I am not in any way challenging you to rev your spiritual engines, crank up your emotional fervor, or work yourself into a fever pitch. God forbid!
So then, where does the fire that ignites our prayer lives come from?
THE SOURCE OF FIRE
Plain and simple, prayer on fire is the work of God the Holy Spirit. True prayer is not only the work of man; it is also the work of the Holy Spirit. The Bible often shows how the Holy Spirit is responsible for generating effective prayer.
At a watershed moment in their lives, the disciples caught Jesus praying. They were blown away to watch a man so skilled at His craft. Something about the way He prayed was so radically superior to anything they had seen in the other religious people that they immediately pleaded, "Lord, teach us to pray." Jesus grabbed the teachable moment with both hands, giving them a prayer pattern, a prayer picture, and some prayer promises. But He saved the best till last. He didn't give them the real punch line until the end of His discourse: "If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!"
In a sense Jesus answered, "Okay. You want to learn to pray? There is only one way. You must ask the Holy Spirit to come and teach you. He alone will make it possible for you to pray the way I do."
The apostle Paul also understood Spirit-generated prayer. He knew that the only way he could get his prayers off the ground was with supernatural assistance. He was well acquainted with his inadequacies in prayer when he wrote, "We don't know how to pray as we ought." He went on to express that he was equally familiar with the incredible ability of God's indwelling Spirit to help with this chronic weakness: "but the Spirit himself intercedes for us." It is no wonder that when Paul called Christians to prayer, he told them not to muster up their own prayers, but to "pray in the Spirit."
The Holy Spirit is both a flaming Spirit and a praying Spirit. This means that if we have a problem with the relevance and authenticity of our prayer lives, the real problem is with our relationship with God the Holy Spirit. This pattern of Spirit-generated fire and Spirit-generated prayer is much more than a coincidence; it encapsulates the essence of a revolutionary principle that runs straight through the Bible: All effective prayer is generated by God the Holy Spirit and leads us to a fresh encounter with God.
GOD'S FIERY PRESENCE
The real scandal of lukewarm prayer is that it forfeits the knowledge of God. Don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting that when we are lukewarm we lack all knowledge of Christ, but we do settle for a superficial acquaintance. The problem is complicated by the fact that we often fail to recognize the profound difference between God's everyday omnipresence and His manifest presence.
God's omnipresence-the fact that God is everywhere present-is celebrated in Psalm 139:7-8:
Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
We don't need to pray for God's omnipresence; everyone on the planet is already experiencing it. What we want, however, is His manifest presence. And for that we must pray.
A. W. Tozer pointed out the distinction: "The Presence and the manifestation of the Presence are not the same. There can be one without the other. God is here when we are wholly unaware of it. He is manifest only when and as we are aware of His Presence." Tozer borrowed this helpful distinction from the English Puritans and the German Pietists before them. Both the Puritans and the Pietists longed continually to experience God's life-transforming presence. In fact, if they did not encounter God tangibly, at times they would cancel all other church activities and devote themselves to focused corporate prayer, asking God to make Himself known conspicuously. They wanted to experience conviction of sin, repentance, purity, and the effects of walking in vibrant spiritual intimacy with the risen Christ.
This pursuit is worth the payoff. As Tozer pointed out, "If we cooperate with Him in loving obedience, God will manifest Himself to us, and that manifestation will be the difference between a nominal Christian life and life radiant with the light of His face."
What makes this experience of God possible is God's passion to make Himself known to us. Without a rock-solid understanding of this aspect of God's character, even the most zealous seekers will eventually come to a screeching halt. God is even more eager to make Himself known than we are to know Him. As I have already noted, He was seeking us before we started seeking Him. Again, to quote our friend Tozer, "Our pursuit of God is successful just because He is forever seeking to manifest Himself to us."
I was first introduced to God's manifest presence when a friend and I sought Him in prayer in a most unlikely place.
FIRE IN THE BASEMENT
I was listening to Bob Dylan music with my friend in his basement. We were talking about sports, school, God, and girls. All of a sudden he turned to me and said, "You wanna pray?"
Huh? I thought, Pray?! Where did that come from? What a wild idea!
"Sure, why not!" I replied. Before I knew what was happening, he was on his knees. I figured, Why not? If we're going to pray, let's go for it!
Before my knees could hit the floor, he started, "Jesus, You are so awesome! It's so cool that we can just talk to You like this." His eyes were closed, but he was smiling.
"Yeah, God," I jumped in, "we know You are right here with us; we just want to worship You right now."
"I love You so much, Jesus," my friend continued without missing a beat. "You are so much bigger than a rock star, so much more powerful than the president of the United States, so much more understanding than a parent, more helpful than a coach ..."
"Jesus, You are more dependable than a girlfriend," I added. None of these thoughts had ever before come to our minds. They were fresh and real and alive. "God, You are awesome!"
Back and forth we prayed. Ideas were popping. There was nothing religious about our prayers; we were just talking to the One who knew us thoroughly and loved us passionately. We lost track of time. It seemed as if heaven stood wide open in front of us and we were able to look inside. We felt small, contrite, and humbled; yet at the same time privileged, honored, and invigorated.
Forty-five minutes later we got up off our knees and looked at each other with wide-eyed wonder. As we flopped on the couch, we took a deep breath and agreed that we had never experienced anything like that. Like moths drawn to the light, we had feasted our eyes on Jesus, deeply admiring His character, His virtues, His excellence.
I had previously said a thousand prayers, but this was prayer on fire. I had read my Bible and done what was expected of me as a Christian, but on that night Christ blew me away. I did not speak in an unknown language nor was I in some heightened emotional state. But for the first time in my life I caught a glimpse of the glory of God, and from that moment on I was branded. I have never since wanted to settle for anything less than the manifest presence of God.
The fire we encountered is more than a good idea or the latest novelty for a curious generation. As we will discover, God loves to reveal Himself to His seeking people.
Since high school I have been privileged to experience the fire of God's manifest presence hundreds of times. In my private prayer life, in my family, and in my public ministry, I have seen God dramatically show up. As pastor of a church in metro-Atlanta and president of the College of Prayer, which trains pastors and Christian leaders on four continents in prayer on fire, I have learned firsthand how God makes Himself known. I have learned what fans the flame of God's holy presence and what quenches it. While I take my responsibilities as a teacher seriously, let me assure you that I cannot set your prayers on fire. I can't even set my own on fire. In fact, it would be entirely inappropriate for me to try. God is self-revealing, and only God the Holy Spirit can open the eyes of our hearts, ignite our spirits, and empower our prayers.
As with the early disciples, it is a watershed moment in our lives when we genuinely ask, "Lord, teach us to pray." Jesus answers our sincere request in much the same way He answered His first-century followers: He points us to the Person of the Holy Spirit. The better we get to know the Holy Spirit, the more relevant and effective our prayer lives will become. In the following pages, more than simply gaining information, we will discover that true prayer flows out of an intimate relationship with God.
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Get ready to step into a different time zone. We will momentarily flash back three millennia to gain a fresh look at former God-seekers who stood on the holy ground of God's manifest presence as they learned firsthand about prayer on fire.
Excerpted from PRAYER ON FIRE by FRED A. HARTLEY III Copyright © 2006 by Fred A. Hartley III. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted October 27, 2010
Posted December 30, 2011
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