THE PERFECT ENVIRONMENT FOR PRAYER

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Pastor “L” found himself being struck repeatedly with his own motorcycle helmet as angry Buddhist extremists surrounded him. False accusations flew at him like blows from his attackers. This is one of the risks of being a believer in Christ in the country of Sri Lanka. What perspective does that reality engender in Christ-followers like him?

“We are not afraid”, explains another pastor. “If persecution comes, it comes. God will give us strength to face it. We don’t pray to avoid persecution; we pray for strength to face it.”[1]

This is an aspect of prayer we in the ‘west’ have yet to embrace. We tend to pray to avoid persecution, to evade difficulties, to be insulated from trials. Perhaps we have something to learn about prayer from our brothers and sisters in less spiritually hospitable countries around the world.

James, pastoral leader of the early Christian church in the first century A.D., had a few thoughts on the matter that echo our Sri Lankan brother’s words. He enjoins, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers (and sisters), whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt…” (James 1:2-6)

The process of maturation in this life as a believer in Christ is tightly tied to trials; this connection is dependent not so much upon the difficulties themselves as on our reaction to them. It’s about attitude. We “must believe and not doubt” that God remains good and loving even while we experience trouble. He is willing and able to help us persevere in the midst of our various difficulties. This is an integral part of the transforming, life-changing process of becoming like Jesus, our perfect role model.

Here’s where we can learn something. Praying comes naturally enough in the midst of difficulties. The classic soldier’s prayer in the trenches of war illustrates it well enough. “Save me from this, God, and I’ll…” We’ve done it ourselves. But this is praying to avoid persecution. We need to move ourselves a step further in our faith. The intent and content of our prayers needs to move from asking God to miraculously change externals, to requesting Him to miraculously change us. When in distressing situations we may pray to have our fears replaced with peace, our anxieties with courage, our weakness with strength, our doubts with faith. This is the process God uses to refine us, make us complete, not lacking anything.

Are we there yet? Not likely. Then it behooves us to make the changes necessary to our prayer lives. God’s purpose is not about keeping us safe. It’s about making us good, and that is no small task.

As the Narnian character is said to have observed, “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.”

Difficulties are inevitable in this life. How do we use them? Are they thorns in our side, causing us to whine and bemoan our plight? Or are they opportunities to draw us closer to our King of kings, becoming people of strength, of perseverance, and of goodness?


[1] This quote comes from The Voice of the Martyrs, Oct. 2013 Issue, Around the World, Sri Lanka

 

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DANIEL: PATTERN FOR PRAYER (CONCLUSION)

APPLYING THE PATTERN

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Daniel finally died. His lifetime of exile ended, not in returning to his beloved homeland of Jerusalem, but in being buried ‘ex-sillium’—away from the soil of his birth. He had maintained his Jewishness, had kept his faith, had been true to his God. But he had died.

History tells us the Jewish return from captivity began in 538 B.C. while Daniel’s life ended around 530 B.C. That means he saw his people heading homeward. The seventy-year captivity of his people would come to an end as he was taking his final shuddering breath. Was this defeat? Was Daniel nothing more than a pawn in an ancient empire’s hand?

I don’t think so. We’ve spent ten days looking at Daniel’s life, and I hope we’ve learned something about Daniel. He was all about God. He lived, breathed, prayed, and experienced life’s ups and downs in relation to God. His relationship with God affected every aspect of his life. Our examination of his life has uncovered nine facets of a life of extensive prayer. There are likely more. But let’s remind ourselves of the nine; each one can be found in further study throughout the pages of Scripture. Other God-followers were challenged to embrace similar endeavors. They are concepts that draw sinful mankind toward a Holy God. They are the beams that support the edifice of prayer.

  1. RESOLUTION: Resolve to defer to God’s instructions (on purity)
  2. AWE: Breathtaking appreciation for God’s magnificence and sovereignty
  3. ACKNOWLEDGMENT: Humility to accept the truth of God’s existence
  4. TRUST: Active belief in God’s goodness and willingness to bless
  5. HUMILITY: Trembling before the truths of God’s Word
  6. STEADFASTNESS: Persevering in prayerful petition (alliteration unintended)
  7. CONFESSION: Admission of rebellion; repentant reliance upon God’s mercy
  8. FASTING: Uncommon measures for exceptional situations
  9. VISION: Insightful prayers powered by divine strength

What a list. The strength exuding from each facet is formidable, maybe even daunting. How do we, stumbling servants in a century of superficiality embody such an inventory of traits? Look at each definition again. Many of them describe acts of submission: to ‘defer’, ‘appreciate God’s sovereignty’, words like ‘humility’, ‘trembling’, and ‘reliance’. While we may tell ourselves we haven’t the fortitude to embody every proactive trait of strength, most of them only require a clear view of God and His ways. Borrowing from an analogy of C.S. Lewis, the grain of the universe leads us to each of these traits. Going against them is what gives us the slivers of ineffectiveness. We must just stop stopping the character growth God’s Spirit is poised to develop in us. “…Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Phil.1:8)

The pattern is here. Daniel did not design it but he modeled it. It’s a pattern that fits like a glove every God-follower who chooses to push finger by finger into its design. A life of prayer will furnish us with the confidence to say, like another God-follower, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day – and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” Men, women and children of prayer, rise to your calling.

 

DANIEL: PATTERN FOR PRAYER #9

VISION

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Some people find vision daunting. Remember Charles Templeton, former evangelist, and coworker with Billy Graham? He lost his faith as a result of a disturbing vision. Interviewing Templeton for his book, The Case for Faith, Author Lee Strobel explains, “(Templeton’s) retreat from faith began with that Life magazine photo of the African mother holding her child who had died because of a simple lack of rain.” Because of this and other observed tragedies, Templeton concluded, “there cannot be a loving God”. His vision caused his faith to disintegrate.

Like Templeton, Daniel found vision daunting too. Yet vision was the very foundation of his prayer life. Esteemed highly by God for his emphasis on setting his mind to understand God’s ways, Daniel was rewarded with a formidable vision of Christ and of the future. Listen to how Daniel describes it.

“I, Daniel, was the only one who saw the vision…so I was left alone, gazing at this great vision; I had no strength left, my face turned deathly pale and I was helpless.” And later, “I said to the one standing before me, ‘I am overcome with anguish because of the vision, my lord, and I am helpless…my strength is gone and I can hardly breathe.’” As a result of his request, a heavenly messenger strengthened Daniel with words imbuing strength and peace. The vision became manageable, not only to Daniel, but also to generations of believers who have appreciated the prophetic revelations transcribed by Daniel.

What is the difference? Why did vision sidetrack Templeton’s faith but reinforce Daniel’s? Perhaps the answer is found in the comment made by the seraphic messenger in Daniel 10:12. He observed that Daniel’s prayers were heard as a result of him humbling himself before God. Vision plus prayerful humility equals expanding faith. Vision paired with arrogance results in diminishing faith.

How do we make this truth applicable for our prayer lives? Firstly, as we enter into prayer with the Almighty One, we need humility; we must realize that there are some things we will never understand about Him. Sometimes he will reveal things to us through His Word or His Spirit that we can understand, but sometimes we will be daunted. We might be overcome with anguish, feel like our strength is being sapped, and lose our breath. His ways are not always our ways. Submit to that truth. He will reveal what is necessary as He sees fit. Trust Him for that.

Secondly, prayer-sustaining vision is granted to those who set their minds to gain understanding. It may not be so much a vision of heavenly messengers as of God’s planet earth project, God’s kingdom coming among mankind. To gain insight into God’s ways takes deliberate choice. It takes effort, spiritual effort, mental effort and physical effort. It takes Scripture-focused prayer, meditation on what God has said in order to dialogue appropriately with Him. The resulting worldview of honouring God becomes the foundation of our vision.

And finally, visionary prayers must be powered by divine strength. It is unthinkable that we could muster the drive, the passion, the energy to lever God into action. It must go the other way around. It is God’s Spirit who indwells and energizes the praying man, woman and child enabling them to envision His heart for the world.

With humility, with effort, and with the Spirit’s empowerment our vision for God’s presence becomes integral to a maturing prayer life. Rather than disintegrating, our faith will be given the opportunity for amazing growth. Any takers?

 

DANIEL: PATTERN FOR PRAYER #8

FASTING

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“So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes” (Daniel 9:3).

Extreme. Daniel sounds extreme in his practice of prayer. While many people pray, maybe even most people petition God in a crisis, who still fasts? — (Not to mention dressing in sackcloth and ashes). What is fasting and why would anyone choose such an extreme accompaniment to prayer?

In the past, Daniel has been conscious of the spiritual benefits of physical self-restraint rather than self-indulgence. Remember the teenaged Daniel and his three Jewish friends’ diet change back in their early captivity? Their rejection of decadence had borne good results. But this fasting is something completely other than that. It’s not just simplicity. It’s moving from temperate to extreme. Daniel senses that he’s at an unparalleled crossroad, that exceptional situations call for uncommon measures. He is intentional in preparing himself to petition God; he chooses to fast.

It takes intention to fast; who simply forgets to satisfy hunger? Perhaps fasting enables us to see the unseen, to enter into the realm of spirit too easily obscured by daily routine. Fasting replaces the sensation of satiety with an awareness of need. It exchanges pleasure for an aching hunger. It’s not surprising that a synonym for pleasure is diversion. When we experience self-indulgence we divert ourselves from our primary function as spiritual beings communing with God. But when we temporarily set aside the pleasure of the feast, we lead ourselves back into our principal functionality, our raison d’être. It has been said that there is no feast without a fast.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book The Cost of Discipleship comments, “If there is no element of asceticism in our lives, if we give free rein to the desires of the flesh (taking care of course to keep within the limits of what seems permissible to the world), we shall find it hard to train for the service of Christ. When the flesh is satisfied it is hard to pray with cheerfulness or to devote oneself to a life of service which calls for much self-renunciation.”

It’s an oxymoron: to truly live we must die to self, yet if we fast long enough, we will end life. So it must be intentional: neither dull the spirit nor kill the body.

I bring up this topic of fasting for two reasons: Firstly, Daniel models it in his life of prayer, so it is inevitable we must study it. We must observe the facts and come to a livable conclusion. We must, like responsible jury members, ask whether there is any reason, beyond a shadow of a doubt, to ignore it. Secondly, I want to hear from the Body of Christ on this topic. Something in my spirit has been nudging me to find out what my brothers and sisters are practicing regarding fasting, that I, in my self-indulgent westernization have conveniently omitted. Perhaps, in the anonymity afforded by blogging I might entice some feedback on the topic. (I promise to think neither better nor worse of you if you tell me your experience regarding fasting). Tell me: How do you fast?

 

DANIEL: PATTERN FOR PRAYER #7

 CONFESSION

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In our modern culture of preservation of self-esteem, confession is a scarce commodity. We prefer to avoid blame. We redirect misdemeanors, reorganize misbehaviours and reconfigure misadventures, but we rarely confess. Confession requires we admit our shortcomings, some of which may seem to be irreparable. We hate to admit we have failed to maintain a moral standard so we avoid confession. Our consciences prefer evasion to confrontation. We fear admission of guilt would reinforce the discomfort of our inner turmoil. Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard calls it ‘angst’, this apprehension and anxiety over moral failures. Daniel calls it shame.  Daniel has not been in the habit of avoiding difficult situations. From his youth Daniel has confronted difficult and dangerous situations with uncommon boldness, and now in his latter years his verve is not about to wane.

Daniel has studied the Scriptures available in his day. He’s especially interested in prophecy. He observes his contemporary, the prophet Jeremiah, has connected the ‘desolation’ of Jerusalem to the stubborn rebellion of the Jewish people. God warned his chosen people, but they ignored His advice, and now they were exiles in Babylon. But Daniel’s study has also unearthed a promise from those same Scriptures. He observes the banishment is prophesied to last seventy years. And he’s done the math. The seventy years are nearly done.

But instead of an attitude of entitlement, Daniel is struck by the weight of Israel’s sin. Instead of considering Israel in terms of ‘they’, he thinks in terms of ‘we’. He accepts responsibility for the corporate rebellion of his people.

His confession is staggering. He lifts the shroud of Israel’s guilt and drapes it across his own shoulders, bowing before God in repentance. This is a prayer worth noting. It’s found in Daniel chapter nine. Observing the number of times Daniel uses the personal pronouns “we” and “our” in verses 4-19 is revealing. This is the same Daniel who, as a youthful prisoner, resolved “not to defile himself” in a culture of compromise; whose awe and acknowledgement of God was the source of his wisdom; whose steadfastness in prayer earned him a death sentence. Now he prays, “We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws…O LORD, we and our kings, our princes and our fathers are covered with shame because we have sinned against you…Just as it is written in the Law of Moses, all this disaster has come upon us, yet we have not sought the favor of the LORD our God by turning from our sins and giving attention to your truth.”

This is not shallow kudos designed to manipulate a rigid deity. Daniel’s understanding of God’s morality has altered his view of his own self-righteousness. He is man; he is a member of the race Homo sapiens. He feels the weight of the sin of his people and knows confession is the only route to relief.

The Sovereign LORD, the Holy One of Israel says: “In repentance and rest is your salvation” (Isa. 30:15). Daniel not only believes it, he acts upon it. He prays. He confesses. He relies fully upon God’s mercy.

It’s a lot for us to think about. Confession is not easy, but it is necessary to be in right relationship with God. Let’s do it; let’s get on our knees and confess. It’s good for the soul.

 

DANIEL: PATTERN FOR PRAYER #6

  STEADFASTNESS

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Fast forward to the past’s future. Now in his seventies, Daniel has spent his life serving in the Babylonian palace. Many of his contemporaries have gone, and Daniel is living in relative obscurity. Nebuchadnezzar is dead.  The king’s grandson, Belshazzar, has been slain in a military coup by the Medes and Persians, and Cyrus has placed Darius king over Babylon. It hasn’t taken Darius long to observe Daniel’s exceptional qualities of integrity, courage and reliability. The king plans to promote Daniel to CEO status, but envious administrators scheme a plot to discredit the Jewish exile. Daniel, aged man of prayer, is about to face his darkest night at the hands of the enemy of his soul. His adversaries will stop at nothing to destroy his influence.

Perhaps you can relate. Maybe not the empire, the coup and the plot, but maybe you have felt like you are living in obscurity. Maybe you’ve tried to live a life of integrity, but your colleagues haven’t appreciated the contrast to their own work ethic. Maybe you can’t put your finger on the cause, but you sense you are in your own ‘dark night of the soul’.

Daniel has been modeling for us what a life of earnest, resolute prayer looks like. There is no room here for whimsy. The man or woman who chooses to live out prayer has determined to be characterized by RESOLVE, AWE, ACKNOWLEDGEMENT, TRUST and HUMILITY. We now observe Daniel adding STEADFASTNESS to the formidable list.

Daniel is steadfast in maintaining a routine that puts God first. This routine puts Daniel on his knees praying to God three set times each day. His knees have become calloused, maybe even arthritic, but that doesn’t stop him. His window opens south toward distant Jerusalem, beloved city he will never again see, yet somehow his prayers include thanksgiving to God. He perseveres even when he knows his kneeling posture will earn him the death penalty.

Ironically it is king Darius who is unnerved. It is he who is distressed with the unalterable edict, he who spends a sleepless night fretting over his impotency to save Daniel. Daniel remains steadfast. He is snatched from his knees by delighted adversaries, and thrown into a pit from which none have ever escaped. Those knees have served him well in the past, and no doubt he lands in the dark pit in prayer-ready posture.

Do we? When we are thrown into life’s upsetting pitfalls do we land on our knees? Is our first reaction to bow before the One who holds our lives in His hands, and pray? Are our eyes open to the Eternal Father’s presence when the night is long and dark and cold?

We are told little of Daniel’s dark night other than that he survived. The presence of God was palpable to Daniel, and his leonine adversaries could not touch him. Not this time. Other God-followers would someday fall to the death-grip of ferocious beasts, but that would be their story. Their steadfastness would protect them in other, equally meaningful ways. So it is with us. We are given the opportunity to choose to add steadfastness to our soul’s development. It might start today. Have we knees upon which to bow today, and commit to do so until our final day?