So what happens when we pray?

Often, I will be sitting on my lounge early in the morning to pray and before long my mind has drifted off into some sort of stream of consciousness and I end up a million miles away from where I started. It starts with, I need to pray for my son and ends up wondering why the sky is blue or the moon appears so large when close to the horizon. One of these well-worn pathways of distraction often leads me from a prayer point to pondering what are the actual mechanics of prayer. Maybe you have pondered this as well. How does a thought go from our mind, to the Throne of God and then at some future point returns to us as a miracle, an encouraging word, a job offer, a change in attitude and so on? I find the whole process amazing to ponder especially in the light of prayers that seem to go unanswered.

So, I submit some ideas to you. They don’t amount to a fully-fledged theology of the mechanics of prayer. At points they feel a little proof-texty. They feel like spiritual ponderings to me as there seems to be too much mystery around the subject and the New Testament is fairly quiet on the process for me to proclaim with absolute confidence. Also I suggest that Paul was more concerned that we actually pray rather than think too much about the how things work in the background. However, some thinking around this topic may help us understand the bigger picture of prayer and cause a renewed optimism that will propel us to not give up too early.

In the book of Revelation, John gives us a glimpse into heaven. Yes, the book is full of symbols and images and can be hard to understand but it also has a sense of God pulling back the curtain from the main stage that we can see, in order to spy on what is happening behind the scenes. Along with jaw dropping images of worship around the throne of God there is a curious moment in Revelation 5:8. The image is of the living creatures and elders holding bowls that are full of the prayers of God’s people. It’s tempting to think that once we pray a prayer it disappears. Either it didn’t quite make it through the ceiling or that its way down on God’s to-do list. In actual fact, the very opposite seems to be true. God stores them in bowls and they form part of the ongoing heavenly worship expression. I find it helpful to visualise my prayers in that bowl and wonder what happens then the bowls get full and the Elders present them to God. See, He treasures and stores every prayer no matter how feeble or distracted they are.

The first talk I ever heard on prayer went something like this. God answers prayers with either yes, no or not yet. I was in primary or elementary school and that seemed highly plausible. It seemed to be the way earthly requests work. It passed the common-sense test as well as the lived experience test. However, as I have got older I have tried to find a verse or passage or teaching in the Bible that sums this thought up in one succinct way. Problem was I couldn’t find one. I’m not saying there isn’t places in the narrative in which God answers differently, I just couldn’t find a clear teaching on it. What I could find was some challenging verses indeed around God answering prayers. 1 John 5:14-15 was one of those. Mark 11:24 was another. Matthew 7:11 was another. It got me thinking, what is God says yes to prayers more often than we know?

So, what happens to our answers if God hears, stores and answers ‘yes’ more often than we know? This is where I turn to an Old Testament narrative for answers, so I approach the text with some care, not wanting to read too much into it. The story however has a similar feel to modern life. Daniel has been praying and fasting but getting no answer. Just like you and me sometimes. Then in Chapter 10 something changes. An angel appears to Daniel in a dream and says,

 "Do not be afraid, Daniel. Since the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard, and I have come in response to them. But the prince of the Persian kingdom resisted me twenty-one days. Then Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, because I was detained there with the king of Persia.”

The fact that the answer comes in the form of a dream shouldn’t put us off here. It was commonplace for God to communicate in dreams. The angel seems to be saying to Daniel that your prayers reached heaven as soon as you started praying. God answered in the affirmative, that answer was carried by angels, but the angels were engaged in some sort of spiritual warfare to deliver the answer.

This really fascinates me. The idea that God answered but the answer was held up in a battle. Part of the reason I find it so fascinating is that my lived experience of fasting so often follows this pattern. I find it common that most of the time, it is a few weeks after I finish my fast that the breakthrough will come. I can’t tell you the number of times in which I set myself to fast for 21 days or 40 days and nothing shifts during that time. Then weeks later the most amazing answers come. Its uncanny that it happens every time. It makes me wonder if my answers are in deep battle until the angels get the victory.

The idea of spiritual warfare is certainly not a strange one in the New Testament either. Both 2 Cor. 10:3-5 and Ephesians 6 help open our eyes to the unseen world all around us that we contend with. While these passages don’t explicitly say that the demonic realm hold up our prayers, it’s not a hard stretch to see this happening in a warfare context.

Personally, this idea encourages me. It helps me to see that the things I think God is saying No to, might actually be the enemy trying to usurp and say no. In those times I can visualise my prayers in the bowls of heaven and the angels descending to earth with the answers. It helps me to pray without ceasing and follow the example of the persistent widow and keep crying out to God for justice. What helps you to keep praying?

Never ever........ever give up.

The persistent widow…

Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up Luke 18:1

It is a very rare person indeed that doesn’t at some point or another in life feel like giving up. Whether it be receiving an exam mark that was worse than expected, being criticised for doing something or even parenting a teenage child who insists on not listening and learning the hard way. Life provides a non-stop supply of potentially disappointing moments in which expectations can be challenged and we figuratively throw our hands up and declare “That’s it, I’ve had enough, I quit”.

Prayer can be even more challenging because the very nature of prayer is that it is deals in the unseen realm. We speak words from our heart to our God who is unseen. He who is unseen, answers in ways that we can’t always perceive and in time-frames that sometime perplex us. Most humans love to be able to see a problem, define it and take tangible steps to fix it and fit it now. Prayer often doesn’t work that simply.

Jesus understood these dynamics of the human heart when faced with difficulties to both feel like giving up or trying and solve our own problems.  Jesus therefore addressed this with his disciples and encouragement them into a lifestyle of deeper prayer. He told a story to his followers of a widow. This widow had been wronged in some way and she wasn’t about to go away quietly. To all appearances she looked as one without power and influence but yet she had an ace up her sleeve.

She knew who she should ask to change the situation. She knew who was more powerful than herself. So, she would present herself before the local judge and would make this simple plea ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’  She also knew that sometimes wheels turn slowly and that she should just keep asking and not give up and then she would gain the answer she was looking for.

The message Jesus wanted to get to the disciples then and now was simple.  We pray to a powerful God who can and does act upon human history and situations. Not only that but this God has designed prayer to be an ongoing expression rather than a one-off event. The disciples got the message that they should pray about any and everything and that they should never ever give up.

Is there a situation in your life that seems too hard for prayer? Is there something that seems overwhelming or something that just won’t seem to shift? Our encouragement from Jesus’ parable is to take these impossible requests to a God who is the most powerful person in the universe. He is a God who delights in answering prayers and he delights in the relationship that continued prayer creates. We are encouraged to continue in that place of prayer until ‘justice is granted’.

Why don’t Anglicans and Pentecostals like praying together?

15 years ago I felt the encouragement of God to call our city to spend 40 days focused on praying together for revival in our city. For a couple of years leading up to this our church had undertaken some prayer seasons like this. Generally, our church had found such seasons very helpful. We had felt encouraged in our faith and after one such season we saw our evening service grow from about 30 regulars to well over 120 people in about 3 months with many of the city’s youth coming to faith. It felt like a mini revival.

The funny thing was that our little country church, which was an Anglican church, was full of Pentecostals. Part of this was due to the ministry team being broad in our churchman-ship and partly that everybody who found themselves in a theological and stylistic middle ground gravitated to that church. It was a great mix. We found ourselves appreciating all that the seemingly different traditions and styles brought to each other.

I had a feeling however that this sense of unity and humble appreciation wasn’t the case outside of our four walls.

Years before I had been on a ministry team in a Pentecostal church plant in suburban Sydney. The pastor had started the plant with a local letterbox drop outlining why the Pentecostal church was superior to any of the established local churches. In moving in these circles I found out that this feeling wasn’t just localised to our church. On the other hand, having spent 8 years in Anglican ministry after this had shown me that these feelings were generally reciprocated. Any chance to criticise the Pentecostals in either sermons or conversations were generally taken.

So it was into this uneasy context that I felt the encouragement to take this prayer season beyond our four walls and into the wider body of Christ in our city. The plan was to meet with 10 pastors individually one by one across our city and share how we had experienced our seasons of prayer and ask them to consider joining other churches as we prayed and fasted for 40 days for our city.

As I arranged each of the meetings and they approached I felt about as nervous as I ever had. I had a genuine fear from the friction that I had observed over many years in church life. It seems so much easier to divide that to unite. Humans tend to feel comfortable grouped with like-minded people and creating echo chambers that confirm how right we are and how misguided others are. I know I do it and I suspect none of us are immune.

I don’t think many of us would disagree that the church is called to pray. I don’t think that many of us would disagree that the church is called to unity. But if we were to marry these ideas we become quickly unstuck. Pentecostals and Anglicans tend to avoid each other. In fact, really we all do it. Baptists, Apostolic, Presbyterians, Salvos, all of us. We so often elevate our style to a godlike state so that we miss out on seeing the whole.

Jonathan Edwards encountered a similar mindset hundreds of years ago. He was so passionate about pushing against this that he wrote a well named book in 1746 called An Humble Attempt to Promote Explicit Agreement and Visible Union of God’s People in Extraordinary Prayer, For the Revival and Religion and the Advancement of Christ’s Kingdom on Earth. In this book he proposed that “In Zechariah 8:20-22 we have an account of how this future advancement of the Church should occur. It would come to fruition as multitudes from different towns resolve to unite in extraordinary prayer, seeking God until He manifests Himself and grants the fruits of his presence”.

Edwards was no stranger to united fervent prayer and he was no stranger to the extraordinary outpourings of revival that this type of prayer gives birth to.

So as I met with each pastor and shared our story I was amazed at what transpired. Every single church that I asked joined with us. We had 4 Anglican churches, 3 Pentecostal, a Baptist and some Uniting churches all setting aside 40 days to seek God for their city in a united cry. In fact other churches found out about this and asked to join. All up 13 churches in a city with a history of church splits and individualism came together for an extraordinary time of prayer.

If you talk to people who are seeing revival like situations across the planet today there seems to be a theme. That theme is that those who wouldn’t normally prayer together hold their style a little bit more loosely and find each other in extraordinary united fervent prayer. As we long for outpourings like the Great Awakenings, Edwards calls to us from the pages of history “come together like never before”.

Doesn’t fasting turn you into a legalist?

In 2002 I attempted my first 40 day fast. I had been reading about the benefit fasting was to your prayer life for quite some time. I had been reading how the ancients practiced it regularly. I was curious to find out what it was like and if any difference in your spiritual walk was perceivable. So in the winter of 2002 I jumped in headlong.

When I say I jumped headlong in, I really did go all in. My personality is very much all or nothing so there was little room for a middle ground approach. So on the 21st of May 2002 I stopped eating for 40 days. I carved a daily pattern of a few drinks of juice, plenty of water and nothing else. Added to the fasting was a few prayer walks a day and over the next couple of weeks I experienced an explosion of intimacy with the Holy Spirit.

Three weeks in I went to a Christian conference and happened to run into my sister. At about the 3 week marker of any fast you experience a short period of extreme hunger. So I was a little on edge. It was great to catch up and as she asked if I had lost some weight (it’s easy to hide your fasting until you start losing weight).  As I told her about my journey she told me that she and a close friend were also fasting. That was incredible timing. I was intrigued. She said that she would fast and if the hunger became too intense, she would pause and eat.

When my sister told me that she would fast and pause when overly hungry or weak, she said it with such joy. The type of joy that fasting is supposed to produce.  But my fast wasn’t. Something in me internally retorted “that’s not fasting” with a bitter and angry tone. I was so hungry and had been so careful to avoid food at all costs. I had been strict in making my flesh submit. I had shown great discipline but right there in that moment I felt like my fast might have become about the letter of the law. I had become that guy who in his heart believes that unless you have done it to the letter of the law then you really hadn’t done it at all. I had become a legalist.

It’s not really hard for me to be the legalist. I’m the guy who can’t stand people talking in the “quiet carriage” of the train. I’m the guy who can’t stand pedestrians walking on the red signal. I was the one who had to go to every church event during the week. I like a place for everything and everything in its place. Much of my adult spiritual journey was around moving out of perfectionism and into a place of freedom but this idea of fasting was a major trigger. I felt OK internally just as long as I was meeting the requirements of the fast.

It was a few days after this chance encounter when I was reading an article about juice fasting. The author asserted that unless you are only drinking the broth created from boiling vegetables and draining them, then it’s not really fasting at all. I was incensed. I questioned who were these people to tell me or anybody what was or wasn’t a valid fast. They must have been legalists…….and then it dawned on me. I was doing the exact same thing in my heart towards my sister as they were doing to me.

I had to go in search of answers. How could I fast in such a way that joy was the product, discipline was practiced but it was held lightly enough that it was all about grace?

I found the answer in a book by Jack Hayford. It was a book on spiritual disciplines. He addressed the topic of fasting and shared about a pastor and mentor of his. This man would call his church to fast and pray for seasons but was unable to do it himself due to diabetes. So instead of rigorous fasting he would eat as little as he could without getting sick. He called it entering into the spirit of the fast. In his heart he was all in even though his body couldn’t be. This was a radical idea both to me but also in Jesus’ day.

Jesus had a lot so say to the spiritual lawyers of the time. They would try to fulfill the letter of the law when it came to fasting but would miss completely the spirit of the fast. These lawyers and scholars had expanded on the law to such a point that you couldn’t walk with a handkerchief in your jacket on the Sabbath without breaking the law.

In Luke 11 Jesus address spiritual practice that focuses on the external and neglects the internal. It neglects the matters of the heart. It is all about appearing spiritual while not allowing God to interact with the heart.

As I reflect on that interaction all those years ago I’m so grateful that my legalist got exposed. It meant that my first 40 day fast had eternal value as I allowed God to deal with my heart and not just my flesh. It has meant that every food fast since has been in the shadow of heart fasting. It has meant that if I need to pause fasting I can do so and easily jump back in without shaming myself. It has been the difference between spirit and letter. It has been the difference between joy and anger. It has been the difference between heart and flesh. It has been the difference.

WHY NOT "7-14"?

Back in the dark ages when I was a freshman youth worker with the Anglican Church in regional NSW I dreamed up a combined activity for the youth groups of the city. No it wasn’t a regressive dinner or a chalk chase with a difference. It was the idea that all the youth groups of the city could come together once a term and pray for the city. I had grown up in the day when youth was all about attracting kids to crazy activities but God seemed to be doing something different in the youth groups around town. So we gave it a shot.

To my amazement most youth groups came along. It was incredible. There were hundreds of kids packed into our tiny hall praying with a passion like their lives depended on it. Not just young people praying but leading us adult leaders in prayer. As I reflect on those early days in youth ministry it remains one of my enduring highlights. It was hard to finish the night as the young people wouldn’t stop praying but finally things died down and everyone left with a new enthusiasm for what God might do in our city.

Not everybody however was happy with our gathering. Nobody would say anything directly to me but there was a sense that some youth leaders weren’t happy so they encouraged their youth groups not to attend. I would hear comments of discontent through the back channels. There was a gnawing feeling that I had transgressed that I couldn’t quite get a handle on.

The whole event had been inspired by a video series that was doing the rounds at the time. It was called “Transformations” and focussed on 8 locations around the world where churches had come together in united fervent prayer and seen God answer in some extraordinary ways. The whole “Transformations” movement centred around the core idea of 2 Chronicles 7:14 which said  if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” So in keeping with the theme of the verse we called the night “7:14” and kicked off right on 7:14pm (not sure if we started in on the 14th of July for our northern hemisphere friends). And that seemed to be where the problem lay.

Sometime later I received a letter from my Bishop. I had been discussing with him an international prayer movement that I was involved with and he had reviewed a book for me that was at the core of this prayer movement. As I read his critique he moved in on the idea of using 2 Chronicles 7:14 in our setting. His critique was simply that we were using this verse out of context. This was my pre Master of Divinity days so the full weight of what that meant was a little lost on me but I knew it wasn’t great. What hit me however was that it seemed that the context word was all that was needed to invalidate everything around the prayer movement. It was the QED of the equation.  It was the trump card of the 500 game. It was the landing on Mayfair with a hotel on it.

The dilemma I faced was that I was witnessing great things happening in the youth of my city but I was theologically hanging out on a limb. What was I to do with this context thing? It felt like I had 3 places I could go. I could say that context didn’t matter. The idea that the Holy Spirit can reinterpret scripture away from the cultural historical setting and give it new meaning in a new era sounded very appealing. There are plenty of Christian movements that do this. However, I was interested in citywide unity so sticking with “7:14” could have a dis-unifying effect.

I could settle with context as king. That is, there was no other way to understand the passage except as applying to Solomon and the dedication of the temple. Theologically I would have many peers with me.

However, discounting this verse never seemed that straight forward to me. It seemed like one of the only places where humble prayer, repentance and God moving as a response came together in a beautiful thematically crisp way. So I find it helpful to think about this verse in the context of the character of God and the rest of scripture before I write off 7:14 as a valid short sharp hanger for all things prayer and revival. I think about the New Testament context of God desiring humility, God desiring his people to gather, God desiring prayer, God desiring repentance and his character being that of restoration and then I lean towards 7:14 as being Ok for today. And as long as I’m not too linear or prescriptive around what “healing the land” looks like outside of a land covenantal context then I’ve warmed to the idea.

J. Edwin Orr discusses this type of prayer in his renowned 1976 sermon. He describes what happens when God’s people come together in a 7:14 way.

Trinity Episcopal Church in Chicago had a hundred and twenty-one members in 1857; fourteen hundred in 1860. That was typical of the churches. More than a million people were converted to God in one year out of a population of thirty million. Then that same revival jumped the Atlantic, appeared in Ulster, Scotland and Wales, then England, parts of Europe, South Africa and South India anywhere there was an evangelical cause. It sent mission pioneers to many countries. Effects were felt for forty years. Having begun in a movement of prayer, it was sustained by a movement of prayer

So Why not 7:14? Why not a movement where God’s people put on the backburner fine nuance around context and see the bigger themes. Bigger themes that are echoed throughout scripture and hallmarks of where every revival has exploded. 

Why not 7:14 here? Why not 7:14 now?