In one of our favorite films, Fiddler on the Roof, the main character, Tevye, is introducing the audience to the Jewish community of Anatevka. When he comes to “the most important of all, our beloved Rabbi” someone asks:
Rabbi — is there a proper blessing for the Tsar?
With a bit of a smile, the Rabbi responds:
A proper blessing for the Tsar? Of course — “May God bless and keep the Tsar — FAR FROM US!”
From time to time, the people of God become confused about our communication with God. We have His communication to us enshrined in His word. For many in the church these days, God’s Word seems not to be enough for them, so they seek gnostic knowledge through esoteric practices. This is not just unnecessary – it is dangerous – often leading people into the occult, seeking to gain special knowledge that others do not have. We have all that is needed for faith and practice in the word of God. That is His primary means of communicating to us.
Our communication to God is prayer. It is our part of the conversation. We often give prayer requests to one another when we face some great difficulty. Additionally, many churches have prayer lines or prayer chains, but it seems in recent years, there has been a bit of mystery concerning prayer. There has been a growing movement over the past 30 or so years promoting “Spiritual Disciplines” or “Spiritual Formation,” which most often includes Contemplative Prayer, the Enneagram, and other Eastern metaphysical practices. Bible colleges and seminaries may even offer degrees in “Spiritual Formation.” Are these new “tools” necessary? Are they biblical? Is Contemplative Prayer really prayer?
The pastors at Theocast are concerned about this question and posted their findings online. In the first article, “The Biblical and Historical Problems with Spiritual Disciplines Part 1” they wrote:
Every author I read was promoting a particular list of disciplines that if practiced diligently would provide spiritual growth. I became deeply discouraged over time as I discovered a theological thread that was not biblically or historically accurate. I have yet to find a book written on this subject that doesn’t promote external efforts as the means to spiritual growth.
I do want to clarify my last statement. There are good men who have written on this subject. They have clearly stated that we cannot grow in our sanctification without the work of the Spirit in our lives. Some with great enthusiasm promote the power of the Spirit to transform us. The confusion comes with how these authors partner the Spirit’s work with our work in sanctification.
This caused such great confusion in my own study as I worked through the mounds of books and articles. Every author I read led the reader away from a faith-centered focus on sanctification toward a self-effort system. In my opinion, Christianity has been deeply affected by this teaching.
Certainly, being disciplined in our spiritual life is important, but for some reason, many regard their relationship with God as something more mystical than it has been presented in the Bible. Perhaps because God has a different nature and is a spiritual being, we somehow take that to mean God is a “mystical” entity. Yet, He invites us to hear from Him in His word and to walk with Him in prayer. Perhaps starting with a definition would be helpful. Our friends at Got Questions point out in “What is Prayer?”:
The most basic definition of prayer is “talking to God.” Prayer is not meditation or passive reflection; it is direct address to God. It is the communication of the human soul with the Lord who created the soul. Prayer is the primary way for the believer in Jesus Christ to communicate his emotions and desires with God and to fellowship with God.
When I (Don) became a Christian in 1974, personal prayer was a somewhat new concept to me. I don’t remember any discussions about “Spiritual disciplines,” although there was an emphasis on the need for regular personal and corporate communication with God. His word was lifted up as the final authority for faith and practice and provided guidance in life’s big decisions and daily living. Spending time listening to Him through His word, and time talking with Him are the two parts of communication. Both are about relationships. Someone pointed me to the acronym A.C.T.S.:
- Adoration – In doing so, we are reminding ourselves of Who God is and His capabilities
- Confession –This is more for us. Our sin debt has been paid, but as humans, we tend to avoid those that we have wronged or owe a great debt to. We may feel embarrassed for various thoughts or behaviors. God already knows about all these things, of course, but our desire to hide from God has created a rift in our relationship. We need not bother, though, since we cannot hide from God. Keep the communication open.
- Thanksgiving – It is easy to take others for granted, including or maybe especially God. Easy to forget how very much God has done for us and continues to do every single day. Prayer that focuses on Thanksgiving gives us an opportunity to remember the many ways He has been involved in our lives, providing, comforting, and even just walking with us through daily life.
- Supplication – This is the one nearly all of us want to jump to right away, and it is indeed important that we raise our needs and concerns to God. He listens, and He responds.
The disciples asked their Rabbi, Jesus, to teach them to pray. We have His response recorded in Matthew 6:5-13. His words are very instructive. In verse five, he tells them not to make a big theatrical production of it in order to bring attention to themselves. He said, “When you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” Prayer is not about us.
In verse seven, the Lord told the disciples, “Do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Repetitiveness is not communicating with God. It’s not about how we sound to others or even to ourselves. It is genuine and sincere speaking to God.
The “Lord’s Prayer” is a simple example of what our prayers should include. We are to pray our own words and thoughts to God and not to each other, even if others happen to be praying with us. When the Lord said, “Pray like this…” He basically described the elements of A.C.T.S. to His disciples. In verses nine and ten, He demonstrates Adoration of the Father. In verse twelve, He includes Confession and Thanksgiving. In verses eleven and thirteen, we have Supplication. It is simply prayer.
One of the most interesting aspects of prayer is how we may find that what we do or what we pursue may be the “long-distance” answer to someone else’s prayer – someone we don’t even know. We have seen that so often in the ministry. Although we didn’t know it until after the fact, Joy and I and MCOI have been blessed to be the answer to the seemingly unrelated (to us) prayers of someone else.
In the late 1960s, a young man named Ken became a Jehovah’s Witness. His aunt, a Baptist who lived in another state began praying every day that he would be delivered from the Watchtower and would come to salvation in the Lord Jesus. She prayed for him every day for many years. Also, in the late 1960s, Joy and I met. I was not a believer at the time. We were engaged a year later and married two years after that. We had our son after three years of marriage. Soon after that, I came to the faith. Having kids and new responsibilities will often do that.
Joy’s grandfather, a prayer warrior, showed up at the next family gathering with a box of Bibles and commentaries. Why, you ask? He had been praying for my salvation for several years and interestingly, not only for my salvation, but that I would become a preacher. His box of resources was purchased with the belief that God would answer this part of his prayer as well. Now, it had never crossed our minds that we would go into ministry, so Grandpa’s desires did not immediately come to pass, though we made good use of Grandpa’s gifts. However, God has His ways of answering prayer.
After a few years, I (Joy) joined a bowling league, and as it happened, there were several Jehovah’s Witness women in the league. We became friends, and for some odd reason, I felt a very strong desire to reach them with the gospel. I started praying faithfully for them and felt a real need to learn all I could about that group to be prepared if the opportunity knocked. It was very hard in those long-ago days to find good information about the group. One night, we happened to catch four former JW women giving their testimonies on the John Ankerberg show and found out they had a yearly convention of former JWs, now Christians, in Pennsylvania. Great, I thought. I’ll get Don to call them about it. We went to the convention, became ever more interested in reaching JWs, and learned very much. A few people there suggested we start a JW helpline in our area so that JWs could anonymously call for information. (JWs are afraid even to question the organization.)
One evening, I received a phone call from a JW woman who was very unhappy in the organization but terrified to leave “God’s Organization.” She asked me how and why I ever got involved in such a helpline, so I told her about my friendship with JW women I bowled with. She immediately told me that she knew who I was and that she had bowled with me in that league. Of course, I asked her name, but she was very afraid to tell me, so I asked if I could anonymously mail her some information. She fearfully agreed, so I sent gobs of info to her work. At some point, she was no longer afraid, and she told me that she bowled with me and was the woman who had persuaded a group of JWs to join the bowling league some years earlier. She started sharing the tapes with her husband. His name was Ken. We sent lots of audio tapes, and her husband Ken, a trucker, started taking the tapes on the road to listen to them. She had been a JW for 24 years and her husband for 35 years. At the end of the first week, he returned home and announced that we were right about the Watchtower organization but that we would never convince him that Jesus is God. The next Monday, he left with another handful of tapes, and when he came home on Friday, he said, “Jesus is God. They have too many verses that prove it.” As it turned out, “strangely” enough, Ken is the nephew of the now elderly Baptist aunt who had been praying for him for 35 years. Yes, that Aunt! The final irony was that this JW woman who had called me was the one who had persuaded the other JW women to join the bowling league! Of course, they became believers and left the Watchtower, along with their children. Following the connections God in answer to prayer over the years is insightful.
- Ken’s elderly aunt had been praying for him for 35 years, as well as his wife and kids.
- Joy’s grandfather had been praying for my salvation and that I would be in the ministry.
- I came to the faith and by and by Joy, and I became involved in ministry to JWs.
- God brought us all together through a bowling league, of all things.
We realized right away that it was all pure coincidence. “Move along, folks, nothing to see here.”
We have seen way more than our share of these weird “coincidences” over the years. Of course, they flow both ways. We’ve been used by God to answer stranger’s prayers – and strangers have been used by God to answer our prayers. Maybe the prayers were answered in record time, and maybe it was years after the fact, but one thing is very certain…
“And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose..” (Romans 8:28 NASB)Ω
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