“By prayer we enter into God’s holy temple, and penetrate at once to the throne of grace. Prayer is not only the shortest distance to God’s mighty throne; it is the only way in…. The veil of sense and space that hides Him within His temple-universe is suddenly removed as we pray…. We enter silently into His temple, and lo, suddenly we are before His throne…. Only there do we discover the wonder of worship, that worship is before work, and that all His works are done in a spirit of worship.”
Prayer is perhaps one of the most misunderstood aspects of our relationship with God. One cannot be a genuine follower of Jesus Christ and not have a living, active prayer life. Prayer – like any form of communication – takes time and discipline to incorporate it into daily living. Yet it is utterly simple! This week we will take a ‘heart-survey’ that will help us determine our status as disciples of Jesus Christ: are you progressing into spiritual maturity, or are you still a ‘babe’, able to stomach only the ‘milk’ of the Word (1 Corinthians 3:1-4). Prayer – not intellect – is what brings us to that place where we are able to digest ‘solid food:’ the undiluted Truth of God’s Word which has the power to transform our souls and “transform us into the image of the Creator” (Colossians 3). Each day this week we’ll ask ourselves a question designed to help us evaluate how we live. At the end of the week we’ll reflect on the results.
What consumes my thoughts and my time? Jesus had three good friends, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus (siblings), who lived in the little hamlet of Bethany, not far from Jerusalem. Luke chapter 10 tells the story: “Jesus entered a certain village where a woman named Martha welcomed him as a guest. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he said. But Martha was distracted with all the preparations she had to make, so she came up to him and said, ‘Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work alone? Tell her to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things, but one thing is needed. Mary has chosen the best part; it will not be taken away from her.” A few weeks ago we learned that the Father is seeking those who would worship “in spirit and in truth” (John 4). This story sheds some light on what Jesus meant and is a wonderful example of two hearts in contrast. The truth is, Martha’s preparations were not irrelevant or meaningless. She was working to do what was ‘culturally expected;’ that is, when guests come into your home, you provide for them! To the casual observer, it probably does seem somewhat unfair that she was doing all the work while her sister sat idly by. But remember another truth we have learned: man looks at the externals, but God looks at the heart. Mary was entirely focused on Jesus, the Living Word of God, and what He was teaching. It never occurred to her to think of anything else! Martha was focused on all the externals, the things that, from the perspective of Eternity, simply don’t matter. Mary was caught up into Eternity.
In his short booklet, The Seven Wonders of Prayer, Armin Gesswein writes, “All of God’s works are wrought in prayer. Prayer works, ‘changes things,’ because through it God works. By prayer we enter into His works. Prayer not only works, but it is work, real work – both for Him in heaven and for us on earth. If we do not learn how to pray, we shall not amount to a thing for God. For it is the one work where we behold God doing His work. There we become workers together with God. Like Christ, and with Him, it is in prayer that we must put in the real man-hours of labor. All else is easy, when we learn to labor in prayer. Christ labored in prayer to the point of sweat, tears and agony.” In it’s most simple form, prayer is communication with the Father. But the manner of prayer referred to above is a specific type of communication, more resembling a ‘business meeting around the conference table’ than ‘casual conversation around the dinner table.’ Conversation around the conference table is risky. Views and opinions are shared, respect for each other can be lost or gained, action plans are laid, work is evaluated. Walking away from the conference table, a life can be greatly altered. Conversation around the dinner table is usually light, filled with laughter and banter (at least in a healthy home). You walk away full, satisfied, but seldom giving a second thought to the discussion (unless devotions happen to be a part of the meal). Rarely does one’s life change as a result of sitting around the dinner table.
When we pray, does it feel more like the conference table or the dinner table? Do we communicate with God with intimate knowledge of who He is, expecting great, life-changing decisions will be made? Do we see ourselves as a partner with Him, a co-worker? Or is our communication with God more like the list we used to send to Santa when we were children? In Hebrews 11 we find the words, “And those who come to God must believe that He exists, and rewards those who diligently seek Him.”
If one reads enough books on prayer, one discovers a common theme among the writers: prayer changes things; to pray is to change. Throughout my life I have prayed one thing consistently: “Lord, please never let me be satisfied with anything but Your best for my life”. This makes it pretty intense just to be around me, sometimes, as those who know me well will surely testify. But I’ve learned that to expect God’s best for my life, I have to be willing to change, to be continually transformed from the inside out. The transformation process is not an easy one. Many times, just when I think I have made some significant progress, the Lord shows me just how far I have yet to go. And yet there’s hope! Jesus said, “No, I will not abandon you as orphans—I will come to you. Soon the world will no longer see me, but you will see me. Since I live, you also will live. When I am raised to life again, you will know that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. Those who accept my commandments and obey them are the ones who love me. And because they love me, my Father will love them. And I will love them and reveal myself to each of them.” (John 14:18-21) Has Jesus revealed Himself to you…lately? Don’t make the mistake of thinking this was a one-time experience that took place when you accepted Him as Savior. That would be like attending a seven-course meal, but getting up and leaving after the appetizer!
“Then only do we engage the enemy – Satan and his forces – when we pray. There it is the battle is fought, and the real victory won. Christian work only succumbs to the enemy, [and] does not engage him or overcome his power unless we pray. It is really only in the place of prayer that we wrestle against powers, the rulers of the darkness of this world, and against spiritual wickedness in high places. Unless we learn to pray, we never do battle for God, or become Christ’s soldiers. The entire armor is shaped for prayer. That is the real battleground. Unless we learn to pray and wrestle there, we shall get into the wrong battle and lose – the hot battle of words and clash of personalities.” (Armen Gesswein, The Seven Wonders of Prayer). We face a real enemy whose goal is to destroy all of God’s works – especially mankind, and most especially, the Church of Jesus Christ. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to look back over 2000 years of church history, including our own generation, and realize how fierce the battle rages. What amazes me is how quickly we forget who our enemy is! He uses our sin-nature to his advantage, preying on our weaknesses and our failures. He is a master at drawing our focus everywhere except where it should be: on the Lord Jesus Christ. There’s an easy test to determine who controls our attention: if ours minds and hearts focus on sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other sins like these, then the evil one is exerting a strong influence in our life; if, on the other hand, our minds and hearts are drawn to love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, Christ is most certainly our center of attention. (Galatians 5)
In his classic book, Teach Us To Pray: Learning A Little About God, Andre Louf writes, “Is Praying Difficult? A fourteenth-century Byzantine monk, who for a short time was Patriarch of Constantinople with the name Callixtus II, answers this question with the illustration of [a] lute-player. ‘The lute player bends over his instrument and listens attentively to the tune, while his fingers manipulate the plectrum (bow) and make the strings vibrate in full-toned harmony. The lute has turned into music; and the man who strums upon it is taken out of himself, for the music is soft and entrancing. Anyone who prays must set about it in the same way. He has a lute and a plectrum (bow) at his disposal. The lute is his heart, the strings of which are the inward senses. To get the strings vibrating and the lute playing he needs a plectrum (bow), in this case: the recollection of God, the Name of Jesus, the Word. Like the lute-player, [we] must listen attentively and vigilantly to [our] heart and pluck its strings (inward senses) with the Name of Jesus; until the senses open up and [our] heart becomes alert. The person who strums incessantly upon his heart with the Name of Jesus sets his heart a-singing, ‘an ineffable happiness flows into his soul, the recollection of Jesus purifies his Spirit and makes it sparkle with Divine Light.” This is powerful imagery! Think of the acquired skill and discipline it takes to learn a musical instrument, the hours of dedication to the craft before music can be truly made. That’s why so many people never get beyond the most rudimentary lessons on the piano! But for the disciple of Jesus Christ, the rigorous discipline of prayer is not an option.
By now you may have noticed that I frequently use the term ‘disciple’ or ‘disciple of Jesus Christ’ instead of the term ‘Christian’. There’s a simple explanation for this. This term ‘Christian,’ which was first used in the early church to describe Christ’s followers, has today become more of a cultural label. Many who consider themselves ‘Christians’ have never made a public profession of faith, much less engaged in a living, vital relationship with the risen Savior! But to use the term ‘disciple’ implies a life that is fully committed to follow the one who is master – in our case, Jesus. In this sense, I write to those who truly consider themselves ‘disciples’. The term ‘discipleship’ we so frequently use is not a program, but a way of life. Disciple…discipline. Both words share the same root. We cannot hope to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ unless we are willing to submit ourselves to the disciplines required of His disciples, obedience to His word, pursuit of knowledge of the Father, denial of selfish desires and ambitions, willingness to display charity – unconditional love – toward others.