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Superheroes, the False Self, and the Prayer of Recollection

The appeal of superheroes is that they are given secret superpowers. My son loves his superhero action figures, costumes, and movies. He runs through the house imagining that he is a superhero for hours on end. And since he’s four, he can combine whatever strengths he wants and nobody can correct him.

As adults, we may still dream of being superheroes, but have consigned ourselves to reality: Superheroes are imaginary. No jumping in the phone booth to go from Clark Kent to Superman. No Batmobile. No flying suit like Tony Stark.

But perhaps we play the superhero game in another way. Because being a superhero really is all about doing good in the world, good that cannot be done by ordinary humans. We play the role of superheroes in the masks we wear with others, doing good, so we think, by being someone other than who we really are.

Some refer to this as the false self. Brennan Manning refers to it as the imposter. We give in to the lie that who we really are is not good enough, not liked, not worthy of approval. So we create a persona, someone we think others will accept, all the while still disliking ourselves and believing that God dislikes us, too. We fool ourselves into thinking this is the only way to be good and do good in the world.

  • If I’m attractive, I use my good looks to attract others and that becomes my identity.
  • If I’m good at my job, my identity comes in earning money or being looked at as successful.
  • If I’m funny, I use humor.

You get the idea. We become self-absorbed and pressured to always be good enough as these various types of people rather than holding these good identities loosely.

The self caught up in power plays, image management, worry, or other sin is not the true self, but a self that creates its identity through attachment to other things. God has given us an identity of self in Christ.

This is different than the way we act differently for the roles we play. I am one person at the church, and another at home–out of necessity. My kids don’t need me to be Pastor Josh; they need Dad. My wife doesn’t need a counselor; she needs a listener who isn’t going to fix things all the time. Get it?

Thus, there is a sinful, false-self-kind-of-living and a roles issue at play in our lives all at the same time. The prayer of recollection (or re-collection) addresses both issues. It is about re-collecting, re-gathering up the fragmented parts of us. Our true identity is in Christ, and the prayer of recollection helps us reconnect all these identities in Him.

A “recollected” soul is one at rest in God. It is the opposite of a distracted or fragmented soul. As we pray, we confess the false self with its addictions, sins, idols, and pretenses in order to move into communion with God. And yet we are not talking the whole time. This is a much more receptive form of prayer; less speaking and more listening.

Transformation into Christlikeness involves detachment from whatever keeps us from resting in Christ. Some of these things are simply distractions and some of them are parts of our false self.

 

Finally, this form of prayer will require what Teresa of Avila calls “a prolonged, resolute act of the will.” She wrote in The Way of Perfection:

“Our senses, imagination, and intellect tend spontaneously toward exterior things, on which they are dispersed; therefore, the soul, by a prolonged, resolute act of the will, ought to withdraw them from these exterior things in order to concentrate them on interior things — in this little heaven of the soul where the Blessed Trinity dwells.  This exercise, especially in the beginning, requires effort and energy and it will not be easy at first….let the soul try to cultivate the habit, despite the fatigue entailed in recollecting itself and overcoming the body which is trying to reclaim its rights.”

So, to pray this way:

  1. Identify and confess areas of the false self—your addictions, sins, idols, pretense–and allow God to forgive you.
  2. Withdraw from urgent affairs and your whirlpool of activities. This is not about presenting requests to God.
  3. Get in a posture of receptivity rather than activity.
  4. When other thoughts press in—planning a vacation, needs at home, stress at work—don’t push them aside but confess them and present them to God.

Here’s an example.

O Lord, I admit that I am not you. I am finite creation. I know that my body has limitations; I cannot know everything or be at other places at once. I try sometimes to be in other places or to grant every person’s desires when deep down I know I cannot.

(Take time to admit those areas where you are trying to be God for others.)

Then thank God for being who He is and for your nature as His creation.

Lord, at my deepest place, I am not any of these roles I occupy.

Amen.

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Complaining to God (Instead of Facebook)

We lament everyday. Facebook has become an atmosphere of lament. We watch the news and lament about our society. A biblical practice of lament goes beyond voicing one’s concerns over the state of our culture. Biblical lament was very personal. Something was happening in the life of the psalmist (laments are most often found in the Psalms), and God needed to hear about it. One author says that protest is a better description than lament or complaint, because lament suggests an acceptance of victim status.

Protests do not accept. Protests are addressed to someone, meant to get him to do something about it. We respond to the violence of this world not by agnosticism—unsure of whether God even exists or wants to do something about our situation—but by “protest theism,” belief in God who can and does intervene. We don’t give up, but add the concept of protest to our vocabulary.

Prayers of lament are the most common form of prayer in the psalms. People tell God all about the bad stuff going on in their lives all the time. There are six basic elements to a psalm of lament that appear in almost all of them.

  1. Address. The psalmist identifies God as the one he is praying to.
  2. Complaint. The psalmist pours out an honest and forceful complaint. He identifies the trouble and why he needs the Lord.
  3. Trust. The psalmist tells God he trusts Him. His trust extends to letting God answer the prayer however God sees fit.
  4. Deliverance. The psalmist asks God to rescue him from the situation.
  5. Assurance. The psalmist says that he knows God will rescue him.
  6. Praise. The psalmist praises God for his blessings, whether past, present or future.

Psalm 3 is one example.

Address (v. 1a)
1Lord, how many are my foes!

Complaint (vv. 1b-2)
How many rise up against me!
2Many are saying of me,
“God will not deliver him.”

Trust (vv. 3-6)
3But you, Lord, are a shield around me,
my glory, the one who lifts my head high.
4I call out to the Lord,
and he answers me from his holy mountain.
5I lie down and sleep;
I wake again, because the Lord sustains me.
6I will not fear though tens of thousands
assail me on every side.

Deliverance (v. 7a)
7Arise, Lord!
Deliver me, my God!

Assurance (v. 7b)
Strike all my enemies on the jaw;
break the teeth of the wicked.

Praise (v. 8)
8From the Lord comes deliverance.
May your blessing be on your people.

What might a healthy place for lament do for us spiritually?

  1. It might cause us to stop gossiping. We don’t need to tell a third party about what so-and-so did if we’re always telling God.
  2. It might cause us to stop worrying. Why worry about the troubles of life if God is ready to help?
  3. It might give us hope instead of despair. If we tell God, we trust He will do something.
  4. It might give us justice. We no longer need to defend our names or honor. We don’t have to get revenge. We let God handle it and go through the mud with Him.

I am convinced that this form of prayer is desperately needed today. May we begin to tell God what’s wrong, ask Him for deliverance and change, and then trust Him to act and give us wisdom for how to respond.

Prayer of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is one of the most common forms of prayer I hear in the church today. We thank God often. We thank Him because we feel that He has done something for us. Thanksgiving is both a relational word and a transactional word. We can say “thank you” to a cashier at the store who has rung up our groceries for us, to a carpenter who has built something for us, or to the person who cuts our hair when they are done. In these contexts, thanksgiving is not so much about continuing a lasting relationship as it is appreciation for what the person did for me. In these contexts, if we’re not careful, thanksgiving becomes either a cultural duty (i.e., we are expected to say it and everyone else does, so we do too) or a matter of selfishness (i.e., I got what I wanted, I said thanks, and now I can get on with my day).

This form of thanksgiving can easily, unknowingly, seep into our prayers. A look at how the psalmists prayed in thanksgiving can help us correct this view and replace it.

There are 13 psalms of thanksgiving. Less than 10 percent of them. They are Psalms 18, 30, 65, 66, 67, 75, 105, 106, 108, 116, 135, 136, 138. The main elements of these kind of psalms are:

  1. Introduction. The psalmist gives testimony of how God has helped.
  2. Distress. The psalmist describes the situation God acted in.
  3. Appeal. The psalmist recalls the appeal that he made to God.
  4. Deliverance. The psalmist describes how God rescued him.
  5. Testimony. A word of praise for God’s mercy is given.

Psalm 138 is one example.

Introduction (vv. 1-2)
1I will praise you, Lord, with all my heart;
before the “gods” I will sing your praise.
2I will bow down toward your holy temple
and will praise your name
for your unfailing love and your faithfulness,
for you have so exalted your solemn decree
that it surpasses your fame.

Distress, unspecified in this psalm, and Appeal (v. 3)
3When I called, you answered me;
you greatly emboldened me.

Testimony (vv. 4-5, 8) 
4May all the kings of the earth praise you, Lord,
when they hear what you have decreed.
5May they sing of the ways of the Lord,
for the glory of the Lord is great.

Deliverance (vv. 6-7)
6Though the Lord is exalted, he looks kindly on the lowly,
but he takes notice of the proud from afar.
7Though I walk in the midst of trouble,
you preserve my life.
You stretch out your hand against the anger of my foes;
with your right hand you save me.

Testimony
8The Lord will vindicate me;
your love, Lord, endures forever—
do not abandon the works of your hands.

The psalms of thanksgiving have their setting in a person’s deliverance from trouble. They are very much like the psalms of lament. Thanksgiving does not come only in the good times. It comes after reflection on how God has acted at all times. For the psalmist, God answered when he called. He saves him with his right hand and will vindicate him. Notice how the psalmist does not use the word “thanks” at all, but instead his language is of praise—his own personal praise and the praise of the kings of the earth.

Jesus provides us with an example of a prayer of thanksgiving. Matthew 11:25-26 says, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your glorious will.” Jesus prays this after John the Baptist’s disciples ask Him if Jesus is the Messiah and after calling out towns who did not repent after witnessing his miracles. The person who understood Jesus best misunderstood Him. And the towns he did a majority of his ministry in—Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum, filled with people who knew Jesus best, did not know Him. So he prayed in thanksgiving that God had hidden His true identity from them and instead revealed it to little children.

The prayer of thanksgiving is not really a form of prayer but speaks to the content of the prayer. Like children, we must learn adoration. It does not come naturally. And how do we learn to adore and thank God? One way is to stop long enough to enjoy the simple things of life. The next time an ant makes its way into your kitchen, before you get rid of it, get down low and watch it work. The next time you see a flower growing, dip down to smell it, to see the intricate parts, and to thank God for the flower. The next time you see your spouse, ponder all the ways God made him/her unique.

Spend an entire day living in gratitude. Give thanks to God for as much as you possibly can. When there is something you are frustrated about, give thanks for three more things. And eventually, as you practice gratitude and adoration, you begin to magnify God. Richard Foster says that we can never say too much about God’s goodness or love. It will always be greater than our imaginations. But we can magnify His name and exalt Him to His rightful place in our prayers.

Praying Scripture Back to God

We’ve already seen one example of this in the Lord’s Prayer. The discipline of this kind of prayer comes from familiarity with Scripture. Christians don’t just read the Bible to know more about God. They read the Bible to become more like God, and prayer is a chief means of grace. It just makes sense, then, that as you and I “age” in Christ, that the phrases of Scripture become like a second language to us. Not that we’ve got everything memorized exactly, but that it is natural for us to recall certain passages and verses.

When we pray Scripture back to God, we have internalized it. It has become real to us. I can honestly think of no better way to pray than to let Scripture permeate our petitions and thanksgivings. We allow God to hear His words, and He knows that we haven’t just sought to understand them—even though this is extremely important—but also seek to see them come alive in our day. The things He has wanted for us, we now want. And so we tell Him using the familiar words of the psalms, the instructions of Paul, and the teachings of Jesus.

Jesus and all of his people regularly prayed and sang the psalms. The psalms of ascent were recited every year at Passover as Jews traveled to Jerusalem. When Jewish men wrote what became Scripture, their minds were ablaze with the imagery and thought life and phrases of the Old Testament. It had become such a part of their lives that there was no other way to write about Jesus.

Look at the topics they cover. Then ask, “What would our prayer lives be like if we only got to pray these words?” Lots of lamenting–crying out to God in

Psalm 1 Wisdom
Psalm 2 Messianic and Royal
Psalm 3 Lament of an Accused Person
Psalm 4 Lament and Song of Trust
Psalm 5 Imprecatory
Psalm 6 Lament/Psalm of Sickness
Psalm 7 Lament
Psalm 8 Hymn of Praise of Creation
Psalm 9 Praise
Psalm 10 Lament

So how might we do this? Our Bible reading can be a springboard for prayer. When we read, we can pray through that passage. If it is a narrative, we might pray about how we are like or unlike the people in the story. Or ask God to do for us what He did for them.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “Just as you do not analyze the words of someone you love, but accept them as they are said to you, accept the Word of Scripture and ponder it in your heart, as Mary did. That is all. That is meditation.” Bonhoeffer had the men enrolled in his seminary start their days with a half-hour silent meditation on Scripture.

As we read Scripture, we cannot skip over the boring passages, or the ones that we deem to have little application for us. For example, we cannot read the story of Abraham being asked to sacrifice his son, Isaac, and simply thank God that we are not in his spot. We are in his shoes. Like Abraham, we are all asked to sacrifice that which is most precious to us, that which we believe God gave to us. Like Abraham, we come away from our decisions to surrender all to God with a new understanding of what it means to be completely His. I believe that praying Scripture back to God moves us in this direction.

How Do I Hear God?

Dallas Willard in Hearing God lists three common mistakes for understanding how God speaks to us.

  1. A message a minute. This view says that God is telling you what to do for every decision and you could know if only you paid good attention. But there is no evidence in Scripture that anyone was constantly receiving communication from God. God did not tell Jesus “Now go do this,” and then “Go do that.” Too much intrusion in a person’s life actually keeps them from growing. Like parents who hover over their children never give them the freedom to make mistakes and learn for themselves, if God was constantly trying to instruct us, we would never become His real friends.
  2. It’s all in the Bible. This view intends to honor the Bible but with a misguided zeal. The Bible does give direct instructions for many situations in our lives—be holy as I am holy, honor your mother and father, honor the Sabbath. It does not get specific as to how we need to apply the principles it contains, and it is here that Christians begin to disagree. It is not a matter of having a low view of the Bible.

    “Nearly every faction in Christendom claims the Bible as its basis but then goes on to disagree as to what the Bible says. An exalted view of the Bible does not free us from the responsibility of learning to talk with God and to hear him in the many ways he speaks to humankind.” -Dallas Willard

  3. Whatever comes is God’s will. This view takes communication with God out of the equation. It’s fatalistic and places everything in your hands. The fact that something happens does not mean it is God’s will. If Moses had accepted this view, then there would be no nation of Israel. He would have let Pharaoh enslave the people; He certainly would not have expected God to speak to Him in a burning bush.

If God does not communicate like this, how does He?

Christians live with the conviction that God speaks to us and that He is really present with us at all times by His Spirit. We are never alone. God is with us and desires to communicate with us in a conversational manner, speaking to our individual needs and in ways that we can understand. Romans 8:14 says, “All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.”

Dallas Willard writes, “Being ‘led by the Spirit of God’ is neither blind, robot-style obedience nor feeling stuck interpreting vague impressions and signs.” Sometimes we wrongly think that God is opaque and makes us guess at whether or not that was Him speaking. This is not true.

Instead, God chooses to speak to us through language we can understand!—the written words of the Bible, through words in a dream, the wisdom of a friend, a sermon, a book we’re reading, or even audibly, as He did with the people of the Bible. Another way he speaks to us is through shared immersion in His work. When we participate in what God is doing in the world, we begin to have the mind of Christ.

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2:15-16, “Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny. ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ.” Psalm 32:8 says, “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my loving eye on you.”

It is like how you can sense what your spouse is thinking just by looking at them. You know by their facial expressions—they don’t have to say a word and you know if the day has been stressful, productive, peaceful, enjoyable, satisfying, draining, etc. As we become closer with God, we simply do what He has asked; we do not need to wait to hear Him speak again.

When we need to ask God what to do, it reveals our lack of closeness to Him and how little we are engaged in His work. Friends understand one another, and as friends of God, we do what God commands (John 15:14).

So, both in verbal communication and in participation in God’s work God speaks to us. What does this mean about prayer and hearing God? It means that there is definitely a role in asking God for direction, but that this is not a “wait and see” approach. We don’t have to be hesitant to act. Often times, God gives us the freedom to go one of two directions, both being equally within His will.

(*I cannot recommend highly enough Hearing God by Dallas Willard. This post draws from chapter 3, “Never Alone.”)

The Sacrifice of Fools

dscn3020
Psalm 131
1My heart is not proud, Lord,
my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters
or things too wonderful for me.
2But I have calmed myself
and quieted my ambitions.
I am like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child I am content.
3Israel, put your hope in the Lord
both now and forevermore.

 

The discipline of silence unnerves us at first. Several years ago, our small group started our evenings with one minute, then two, then three minutes of silence. In time, we all began to look forward to those moments. The discipline of silence teaches us when to speak and when to listen, how to control our tongues, and how to hear the voice of God. We all know how to talk. But disciplined people know how to say the right things when it is necessary.

Have you ever been in a situation where you knew what you should say but kept quiet? Or in a situation where no one spoke up about the glaring problems a group was facing? Or a time when someone was speaking needlessly, or speaking ill toward another? When we practice silence at home, away from others, we are better able to practice silence when we’re with others. When we’ve heard God speak to us in moments of silence, we are better able to speak for God when it is needed with others.

Ecclesiastes 5:1-2 says, “Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. Go near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools, who do not know that they do wrong. Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few.”  The sacrifice of fools is hasty speech, words that don’t really matter at all in the place of listening for God. These verses apply just as easily to our personal times of prayer as they did for the author of Ecclesiastes. When we enter the presence of God, we begin with silence.

We are not quick to speak, as if the first thing we do is tell God what we want. Who of us enjoys getting a phone call from a telemarketer? No one. Why? Because the only reason they call is to ask you for something. But who among us enjoys getting a call from a best friend? We all do, because we can be ourselves around them without worrying about demands for more of our stuff. Prayer is the same.

Richard Foster says that when we practice silence, in time we will enter what St. John of the Cross calls “the dark night of the soul.” It is not a bad thing, but something we should welcome as part of our spiritual formation. We may have a sense of dryness, loneliness, or even lostness, but not due to sin. We may feel that all our Bible reading or study or sermons have no effect on us. The joy other Christians have becomes dreadful to us.

The temptation in this is to look for something that will get us out of the dark night—a better church, repeating an old experience with God where we felt good, a new devotional pattern, etc. Foster cautions, “This is a serious mistake. Recognize the dark night for what it is. Be grateful that God is lovingly drawing you away from every distraction so that you can see him clearly. Rather than chafing and fighting, be still and wait.” In essence, we are to continue in our times of disciplined silence rather than avoiding them because they are hard. It is far more eternally necessary for us to go through the dark night and be conformed to the image of Jesus than to feel better.

 

Sitting with the Trinity in Prayer

800px-angelsatmamre-trinity-rublev-1410There is a story in Genesis 18. It says,

The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. 2Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.

3He said, “If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by. 4Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. 5Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way—now that you have come to your servant” (TNIV).

The story is prefaced by saying that Israel’s God, Yahweh, was the one who met with Abraham under these great trees. He appeared to him, along with two angels, and told him that his wife, Sarah, would have a son. Abraham is immediately hospitable to these travelers.

Later church fathers would associate this scene with the Trinity. The image above was painted in the 15th century depicting this story. The hospitality Abraham shows the Lord here reminds me of the hospitality God shows us in prayer. He invites us to join Him, prepares a place for us, and sits with us.

John Drury, a seminary professor of mine, gave a devotional once that went like this.

To whom do we pray? To God our Father.

With whom do we pray? With Jesus, the risen Christ, who is sitting at the right hand of the Father interceding for us (and with us). Though we might say that Christ is in our hearts and present with His people when they gather, the creed says that He is sitting at the right hand of the Father. We join Christ’s conversation with the Father. When we start, we join Him. When we end, we know He continues to pray.

By whom do we pray? We pray by the Spirit. The Spirit testifies with our Spirit that we are sons of God. He lets us know that we belong in the conversation. And when we don’t know what to pray, the Spirit intercedes on our behalf. Just as the Holy Spirit empowers us to live the Christian life, He also empowers us to pray in Christian ways.

The bottom line is that when we pray, we enter into the conversation God is having with Himself. We join Him in His life, and we can rest assured that God has allowed us to do this and welcomes us.

As you pray this week, try closing your eyes and imagining what it looks like for the Trinity to be in prayer together.

First, imagine God your heavenly Father, looking at you with love in His eyes, welcoming you as a father should welcome his child.

Now, see that there is someone sitting next to Him. You are not jealous that God has welcomed you to a place where another is. Your communion with your heavenly Father is not private. He welcomes you to pray alongside His Son, Jesus, who is praying things like, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty,” and “Send workers into your harvest fields, Father.” The same compassion that led Him to the cross now leads Him to intercede. And then you hear Jesus praying for you, by name.

Finally, as you watch this scene and are overwhelmed by what is taking place, don’t say a word. Instead, listen to the Comforter gently nudge you to begin speaking. At first, you don’t know what to say. And so you pray simply the words of Jesus in the Lord’s Prayer. And then you find your footing. The Spirit smiles at you, pleased and encouraging you to pray.

What if this picture were what you thought of when you prayed tomorrow? And the next day?

In Jesus’ Name, Amen

When I was in college, I worked in Indiana Wesleyan’s Admissions. Part of our job was to call prospective students and remind them of forms they still needed. I had called a student and was leaving a message. “This is Josh Hilty calling from Indiana Wesleyan. Hope you’re doing well. It looks like you need to turn in ______ and then we can process your application.” All was going fine until it was time to hang up. That’s when it happened.

“In Jesus’ name, Amen.”

That’s what I said. And then I hung up and belly laughed with my boss.

It is an understatement to say that Christians in my tradition have been taught to end their prayers with this phrase. The biblical teaching underlying this is found in Jesus’ words in John 14:13-14 and 15:16 and 16:23-24.

  • John 14:13-14 “And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.”
  • John 15:16 “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.”
  • John 16:23-24 “In that day you will no longer ask me anything. Very truly I tell you, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.”

We have obviously taken Jesus’ commands literally. About these verses in John, Eugene Peterson comments,

“Was Jesus giving us a magical ‘Open sesame’ that would get us anything we wanted? Hardly. He was inviting us into his entire life, a life of intimate personal relationships in which his words ‘became flesh’—not in general, but in a local and present and particular way in all the various circumstances that make up everyday living.”

To pray in Jesus’ “name” means that we are drawing on and entering into the entire life and world of Jesus. So we pray in Jesus’ name anytime we are praying for something that we know Jesus would pray for if He were on earth. We are praying out of the relationship with have with Christ when His concerns and passions for our world overflow in our longings and words and actions.

What this means is that tagging that little phrase onto the end of our prayers means nothing if the content and attitude of our prayers is not aligned with the life of Christ. It also means that if you forget to say those words at the end of your prayer, your prayer is not any less effective or any less Christ-like than if you had remembered to say it. You are still praying “in the name of” Jesus.

Richard Foster also reminds us that to pray in Jesus’ name means that we have full assurance of His completed work on our behalf. Our prayers don’t matter if He had not died on the cross, rose from the dead, ascended into heaven and sat down with the Father.

So keep praying, and watch how you end your voicemails!

Do You Trust Me?

broken trust

No. Yes. Maybe. I guess it depends who you are. And what you’re selling me.

People are fickle, whimsical, flippant, ever-changing. A person we once trusted may prove to be a gossip; a person we once considered a stranger may become a confidant. Trust shifts because people change.

We’ve also grown up in a cultural environment where people who should have been most trusted have been examined and found wanting. Politicians, the media, sales companies, non-profits, and even pastors have lost the right to be trusted based on their title. We no longer buy what people sell us. Trust is a commodity, in this sense, something we feel like we can buy and sell. Like stock, it appreciates and depreciates in value. And because we’ve been sold so many cheap things and lies, we grow weary of placing our trust in anything for long.

When it comes to prayer, then, the big question becomes not just if God is trustworthy (i.e., He won’t be proven false), but whether or not we’ve been sold a lie. Sadly, that’s the starting point for many of us. When we pray, we have to overcome feeling like God may not care, may not hear, or may not even exist. And if we get past that, then we can wrestle to the ground the truth of the gospel–God made us, promised to redeem us, and did so through His Son, who now sits at the right hand of God, praying on our behalf.

Hebrews 4:14-16 speaks to this.

14Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” 

Confidence is the key word of this passage. Our confidence is rooted in our faith that Jesus can empathize with our weaknesses. He was tempted in every way. One of those temptations was doubting God. And yet Jesus never wavered in his faith.

Prayer itself, the repetitive act of praying, builds trust in God. There is an almost cyclical action going on. The one who lacks trust in God does not find it by excusing him/herself from prayer. Rather, the mercy and grace of Hebrews 4:16 is ours even in the times when we lack the confident trust in God so that we might one day have it. Then, we will know that God is unlike the people and institutions that let us down.

You may not be in a place where your confidence is in God. I leave you with these words from Martin Luther (quoted in Devotional Classics, Richard Foster and James Bryan Smith, eds.) as something to hope for.

We should pray by fixing our mind upon some pressing need, desiring it with all earnestness, and then exercise faith and confidence toward God in the matter, never doubting that we have been heard. St. Bernard (of Clairvaux) said, ‘Dear brothers, you should never doubt your prayer, thinking it might have been in vain, for I tell you truly that before you have uttered the words, the prayer is already recorded in heaven. Therefore you should confidently expect from God one of two things: either that your prayer will be granted, or, that if it is not granted, the granting of it would not be good for you.’

Prayer is a special exercise of faith. Faith makes the prayer acceptable because it believes that either the prayer will be answered, or that something better will be given instead. This is why James says, ‘Let him who asks of God not waver in faith, for if he wavers, let him not think that he shall receive anything from the Lord.’ This is a clear statement which says directly: he who does not trust will receive nothing, neither that which he asks nor anything better.

From this it follows that the one who prays correctly never doubts that the prayer will be answered, even if the very thing for which one prays is not given. For we are to lay our need before God in prayer but not prescribe to God a measure, manner, time or place. We must leave that to God, for he may wish to give it to us in another, perhaps better, way than we think is best. Frequently we do not know what to pray as St. Paul says in Romans 8, and we know that God’s ways are above all that we can ever understand, as he says in Ephesians 3. Therefore, we should have no doubt that our prayer is acceptable and heard, and we must leave to God the measure, manner, time, and place, for God will surely do what is right.

Praying with Authority

Authoritative prayer is just what it sounds like. It is praying with the authority Jesus said we have. We can ask anything in His name and He will do it, including prayers against our enemy. Richard Foster counsels us in six ways.

First, we should not go looking for the devil under every bush. In the power of God, we learn to take authority over our own flesh. In humility, where we honestly assess our sin and ask the Spirit to search and know us, we pray for the Spirit’s work of cleansing and purifying in our lives. While we don’t discount the devil totally, we also don’t give him more power than he deserves. After all,

“When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” –Colossians 2:13-15

Second, we don’t need to put on a special voice or conjure up a louder prayer, as if praying this way tells the devil we’re serious. If God’s power is present, then we don’t need special effects.

Third, we have special resources to draw on. Foster says in Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home,

“It is common to experience unusual anointing of the Holy Spirit for specific ministry situations. When appropriate we should wait for the power of the Spirit to increase, all of the time surrounding ourselves with the light of Christ and covering ourselves with the blood of Christ and sealing ourselves with the cross of Christ.”

The Spirit, the light, the blood and the cross of Christ. My sense is that many of us would find ourselves out of our element. What does it mean for the power of the Spirit to increase? As with any other spiritual discipline and relationship, practice is key with others who are more experienced.

Fourth, when praying against evil, we pray with gentleness and compassion for the person. We don’t use the circumstance as a chance for display. We don’t go into the prayer hoping to tell a great story when we’re done. Authoritative prayer is not a vehicle for vainglory. (Perhaps this is why we don’t know what to do with TV preachers who go all out with their inflection and volume?)

Fifth, authoritative prayer is not a substitute for the habits of disciplined living. Many times, we don’t need deliverance but discipline. We need to read our Bibles regularly if we want to conquer sin. We need to repent and stand in the assurance of our forgiveness and victory over sin. We need accountability for addiction. Prayer is a huge part of deliverance, but its effectiveness is tied to these other pieces of the disciplined life.

Sixth, Foster, says, rarely do we practice authoritative prayer alone. It is work to be done with others. This allows us accountability and support.

Finally, as we read the book of Ephesians, Christ’s heavenly position of authority, spoken of in Ephesians 1, leads to us being placed there with him in Ephesians 2, so that we can wage war against the principalities and powers in Ephesians 6. I would encourage you to read the book in one sitting and observe how each of these chapters fits with the others.

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