Nothing I am about to share with you is new.
It is, however, exceedingly important.
Our culture is infatuated with novelty. Whether it is the latest viral video, what’s trending on Twitter, or the latest iOS update, we have an insatiable and ravenous hunger for the next thing that will titillate our senses. In fact, we have so sold out to this mindless pursuit that often we are not mindful of how superficial and anemic our spirituality has become.
The words of the author of Hebrews echo across the centuries as a prophetic warning to us all, “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic elements of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food; for everyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is unskilled in the word of righteousness.” (Heb. 5:12-13)
This daily special on prayer is offered as solid food and my hope for us all is that God might give us the palate and the constitution to eat heartily and be nourished by the vision of the Jesus-shaped and Spirit-empowered life that it invites us into. I offer this as one who has too often been content with being bottle-fed and whose appetite yearns to be sated by a robust meal.
Let me offer a three-course meal highlighting several indispensable truths about prayer that, if reclaimed, have the potential to revitalize and nourish our souls. These are not peripheral truths but rather are integral to the very nature of the gospel.
Guard your steps when you go to the house of God; to draw near to listen is better than the sacrifice of fools…never be rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be quick to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven, and you upon earth; therefore let your words be few. –Eccl. 5:1-2
Too much modern teaching on prayer focuses on method. Although I do not wish to detract from the benefit or importance of such offerings, let me suggest that often it highlights an inordinate focus on ourselves in the place of prayer rather than on the One into whose presence we have come. Let me offer a practical question. How often do you spend time simply listening to God or asking questions of Him and expecting a response?
Do we come into the place of prayer merely to offer up our prayer lists and concerns, or do we pause long enough to be awestruck by wonder that we have entered into the presence of the Living God and that through faith in Christ, we have boldness and confidence before Him as sons and daughters? (Eph. 3:12)
Let me ask an even more pragmatic question, how well do you listen to and ask questions of the everyday people in your lives?
We are a culture of many words and many teachers but few genuine listeners. Just as it is impossible to love God apart from loving our brothers and sisters (1 John 4:20-21), let me suggest that the very seeds of cultivating the practice of listening to God are hidden within the folds of our everyday conversations.
In order to enter into the depths of prayer we have to frequently and intentionally posture ourselves before God in silence and with a receptive spirit. However, our fear of such silence is viscerally connected with the next dimension of prayer.
Before Him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the One to whom we must render an account. –Heb. 4:13
Intimacy is indispensable for the gospel of Jesus Christ to become a tangible reality in the depths of our hearts in such a way that we are compelled to lay our lives down for others in order that they might know the love of the Father.
The best analogy for the kind of intimacy I am talking about is the ‘nakedness’ shared between husband and wife. No, not that kind of nakedness. It is the nakedness of being seen as you are simply because of your constant presence with one another. We can all adeptly maintain a pristine facade for a while with strangers, yet our spouses inevitably will come to know both our strengths and our weaknesses, those things about us that are admirable and those that are reprehensible.
One of the reasons that prayer is so terrifying is that we have to disconnect from our busyness and the constant stimulation of the ‘new’ and enter into the silence of God’s presence.
Rather than being an immediate comfort, often we are bombarded with the darkness in our own hearts- anger, lust, jealousy, frustration, anxiety, covetousness, and fear- all of the things whose presence within us we have been so desperately trying to ignore. Truthfully, it can be a jarring and horrifying experience simply because we come to realize how far our lives really are from the pristine image we devote so much energy to maintaining.
However, the gospel is clear that God’s choice of us through Jesus Christ was not conditioned by ignorance. He alone sees each of us as we are, in all of our beautiful ugliness. The ‘us’ that we desperately hide from the world is naked before His eyes. He is neither deceived about what a mess you and I are, nor is he unaware of the depths of our selfishness and character flaws. God had full disclosure before His choice was made, and He chose us anyway. His commitment to us is not in danger of wavering if He finds out some unsavory truth about us for which we are bound in shame. He already knows these things about us and loves us enough to embrace us all the same.
Prayer is intended to be the space where we come into contact with our own brokenness and simultaneously are embraced by the scandalous love of God. There is no other spiritual discipline that can at the same time inculcate such humility in our own self-assessment and exuberant gratitude at the sheer graciousness of God’s love revealed through Jesus Christ.
Let me offer another practical question for reflection.
How do you respond when you encounter this type of discomfort in the place of prayer? Do you linger long enough to be embraced by the love of God in all of your weakness or do you flee from His presence?
Apart from experiencing this kind of intimacy with God in the place of prayer, it is impossible to truly begin to live out of our identities as children of God.
In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. –Heb. 5:7-8
It is not an infrequent occurrence in contemporary culture to hear shrill ‘Christian’ voices speaking in the language of the entitlement, rights, and freedom that we should enjoy as Americans, as if that is meant to be our dominant frame of reference.
What is more rare are those voices who advocate for living in light of the kingdom of God and for embracing the mind and posture of Christ in the midst of an ungodly generation (Phil. 2:1-11).
One of the epiphanies yielded by the practice of intentionality and experience of intimacy in the place of prayer is that our identity as children of God inherently contains both privilege and responsibility.
There is a narrow road upon which we are all invited to journey, an example that we are all called to follow, and footsteps that we are all meant to walk in- those of Jesus Christ (1 Pet. 2:21)
The exuberance of calling God ‘Abba’ at our baptism must mature into the resolute confidence and trust in His character and purposes through a life walked with Him and ultimately find its fulfillment in our own tear soaked cry of ‘Abba’ in our personal Gethsemane. There is no road that follows Christ that circumvents the cross, nor is there one in which our wills will not collide with that of our heavenly Father. There is no genuinely Christ-like walk that will dance around laying down our lives for others so that they might know the love of the Father.
To walk this road is impossible apart from the aforementioned dimensions of prayer. To avoid them is to misunderstand the true cost of following Christ and what it means to be children of God. Like Jesus we are all invited into his awareness that, “for this reason the Father loves me, because I lay my life down in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:17).
Our willingness to lay down our own lives so that others might know the love of God is not only what we are all called to, it is what the world today needs to see in the midst of daily reminders of those who would kill others in order to glorify their god. It is a willingness that is born in the place of prayer, and in the place of prayer alone.
Our intentionality positions us to experience intimacy with God as we come to know his heart and the depths of the gospel. Through this we are invited into a Jesus-shaped and Spirit empowered life as we live out our identity as children of God.
Let those who have ears hear what the Spirit is saying to His church.