(An excerpt from the memoir I wrote for my kids)
I touched on this idea in the chapter about “The Long Burden.” That issuing from our suffering and despair are cries and wails that pound on the gates of heaven, and when heaven appears to be mute or without an answer, you ask yourself, why can’t God hear the very ones he commanded to pray? At times, the overwhelming character of our pain makes a child-like love and trust of God as a Father nearly impossible in the face of suffering and despair. When this happens to believers, we confront the feeling of needing to justify the goodness of God in full view of our trauma unless our faith fails us. It’s not totally unlike an abused child or battered spouse making excuses for their abuser or, even worse, trying to explain to themselves why their parents didn’t do anything to protect them.
It’s safe to say that many of us think about God in slightly different ways, if we think about God at all. I suppose that’s one reason we have over 40,000 Protestant denominations today. Your Grandpa Gerald Tatham used to say, “Everyone is right; just ask them.” Well, after seeing all the calls for Prayer over these last four years, the community of prophets running amok, the open and rampant fraud and theft at all levels, the COVID-19 deception, and natural disasters like the recent earthquakes in Turkey, I thought it was important to leave you some of my thoughts about Prayer, what it is, what it’s for, how it works, and what to reasonably expect from it.
Beginning in 2016, we were privileged to observe, lead, and participate in the worldwide prayer movement. In 2016-17, we served as interns and then staff members at one of the world’s leading intercessory Prayer and worship centers in Jerusalem. Then, from 2019 through 2021, while living in Cyprus, we attended and later looked after a prayer and retreat center surrounded by people who have devoted much of their lives to Prayer, intercession, and worship. In that context, I observed many people who, from my perspective, seemed to misunderstand Prayer, either thinking that it somehow catalyzes or moves God into action or that if we beg, nag, or pester God enough, some tipping point will be reached, and He’ll move our way. I don’t believe that’s what Prayer is about, how to think about Prayer, or how or why Prayer is effective.
First and foremost, like having a mouth and a tongue to form words or even just language, Prayer is a gift of pure grace God gave us to draw us into communion with Him. That is the centerpiece. It’s absurd to think God is idle until enough people complain or plead with him to move. According to Christian theology, Jesus ever lives to make intercession before his Father on behalf of all of us (Hebrews 7:5). When we pray, what’s really going on is Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, has drawn us into his intercession and communion with his Father, who shares his thoughts, his heart, and his burdens with us. God knows our needs before we ask. The reason we’re called to share our needs and desires and to intercede on behalf of others isn’t to give God a to-do list. It’s for intimacy with our creator. When we are heavy-hearted over a matter, we don’t turn to God to coax him into action… It’s the exact opposite. The Father, Son & Holy Spirit have engaged us because they want intimacy and to lead us into action. We pray because God invites us to partner with him to heal afflictions, deliver people from ailments, and repair broken relationships.
Because of prayers that have, at face value, apparently gone unanswered, many people feel it’s easier to live without belief in God than to be disappointed in God. The feeling is that he didn’t come through when they needed Him. I get it and have often felt that way, so this is an important subject to think through. CS Lewis said he was only disappointed in unanswered Prayer because God says he’ll answer Prayer but doesn’t, or so it appears. It’s especially disheartening because the scriptures place Prayer at the center of what it looks like to follow Jesus and make many promises that seem to leverage Prayer.
1. “If two of you agree on earth about anything, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven” (Matthew 18:19).
2. “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son… (John 14:13).
3. “If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it (John 14:14).
4. “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (John 15:7).
I want to try and walk you through reconciling these promises with the reality of seemingly unanswered Prayer. The two standard positions when prayers go unanswered concern whether it’s God’s fault or your fault. Of the two, the most common is adopting the Reformed “Blueprint worldview,” which basically says, “Your prayer didn’t match God’s detailed plan, sorry.” I want to punch those smug Puritans in the nose. The other explanation for unanswered Prayer is even worse because it throws the failure of Prayer back onto you. You didn’t have enough faith… You didn’t do it right, you didn’t “linger” long enough… or you have a secret sin blocking your prayers, un-forgiveness in your heart, etc. So, on top of the pain we all deal with living in a war zone, now you’re to blame for unanswered prayers, except no one can explain or show you how to pray with the right faith, etc. That’s up to you to figure out. To me, that view is a mind screw and spiritual abuse. The fact is, this world is more complex than any formula for faith or Prayer can bottle. The greatest proof text for the complexities of the cosmos is Job 38-42. Whenever you blame God or beat yourself up for weak faith, or whatever it is you didn’t do right, remember God’s words to Job… “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird your loins like a man… I will question you, and you will answer me.” Yikes.
Take Mark 9, for example. In that passage, the disciples couldn’t cast out a demon tormenting a boy. Jesus didn’t say it was God’s will or that they didn’t have enough faith. He told the crowd that certain demons require Prayer and fasting before they’ll come out. Andrew Wommack teaches that it wasn’t the demons Jesus was talking about that came out through Prayer and fasting… it was certain types of “unbelief” only came out with Prayer and fasting. Interesting. Look at Daniel 10:12-13 for another example. When the angel finally shows up, he doesn’t say, well… it just wasn’t God’s will or too bad… You didn’t have enough faith. No. He tells Daniel the answer came immediately, but the Prince of Persia withstood him for 21 days. He would never have known it had the angel not filled Daniel in on that important little detail. The point is, it’s safe to say there’s stuff going on in the unseen realm you don’t know about. I picture the scenes from “Band of Brothers” when they’re being dropped into France on D-day and the intense anti-aircraft fire they encountered. The planes only dealt with the “flak” when they were over or approaching the target. The fact so many prayers and kingdom activities are interfered with tells us we’re over the target.
That we are to be a praying people is an assumption from cover to cover in the bible. Rabbinical Judaism teaches that the very act of inhaling and exhaling is Prayer. With each breath, we utter the name of God. There are more if/then statements regarding Prayer than any other human activity (2 Chronicles 7:14). Prayer is one of the things we do, from love and obedience for God to co-labor with the Lord to help bring about his will on earth as it is in heaven. Prayer is powerful, and it’s one of the primary ways we partner with how God brings his kingdom to earth. James 5:16 says Prayer releases energy that builds the kingdom and changes the world. Lock this in… no matter the outcome of our prayers, we can be assured that God loves and cares for us. God’s love and compassion for us are fully revealed in Jesus Christ. So, take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all to stand firm, STAND, therefore. The bottom line is that Prayer keeps you in conversation with God, which is why he gave us a direct channel through Prayer and tongues. There is a cause-and-effect relationship with Prayer and its answers. It’s just not always the effect we anticipate.
The Prophet Daniel understood what was to come by reading what Jeremiah had prophesied in the scriptures. As a result of his exposure to the Word of God, he prayed. We don’t initiate Prayer. Prayer is a secondary reaction. Prayer is a response, even our petitions. Prayer is like completing an electrical circuit. It is called a circuit because the path the electrons flow through is circular. Electrons come out of the power source, travel along conductors, perform work, and then return to the source. That’s sort of how prayer works. Through our effective, fervent prayers, power flows from its source, through us, and back to the source, completing the circuit. Let me give you five helpful principles about Prayer from Greg Boyd.
1. Most Biblical promises are principles, not one-size-fits-all formulas. (Proverbs 22:6)
2. The world is unfathomably complex. Many variables condition how the power of Prayer affects the world.
3. Faith is the substance of things hoped for (anticipated), not a psychological certainty about an outcome.
4. Know that your prayers are powerful and effective, no matter what the outcome is (James 5:16)
5. Know and trust that God’s heart and his will have been revealed, once and for all, in Jesus.
Picking up on the teaching of the Rabbis, the late Orthodox Metropolitan Kallistos Ware said, “Prayer is more essential to us, more of an integral part of ourselves, than the rhythm of our breathing or the beating of our heart. Prayer is written into our nature. Humans are created for Prayer just as we are created to breathe, speak, and think. The human animal is best described not as a logical or tool-making animal or an animal that laughs, but rather as an animal that prays.”
In his first letter to the Thessalonians, St. Paul says, “pray without ceasing,” and to the Romans, “be constant in prayer.” This has been interpreted by Orthodox tradition in two different ways. One is to have regular times for Prayer, which are never skipped… a daily discipline for Prayer. The other is to have a brief prayer verse, like the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” something locked in and repeated over and over, literally hundreds of times throughout the day and night, until it becomes perpetually implanted in the heart as a continual calling out to the Lord. In the Roman Catholic tradition, St. Anselm taught the faithful to come to Prayer with their hearts quiet, relaxed, and reflective.
If you desire to experience God, you have no choice but to find a place and a time where you can be silent with God despite the inevitable turmoil that life brings.
Evangelical theologian Walter Wink famously said intercessory Prayer is spiritual defiance of what’s in the way of God’s promises, and it visualizes an alternative future to the one being advanced by the momentum of current forces in history. Intercessory Prayer infuses the air with a time yet to be in the suffocating atmosphere of the present. He said history belongs to intercessors because they believe the future into being. But Prayer is not magic… it does not always “work.” It’s not something we do but a response to what God is already doing within us and the world. Our prayers are the necessary opening for God to act without violating our freedom. It is the ultimate act of partnership with God. Prayer that ignores the freedom exercised by free humans and the Principalities and Powers ends up blaming God for the evils committed by the Powers.
Remember, spiritual weapons are launched through our mouths, not our thoughts, a lesson I learned late in life while living in Jerusalem. We manifest our faith by what we do, not solely by what we think. We sow thoughts and reap actions. After his wife, Beni, died from breast cancer, Bill Johnson said, “God is not a vending machine that I get to put a quarter into & get what I want. He chooses what He gives… and he’s already given us everything pertaining to life and godliness. It’s the wicked heart that says’ God didn’t do what I wanted, so He’s is a liar’. I will not sacrifice my knowledge of the goodness of God on the altar of human reasoning so I can have an explanation for a seemingly unanswered prayer.”
Your Mom and I believe we’ve already been given healing and that healing is included in the atonement… we are in full pursuit to learn and be trained in that. Let me assure you dealing with disappointment is real… however, we cannot allow disappointment or what appears, at face value, to be the apparent failure of our prayers to move us off our solid foundation.
No words adequately express how much the world owes to sorrow. Most Psalms were born in the wilderness of frustration, loneliness, and despair, and most Epistles were written in prison. The greatest thoughts of the greatest thinkers are always delivered through fire, and the greatest poets have learned in suffering what they issue through song. Origen of Alexandria wrote that the entire life of a believer is one great, unbroken Prayer… that our goal is to become fiery flames of Prayer, living prayers, comforting those in despair, and warming those in need.
Let Prayer ignite you!