On Prayer

It seems as though I am surrounded by this one message as of late—pray. And having finally taken this exhortation seriously, I’m beginning to understand why prayer is to be the oxygen I breathe as a Christian. In the last two or three weeks my prayer life has exploded (relative to how it was before, anyhow) and as a result I would like to start recording answered prayer on this blog. However before I begin sharing the prayers that have already been answered, I’d like to begin by discussing what lead me to this point and what I mean by “prayer.”

Several weeks ago our church announced that our small groups would be using a book called The Battle Plan for Prayer by Stephen and Alex Kendrick. In the introduction the reader is asked to set aside a specific time and place for prayer as well as to begin listing specific needs to be praying for. I was reluctant to do this at first as I often am for two reasons: 1) I often convince myself that committing to something like this will mean I might have to do something I don’t want to and 2) I’m afraid it might open me up to failure (because if you don’t aim for anything, you always hit your mark).

Nevertheless I did start making a list of prayer requests and decided to set aside time in the morning for prayer. I’m not terribly consistent about praying at that specific time, but I have been praying every day and what began as a few minutes and a short list has transformed into something much more. There are so many needs around me— in my own home, my neighborhood, my church, and my place of work. As I encounter these needs I’m adding them to my list and praying for them either weekly or daily. Already I’m seeing some of them answered, and I expect to see even more in the coming weeks, months and years because God willing I want this to be a part of my life until I die.

It’s important to understand that before all of this I was really struggling to live a life at all resembling someone committed to following Jesus and that’s been going on for years. I want to point that out because I want you to understand that while I’ve been a regular church attender during that time, I’ve only prayed when I was desperate and I read the Bible even less. My interest in God’s will was mostly whether or not he was going to make me give up something I didn’t want to, and content with my mediocrity I mostly avoided him. Even so, on those rare occasions when I would pray during that time I would ask God to change my heart and mind toward him and these last few weeks of prayer have started to do just that.

So what do I mean by “prayer”? It’s a common enough concept, but I think it can mean different things to different people, so I’d like to take some time explaining what I mean by prayer; what I think the Bible has to say about it. First of all, prayer is communication between the Judeo-Christian God of the Bible—Yahweh—and his people, those graciously protected from judgement through faith in the sacrificial death of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins and newness of spiritual life. That’s a very narrow view of prayer, I realize this, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that prayer and its close cousin faith are only as powerful as the God they are directed toward. Either he’s real and can follow through on his promises or he’s not; I don’t want prayer as a placebo effect.

Secondly, prayer is an ongoing expression of the gospel in the life of a Christian. Unlike other religious traditions, Jesus Christ did not preach a reconciliation with God by way of good works or ritualistic behavior. Freedom from the just judgment of God is given freely, paid for by the death of Jesus Christ, and received by faith. In other words, the Christian life is not foundationally one of good works, but rather one of belief in a loving God who will do the work you cannot (removing the guilt of sin) on your behalf. As the Christian life begins, so must it continue and prayer is the ultimate expression of this. For years after I became a Christian I would strive to do better, believing I could will myself to be a good man. There were two results—either I thought I had succeeded and became proud or I undeniably failed and I grew discouraged. Even now I struggle with either wanting to earn my own favor with God, or I simply give up knowing I can’t. However the answer is something completely other; the Bible teaches that when we confess our weaknesses yet walk in confidence (i.e. faith) that God can do what we cannot, we walk by faith and not by works. Prayer is the Christian’s way of saying every day, “what I cannot, you can.”

Lastly, prayer is not an empty ritual or psychological pep talk, it is a familial interaction with a living God that begins with honest and specific communication and ends with good and timely answers. Another trap I’ve fallen into for years is the belief that prayer is this intangible thing, out there in the ether, weak and paltry. Not so; prayer is powerful when it is prayed in faith to the living God. In Christ, I am openly invited into the presence of God to make my requests known and I have every reason to believe they will be answered, or at least I ought to. That’s been part of my problem; I’ve either not really wanted my prayers answered (“Dear God please change me, but not too much, I like things the way they are”) or I’ve not really believed they will be answered and so I keep them vague or timid. This is where the rubber meets the road; either God can raise the dead or he can’t. And if he can, why in the world would I pray as if helping me find my car keys might be a challenge? It’s silly of course, and yet I think myself and many other Christians are guilty of praying this way at times.

There are many more aspects of prayer and how they relate to the character of God and the everyday life of a Christian that I could go into, but I think for now this sets the stage for a type of post I’d like to feature regularly on this blog, a list of specific prayers and how they’ve been answered. Starting this next week I will post those prayers that have already been answered and then going forward I’ll follow up every so often. I’m hoping that making this a matter of public record will not only provide me with a resource of all the prayers God has answered in my life, but also as an encouragement of faith for others as well.

David and Goliath Revisited

When Saul and all of Israel heard these words of the Philistine, they were dismayed and greatly afraid.

1 Samuel 17:11

Do you remember flannel boards? If you went to Sunday school in the 70s or early 80s then you’re probably familiar with what I’m talking about. They were story telling tools consisting of people or animals that would stick to a board made of flannel but were easily moved to a new location as the story unfolded. When I think of iconic Bible stories like “David and Goliath” or “Daniel in the lions’ den” I do so in the context of these early Sunday school experiences, flannel people living in fields of flannel.

However the problem with the way these stores are often shared with young children is that they are extracted from the greater biblical context and told in fragments separated from the bigger picture. As a result the “point” of the inclusion of these historical narratives in the Bible is often lost. And make no mistake, each story told in the Bible is intentional, as is its place in whichever book it is found. Take the narrative of David and Goliath as an example. It takes place after Saul, the first king of Israel, was formally rejected as king by God. Despite this rejection for his resistance to God’s leading and misconduct as a king, Saul remained in office for many years to come.

In the meantime God used his servant and prophet Samuel to select David to be the rightful king in Saul’s place. All we know at the time of David’s choosing is that he is the youngest son of Jesse and that the Lord advised Samuel not to look at his outward appearance but rather to trust in His judgment of inner character. Saul was given to the people when they demanded a king like all the other nations, and that was exactly what they got; a tall, muscular man who ruled for his own benefit and waxed eloquent like a seasoned politician whenever he was caught in a lie or disobeying God. However David was to be the king of God’s choosing and the story of his battle against Goliath gives us a picture of what his character was like.

At this time one of the neighboring hostile nations was gathering for war against Israel; the Philistines. Throughout the history of Israel they were an ever present threat and their advance into Israeli territory was often used by God as a wakeup call whenever his people went astray. This time was to be no different. Then there was Goliath; Goliath was the Philistine’s champion and for good reason. Every day for forty days he came out and challenged the people, daring one of them to best him in combat. The response of Saul and the rest of Israel was fear, and who wouldn’t be afraid at the sight of an encroaching enemy army and this giant warrior they had brought with them, brandishing spear and sword with battle-tempered malevolence?

Well, apparently David wasn’t afraid. He was incensed. And this is the point that I think can often get lost in the retelling of David and Goliath to children and which has turned the historical narrative into a contemporary meme for whenever the little guy overpowers the corporate behemoth. David challenged Goliath because to him it was morally wrong for the people of God to be daily taunted by this “uncircumcised Philistine.” Because when you gather on the Sabbath to sing songs about the awesome power and deliverance of God only to cower in front of an admittedly intimidating man the following week, there is a disconnect between what you say you believe and what your actions imply. David understood this, it was not the lives of his family or the wellbeing of his nation that was primarily at stake, it was the honor of his God.

And so his distress over the matter was made known to the king and David was given an audience with him. When David offered to fight Goliath Saul tried to dissuade him. “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him, for you are but a youth, and he has been a man of war from his youth” (1 Samuel 17:33).

David disagreed and presented his case:

“Your servant used to keep sheep for his father. And when there came a lion, or a bear, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after him and struck him and delivered it out of his mouth. And if he arose against me, I caught him by his beard and struck him and killed him. Your servant has struck down both lions and bears, and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, for he has defied the armies of the living God.”

1 Samuel 17:34-36

David’s reasoning was sound albeit unconventional. While he had not received the military training of Goliath, he had been the caretaker of his father’s sheep and as their shepherd he was experienced in dealing with wild animals arguably more dangerous than the Philistine champion. And what’s more, David was not going to stand idly by when the reputation of God was at stake. Not only did he express his belief in an all-powerful God through words and songs, but also by his unflinching resolve to stand toe-to-toe with a God-mocking giant.

The rest of this story is well known. David was offered the armor of the king and at first he gave it a shot but quickly realized his lack of experience on the battlefield dressed in the protective accoutrements would be a greater disadvantage than going without them. Instead he picks up the staff and sling with which he is familiar and goes out to face the champion. Goliath, on seeing the young man approach, laughs. He says “Am I a dog, that you come at me with sticks?” and “Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the beasts of the field” (1 Samuel 17: 43, 44).

David does not miss a beat and replies,

“You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head. And I will give the dead bodies of the host of the Philistines this day to the birds of the air and to the wild beasts of the earth, that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord saves not with sword and spear. For this battle is the Lord’s, and he will give you into our hand.

1 Samuel 17:45-47

The story of David and Goliath is not the story of a disenfranchised young man overcoming “The Man” as it is so often used to illustrate. It is a story that reveals the heart of a man chosen by God to be king over his people. David was the rightful king of Israel because he valued the reputation of God and the wellbeing of His people above his own life. He was chosen to be king because he “put his money where his mouth is” and stood before a veteran of war with only a staff and sling, trusting not in the power of his own strength or weaponry but rather in the Almighty God. Most of all “David and Goliath” is the story about God himself protecting his people and revealing to them what a king after his own heart looks like so that when Christ, the direct descendant of David appeared we would recognize those same traits in him, magnified and perfected in the promised, everlasting King.