Prayer, the river that flows into God

“I am able to do all things through the one who strengthens me.” – Philippians 4:13

 

There are three components to Principle 7.  Self-examination, Bible reading and prayer.  I’ve discussed previously the importance of the first two: Taking a daily inventory of our thoughts and actions and diving into the depths of the scriptures frequently.  Now it’s time to explore the last ingredient, prayer.  It’s what Step 11 is all about: “We sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and power to carry that out.”  The serious connotation is that if we don’t continually work on maintaining, improving and prioritizing our prayer life then we won’t have a clue as to what God’s will is for us, much less be in a position to receive the power necessary for doing it.  I confess right up front that praying is by far the weakest area of my Christianity.  I’m not saying I don’t pray.  On the contrary, without fail I begin and end every single day with one and when I receive a prayer request from an acquaintance I make it a point to immediately pause and ask the Lord to do what’s best for the persons involved.  The problem is, frankly, most times I feel like I’m talking into a phone that’s either cutting out or is disconnected altogether.  To say this bugs me is an understatement.  I truly love my Father in heaven and I yearn to experience a closeness with Him that would allow me to feel like I was sitting across from Him in a Starbucks, casually chatting over lattes.  Alas, that’s rarely the case.  Yet I’ve found a crumb of solace in the fact that I’m far from being the exception to the rule.  Lots of believers, including some of my favorite Christian authors, struggle with the same malady.  In the preface of his excellent book, “The Papa Prayer,” Dr. Larry Crabb tells of an encounter he had with Brennan Manning (another of my faves) following a conference they both spoke at:

“’Where are you heading from here?’ I asked.

‘I begin a weeklong prayer retreat by myself in two days.’

I’d never done that, so I was curious.  ‘What does a week like that do for you?  How does God respond to your praying for a week?’

Brennan looked a little puzzled, and then said, ‘I’ve never thought about what I get out of it.  I just figure God likes it when I show up.’”

I can relate to Manning’s attitude.  Even if I don’t feel like I’m achieving some kind of extraordinary, engulfing spiritual connection with the great I AM I feel certain He appreciates my spending time with Him.  I also have no doubt that the problem is on my end so I aim to continue to try to become more tuned-in to God till the day I meet Him face to face.  What I’m announcing is that I’m no expert on productive prayer techniques.  I suspect I fall into the category that Crabb describes thusly:  “For a long time now, without even realizing it, you’ve seen God as an ally in your purposes.  You’ve lost sight of the fact that He sees you as an ally in His.”  So I won’t be offering up any formulas or methods on how to pray correctly.  I’ll simply emphasize that prayer and quiet meditation are crucial to the recovery process and that striving for a more intimate relationship with God is a supremely worthwhile endeavor that will benefit you and all of the people you come in contact with.

 

Most everyone knows by heart the Lord’s Prayer that Jesus taught His disciples and there’s no better blueprint for what we should utter when we bow our heads.  Furthermore, in Philippians 4:6, Paul advised that we’re to “…in every situation, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, tell your requests to God.” In one short sentence the Apostle told us everything we need to know about how to approach our magnificent Creator.  The word “prayer” implies worship and adoration so he’s informing us that we should assume an attitude of awe-filled respect for God before we do anything else.  We must acknowledge whom we’re conversing with before we start asking Him for favors.  Psalm 46:10 reads, “…Stop your striving and recognize that I am God! I will be exalted over the nations! I will be exalted over the earth!” Once we’ve properly and sincerely done that, then and only then is it prudent to present our petitions.  Following our pleas, before we sign off with an “amen”, we should thank Him for the many blessings He’s bestowed upon us, not the least of which is the sacrifice of His only begotten Son who suffered and died so that we might have eternal life.  Paul was a superb example of someone who, despite his situation, always found things to be grateful for and we should do the same.  So now, because the Apostle gave clear instructions, believers can’t complain that they were never told how to pray effectively.  What we all have to remind ourselves (me included) is that prayer, like everything else, is not about us.  It’s about our gracious God Almighty.  Since He is the source of all that is good, fulfilling and righteous we should be happy to pray as He asked us to whether we feel anything profound or not.  God assures us that there’s a purpose in our praying to Him and we have no right or reason to question it.  Francois Fenelon wrote, “Time spent in prayer is never wasted” and Mother Teresa said, “Praying is not asking.  Prayer is putting oneself in the hands of God, at His disposition, and listening to His voice in the depths of our hearts.”

 

And there it is.  The key to it all is found in developing the art of listening.  That’s what is meant in Step 11when it states that meditation improves our conscious contact with God.  Christian meditation isn’t sitting cross-legged and chanting a mantra for hours on end, it’s being still and concentrating on what the Bible teaches us about how to live our lives and opening ourselves up to receiving instructions from the Holy Spirit that dwells within us.  When Jesus spent time with His Heavenly Father He didn’t feel compelled to get into a certain yoga position or fire up incense beforehand.  Rather, He’d go off by himself to commune with God intimately and with humility.  From what I’ve gathered, Christ listened more than he spoke. That’s the kind of meditation this step suggests we indulge in.  God said to Job, “…be silent, and I will teach you wisdom.” (Job 33:33)  Isaiah 1:10 reads, “Listen to the Lord. Hear what he is telling you.” I quote C.S. Lewis, “We live, in fact, in a world starved for solitude, silence, and private: and therefore starved for meditation…”  We can read the Bible over and over but if we don’t spend time to let its wisdom and advice sink into our hearts and minds then we won’t retain the truths we so desperately need to incorporate into our lives.  Jerry Bridges preached, “To meditate on the scriptures is to think about them, turning them over in our minds, and applying them to our life’s situations… The objective of our meditation is application – obedience to the scriptures.”  I’m guilty of being among the world’s worst at carving out time to relax my busy brain and partake in what George MacDonald called “sacred idleness.”  The result is that I miss out on a deeper understanding/comprehension of what my Father in heaven wants to communicate to me.  We all need to do more of what David Brainerd suggested, “Give yourself to prayer, to reading and meditation on divine truths: Strive to penetrate to the bottom of them and never be content with a superficial knowledge.”  As Colossians 3:16 clearly exhorts, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly…” I can appreciate what William Thrasher once expressed: “Meditation is simply talking to God about His Word with a desire that your life and those you pray for come into agreement with it.”  If I spent more time being focused on and contemplative about what I read in my Bible I’d be more capable of representing my Savior as the merciful, marvelous redeemer that He is.  Thomas Watson wrote, “Meditation is the touchstone of a Christian; it shows what mettle he is made of.”

 

Of all the words in the 8 Principles and the 12 Steps of the Celebrate Recovery program none impacted me more than those mentioned earlier implying that without setting aside time to get on my knees before God I will not gain the power to withstand and overcome temptation.  I can lead a step study course, go to every CR meeting, provide snacks for those coming straight from work, play guitar in the praise band and pick up empty cups afterward but if I don’t humble myself before my Maker and spend quality time with Him my batteries will drain out before you can say “backslide.”  Now, this isn’t some clever notion that the people who designed the CR ministry came up with out of the blue.  It’s backed by solid scripture.  Ephesians 1:17-19 states, “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you spiritual wisdom and revelation in your growing knowledge of him – since the eyes of your heart have been enlightened – so that you may know what is the hope of his calling, what is the wealth of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the incomparable greatness of his power toward us who believe, as displayed in the exercise of his immense strength.” Paul speaks of this power again in chapter 3, verse 20: “Now to him who by the power that is working within us is able to do far beyond all that we ask or think.” This power is real and it’s potent but we must submit ourselves to God on a regular basis in order to get it.  D.L. Moody preached, “He who kneels the most, stands the best.”  You see, Satan will do everything he can to distract you from faithfully devoting yourself to a routine of prayer and meditation because he has no defense against what it energizes in God’s children.  Jeffrey Smead wrote, “The deeper your personal relationship is with God, the more the devil is fearful of you.”  As malevolent as Satan desires to be portrayed, the fact is that you, as a Christian, pose a major threat to the stability of his kingdom of dirt.  And while it takes but the faith of a mustard seed to make him tremble, it does require initiative on our part to store up the spiritual power that’ll keep him at bay.  Watchman Nee said, “The believer at minimum can declare by his will that he wants the truth, that he wants to know and obey the truth.  By prayer and by choice of will he ought to resist every satanic lie, whatever form it may take – a thought, an imagination or an argument.”

 

Prayer and meditation are also recommended preventative measures for the dreaded affliction known as relapse.  Mark 14:38 states, “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.” We humans have an inborn tendency to take things for granted and unwittingly drift away from the things that do us the most good.  For those in recovery that defect is magnified immensely because our hurts, hang-ups and habits are just waiting for us to let down our guard so they can come rushing back into our lives and set up a base camp again.  Without the power of Christ gleaned from remaining firmly attached to the vine that He is we’re all susceptible to relapsing so it’s imperative we encourage each other to pray, even when we don’t feel we have any specific requests to make.  We must nurture and strengthen our one-on-one connection with Jesus so the devil can’t get a foothold.  It also provides protection against our worst enemy, pride.  Galatians 6:4 says, “Let everyone be sure that he is doing his very best, for then he will have the personal satisfaction of work well done and won’t need to compare himself with someone else.” Charles Spurgeon wrote, “We should be better Christians if we were more alone, waiting upon God, and gathering through meditation on His Word spiritual strength for labor in His service.”  Put another way, if we keep our eye on our Savior we’re less likely to pay heed to whatever material possessions the Joneses have acquired.  Another thing to consider is how heartfelt our prayers are.  We should think of our prayer time as a privilege, an honor and a perk of being a child of the living God.  Too often we consider it an obligation.  Sam Storms preached, “If your reason for worshipping God is merely from a sense of moral duty, God would rather you not worship Him at all.  To say that God is pleased with worship that lacks passion is to say God endorses hypocrisy.”  However, I’ll venture to say that if you’ve reached Step 11 in your recovery journey your reverence for the one who delivered you from your sinful nature that formerly ran amok is inviolate and unassailable.  I can only speak for myself but I will forever be in Christ’s debt for rescuing me.

 

But if prayer and meditation are not activities you’ve adopted into your lifestyle then it’s fair to warn you that you’re skating on thin ice.  This applies to all believers whether they’re in recovery from a particularly iniquitous behavior pattern or they’re an admired pastor of a mega-church.  When God created man and woman he also created a way for them to communicate with Him.  He didn’t have to do that.  He could’ve made the covenants with Abraham, Moses and David that culminated in the arrival of the Messiah who defeated Lucifer and made it possible for us to be sanctified and granted eternal life in paradise without giving us unlimited access to Him.  Like grace, it’s a free gift.  Because of his inexplicable, inexhaustible love for each one of us God provided a way to talk to and listen to Him.  Realize that He possesses a furious longing for us.  Therefore we should think of our ability to commune with Him as yet another aspect of how magnanimous He is.  If you’re confused over what I’ve been going on about I’ll share this clarifying quote from Diana Robinson: “Prayer is when you talk to God; meditation is when you listen to God.”  That’s it in a nutshell.  You might be saying, “But I’ve never in my life heard my Heavenly Father speak to me.”  I offer this from J.I. Packer, “Does God, then, really tell us things when we pray?  Yes.  We shall probably not hear voices, nor feel sudden strong impressions of a message coming through (and we shall be wise to suspect such experiences should they come our way); but as we analyze and verbalize our problems before God’s throne, and tell Him what we want and why we want it, and think our way through passages and principles of God’s written Word bearing on the matter in hand, we shall find many certainties crystallizing in our hearts as to God’s view of us and our prayers, and His will for us and others.  If you ask, ‘Why is this or that happening?’ no light may come, for ‘the secret things belong to the Lord our God’ (Deuteronomy 29:29); but if you ask, ‘How am I to serve and glorify God here and now, where I am?’ there will always be an answer.”

 

Earlier I came clean about my own dysfunction in establishing a consistently satisfying and galvanizing prayer regimen.  It’s something I’m determined to work on for the remainder of my days on earth.  Yet I won’t hesitate to testify that I’d be miserable and lonely if I couldn’t visit with my Father in Heaven whenever I wanted.  Whatever may be keeping my prayer experience from being all it could be is somehow associated with what’s amiss in me, not with God.  I’m sure that, as my trust and faith in Christ grows, so will my relationship with the great I AM.  For now I’m comforted by the fact that every time I take my accumulated baggage to the foot of the cross He takes it off my shoulders.  I cite Mary Crowley: “Every evening I turn my worries over to God.  He’s going to be up all night anyway.”

river

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