Thursday, August 27, 2020

Prayer During a Pandemic | Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God in the Hardness and Necessity of Praying

I can think of nothing great that is also easy. + Timothy Keller

The Hardness of Prayer

Prayer must be (in light of nothing great being easy), then, one of the hardest things in the world. To admit that prayer is very hard, however can be encouraging. If you struggle greatly in this (especially if you feel like you don't have the words anymore during an especially draining season like a pandemic, or after experiencing multiple deaths of loved ones, or in the midst of devastating disappointments), you are not alone.

The Still Hour, a classic book on prayer by nineteenth-century American theologian Austin Phelps, starts with the chapter "Absence of God, in Prayer" and the verse from Job 23:3 – "Oh that I knew where I might find him!" Phelps's book begins with the premise that "a consciousness of the absence of God is one of the standing incidents of religious life. Even when the forms of devotion are observed conscientiously, the sense of the presence of God, as an invisible Friend, whose society is a joy, is by no means unintermittent."

Phelps goes on to explain the numerous reasons why there is such dryness in prayer and how to endure through that sense of God's unreality. The first thing we learn in attempting to pray is our spiritual emptiness  and this lesson is crucial. We are so used to being empty that we do not recognize emptiness as such until we start to try to pray. We don't feel it until we begin to read what the Bible and others have said about the greatness and promise of prayer. Then we finally begin to feel lonely and hungry. It's an important first step to fellowship with God, but it is a disorienting one.

When your prayer life finally begins to flourish, the effects can be remarkable. You may be filled with self-pity, and be justifying resentment and anger. Then you sit down to pray and the reorientation that comes before God's face reveals the pettiness of your feelings in an instant. All your self-justifying excuses fall to the ground in pieces. Or you may be filled with anxiety, and during prayer you come to wonder what you were so worried about. You laugh at yourself and thank God for how he is and what he's done. It can be that dramatic. It is the bracing clarity of a new perspective. Eventually, this can be the normal experience, but that is never how the prayer life starts. In the beginning the feeling of poverty and absence usually dominates, but the best guides for this phase urge us not to turn back but rather to endure and pray in a disciplined way, until, as J.I. Packer and Carolyn Nystrom say in their book, Praying, we get through duty to delight.

We must beware of misunderstanding such phrases, however. Seasons of dryness can return for a variety of causes. We don't spend a discrete amount of time in dryness until we break through permanently into joy and feeling. Instead, the vivid reorientation of mind, and the overall sense of God on the heart, comes more frequently and sometimes in startling ways  interspersed with times of struggle and even absence. Nevertheless, the pursuit of God in prayer eventually bears fruit, because God seeks for us to worship him (John 4:23) and because prayer is so infinitely rich and wondrous.

Listening and Answering

Throughout most of the great Old Testament book that bears his name, Job cries out to God in agonized prayer. For all his complaints, Job never walks away from God or denies his existence  he processes all his pain and suffering through prayer. Yet he cannot accept the life God is calling him to live. Then the skies cloud over and God speaks to Job "out of the whirlwind" (Job 38:1). The Lord recounts in vivid detail his creation and sustenance of the universe and of the natural world. Job is astonished and humbled by this deeper vision of God (Job 40:3-5) and has a breakthrough. He finally prays a mighty prayer of repentance and adoration (Job 42:1-6).

The question of the book of Job is posed in its very beginning. Is it possible that a man or woman can come to love God for himself alone so that there is a fundamental contentment in life regardless of circumstances (Job 1:9)? By the end of the book we see the answer. Yes, this is possible, but only through prayer. 

What had happened? The more clearly Job saw who God was, the fuller his prayers became  moving from mere complaint to confession, appeal, and praise. In the end he broke through and was able to face anything in life. This new refinement and level of character came through the interaction of listening to God's revealed Word and answering in prayer. The more true his knowledge of God, the more fruitful his prayers became, and the more sweeping the change in his life.

The power of our prayers, then, lies not primarily in our effort and striving, or in any technique, but rather in our knowledge of God. You may respond, "But God spoke audible words to Job out of a storm. I wish God spoke to me like that." The answer is – we have something better, an incalculably clearer expression of God's character. "In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son ... the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being" (Hebrews 1:1-3).

Jesus Christ is the Word of God (John 1:1-14) because no more comprehensive, personal, and beautiful communication of God is possible. We cannot look directly at the sun with our eyes. The glory of it would immediately overwhelm and destroy our sight. We have to look at it through a filter, and then we can see the great flames and colors of it. When we look at Jesus Christ as he is shown to us in the Scriptures, we are looking at the glory of God through the filter of a human nature. That is one of the many reasons that Christians pray "in Jesus' name." Through Christ, prayer becomes what Scottish Reformer John Knox called "an earnest and familiar talking with God. "For through (Christ) we ...  have access to the Father by one Spirit" (Ephesians 2:18).

The Cost of Prayer

How is such access and freedom possible? The only time in all the gospels that Jesus Christ prays to God and doesn't call him Father is on the cross, when he says, "My God, my God, why have you forgotten me? Why have you forsaken me?" Jesus lost his relationship with the Father so that we could have a relationship with God as father. Jesus was forgotten so that we could be remembered forever – from everlasting to everlasting. Jesus Christ bore all the eternal punishment that our sins deserve. That is the cost of prayer. Jesus paid the price so God could be our father.

Perhaps, you protest, your own father or mother did you wrong. That must not be a barrier to prayer, for only in Christ will you get the love that you need to make up for your unhappy family history. It does no good to say, "Why weren't they the parents they should have been?" There are no parents who are what they should be. Psalm 27:10 says: "Though my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will bear me up." This new relationship with God is what you need if you have a bad family background. This is what you need if you feel like a failure, if you feel lonely, or if you are sinking further into despair. Because of the infinite price paid by your brother, Jesus, God your father will hold you up.

Conversation with God leads to an encounter with God. Prayer is not only the way we learn what Jesus has done for us but also is the way we "daily receive God's benefits." Prayer turns theology into experience. Through it we sense his presence and receive his joy, his love, his peace and confidence, and thereby we are changed in attitude, behavior, and character.

The Necessity of Prayer

In the second half of my adult life, I discovered prayer. I had to.

In the fall of 1999, I taught a Bible study course on the Psalms. It became clear to me that I was barely scratching the surface of what the Bible commanded and promised regarding prayer. Then came the dark weeks in New York after 9/11, when our whole city sank into a kind of corporate clinical depression, even as it rallied. For my family the shadow was intensified as my wife, Kathy, struggled with the effects of Crohn's disease. Finally, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.

At one point during all this, my wife urged me to do something with her we had never been able to muster the self-discipline to do regularly. She asked me to pray with her every night. Every night. She used an illustration that crystallized her feelings very well. As we remember it, she said something like this:

Imagine you were diagnosed with such a lethal condition that the doctor told you that you would die within hours unless you took a particular medicine – a pill every night before going to sleep. Imagine that you were told that you could never miss it or you would die. Would you forget? Would you not get around to it some nights? No – it would be so crucial that you wouldn't forget, you would never miss. Well, if we don't pray together to God, we're not going to make it because of all we are facing. I'm certainly not. We have to pray, we can't let it just slip our minds.

Maybe it was the power of the illustration, maybe it was just the right moment, maybe it was the Spirit of God. Or, most likely of all, it was the Spirit of God using the moment and the clarity of the metaphor. For both of us the penny dropped; we realized the seriousness of the issue, and we admitted that anything that was truly a nonnegotiable necessity was something we could do. That was more than a decade ago, and Kathy and I can't remember missing a single evening of praying together, at least by phone, even when we've been apart in different hemispheres.

+ Excerpt from Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God by Timothy Keller, pgs. 24-25, 48-49, 79-80, 9-10

Soli Jesu gloria.

Rev. Mike "Sully" Sullivan

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