Chapter 7 Prayer
Access - Childlike freedom
Hearing - Freedom to know God
Healing - Freedom to bless others
Openness - Freedom to influence situations
There are theologians who have an academic interest in their discipline. "Who wrote what? When and why was it written? What are the alternative theories?" But in this book my one purpose is to free myself and free others to know God. And that is what prayer is about.
Some people were taught a prayer to recite every day before they went to sleep. But my parents were atheists, so I can't remember ever praying as a child. But at the age of 23 I had a sudden conversion my first week at university after leaving the army. I was astounded to find myself praying (as opposed to touching wood when I had just escaped some disaster).
Five years later when I arrived in Allahabad (half way between Delhi and Calcutta) to study Hindi I found hundreds of people sitting cross legged every morning near the sacred confluence of the Ganges and Jumna rivers. As I talked to them I soon discovered that the form of meditation they were engaged in was quite different from my very personal conversation with God.
When I had to teach a course on comparative religion I first began thinking about the meaning of freedom in different religions. But we saw in the first chapter that freedom is not one thing. In each case we should ask "freedom FROM what, freedom FOR what, and freedom BY what?" Political ideologies for example offer violent and non-violent ways to attain freedom FROM oppressive or unjust governments.
Monistic religions offer a release FROM the struggles of this life FOR a oneness of merging in the Absolute. And this is attained BY some form of meditation. To merge in the Absolute there has to be a final loss of the freedom to remain a person. A common image in Hindu meditation is of a drop of water. As long as it is swirling around in the clouds it is distinct from all other drops. But when it goes down the Ganges and merges in the great ocean, it has lost any sense of individuality.
Buddha offered another way to achieve this by the severe discipline of eradicating all one's desires hopefully to attain nirvana. But again this kind of freedom requires the end of oneself as a person, which is of no interest to those who value their own personality and the freedom to live life to the full.
In Hinduism another method of finding peace from the concerns of this life was through bhakti (devotion to a personal deity, usually Krishna), as in the chanting of the Hari Krishna sect. Instead of chanting, a variant was by prolonged repetition of a mantra. This was been adopted in the TM (Transcendental Meditation) that is practiced in western countries. Some Christians have taken to repeating the Jesus' prayer as a mantra. And there is no doubt that the use of a mantra has offered a way of peace to millions of people. But again, as in other forms of Monism, this peace is by freeing oneself from the experience of personality.
Our title is Religion Enslaves: God wants us free. There is a freedom finally to end one's personality (see the last section on "Death") But God is personal, and he has made us in his own image (Genesis 1:26) to enjoy him and communicate with him and with others. And this is what heaven will be about. So monistic prayer cannot give the freedom that God lovingly has in mind for us.
Theistic religions, which picture God as the Artist or Creator of our world, offer freedom, not only for this life, but FOR some form of life as a person beyond death. Sin is what we need to be freed FROM to enjoy eternal life, and the means is BY some form of prayer. I prefer to avoid the use of the term meditation to describe a Christian experience of a personal conversation with God (meditating on the Bible has a quite different meaning). So in this chapter our focus will be on prayer as an " I and Thou experience" (a term coined by the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber in his very influential book, I and Thou, 1923, Charles Scribners, 1970).
Prayer - Access Childlike Freedom
Religion enslaves by making rules of access in prayer. For loving parents joy is to see their children free to come, sit in their lap, chatter about whatever is on their mind. But when I began as a Christian in October 1947 I soon found that things are not that simple for a child of God. I was told that the correct way to pray was the four letter of ACTS (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication).
This gave the impression that God expects us to preface our prayer by telling him how wonderful he is. We should go over his attributes. That should make us feel how unworthy we are to approach him. This idea was reinforced by one of the worthies who came to speak every term at my theological college. We knew that within a minute he would intone with great solemnity. "Thus saith the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with those who are contrite and humble in spirit" (Isaiah 57:15). That is a great verse in its context of the enormity of idolatry.
The next step was to say that a vision of the holiness of God should result in the confession. "Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me" (Psalm 51:5 RSV). The accepted paradigm was "Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts" (Isaiah 6:5). We cannot come into God's presence till our sins have been cleansed in the Blood of the Lamb who died for us on the cross.
Thirdly it was important to review all that one should be thankful about. And only then was one ready to go through one's prayer list. In practice I would fall asleep before I had gone through the cycle, and though I tried hard this straightjacket never worked for me.
ACTS had sounded very plausible, and it was not till I read Professor Hallesby's book on Prayer, 1931 (Augsburg, 1994) that I was freed to grasp Jesus' words "Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 18:3, Mark 10:15, Luke 18:17).
In a home where they are loved and welcomed children have direct access to their parents. There is no need of a formal introduction, or words of praise and thanksgiving (those will come later). They can chatter about their fun and excitement, what they have learned at school, and the meanness of those who hate them. Prayer should be as easy and simple as that.
This is not to deny that from time to time I have an experience of deep contrition, when I sense my lack of love and inability to pray and do as I ought. Paul describes this kind of experience in Romans 7:15-24. But he does not fall into despair and a chronic state of guilt. When the Holy Spirit shows me what is wrong he can immediately begin the cure. We are not to look at the frailty of our flesh (our natural instincts as they have been damaged by the abuses of life), but to the Spirit to change us. "To set the mind on the flesh (trying to correct ourselves by guilt and self-effort) is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace" (Romans 8:6).
But doesn't prayer have to be in the name of Jesus to be heard? To my surprise I found examples of believing in his name, gathering in his name, receiving children in his name, preaching in his name, healing in his name, casting out demons in his name. And Paul said "Whatever you do in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus" (Colossians 3:17). There is also Paul's reference to "giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Ephesians 5:20), which refers to all that we can do and enjoy as a result of coming to know him.
The only references to prayer in his name are in Jesus' instructions at the last supper. "I will do whatever you ask in my name" (John 14:13), which is in the context of "the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do, in fact will do greater works than these" (John 14:12). "The Father will give you whatever you ask in my name" (John 15:16, 16:23-24), which again refers to going out and bearing fruit. Certainly all our service and healing ministry should be done in the name (expressing character and authority) and in the Spirit of the Messiah. But there is no suggestion anywhere that we cannot have access to the Father like a little child unless we tack on to our requests the words "in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ."
Within a month of my conversion I was told "It is now time for you to attend the college prayer meeting." I knew this was necessary if I was to make progress as a Christian, but the idea was daunting. I spent a couple of hours composing a prayer I could use . To my astonishment, one after another these students prayed a long beautiful prayer. I noticed there was a proper introduction of the form, "O God we thank Thee that we can come into your presence because of the sacrifice of your Son who shed his blood for us on Calvary's tree." And then after two or three minutes of praying round the world there was a conclusion "And this we pray in the precious name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ." These students were impressively devout, and my prepared prayer was certainly not up to standard. But very soon I was able to take my turn with great confidence.
One group I attended would pray in turn clockwise round the room, and I got really irked by the end of half a dozen such marathon prayers. I remember two ladies from a Plymouth Brethren assembly who complained that they would gather for prayer with two of the brothers, and these heroically felt they had to last out the whole hour of prayer between them. This could not be what the God I had come to know wanted to hear. The book that saved me from this awful tedium was Rosalind Rinker's Conversing with God, 1986. Prayer was more like a family conversation. From the beginning of our marriage Mollie and I had always prayed together, but through this book we became more free to mention our concerns as they occured, and add to what the other had said. We still enjoy the freedom of doing this.
When I first taught conversational prayer to people in a traditional prayer meeting, the change was very exciting. I explained that each could contribute whatever came to mind, but it should be very brief, keep to one topic only, and give an opportunity for others to respond. If a person's need came to mind, one could just mention the name and leave a silence for others to pray for that person. This new freedom in prayer in the world wide church may be more significant in the long run than the Reformation. The freedom has also been welcomed with enthusiasm by young people who delight in what the Messiah is doing in their life, but they cannot stand the tedium of listening to their elders going on with their interminable prayers.
Hearing - Freedom to know God
When a baby is born it is surrounded by sounds of every kind. It instinctively recoils from loud and violent noises. But soon babies begins to distinguish their parents from all the other kinds of noise in the home. A dog can bark, whimper, wag his tail, and express all sorts of feelings. He can also pick up the meaning of words like "sit, come here" and even more complicated expressions like "go and get the paper." But for a child to know his or her parents at a deeper level there has to be the language of "I and Thou" conversation.
A child soon learns to distinguish what is being expressed (by words, singing, actions, body language) by his or her father and mother, brothers and sister, grandparents. As Wittgenstein said, there are many forms of life that will need to be understood, and the meaning of words and signs in their particular context. Similarly for us God is not one mysterious being. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit each are communicating with us every day of our lives. All we have to do is learn their language. That sounds problematic to adults, but it is easy for a little child in Switzerland who can learn half a dozen languages and dialects by the age of five.
"No one has ever seen God. It is God the the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known" (John 1:18). Jesus told us to recognize the Father who lovingly sets up our environment behind the scenes. "Look at the birds of the air . . . Consider the lilies of the field" (Matthew 6:26, 28). Birds and plants are active in finding food and nutrients from the soil, but they do not worry about the next day. Paul said that it is "God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment" (1 Timothy 6:17). The Father gave us our parents, and through them every gene in our body, the language we speak, the country we live in, the nature and world around us, and much else. That suggests that God uses all these means to communicate with us. "The heavens are telling the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech . . . their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world" (Psalm 19:1-4).
We also get to know the Son in "I and Thou" experiences. We suddenly find ourselves confronted by a personal being, and some have seen him in the flesh or in a vision. His personality becomes clearer as we hear and read in the Gospels about his life and death and resurrection. His parables speak to us in different ways each time we read them. If we are watching like the prophets, we will see his comings among the nations (Isaiah 13:6, 9, 19:1, 31:4, 40:10), and Jesus himself told the early Christians to watch for his coming in the fall of Jerusalem (Matthew 24:3, 27, 30, 37, 42, 44). By failing to learn the language Jesus used concerning his comings in history, millions fail to recognize what he keeps doing among the nations.
In the previous section I described one kind of conversation with the Holy Spirit as he shows us what needs correcting and immediately undertakes to change us by his power. But even before they came to know Jesus as the Son of God, many peoples all over the world already knew the inspiration (as among the Greeks), promptings, concerns, and empowerment of the Spirit acting from deep within their inner being. The aboriginal tribes of North America called upon the Great Spirit to guide them in setting up a camp or make peace with an enemy.
But in the New Testament we learned to recognize much more of his acting and communicating through his church. As Jesus explained, "The Advocate (advocatus means called alongside to help), the Holy Spirit, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said" (John 14:26). This obviously means that the Holy Spirit communicates with us, and we can learn to pick up his language.
For me a turning point in prayer was recognizing that "the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words." This meant I could listen to the promptings of the Holy Spirit to pray "according to the will of God" (Romans 8:26-27). That made sense of Jesus' words "If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you" (John 15:7, 16). I do not have to think up prayers that will be according to what God has in mind, rather the Spirit can communicate God's mind to me.
Healing - Freedom to bless others
Throughout my theological studies I got the impression that healing was a sign of the Messiah's activity in the early church. Together with apostles and prophets and speaking in tongues (1 Corinthians 12:28), this was a manifestation of the Spirit that died out with the end of the apostolic age. It was permissible to pray for the sick, and ask for their healing if this might be God's will. But it was only among Pentecostals that opportunities for healing were offered in Christian worship.
While we were missionaries in India we had some very serious medical situations, and Mollie and I would pray for each other, and for our children. In some cases the intervention was quick and powerful. We were impressed by a Christian healer who came to take a mission in the Anglican Cathedral in Allahabad. He was dressed in a saffron robe, and by the second night over a thousand Hindus would come to the service. He preached the good news to them, and then invited people to come forward for healing. Every night Mollie and I sang Hindi bhajans in the choir, which was asked to sing non-stop as the healer asked each person what was his or her concern, and then laid hands on them with a brief prayer. We had many reports of people who had been healed, and we were convinced that the ministry of healing was an important part of the church's witness to the world.
When I was Rector of St. James' Church on the campus of Queen's university, Earl and Faith Thomas came from Montreal where they had been involved in the Order of St. Luke. I agreed to gather some who were willing to do the study of all the healing miracles in the Gospel which was required for me to become Chaplain of the Order in Kingston. I must admit that I did not have a huge amount of faith in the power of spiritual healing. But I had to change my mind when three women in our congregation were diagnosed as terminally ill. They each set their affairs in order to die, but the members of our healing team prayed. Two of them are still alive here in the city, and one died twelve years after her healing.
Then a baby boy had a fall down some steep stairs, and the doctors at Kingston General Hospital said he was so damaged he would never see, or hear, or feel anything again. The parents, who had never believed in the ministry of healing before, called the Christian community together to pray, and the boy was not only healed, but his reflexes are so sharp that he now plays goalie for his ice hockey team.
As a result of this and other astonishing events, we began offering prayer stations for the laying on of hands after some of the services. Sometimes I was asked to anoint the person with oil (according to James 5:5-14), but I am still not clear when this is appropriate as opposed to an "unordained" person touching the person. I doubt if the Messiah makes that distinction. In either case we ask "What are you praying for?" and the need is committed to Jesus the healer for his intervention. Whereas this kind of prayer was unthinkable fifty years ago in the mainline denominations, it is now more and more accepted and practiced in conferences and church gatherings.
As a result of this huge development in the ministry of healing, hundreds of books have been written on the topic. These often seem to make a complicated technique of what should be a natural easy way for us to bless others. I like to suggest that a Christian should be able to take the hand of a friend concerned about any kind of sickness (dis-ease) in his or her family, and pray in this way. I might add that our prayer concern should not just focus on the bodily need, but circle around the family and community problems that might be impacting the person.
Openness - Freedom to influence our world
Just seven years ago I read a book that has greatly freed me to accept my position as a son of God engaged in the Royal Priesthood of the Messiah's church (Clark Pinnock, Richard Rice, John Sanders, William Hasker, David Basinger, The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, Carlisle, UK: Paternoster Press, 1994).
I had been trained in defining God by his attributes (almighty, immutable, impassible, timeless, omniscient, and he certainly cannot change his mind). This traditional, or conventional, view can be contrasted with an openness model in this way. "We may think of God as an aloof monarch, removed from the contingencies of the world, unchangeable in every aspect of being, as an all-determining and irresistible power, aware of everything that will ever happen and never taking risks. Or we may understand God as a caring parent with qualities of love and responsiveness, generosity and sensitivity, openness and vulnerability, a person (rather than a metaphysical principle), who experiences the world, responds to what happens, relates to us and interacts dynamically with humans" (Clark Pinnock, "Systematic Theology," The Openness of God, 1994, 103).
There has been strong opposition to the openness view, and the theological debate will no doubt go on for a long time. My concern is to outline what difference it has made in practice to my prayer life. In a previous book (Advent Comings of the Lord among the Nations, 1998) I showed that in the Bible there is not just one coming in the incarnation and a second coming that is still awaited.
Our Lord King Messiah keeps intervening in all nations. The paradigm for this is set out by the Old Testament prophets, and in Jesus' own account of his intervention in AD 70 which destroyed the city of Jerusalem and its temple, and toppled the religious establishment of that city.
As a result of reading The Openeness of God I now teach that the Messiah invites us into his counsels, the Spirit can reveal what he has in mind, and by prayer we can influence the outcome of world events. The sudden collapse of Communism and the toppling of the iron curtain in 1969 was not just a chance event forced by economics. The evidence suggests to me that it came as a result of the prayers of millions of people. In South Africa, apartheid did not end without a bloodbath by chance. Many were praying, and the Lord shared their concern. Just four months ago Mollie and I were praying for the toppling of the power of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and I am still awed at how it happened. I now take it for granted that the Messiah Lord of history listens to us, delights in our cooperation, and at least in some situations intervenes as a result of what we pray. He is not an impassive, immutable monarch.
Part of my new freedom to pray is that I find myself asking, "Lord what have you got in mind in Israel between the Jews and Arabs? How can both peoples find their freedom?" And "when are you going to topple the power of the oppressive mullahs in Iran?" "Is there any way the congregations of the one church in Kingston (see chapter 6) can be freed to function as an organic body?" I certainly cannot dictate to the Lord, but I am astonished that he very much cares about my concerns for the freedom of others.
We began with our title Religion Enslaves: God wants us Free. Love cares for the freedom of the other. And we have gathered enough evidence to show how any religion, including the Christian faith, can enslave us. This final chapter has shown how prayer is God's appointed way to bring about his longing for our freedom and that of others. And any religion that interferes with human freedom is a noxious cancer in God's world.
Strangely he invites us to join him in eradicating enslavement, not by violence but by prayer. "Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord" (Zechariah 4:6). Or as Paul said "The weapons of our warfare are not merely human, but they have divine power to destroy strongholds" (2 Corinthians 10:4). And very slowly over fifty years I have been given have a clearer picture of how we might to free individuals, churches, and nations from the enslavement of religion.
This web book is dedicated to the millions of students who begin training
for Christian ministry every year all over the world. It will be worthwhile
if some find some encouragement to see the relevance of what they are studying
in the light of God's concern for our freedom..