The Answer is More Certain than Our Prayer: Encouragement to Pray from Question 129 of the Heidelberg Catechism (with commentary by Karl Barth)

Heidelberg Catechism 129

Q. What does the word “Amen” signify?

A. “Amen” signifies, it shall truly and certainly be: for my prayer is more assuredly heard of God, than I feel in my heart that I desire these things of him

[W]e must begin with the end, that is, we must first consider the answer to prayer. We may be surprised at this, for, from a logical standpoint, we should ask first, “What is prayer?” And only afterward, “Do we receive an answer when we pray?” Now for the Reformers the basic and vital point is this certitude: God does answer prayer. That is the first thing we must know. Calvin says it explicitly: We obtain what we request. Prayer is grounded upon this assurance. Let us approach the subject from the given fact that God prayeranswers. God is not deaf, but listens; more than that, he acts. God does not act in the same way whether we pray for not. Prayer exerts an influence upon God’s action, even upon his existence. This is what the word “answer” means.

In Question 129 of the Heidelberg Catechism it is stated that the answer to our prayer is more certain than our awareness of the things that we request. It seems there is nothing more sure than the feeling of our desires, but this Catechism says that God’s answer is still more certain. We too must have this inward assurance. Perhaps we doubt the sincerity of our prayer and the worth of our request. But one thing is beyond doubt: it is the answer that God gives. Our prayers our weak and poor. Nevertheless, what matters is not that our prayers be forceful, but that God listens to them. That is why we pray….

Let our prayer not be offered according to our good pleasure; otherwise there would be then on our part inordinate desires. Let it be patterned after the rule [the Lord’s prayer] given by the One who knows our needs better than we ourselves. God has directed us first to submit ourselves to him in order that we may present our requests. So that we may conform to this order, we must eliminate in our prayers all questions like this: Does God listen to us? On this point Calvin is categorical: “Such a prayer is not a prayer.” Doubt is not permitted, for it goes without saying that we shall be heard. Even before we pray we must assume the attitude of someone who has been heart….

“Amen.” It is enough to recall what Luther and the Heidelberg Catechism tell us about this. Luther affirms that it is a good thing to say “Amen”! In other words, it is a good thing to learn not to doubt when we pray, but to believe, because “Amen” means, “So be it.” Prayer is not an undertaking left to chance, a trip into the blue. It must end as it has begun, with conviction: Yes, may it be so! On its side, the Heidelberg Catechism declares that “Amen” means that the certainty of the divine response is greater than the certainty we feel within ourselves of our needs and desires. The most certain element of our prayer is not our requests, but what comes from God: his response.

[Karl Barth, Prayer, 50th Anniversary Edition (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2002). 13, 19-20, 65-66.]

“We Only Have God”: Learning about the Hell-Storming Power of Prayer from the Church in China (Reformission Monday)

The following post is excerpted from David Wang, “Lessons from the Prayer Habits of the Church in China,” in Teach Us To Pray, ed. D.A. Carson (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2002), 247-254.

The phenomenal growth of the church in China is nothing short of a sovereign move of God. How else can one explain the fact that China, which turned Communist in 1949, now has perhaps the highest number of Christians in any one country? By conservative estimates, there are about fifty million Christians in China today. These are not Christians by birth or by tradition, for there is no Christian tradition in China as in Europe or America. These are people who have made a personal decision to follow Christ, and they are fully aware off the price they may have to pay….

[A]lmost every person who has made contact with China’s Christians is impressed with their sincerity, enthusiasm and simplicity of faith. These traits are seen most clearly in their prayer lives. The following observations on the prayer patterns of China’s believers are derived through personal contacts, correspondence from China, and interviews with itinerant evangelists and pastors of China’s house church movement…. [S]ince the Christian population of China is around fifty million and still growing, my observation of China’s church is but a glimpse of the total picture. The glimpse does reveal, however, chinathat there are certain patterns in the prayer lives in China’s believers … from which we can learn.

I. They pray at great length

A pastor from Hong Kong took several Christian youths to visit China. They enjoyed fellowship with a rural house church for four days. The services were lengthy, continuing from early morning till late evening. But what the Hong Kong pastor remembered most vividly was the time they spent in prayer. He later wrote that the participants felt the forceful leading of the Holy Spirit as the prayers continued at great length. On a couple of days, the prayers lasted three to four hours….

‘The lengthiness of our prayers is a consequence of our persecution’, an itinerant evangelist/pastor in China explained to me. ‘For so many years we had no pastors or Bibles or even songbooks. Therefore when we gathered together we could only pray. It became the major focus of our meetings. In fact it was only God’s omnipotence and the believers’ prayers that sustained our church.’…

II. They pray with intensity

‘They are storming the gates of hell and shaking the Throne of Grace,’ said a co-worker, describing her impression of the prayers of believers in China. ‘Even when they pray in dialects that I don’t understand, I can sense the earnestness of their prayers. I hear it in the urgent, pleading tone of their voices.’ She said she has yet to hear a prayer in China that sounds bland or insipid. Several years ago, elderly Pastor Wang Mingdao, a saint of the church in China, explained to me, ‘We have nothing — no pastors, no churches, no Bibles … nothing! We only have God. Therefore we go to him in desperation.’…

III. They pray with one accord

The Chinese Christians love the opportunity to pray together. First of all, they value the presence of other Christians. Christians may number fifty million in China, but they are still a minority among one billion Chinese. They live in an atheistic, unsympathetic environment. Hence the presence and fellowship of other believers are very precious and encouraging. When Christians get together, the most natural thing is to pray….

IV. They pray with the language of Scripture

[F]or 30 years Bibles have been in extremely short supply. For many of China’s believers, the Word of God consists of what they have memorised from a borrowed Bible, or a Scripture portion copied by hand. Scripture memorisation comes naturally to them, partly due to practice and necessity, but also due to a love of the Word. ‘Often they pray through their entire theology,’ a scholar of a leading Chinese Christian research centre commented. ‘They pray in Scripture language, not only as a reinforcement of what they have memorised, but also as a verbalisation of their theology — the way some of us recite the Apostles’ Creed. But their repetition of Scripture is personal and relevant to their current situation. We outsiders sometimes think that the person leading in prayer is trying to sermonise. This may not be the case, for often believers pray through their theology in their private prayers as well.’

Praying in Scripture language is actually being taught in a mushrooming house church movement in Henan province. I read in its handcopied ‘Pastoral Care Manual’ that using Scriptures in prayer is one certain way of praying according to the will of God. Our co-workers who have close contact with China’s believers all feel we should learn this lesson — that praying in the language of God’s Word brings God-glorifying results.

V. They pray on all occasions

… I believe this is so because in the lives of Chinese believers, so many occasions arise which necessitate prayer. Living under the Communist system, people constantly encounter obstacles and practical difficulties. Goods and services which we take for granted are often hard to come by because of the bureaucratic maze, apathy of service personnel, lack of efficiency, and simple lack of supplies. A rampant ‘back door’ system which is facilitated by gifts or personal ‘connections’ forces the most ethical and conservative Christians of China to turn to God on every occasion. They must acknowledge and rely on him in all things….

One of my co-workers who has regular contact with the Christians in rural China explains: ‘In most parts of rural China, poverty, disasters — both natural and man-made — and the lack of all kinds of resources, drive the Christians to total dependence on God. He is not their last resort. He is the first and only resort.’… In living out Ephesians 6:18, China’s Christians view prayer as an all-powerful means because it reaches the all-powerful God. From experience they know that they can survive without Bibles, churches, pastors and many other things as long as they have a ‘hotline to heaven’. And this they have fully used to move mountains. Answered prayer is probably the most common cause of new conversions in China.

VI. They pray with empathy

My associate who has enjoyed fellowship with thousands of Chinese Christians during his 200-plus visits explained to me why the believers always cry during their prayers. It is not just a sign of their earnestness and desperation, or that the Chinese are more emotional; it demonstrates empathy…. For instance, on more than one occasion I have witnessed China’s Christians crying for the prevailing apathy of the church in Hong Kong. ‘Oh Lord, we are piercing your heart and nailing you to the cross again’, is a common lament. Perhaps because of their close communion with God, they tend to identify more sensitively with the grief and suffering of Christ (Phil. 3:10)….

[T]hey identify with those who are lost without Christ. I have listened to a tape of spontaneous prayer meeting when about fifteen pastors met in Canton … One by one they wept and interceded for the salvation of people in each province of China as well as for the world. One cannot but be moved by their earnestness in interceding for the lost. ‘Have mercy on us, Lord God, have mercy on us!’ they cried out to God for hours. And they repented that they had not done enough to reach the world, even though almost to a man they had been imprisoned for their faith and zeal. This type of prayer is common among ordinary believers as well, and even among new babes in Christ.

VII. They pray with thanksgiving

… One of our co-workers was taken to a house church prayer meeting in Swatow. The room was small, dimly lit and packed with people. There were a few rickety benches for people to sit on. Others were sitting on the bed which was just a board laid across two benches. Children and young people were even crouching underneath the bed! The room was stuffy because there was only one tiny window. To our co-worker, the place was anything but pleasant, and the believers there had few earthly possessions. But when they prayed, sounds of ‘Thank you, Father!’ filled the room. They prayed as though they were in heaven, totally oblivious of their surroundings. This thankful attitude is carried over into other aspects of life. It is quite obvious that as a whole, the Christians in China have ‘… learned to be content whatever the circumstances’ (Phil. 4:11)….

Dr James Hudson Taylor III, a great-grandson of Hudson Taylor and currently General Director of Overseas Missionary Fellowship, likens China’s Christians to the believers in the book of Acts. They were known as ‘those who call on the name of the Lord’. They were a people of prayer. And Dr Taylor asks, ‘I wonder if we (the Christians of the free world) would be described as such? Or have we lost something of that life of prayer?’

“Strive Together With Me”: The Central Role of Prayer in the Apostolic Mission of Paul (Reformission Monday)

To build on last week’s post on the central role of prayer in driving forward the mission of Christ and the church throughout the narratives of Luke and Acts, I commend to you the following excerpt from David G. Peterson’s excellent essay (from the same volume) on the same theme in the writings of the apostle Paul. To elucidate Paul’s understanding of prayer vis-à-vis the progress of his mission, Peterson hones in on Romans 15:30-32:

I appeal to you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf, that I may be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea, and that my service for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints, so that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company.

[The following excerpt comes from David G. Peterson, “Prayer in Paul’s Writings,” in Teach Us To Pray: Prayer in the Bible and the World, D.A. Carson ed. (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2002), 99-100]

Paul’s request for prayer-support comes in the context of declaring his travel plans (15:22-9) and as a sequel to the report of his own prayers in this connection (1:8-15). The importance of this passage is indicated by several factors: his use of the verb parakaleo (‘exhort’, cf. 12:1), his address to the Roman Christians as ‘brothers’, his 001appeal to the authority of their common Lord and the love by which the Spirit binds together … (15:30) and his use of the extraordinary verb sunagonisasthai (‘strive together’, NIV ‘to join me in my struggle’, cf. Col. 4:12) to emphasise the earnestness, urgency and persistence with which they must join him in praying to God….

Paul uses the agon terminology to describe his own costly apostolic mission, understood as a striving for the gospel — a continual contest against opposition in the eschatological age (cf. 1 Cor. 9:24-7; Col. 1:29; 2:1). The believers at Philippi are said to be involved in the same struggle for the gospel as Paul (Phil. 1:30). It may be, therefore, that in Rom. 15:30 Paul is saying that the Romans can share in the struggle of his own apostolic ministry as they unite in prayer for him.

It seems likely that Paul had multiple motivations for writing Romans but that his missionary plans lie at the heart of his concern. Rom. 15:23-29 indicates that he had firmly in mind three important journeys: to Jerusalem, to Rome and to Spain. ‘Each of these trips is directly connected with his work as an apostle to the nations/Gentiles, and each one, in its own way, is related to the occasion and purpose of Romans’. Paul’s request for prayer-support in regard to these journeys (15:30-2) is thus essential to his purpose in writing.

The argument of the epistle reaches its climax with this appeal: the apostle hopes that the addressees will be ‘moved to begin united prayer for him, and that by their continuing supplications they themselves may be given that responsible maturity about which he himself has been praying’ (15:5-6, 13). Furthermore, as they unite in praying for him, they will be ready to receive him, to refresh him, and to facilitate his journey to Spain (v.24). Indeed, it appears that the apostle’s aim was to establish a base of operation and support in Rome for his new sphere of ministry in the west of the Empire….

Although the appropriateness of intercessory prayer is sometimes questioned by contemporary writers, the apostle expresses no doubts about its efficacy and its significance in the saving purpose of God. He clearly believed that God was in total control of people and events and that he could overrule the hostility of every opponent, unite disputing Christians, open the way for the gospel to be preached in new lands and grant the gift of faith in response to gospel preaching. Knowing God’s intention that the gospel should be heard in every place (cf. Rom. 1:5-6; 15:18-21), he made his plans to preach Christ where he had not already been named and submitted those plans boldly and directly to the sovereign will of God in prayer. Paul knew that God in his wisdom had decreed that his people should pray for his will to be done.

Thus believers were urged to pray that God would ‘open a door’ for the gospel, providing the apostle with a field in which to work, enabling him to ‘proclaim the mystery of Christ’, and to make it known as he ought (Col. 4:3-4, cf. Eph. 6:18-20). They were encouraged to pray that the word of the Lord might ‘spread rapidly and be honoured’ in other places as it did in their midst and that the apostolic team might be ‘delivered from wicked and evil men’ (2 Thess. 3:1-2). Such prayers were not merely an expression of commitment to the work of the gospel but a genuine calling upon God to act to fulfil his purposes in the ways outlined. Thus there is no escaping the centrality of intercessory prayer to Paul’s theology of mission.

Turning the Points of History: The Decisive Role of Prayer in Luke and Acts (Reformission Monday)

As I continue to seek to be “schooled in prayer” (as it is sometimes said), specifically as it relates to the work of Christian mission and ministry, I have learned much that has put fire and (what I hope is) power into my praying. I am currently reading through a collection of essays, edited by D.A. Carson, entitled Teach Us To Pray. One of the essays, written by M.M.B. Turner, examines the role of prayer in the Gospels (particularly Luke who emphasizes this theme) and Acts. Turner’s survey of the relevant passages regarding the ministry of Jesus and the subsequent mission of the apostles provides a view of prayer that is both fascinating and challenging as we think about what it means (for all Christians!) to be engaged in the spread of the gospel to all the nations:

Jesus’ exhortation to the disciples to pray the Lord of the harvest to send workers out into his harvest field (10:2) … expresses in teaching a theme … highlighted by [Luke’s] narrative: God’s sovereignty in bringing salvation and (simultaneously) man’s responsibility to pray concerning it. His special interest in this theme comes to relatively clear focus in the observation that Luke has a tendency specifically to mention human engagement in prayer at, or just before, what are quite clearly turning points in redemptive history. Thus it is while the whole people are praying (1:10; cf. 1:13) that the great announcement of the dawn of salvation is made to Zechariah; it is while Jesus is praying that the Spirit which empowers the proclamation of the good news descends upon him (3:21); it is after he prays that he chooses the twelve who were to become the core or foundation of the Israel of fulfilment (6:12); again, it is after he prays that they make the all-important confession of his messiahship (9:18); [it is] actually while he is praying that the disciples are afforded a glimpse of his End-time glory (9:28ff), and he prepares to 10 Pentecostestread the path towards Jerusalem and death; and it is after prayer in Gethsemane that he faces the ordeal of the cross. We shall notice that this theme is developed even more strongly in Acts.

The church in Acts is a church of prayer. To that extent, at the very least, the example of Jesus’ prayer-life is seen to have had its effect. Thus the church begins its post-resurrection life in prayer (1:14 [cf. 1:24]), and the first summary underscores the church as a praying community (2:42). The church naturally continues to offer God thanks over bread, as Jesus did, at the beginning of a meal (27:35), and its apostles attend the temple at the hours of prayer (3:1; cf. also 22:17 and 21:27ff). Prayer had become typical too in conversion-initiation, which can thus be described in the language of Joel 3:5 as ‘calling upon the name of the Lord’ (2:21; cf. 9:14,21; 15:17; 22:16). Mediatorial prayer, associated with laying on of hands, is also not uncommon. It is associated with this initial turning to God, especially in praying for Spirit-reception (8:15,17; 19:6); but it is also found in different types of commissioning (6:6; 13:3; 14;23), and in healing (9:11; 28:8)…. Prayer is not regarded merely as important, but as an apostolic priority; the seven are chosen so that the apostles will not be distracted from their prayer and their ‘service of the word’ (6:2-4)….

[P]erhaps the most commented-upon aspect of the prayer-motif in Luke-Acts appears in a more global overview of his handling of the them. What is striking is that at almost every important turning point in the narrative of God’s redemptive action we find a mention of prayer. Thus the choice of Matthias to replace Judas in the twelve, the foundation of the Israel of fulfilment, is preceded by prayer (1:24); it is while the 120 are gathered together in prayer (1:14) that the promise of the Spirit is fulfilled on the day of Pentecost; the martyrdom of Stephen which leads to the scattering of the church and the consequent spread of the Gospel (8:1,4; 11:19) was attended by prayer; Peter and John must pray before the Samaritans (the first converts outside the nation of Israel proper) can receive the Spirit as a seal of their acceptance of the Gospel proclaimed by Philip to them (8:14-17); immediately prior to his healing and baptism at the hands of Ananias, and thus at the beginning of his great God-given task, Paul is described as praying and receiving a fresh vision (9:11f.) — and a visionary experience in prayer in the temple later confirms his calling especially to the Gentiles (related at 22:17); Cornelius, the first Gentile to be converted in Luke’s account, receives, while he is praying, an angelic vision commanding him to send for Peter (10:30 — and in response to his earlier prayers [10:4]); and it is while Peter is praying that he receives the epochal vision of clean and unclean animals that opens the path for him to go to this and subsequent Gentiles with the Gospel (10:9f.; cf. 10:34f.). Similarly it is while the Antioch church is worshipping God in prayer and fasting that the Spirit indicates they should set aside Paul and Barnabas for what proves to be a decisive mission to Galatia (13:2-3), after which the Gentiles will form a major part in the church. The two missionaries are then commissioned with prayer (13:3). The theme is pursued with more restraint in the chapters which follow, but it remains clear.

Luke-Acts thus presents us with a bold double canvas of the early church in which the most significant redemptive-historical acts of God are portrayed as taking place in a context of prayer, revealed in advance to someone praying, or — in roughly half the instances — actually cast as the Lord’s response to his people’s prayer. This portrayal is never in danger of suggesting that the true initiative in salvation-history lies in believers, in their determination to pray for specific events to come to pass. God is only fulfilling what he long before promised. Such decisive acts of God as (e.g.) the descent of the Spirit on Jesus, on the disciples at Pentecost, and at Cornelius’s home, take place in a context of prayer, but not obviously as an immediate response to a specific request for the same.

Nevertheless, without answering questions of cause and effect, the whole tableau gives a unified picture of the close relationship between prayer and God’s decisive acts of salvation, right up to the parousia (Lk. 18:1ff.). Luke-Acts as a whole thus constitutes a powerful encouragement and prophetic call to the church to be a church of prayer: not just to pray for its own perseverance as the people of God under pressure in this age, and for salvation at the end … but for continual faithfulness in witness to the gospel now, and for fresh inbreakings of God’s grace and power now, such as point to the mercy, glory, and power of the ascended Lord until he comes. [M.M.B. Turner, “Prayer in the Gospels and Acts,” in Teach Us To Pray: Prayer in the Bible and the World, D.A. Carson ed. (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2002), 71-72, 74-75.]

If seeing how Luke portrays the significance of prayer in the world-altering events that he recounts does not provide us with a massive incentive to pray, I honestly do not know what else will! It is truly stunning to consider how God has determined to use the prayers of the saints to accomplish his redemptive purposes for the world. Although we may be left with questions as to how all of this works (divine sovereignty vs. human responsibility), Luke gives us no other option than to conclude that the prayers of the church are an integral, if not the central, component in the fulfilment of the Great Commission and the salvific plan of God.

I used to think of prayer as more of a preparation for the work of ministry and mission. Now I have come to realize that prayer is itself the work. To be sure, our work is not limited only to prayer, but it certainly cannot be carried out apart from prayer. When we are talking to God about people, we are not doing less than if we were talking to people about God. To the contrary: if only God can save, then what better use of our time can there be than in devoted, constant, passionate, and prevailing prayer on behalf of the world? In the sovereignty of God, the prayers of the saints constitute the turning points of history. May the Spirit grant to the church a renewed vigor in and commitment to the indispensable work of prayer for the sake of the nations and the glory of God!

“The Mouth By Whom We Speak to God”: John Knox on Praying on the Basis of Christ Alone

John Knox, from his “Treatise on Prayer” [The Select Practical Writings of John Knox (Edinburgh; Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 2011), 12-16]

[G]odly prayer requireth … the perfect knowledge of the advocate, intercessor, and mediator; for, seeing no man is himself worthy to compear, or appear in God’s presence, by reason that in all men continually resteth sin, which, by itself, doth offend the majesty of God, raising also debate, strife, hatred, and division betwixt his inviolable justice and55380_john_knox_lg us, for the which, unless satisfaction be made by another than by ourselves, so little hope resteth that any thing from him we can attain, that no surety may we have with him at all.

To [release] us from this horrible confusion, our most merciful Father, knowing that our frail minds should hereby have been continually dejected, hath given unto us his only beloved Son, to be unto us righteousness, wisdom, sanctification, and holiness. If in him we faithfully believe, we are so clad that we may with boldness compear and appear before the throne of God’s mercy, doubting nothing, but that whatsoever we ask through our mediator, that same we shall obtain most assuredly. Here, is most diligently to be observed, that without our mediator, forespeaker, and peace-maker, we enter not into prayer; for the incallings of such as pray without Jesus Christ are not only vain, but also, they are odious and abominable before God….

For he who honoureth not the Son, honoureth not the Father. For as the law is a statue that we shall call upon God, and as the promise is made that he shall hear us, so are we commanded only to call through Jesus Christ, by whom alone our petitions we obtain; for in him alone are all the promises of God confirmed and complete. Whereof, without all controversy, it is plain, that such as have called, or call presently unto God by any other mean than by Jesus Christ alone, do nothing regard God’s will, but obstinately prevaricate, and do against his commandments; and therefore, obtain they not their petitions, neither have entrance to his mercy; ‘for no man cometh to the Father’, saith Jesus Christ, ‘but by me.’ He is our leader, whom, unless we follow, we shall walk in darkness; and he alone is our captain, without whom, neither praise nor victory ever shall we obtain….

Who, then, shall here be found the peace-maker? Surely the infinite goodness and mercy of God might not suffer the perpetual loss and repudiation of his creatures; and therefore his eternal wisdom provided such a mediator, having wherewith to satisfy the justice of God — differing also from the Godhead: — his only Son, clad in the nature of manhood, who interposed himself a mediator; not as man only; for the pure humanity of Christ of itself might neither make intercession nor satisfaction for us; but God and man. In that he is God he might complete the will of the Father; and in that he is man, pure and clean, without spot or sin, he might offer sacrifice for the purgation of our sins, and satisfaction of God’s justice. For unless saints have these two, Godhead equal with the Father, and humanity without sin, the office of mediators saints may not usurp….

Mark well these words. John saith, ‘we have presently a sufficient advocate; whom Paul affirmeth to sit at the right hand of God the Father (Rom. 8): and to be the only mediator between God and man; for he alone, saith Ambrose, is our mouth, by whom we speak to God: he is our eyes, by whom we see God; and also our right hand, by whom we offer any thing unto the Father; who, unless he make intercession, neither we, neither any of the saints, may have any society or fellowship with God. What creature may say to God the Father, ‘Let mankind be received into they favour; for the pain of his transgression, that I have sustained in my own body; for his cause was I encompassed with all infirmities, and so became the most contemned and despised of all men, and yet, in my mouth was found no guile nor deceit; but always obedient to thy will, suffering most grievous death for mankind. And therefore, behold not the sinner, but me, who by my infinite righteousness have perfectly satisfied for his offences’? — May any other, Jesus Christ except, in these words make intercession for sinners?…

Some say, we will use but one mediator, Jesus Christ, to God the Father; but we must have saints, and chiefly the Virgin, the mother of Jesus Christ, to pray for us unto him…. Alas! whosoever is so minded, showeth himself plainly to know nothing of Jesus Christ rightly. Is he who descended from heaven, and vouchsafed to be conversant with sinners, commanding all sore vexed and sick to come unto him (Matt. 11), who, hanging upon the cross, prayed first for his enemies, become now so untractable, that he will not hear us, without a person to be a mean? O Lord open the eyes of such, that they may clearly perceive thy infinite kindness, gentleness, and love towards mankind.

Reversed Thunder: George Herbert’s Poetic Pictures of Prayer

While there is certainly a place for prosaic instructions in learning to pray, there is also much to fuel the fire of our praying in the power of poetic pictures. George Herbert’s classic poem “Prayer (I)” does precisely this. As much as I have gleaned from reading books on prayer, perhaps nothing has impacted my prayer life more than the rich imagery that Herbert provides in the staccatoed cadence of his most famous sonnet. In reading the poem below, we need to allow the imagery first to wash over us with its tidal force, and then we will dive deeper into the verbal palette with which Herbert paints differing yet complementary portraits of the mystery that we call prayer.

PRAYER the Churches banquet, Angels age,

Gebed van Daniel
Anneke Kaai, The Prayer of Daniel

Gods breath in man returning to his birth,

The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,

The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth;

Engine against th’ Almightie, sinner’s towre,

Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,

The six daies world-transposing in an houre,

A kinde of tune, which all things heare and fear;

Softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse,

Exalted Manna, gladnesse of the best,

Heaven in ordinarie, man well drest,

The milkie way, the bird of Paradise,

Church-bels beyond the stars heard, the souls bloud,

The land of spices, something understood.

In his book entitled Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God, Tim Keller (New York: Dutton, 2014) offers an excellent exposition of Herbert’s poem. On pages 28-32 he writes:

Prayer is “Gods breath in man returning to his birth.” Many who are otherwise skeptical or nonreligious are shocked to find themselves praying despite not even formally believing in God. Herbert gives us his explanation for that phenomenon. The Hebrew word for “Spirit” and “breath” is the same, and so, Herbert says, there is something in us from God that knows we are not alone in the universe, and that we were not meant to go it alone. Prayer is a natural human instinct.

Prayer can be “softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse”—the deep rest of soul that we need. It is “the souls bloud,” the source of strength and vitality. Through prayer in Jesus’ name and trust in his salvation we come as a “man well drest,” spiritually fit for the presence of the king. That is why we can sit down with him at “the Churches banquet.” Feasts were never mere feedings but a sign and means of acceptance and fellowship with the Host. Prayer is a nourishing friendship.

Prayer also is “a kinde of tune.” Prayer tunes your heart to God. Singing engages the whole being—the heart through the music as well as the mind through the words. Prayer is also a tune others can hear besides you. When your heart has been tuned to God, your joy has an effect on those around you. You are not proud, cold, anxious, or bored—you are self-forgetful, warm, profoundly at peace, and filled with interest. Others will notice. All “heare and fear.” Prayer changes those around us.

Prayer can be a “land of spices,” a place of sensory overload, of exotic scents and tastes—and a “milkie way,” a place of marvels and wonders. When that happens, prayer is truly of “Angels age,” an experience of timeless eternity. Yet no one in prayerhistory has found that “land of spices” quickly or easily. Prayer is also the “heart in pilgrimage,” and in Herbert’s time a pilgrim was someone who was engaged on a long, difficult, and exhausting trek. To be in pilgrimage is to have not yet arrived. There is a longing in prayer that is never fulfilled in this life, and sometimes the deep satisfactions we are looking for in prayer feel few and far between. Prayer is a journey.

Even in spiritually lean times, prayer can serve as a kind of heavenly Manna” and quiet “gladnesse” that keeps us going, just as the manna in the wilderness kept Israel moving toward its hope. Manna was simple food, especially savory, but hardly a banquet. Yet it sustained them wonderfully, a kind of travelers’ waybread that brought an inner endurance. Prayer helps us endure.

One reason for the arduousness is because true prayer is “the soul in paraphrase.” God does not merely require our petitions but our selves, and no one who begins the hard, lifelong trek of prayer knows yet who they are. Nothing but prayer will ever reveal you to yourself, because only before God can you see and become your true self. To paraphrase something is to get the gist of it and make it accessible. Prayer is learning who you are before God and giving him your essence. Prayer means knowing yourself as well as God.

Prayer is not all quiet, peace, and fellowship. It is also an “engine against th’ Almightie,” a startling phrase that clearly refers to the siege engines filled with archers that were used in Herbert’s day to storm a city. The Bible contains laments and petitions and pleadings, for prayer is rebellion against the evil status quo of the world—and they are not in vain, for they are as “church-bels beyond the stars heard” and indeed are “reversed thunder.” Thunder is an expression of the awesome power of God, but prayer somehow harnesses that power so that our petitions are not heard in heaven as whispers but as crack, boom, and roar. Prayer changes things.

Yet Herbert also states that prayer is a “sinner’s towre.” An arrogant spirit cannot rightly use the power of prayer’s siege engines. “Sinner’s towre” means that prayerful dependence on the grace of Jesus is our only refuge from our own sin. We cannot go into God’s presence unless we are dependent on Christ’s forgiveness and his righteousness before God, not on our own. Indeed, prayer is the “Christ-side-piercing spear.” When we pray for forgiveness on the basis of the sacrifice of Jesus on our behalf, grace and mercy come flowing down even as the spear in his side brought water and blood gushing out. Prayer is a refuge.

Though prayer is a kind of artillery that changes the circumstances of the world, it is as much or even more about changing our own understanding and attitude toward those circumstances. Prayer is “a kinde of tune” that transposes even “the six daies world.” The six days is not the Sabbath day of formal worship but the workweek of ordinary life. Yet the one “houre” of prayer completely transposes it all, as the transposition of a piece of music changes its key, tone, and timbre. Through prayer, which brings heaven into the ordinary, we see the world differently, even in the most menial and trivial daily tasks. Prayer changes us.

As plumb lines measured the depths of waters beneath boats, prayer is a “plummet sounding heav’n and earth.” That means it can plunge us by the power of the Spirit into the “deep things of God” (1 Cor 2:10). This includes the indescribable journey that georgeherbert-robertwhite-1674-704prayer can take us through the breadth, length, height, and depth of Christ’s saving love for us (Eph 3:18). Prayer unites us with God himself.

How does Herbert end this dazzling succession of word pictures? He concludes, surprisingly, that prayer is “something understood.” Many scholars have debated the apparent anticlimax of this great poem. It seems to be an “abandonment of metaphor … [yet] its final crowning.” After all the lofty images, Herbert comes down to earth. Through prayer “something”—not everything—is understood, and prayer’s conquests are indeed often modest. Paul says believers in this world see things only “in part,” just as the reflections in ancient mirrors were filled with distortions (1 Cor 13:12). Prayer, however, gradually clears our vision. When the psalmist was spiraling down into deadly despair, he went in prayer to “the sanctuary of God; then I understood” (Ps 73:17).

Prayer is awe, intimacy, struggle—yet the way to reality. There is nothing more important, or harder, or richer, or more life-altering. There is absolutely nothing so great as prayer.

May Herbert’s poem enrich and empower your prayer life as it has mine!

More Fearsome than an Army of 10,000 Men: John Knox and the Power of Prayer (Reformission Monday)

The following is excerpted from Douglas Bond, The Mighty Weakness of John Knox (Lake Mary, FL: Reformation Trust, 2011), Kindle Locations 370-427.

In 1909, on the four hundredth anniversary of the birth of John Calvin, civic and church leaders unveiled the Reformation Wall in Geneva, Switzerland. There stood Calvin and three other leading lights of the Reformation rising eighteen feet high along the ancient wall of the city. On Calvin’s far left stood John Knox, and chiseled in the wall next to him were the words Un homme avec Dieu est toujours Bans la majorite, or, “One man with God is always in the majority.”… Strictly speaking, in the history of redemption there never has been just one man with God. Elijah thought he was alone, but God told him there were seven thousand who had not bowed the knee to Baal (1 Kings 19:18). Knox had a host of antagonists, but many supporters as well. Few would dispute, however, that Knox was the man on whom the slings and arrows descended in the battle for Reformation in Scotland. What was it about Knox that made him so much the single man in a majority with God that mightyweaknessofjohnknox-temp_2011-01-31-1four hundred years after his life it was carved in stone in Geneva? No doubt it was many things, but perhaps chief among Knox’s God-given qualities was his sanctified understanding of his complete worthlessness unless he was on God’s side, unless he was with God. Knox never saw himself as inducing God to be on his side. He knew he had to be brought to a posture of submission to the will of God.

Furthermore, Knox knew there was only one conduit by which that could happen: “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10b). Put simply, Knox knew that without prayer he was “a dumb dog,” a watchdog with neither bark nor bite, of no use to anyone. Knowing this about himself, he humbled himself and fell to his knees, submitting his will, mind, and tongue to God in prayer. But unlike most of us, he did not do this only when things became unbearable. This was the pattern of his life. Those who knew him best called Knox “an eminent wrestler with God in prayer.” Most men are not. We think we can handle things; we believe we can do it on our own. Why do men drive around for hours rather than stop and ask directions? Asking directions forces us to admit that we don’t know where we are. We must admit our weakness, humble ourselves, and request help. Men don’t like doing this. Herein is the proof of Knox’s humility. He knew his profound weakness. He knew how lost he was. So he asked God for directions, and, hence, became the quintessential man of prayer.

In 1566, Knox prayed the following: “Thou has sealed into my heart remission of my sins, which I acknowledge and confess myself to have received by the precious blood of Jesus Christ once shed.” This, his confession of faith, was the foundation of his ministry and his confidence in his praying. This did not come naturally to Knox. He was not great in the pulpit, the public arena, or the closet by natural giftedness and self-confidence. He was giving an honest self-assessment when he said, “I have rather need of all than that any hath need of me.” Unpretentious Knox did not fake words like these to feign humility and thereby ramp up his approval rating ing with his congregation. By the grace of God, Knox was beyond such self-aggrandizement. He had a real sense of his own powerlessness, so he prayed earnestly for God’s power. As the apostle James wrote, “The prayer of a righteous person has great power” (5:16b). Humility showed Knox his great need of prayer, and his earnest praying brought down on him great power.

Words ascribed to Charles H. Spurgeon reveal the wide extent of that power: “When John Knox went upstairs to plead with God for Scotland, it was the greatest event in Scottish history.” Prayer was the engine that advanced Reformation in Scotland, and Knox was the foremost prayer warrior in the realm. Thus, when Knox felt overwhelmed by spiritual and political enemies, when all hope from earthly powers was exhausted, when all seemed lost for the gospel in Scotland, Knox prayed:

Seeing that we are now left as a flock without a pastor, in civil policy, and as a ship without a rudder in the midst of the storm, let Thy providence watch, Lord, and defend us in these dangerous days, that the wicked of the world may see that as well without the help of man, as with it, Thou art able to rule, maintain and defend the little flock that dependeth upon Thee.

Humble Christian that Knox was, he knew his great need of divine enabling, so he both prayed and sought the prayer support of others, something men in the flesh rarely do. Americans, schooled in Emersonian self-reliance, find asking for prayer an awkward, maybe even unnecessary, task. As noted above, seeking prayer is a tacit admission that we are not capable in ourselves, that we are desperately needy, that the arm of flesh is weak and ineffectual. Men don’t like owning up to these realities, but prayer itself, and awareness of our need of it from others, requires an honest admission of the facts. Knox was one who owned up to the facts about himself. Because of his candid acknowledgment of his great need, he sought the aid of the God of the universe, and one way he sought it was through the prayers of fellow believers. Empowered by the Almighty, Knox became the single most significant force to be reckoned with in an entire country. Yet it was not only Knox’s friends and supporters who appreciated the wide-ranging effect of his ministry of prayer. According to historian John Howie, Knox’s ardent enemy, the queen regent, Mary Guise, admitted that she was “more afraid of [Knox’s] prayers than of an army of 10,000 men.” If every Christian prayed like Knox, the Devil and his minions would melt like wax before the fire.

A Holy and Patient Violence: Martyn Lloyd-Jones on the Blessing of Unaswered Prayer

As I wrote in a recent post “I Will Not Let You Go Until You Bless Me“, the great preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones has helped to radically change my view of prayer, a discipline with which I have struggled to maintain consistency for most of my life. Revelatory to me was Lloyd-Jones’s interpretation of what it means to ask in prayer: not asking casually, infrequently, sporadically, or even just once or twice, but seeking and knocking, wrestling in prayer like Jacob with God who exclaimed, “I will not let you go until you bless me!” I jacobrealized that my lack of patience and perseverance in prayer was that I had misunderstood what it means to “ask” of God. This simple yet profound insight has since revolutionized my prayer life.

Later in the same collection of sermons, Joy Unspeakable, I happened upon another revelatory moment, a single phrase that struck me with the same thunderous force as before. Whereas previously Lloyd-Jones taught me that true “asking” in prayer involves importunate “seeking” and “knocking” until the door is opened, here he explains the reason for this and reveals the hidden blessing that comes when God does not (or seems not) to answer prayer.  Once again, the great Doctor penetrates into the biblical text and unearths a treasure that promises to enrich an impoverished life of prayer. In order to feel the impact of what Lloyd-Jones says, however, it is necessary to understand the wider context of the sermon. First we will consider Christ’s words in Luke 11:5-13, and then we will listen to Lloyd-Jones’s exposition:

And [Jesus] said to them, “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything’? I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs. And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

Now here is Lloyd-Jones:

Without an element of importunity and persistence, or urgency and almost a holy violence with God, we have little right to expect that God will hear our prayer and answer it. Indeed, as we have seen, in holding back the answer God is preparing us. He wants us to come to this place in which we realize we are indeed helpless and hopeless, and so become desperate and cry out to him…. I must of necessity add immediately that you must at the same time be patient. Now that sounds as if it is a contradiction; and yet it is not, because if we become impatient, then our spirit has gone wrong again. The fact that a man is urgent and importunate does not mean that he is impatient….

The combination of these two things works like this: your urgency is born of your consciousness of need and of the greatness of the blessing. But you are not impatient, because you have now come to see that you are entirely unworthy of this blessing, you are unfit for it. The moment you become impatient what you are really saying to God is that you deserve this, and that he should give it to you, and that he should not be keeping you waiting in this way. That is impatience and it is always wrong. That proves again, that you are not fit, and that you need to be prepared much further.

This is important because it is impatience that always leads people to give up. ‘It is no use,’ they say, ‘I have striven for many years.’ They really have a sense of grudge against God. They say to him, ‘I have done everything you have said but I have not had the blessing.’ The end, that is unspoken, is, ‘Why is God treating me like this?’ The answer is, because you are like that, because of your very impatience, because of your restlessness of spirit. So we must neither be impatient nor discouraged. The prayer at this point is,

Thy way, not mine, O Lord, [h]owever hard it be.

Or as another hymn puts it:

Nearer, my God, to Thee, [n]earer to Thee! E’en though it be a cross [t]hat raiseth me.

That is the prayer—one of utter submission, a desire to know God and his love, to be filled with his love, to be his servant, to live to his glory. You must say, ‘It is your way, not mine. I don’t know, I have lost confidence in myself and my understanding. I am leaving myself in your hands.’ Urgent, importunate, but not impatient and not discouraged….

It is he who gives this gift. He knows when to give it, when we are fit to receive it. All we can do is to long for it, yearn for it, cry out for it, keep on doing so and to be importunate. But above all we must leave ourselves unreservedly, and the great issue itself, entirely in his blessed and loving hands…. If you are in this position of seeking, do not despair, or be discouraged, it is he who has created the desire within you, and he is a loving God who does not mock you. If you have the desire, let him lead you on. Be patient. Be urgent and patient at the same time. Once he leads you along this line he will lead you to the blessing itself and all the glory that is attached to it….

The possibilities are there for any genuine child of God who longs to know the love of God in its fullness! Go on pleading. Go on asking.

O love divine, how sweet thou art! When shall I find my willing heart [a]ll taken up by Thee?

Go on offering that prayer, and in his own gracious good day he will grant you your heart’s desire, and you will begin to know that ‘joy unspeakable and full of glory’.[1]

There is so many profound insights here that it would certainly take more than a blog post to unpack them all! But I really only want to highlight the single phrase that left me thunderstruck: God is treating me like this because I am like that! Reading this, my gut reaction is to retort, in good British fashion, “Dr. Martyn, that’s a fairly cheeky statement!” How dare Lloyd-Jones tell me that God is treating me like…, oh wait, he’s right, I am like that!

The more I think about it, the more I am forced to admit that I am the one who is being cheeky with God. “Lord, I have prayed and prayed and prayed, and you haven’t answered. Why are you treating me like this?” And then in the ensuing silence, I hear a still small voice that lovingly yet reprovingly responds: “I am treating you like this because you are like that. By the very fact that you ask this question, you show me that you are not ready for the blessing for which you are asking. You need to learn to be content with having ME, apart from whatever answers you may or may not receive. Were I to give you what you want right now, then I would only be reinforcing the self-centered, impatient attitude with you have come to me in prayer. And if I did that, then you certainly would not become the kind of person that you need to be in order to faithfully steward the gift for which you ask.”

Lloyd-Jones has, by way of Scripture, exposed an ugly corner of my prideful heart. It smarts, it hurts, but it is the truth. It is my very impatience with God in prayer that indicates I am not ready for the answer that I am seeking. It is my willingness to give up, to let go of God before he blesses me, that reveals how untrustworthy I am to handle the very thing for which I am praying. Before God can give me the blessing that I seek (assuming here that the blessing that I seek is according to his will), I must be the kind of person who can be entrusted with that blessing, who will not turn around and use it for selfish or self-aggrandizing purposes.

The crucible of unanswered prayer develops in us, as Lloyd-Jones observes, a holy violence that is paradoxically marked by patience, a desperation with which we lay hold of God and refuse to let go, no matter how long it will take or how much it will cost. It is on the anvil of unanswered prayer that God forges us under the pounding hammer of his holy love into people who are fit for the blessing that he desires to bestow upon us. It is through the fire of unanswered prayer that our sinful dross is purged and our faith, endurance, and character are refined into pure gold. But until we have passed through that fiery trial (weeks, months, years?) and come out on the other side recreated in the image of God, we should not necessarily expect God to answer our prayers as we would expect. He is God, we are not, and ours jesus-praysis to submit to his will, obeying his command to importunately persevere in prayer, regardless of what happens, knowing that within his “no” to us there is hidden a resounding “yes”.

When we think we have asked God for a fish or an egg, it is more likely that we have asked him for a serpent or a scorpion, and as our loving heavenly Father, he refuses to give it to us. What we need is for him to change us so that we are able to recognize this! Perhaps, then, if unanswered prayer is the way that God makes us ever more desperate and dependent on him, transforming us ever more from glory to glory, drawing us ever deeper into fellowship and communion with him, might it not be the greatest blessing of all?

So let us pray with a holy and patient violence, as Jesus did in the garden of Gethsemane, even if it means that we sweat drops of blood. It is in arriving at the place where we can wholeheartedly confess, “Not my will, but yours be done”, that God begins to shower down upon us his most abundant blessings.

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[1] Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Joy Unspeakable: Power & Renewal in the Holy Spirit (Wheaton: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1984), pp.224-226, 231.

“I Will Not Let You Go Until You Bless Me!”: Martyn Lloyd-Jones on Praying with Importunity

In my personal devotions I have been reflecting much lately on prayer. Prayer is something that, if I am honest, has not been a consistent practice in my life. Not that I have neglected prayer; rather, as the great prayer warriors of history might say, I have not “prevailed” or “importuned” in prayer. Much of this stems from the fact that I have too much confidence in what I can accomplish in the flesh and far too little faith in what God will do in response to my prayers. At the same time, I confess that I have exercised very little patience even when I given myself to intense praying, disappointed by the apparent ‘lack of results’.

For people like myself (and I’m sure there are many!), passages like Luke 11:9-10 can be perplexing:

And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.

After praying for a while and not seeing tangible answers, I am left thinking: “I have asked but have not received! I have sought but not found! I have knocked but nothing was opened! What is wrong?”. Honestly, it is just sometimes easier to neglect prayer than to face this troubling question.

However, I have recently found much help from a sermon in which the great Welsh preacher D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones expounded this very passage. Lloyd-Jones’s insights struck me like a bolt of lightning and have since invigorated by fervency and constancy in prayer. He says:

Now many no doubt have had this perplexity with regard to the whole question of answers to prayer. There are statements in Scripture which seem to suggest that you only have to ask and you will receive. So people say, ‘But I have asked, and I have not received’, and they do not understand this. I am suggesting that the answer is that LLoyd-Jonesthere is a greater content to this word ‘asking’ than we tend to think, and our Lord suggests that, in varying the expression, ‘Ask; seek; knock.’

True asking, I am suggesting, is the knocking. In other words, asking does not mean a casual request. You suddenly feel like it and you make your request, then you forget all about it by the next morning. That is neither true asking, nor true seeking. In true asking there is a kind of urgency, there is a refusal to be content with anything less than the answer. That is where this knocking comes in. You do not merely shout from a distance, you go on and you approach nearer and nearer, and at last you are, as it were, hammering at the door.

This is clearly the teaching of Scripture itself. Our danger, all of us, is to reduce the great blessings of the Christian faith to some almost automatic process. I have often compared it to the slot machines into which you put your coin and draw out your chocolate or drink—there it is. That is simply not true in the Christian life. It is not true at all. There is this element of real seeking, ‘hunger and thirst’. ‘Blessed are they that do hunger and thirst after righteousness.’ That does not mean that in a service you wish you were living a better life and you would like to be better, or when you are at a funeral you feel the same thing, and then forget all about it and go back and live the same old life. No, hungering and thirsting after righteousness! ‘Asking; seeking; knocking!’

And as that is the teaching of the Scripture, you will find this abundantly confirmed in the testimonies and the experiences of people who testify to having received this great blessing. Many of them have had to strive sometimes for years before they have had this wonderful experience, and they say, furthermore, that looking back they can see that there difficulty was that their seeking was fitful—they would do it in spasms and then forget all about it. Then they would come back to it, and then forget about it again. But then they reached a point at which they became desperate, and like Jacob of old they, as it were, said, ‘I will not let thee go except thou bless me.’ Now that is the thing, typified once and for ever in that great story of Jacob. And it has been repeated so often in the lives and the testimonies of people.

The trouble with us is we are all half-hearted about this. Our Lord is speaking here about importunity…. So that if we just almost casually, as it were, ask God for this blessing and nothing happens, we must not blame God. We have not fulfilled the conditions, and have not really asked. Do not forget—’Ask; seek; knock.’ Importunity! ‘I will not let thee go!’… God is our Father and he does not give us the blessing we want immediately, always. Thank God he doesn’t. We would never grow up if he did, and this is part of our whole process of sanctification. By withholding the blessing God searches us, examines us, makes us examine ourselves, and realize the terms and the conditions, and he deepens the whole of our spiritual life.

This again is something that the generation to which we belong is tending to forget. We are a people who always desire some short cuts, some easy method, some kind of ‘package’ blessing. And that is one of the great differences between the Christian literature of this present century and of the Christian church up to about the middle of the last century. People would seek a blessing for years before they received it. But there was a purpose in it all; God was dealing with them and leading them along a given path. You will never know the heights of the Christian life without effort. You have to strive for these things—there is a seeking, knocking, and an importunity. And it is because so many have missed that element that they get into confusion at this point.[1]

Although I might quibble a bit with some of the things that Lloyd-Jones says here (in good Torrancean fashion I would want to frame the ‘conditionality’ of prayer more in terms of Christ’s vicarious intercession for us), his fundamental point is incisive and illuminating: “there is greater content to this word ‘asking’ than we tend to think”. The problem lies not with God, nor with the promise that he has made us in Christ about responding to to us when we ask. The problem is that we have not truly asked! Asking in prayer is not making “causal” or “fitful” requests every now and again; it is importunate seeking and knocking! It is Jacob refusing to let go of God until he received God’s blessing! It is that relentless zeal to prevail, as Jacob did, even if it means wrestling all through night!

This is, of course, not meant to give hope to our selfish desires. In the context of Luke 11, Jesus is specifically speaking about the blessing of the Holy Spirit. Yet Lloyd-Jones reminds us that truly asking for the Spirit in prayer, and for all of the blessings promised us by God in the name of Christ, does not consist a sporadic or infrequent affair. It is the determined resolution of Jacob wrestling with God, of the woman demanding justice from the unjust judge, of the man requesting bread from his friend in the middle of the night, until God grants what he has promised. It may takes days, weeks, months, or even years, but this is what it means to truly ask of God. We ask by seeking and knocking until the door is opened to us, and by not giving up until it does so.

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[1] Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Joy Unspeakable: Power & Renewal in the Holy Spirit (Wheaton: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1984), pp.166-169.

 

The Urgent Task of Waiting: Blumhardt and Barth on the World-Shaking Power of Patient Expectancy (Reformission Monday)

Reformission Monday is the time when I pause from writing in reformission to reflect on reformission itself. Reformission aims at fulfilling the church’s commission through reformation and renewal, bringing the gospel of Jesus Christ to bear on every sphere of human thought, speech, and life. Reformission thus proceeds on the basis of the deep and unbreakable unity between didache and kerygma, between Evangel and evangelism, between message and method, between the Word enfleshed, written, and proclaimed.

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On 15 February, the Gospel Coalition blog featured a fantastic article by missionary Josh Manley entitled “Be Patient, Missions Is Urgent“. If you have not read this article, please go and do so right now! Manley cuts against the grain of the tendency, common to most missionaries, to pursue their vocation through a back-breaking busyness carried out at a neck-breaking pace. Against this, Manley wisely reminds us that it is precisely because the missionary task is so urgent that “it demands men and women with the patience to commit to God’s means in order to accomplish God’s ends”. This is so true. How often we think (regardless of what we might say) that it really is the quantity of our time and the quality of our work upon which the spread of the gospel depends! It is obvious what we truly believe by what we actually do. More energy devoted to “doing for God” rather than “waiting on God” reveals that our trust really reposes on ourselves rather than on God.

This is something about which I am becoming increasingly convicted in my own life and to which I am seeking to dedicate more concentrated effort: the urgent task of waiting on God. As one of Karl Barth’s formative influences, Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt, knew, waiting on God does not mean inactivity or indolence but rather the arduous cultivation of a humble expectancy on the power of God in Christ and through the Spirit that disparages any presumption on our part to be able to usher in the kingdom of God through our best and most well-intentioned labors:

Christ is the beginning and the end of God’s kingdom. Therefore we can say with all confidence and certainty, “The Savior will come again!” He is bound to complete his work, and it is our task simply to be servants until his return, to be in the service of him who is coming. We are, as it were, to represent by our lives the coming of Jesus Christ. We must not, therefore, be so concerned and active, or make such tremendous efforts, as though we were able to achieve the victory of good on this earth. This, of course, we are quite incapable of doing. Only the Lord Jesus can bring it about, he who came a first time and is going to come again a second time. He will complete it – not 1456946697we. If we are loyally and firmly set upon this – “He will come again” – then the gospel of the kingdom will become personal and living to us. We must never separate this gospel from Christ’s person. Without his personal presence, no talking about the gospel, no talking about his coming kingdom, is of any value at all.

So we must be prepared for the coming of Jesus Christ, which is not only something in the future but a present reality in those who wait for it in their hearts. We are to be servants watching for his return. Not that we get everything nicely arranged for ourselves, but we can and we must postpone our main concerns until he comes. His servants have a twofold task: they are to wait for him in the sense of being active and doing something, and they are to be stewards. The waiting for the Savior involves a personal relationship to him as to a living person, making the gospel living and relevant. There are many people who are always waiting for something new in Christianity, as if something could be achieved through a new faith or a new church. We leave all that alone. We hold fast to the promise of a personal Savior, whom God will send as he has sent him before. And we know that we as persons are quite unable to lead a faithful life unless our Savior is personally with us…

“‘I am the beginning and the end,’ says the Lord.” Do we believe that? Believing is one thing, but getting down to living it out – that is something else. Let each one of us be earnest with himself and get off his soft bed. Even if it costs you your life, go right in, into the thick of the fight! Jesus is alive, and Jesus is victor, and he has given us our part to carry out. But as we do our part, let us not forget that what finally matters is God’s deeds, not ours. “With God we shall do valiantly!” (Ps. 108:13) This was said by David, who went to war without putting his trust in weapons. Sad to say, our faith does not bring about such deeds. The only kind of deed of God we know is something like founding an institution without the necessary money. If, after energetic begging, the money comes in, we call this a deed of God! This, and other things like it, are all that we know. These, however, are our deeds, not the deeds of God. They are all right, but we have to admit that they are but a makeshift solution until God comes and intervenes. To hope for deeds of the kingdom – that is faith. We must be beggars in the kingdom of God and not go away from the door until we have been given something from God. And we really need drastic deeds of God.[1]

Servants, stewards, warriors, beggars. This is all that we are or can ever be in the cause of Christ. We work, we fight, we sweat, we bleed, but ultimately we trust not in our working or fighting or sweating or bleeding but only in that of Jesus Christ. This goes against every arrogant fiber of our fallen human nature that seeks every opportunity to exalt itself at the expense of dependency on God. Yes, even missionaries are guilty of this! We want to be capable of peforming drastic deeds for God rather than waiting for drastic deeds from God! But alas, we are not capable of such deeds, and until we are crucified with Christ so that we abandon all confidence in our own efforts and fervently beseech the Lord of the harvest to act, we are ultimately doomed to labor in vain. Thus, Karl Barth comments:

But how shall all this [new creation] become reality? Blumhardt has two answers: the one he gives to God, “Only you, O God, can help, none other!” The other he gives to us, “Ask. Ask and you shall receive. And in asking we share in, we help with, the new creation.” Blumhardt sees the coming kingdom being prepared in a double movement in heaven and on earth, and the actual decision lies not in the visible but in the invisible world. If something new is to arise on earth, God ultimately has to do it, but young-barth-1for our part we can sow truth and justice. In quite a natural way, therefore, Blumhardt comes to a concept that is very important to him – the biblical concept of the little flock, God’s Zion, who gather around Christ not for their own salvation but for the redemption of the world. They are to represent God’s cause, God’s future, in a special way. Gathering and waiting fit hand in glove.

What will such people have to do? One thing above all: to know and to become deep and firm in the knowledge that “our actual doing must come from the strength of God.” Such people are best described by what they do not do. This attitude – quiet, eagerly expectant, and directed toward God – is what Blumhardt calls “waiting.” It would be good not to pass lightly over the profound depth of what he means by this, because all too often a comfortable sort of nonsense is made out of this concept. Blumhardt’s meaning is that waiting, although turned inward at first, is in its essence revolutionary: “Lord God, make new! Make us new!” To act – to “wait” – means just the opposite of sitting comfortably and going along with the way things are, with the old order of things. For Blumhardt, divine and human action are closely interlocked, not in a mechanical but in an organic sense. It is our calling, our task in everyday life, that people can see the Savior through us. When we “hasten and wait” toward God like this, the consummation is prepared, coming from God himself. Out of what is now present, and in those who live expectantly in the power of God, the future is built up quietly and inconspicuously. When will it finally appear? What is needed for this to happen in an outer way? Such questions are irrelevant. For those who await God’s coming, behind everything lies the great future of God.[2]

As I read this, one phrase in particular stands out to me and cuts me to the quick: “Such people [that is, such people who are truly useful in the kingdom of God] are best described by what they do not do”. Obviously, there is a bit of hyperbole here to make a point. Barth is clear that “waiting” does not mean that we “sit comfortably”. Yet it does mean that we do not become so immersed in doing work for God that we neglect time better spent in waiting on God. Ideally, we would desire to be able to do both simultaneously: work while waiting, wait while working. However, for many like myself, it is extremely difficult to cultivate an attitude of waiting while drowning in work. This means that, at least for me, I need to set aside more concentrated time for learning to wait on God, primarily through extended and uninterrupted periods of prayer, fasting, and meditating on his Word. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak, and I must mortify the latter in order to vivify the former. I am growing increasingly convinced that my best work as a missionary will be accomplished on my knees. If I truly believe that my work is really God’s work and will be effective only when it is done through his power, then why would I not dedicate the most time, not to talking about him to others (as important as that is) but to talking about others to him?

I would like to conclude with an anecdote recounted in the biography of John Hyde, an American missionary to India who was often called “praying Hyde” or “apostle of prayer”. His biographer notes that the impact of his incredible commitment to prayer extended far beyond the amazing results seen in his own ministry:

Behold how much was wrought in the life and work of one lady missionary. She had worked hard for many years in her district, and none of the work there was bearing real fruit. She read the account of Mr. Hyde’s prayer-life, and resolved to devote the best hours of her time to prayer and waiting on God in the study of His Lord and will. She would make prayer primary, and not secondary as she had been doing. She would begin to live a prayer-life in God’s strength. God had said to her: “Call upon Me, and I will show thee great and mighty things. You have not called upon Me, and therefore you do not see these things in your work.” She writes: “I felt that at any cost I must know Him and this prayer-life, and so at last the battle of my heart was ended and I john-hyde-5had the victory.” One thing she prayed for was that God would keep her hidden. She had to face being misunderstood and being dumb and not opening her mouth in self-defense if she was to be a follower of the Lamb.

In less than a year she wrote a letter, and oh, what a change! New life everywhere—the wilderness being transformed into a garden. Fifteen were baptized at first, and one hundred and twenty-five adults during the first half of the following year! “The most of the year has been a battle to keep to my resolution. I have always lived so active a life, accustomed to steady work all day long, and my new life called for much of the best part of the day to be spent in prayer and Bible study. Can you not imagine what it was and what it is sometimes now? To hear others going around hard at work while I stayed quietly in my room, as it were inactive. Many a time I have longed to be out again in active work among the people in the rush of life, but God would not let me go. His hand held me with as real a grip as any human hand, and I knew that I could not go. Only the other day I felt this again and God seemed to say to me, ‘What fruit had ye in those things whereof ye are now ashamed?’ Yes, I knew I was ashamed of the years of almost prayer-less missionary life. “Every department of the work now is in a more prosperous condition than I have ever known it to be. The stress and strain have gone out of my life. The joy of feeling that my life is evenly balanced, the life of communion on the one hand and the life of work on the other, brings constant rest and peace, I could not go back to the old life, and God grant that it may always be impossible.”

Another year passed, and she wrote again: “The spirit of earnest inquiry is increasing in the villages and there is every promise of a greater movement in the future than we have ever yet had. Our Christians now number six hundred in contrast with one sixth of that number two years ago (before she began the prayer-life and gave herself to it). I believe we may expect soon to see great things in India. Praise for His hourly presence and fellowship!”[3]

May God give us the strength, as he did to these his servants, to practice the difficult discipline of waiting on God. The need of the world is immense, and the task of missions is urgent, so let’s get busy waiting!

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[1] Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt, Action in Waiting (Walden/Robersbridge/Elsmore: Plough Publishing House, 2012), pp. 15-18, 33-34. Kindle Edition.

[2] Karl Barth, “Afterword” in Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt, Action in Waiting (Walden/Robersbridge/Elsmore: Plough Publishing House, 2012), pp. 145-6. Kindle Edition.

[3] E.G. Carre (ed.) Praying Hyde (Alachua: Bridge Logos, 1982), pp. 33-34. Kindle Edition.