There is nothing more human than prayer. When we look into the heart of God we find that his purpose for humankind before the world ever began was that we should have communion with each other and with him. It is only when we pray that we are truly human because it is only as we pray that we can truly discover, get to know and commune with God. Prayer is our very life-breath as humans. If life is not shared with someone it is dead: ‘This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God.’ (John 17:3)
Living day by day requires that we interact and have relationships with other people. We need to talk together because it is as we talk that relationships develop. If we never communicate with anyone else we are not really living. If we never communicate with God we are not fulfilling what it means to be human; we are not reaching our potential as sharers in the divine life, the great destiny that God has always had in his heart for us. Life that lasts forever and does not die is a life spent communicating with God and sharing with one another as we get to know him both individually and corporately. Thus the Christian life subsists in prayer.
The Apostle Paul encourages us to ‘pray without ceasing’ (1 Thessalonians 5:17). This certainly does not mean that there is no place for ‘seasons’, ‘sessions’ or ‘times’ of prayer. Some people seem to think that to pray without ceasing means to dream along and hope that you are in touch with God and thus do without a specific time to sit down and talk to him.That is not true. Jesus had times of prayer, as we see if we look at Luke 11:1. However, when he had finished his time of prayer, he was still talking to the Father inwardly in his heart. It is very exciting to realise at the end of the day that everything you have been doing has been in the sight of the Lord. In every moment, in every circumstance, you have been turning to him, not necessarily using conscious thoughts, but just being open to him, rather like a friend who is so familiar that you don’t always need to use words to communicate. That is how Paul can enjoin us to ‘pray without ceasing’, but this does not exclude the times we set aside particularly to spend with the Father.
Corporate times of prayer are also important. When we pray together we stimulate each other and because we are part of the same body (Romans 12:5) we function better in co-operation.We tend to learn best when we learn with others. Similarly, we often pray most effectively when we pray with others. It is when we come together in agreement that we find more power in our prayers (Matthew 18:19). So, as we look more deeply into these areas we shall, hopefully, find out more about what it means to be truly human, truly Christian, truly divine images and truly a reflection of what God intended his church to be. This involves both praying on our own and in a group.
But why should we pray?
The earliest mention of human beings in the Bible is in Genesis 1:26: ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness.’ From this statement we learn something about God and something about humans made in his image. God is a God who talks, reflects and shares within the community of the Trinity. Within the union of the Godhead Father, Son and Holy Spirit are constantly communicating with one another, a wonderful Triune God! Thus prayer, divine communication, starts in the Trinity. The Father talks to the Son, the Son asks the Spirit, the Spirit puts it back to the Father and so on in an eternal interaction of love.
Human beings are made in God’s image. Thus we too need to communicate. This is where prayer starts: ‘Let Us make man in Our image!’ We talk to God because he talks. John 1:1 says ‘In the beginning was the Word’ – not ‘truth’ or ‘holiness’ but ‘the Word’. God speaks. That is why he likes us to talk to him: it is the first reflection of who he is.
God goes on to say ‘and let them rule . . .’ (Genesis 1:26) because God is also a God who rules and has dominion and his will gets done! But before we can ‘rule and subdue the earth’, before we can do the job we were commissioned by God to do,we have to begin by imitating and following God’s first revealed characteristic – communication by prayer. We have to pray because we are made in God’s image and it is part of our creatorial function.We are meant to communicate because God is a communicating God. There is a discipline in silence, but there is no discipline in non-communication.
When God speaks to Job and says, ‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Now gird up your loins like a man, and I will ask you, and you instruct Me!’ (Job 38:2–3) he is teasing Job. After all, if we take ourselves too seriously when we suffer, we tend to suffer twice as much. If we are able to laugh at ourselves we alleviate some of the pain. It is as if the Lord is saying to Job, ‘Come along now, you are acting like a growling animal! Talk properly with me like a man!’ ‘Gird up your loins!’ is like ‘Stand on your feet!’This is one of the most important things about human beings: we can stand on our feet; we are bipeds. We are the only creatures who have been made able to stand, to look up, to talk face-to-face. That is how we talk to God and to one another. We were made to be talking animals. No other animals talk – even the communicative ability of the highly intelligent dolphin could not be called ‘speech’. Only humans have mouths that can articulate. The major part of humankind’s thinking is done through words and if we were not able to speak we would not be so able to articulate ideas, concepts, or any of the deep things in our spirits. Therefore talking to God, communication, is the beginning of being ‘like’ God.
God’s desire for humankind was not only that we would communicate but that we would have communion with him. That peaceful communion was broken in the Garden of Eden:
They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.Then the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?’
God was seeking to talk to Adam and Eve.We need to learn to pray and respond to God because he is still saying to us, ‘Where are you?’
We would not want to pray or break out of the defensive ‘castles’ that we build around ourselves to keep people out if God was not constantly seeking us. He is trying to have communion with us and that is why we want to communicate back! Even when we do not quite know how to turn to God, or where to find him, it is the very fact that he is seeking us that ensures we have desire for him in our hearts. The psalmist sounds as if he wants to hide from God:
Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend to heaven,You are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, behold,You are there. If I take the wings of the dawn, if I dwell in the remotest part of the sea, even there Your hand will lead me, and Your right hand will lay hold of me.
His words reflect awareness that God is ‘after him’. Those who say ‘Where is God?’ in an attempt to disprove him do not seem to realise that the question itself implies some indication of his existence – otherwise why look for him in the first place? God is after us, and the fact that he is seeking us is a great hope, the very means of bringing us into communion with him.
In Genesis we see God at the very beginning of humankind’s history, walking with humankind in the garden. That communion is brought to perfection in John 17, where Jesus demonstrates his communion with his Father in prayer. There is something very wonderful about this. In John 17:3–8 the Lord says to his Father:
This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent. I glorified You on the earth, having accomplished the work which You have given Me to do. Now, Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was. I have manifested Your name to the men whom You gave Me out of the world; they were Yours and You gave them to Me, and they have kept Your word. Now they have come to know that everything You have given Me is from You; for the words which You gave Me I have given to them; and they received them and truly understood that I came forth from You, and they believed that You sent Me.
Can you picture this incredible scene? In the upper room, where the disciples were gathered for their last farewell with the Lord, they hear him talking to his Father. As he speaks it is as though he is reaching out his arms and pulling them into the conversation. He is talking about them! They don’t say anything – it is too awe-inspiring.They are witnessing the Father and the Son in communion and as they interact together the disciples are drawn into the deepest and most intimate place of relationship within the Godhead: the very heartbeat of God. As we get closer to our Lord Jesus he takes us nearer to the heart of God. And we in turn go deeper and deeper into their communion until we find that the energy of God’s communion begins to overtake us.
This is what Paul meant when he wrote ‘the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words’ (Romans 8:26). The Holy Spirit takes the mind of God and begins to put it inside us because we have been listening to God’s heart, getting caught up in his kind of praying. When that happens we know we are beginning to pray about the right things! Communion with God is one reason we must pray. Communion is essential if we want to get into that wonderful place at the heart of the universe where we can listen to Father and Son sharing together and be drawn into that same life of prayer.
We should pray because we are commanded to! Jesus tells us to ‘pray and not give up’ (Luke 18:1–8). He is not necessarily saying ‘pray without ceasing’, as Paul does, but he does mean that we ought to feel able to bring to God in prayer every little thing that comes up in our lives. Moreover, we should never grow weary until we receive an answer.
Paul also exhorts us in these same terms: ‘Rejoice always’; ‘Pray without ceasing’; ‘In everything give thanks!’; ‘Do not quench the Spirit’ (1 Thessalonians 5:16–19). We are commanded to pray and not give up! Jesus thought it was important; Paul thought it was important. If we are constantly giving thanks and rejoicing we will find it easier to pray without ceasing! Paul often puts prayer and thanksgiving together in his letters because when we don’t take God’s goodness for granted but remain thankful for all that he gives us this naturally flows out in prayer to him. Romans 1:21 warns us that the product of an ungrateful heart is foolishness and ungodliness. It is as we remain thankful that we remain prayerful.
‘God does nothing,’ said John Wesley, ‘except by prayer.’ We may be inclined to think this an overstatement – it is obviously true that God keeps the whole universe running without anybody praying and asking him to do it! But when it comes to extending his kingdom into all things he does not enforce this on his own initiative, regardless of our involvement! He seeks the co-operation of the section of humanity that he has redeemed and to whom he can entrust his work. God works co-operatively. He is not into do-it-yourself! Instead, he seeks to share with his people so that together we can get things done. Wesley was not wrong.
It is only as we pray that God co-operates with us to get his will done.That is why he taught us to pray ‘Your kingdom come.Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’ (Matthew 6:10). How is God going to get heavenly things done on earth if we do not pray? We must break out of passive theology that says that God will do what he likes whenever, wherever, whether we pray about it or not. He won’t! He chooses to work together with his children. He does not break in and make his children do things they don’t want to do! Instead, he asks us to pray so that we can do things together. The Lord will have ideas that he will drop into our hearts and we will have some that we can offer up to him! The initiative may come from God, or it may be ours, but we work together.We are working not so much for God as with him! Amos says, ‘Surely the Lord God does nothing unless He reveals His secret counsel to His servants the prophets’ (Amos 3:7). Prophets pray or preach what they receive from God. No wonder God does little if the church does not pray, listen and respond!
Moses actually changed God’s mind through prayer (Exodus 32:11–14). This is possible. Moses turned to the Lord and said:
O Lord, why does Your anger burn against Your people whom You have brought out from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians speak, saying, ‘With evil intent He brought them out to kill them in the mountains and to destroy them from the face of the earth’? Turn from Your burning anger and change Your mind about doing harm to Your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel.
God knew, of course, that he had brought Israel out of Egypt with a mighty hand. He didn’t need to be reminded. God knew that the Egyptians would say he had allowed his people to be destroyed in the wilderness. But he needed somebody to take up the point with him! God works through co-operation. We must take up what we know about God in his presence so that he can see that we are sharing in who he is and what he does. Moses’ prayer showed extraordinary insight into the character of God. He knew that God did not want to give up on his people. He knew that God wanted to vindicate them before the nations. He knew that in his anger the Lord would remember mercy, relent, and not carry out his threat of destruction. So Moses reminded God that he is merciful and showed God that he wanted to co-operate with him in that mercy. As we pray like this God is achieving his ultimate purpose of getting us to understand and work together with him. Then he can act according to his will.
Don’t be afraid that this limits God’s power – it is simply the way he has chosen to run the universe. It is his desire to move in conjunction with his people. God is not love for his own sake. Love is for the other person. God is love for the creatures that he has made. How could it be otherwise? And so God heard Moses’ prayer and instead of destroying the children of Israel he enabled them to go on travelling in the desert for another thirty-eight years.
In Matthew 9:36–38 the Lord looked around at the people and saw them as sheep without a shepherd. He saw them lying down, distressed and under pressure, and because he was moved with compassion he called on his disciples to pray. ‘Therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest,’ he said. It was out of compassion for the ‘lostness’ of the people that Jesus prayed and encouraged his disciples to pray. Even if we do not care about praying for our own sakes we must keep praying for other people’s sakes! Let compassion move you to pray for others and to see their needs. Pray because people need to be loved and because you love them and want them to be blessed. In James 4:2–3 the Lord’s brother reminds us that we ‘do not have because [we] do not ask’, or if we do ask we ask wrongly, from wrong motives. Self-interest often gets in the way of our praying. It is far easier to pray believingly for someone else’s problems than it is for our own. We can pray and have faith for healing for other people when we have very little faith for our own.Why? Because there is nothing more altruistic than praying for others out of compassion. We need to pray without self-interest, but with lots of compassion!
We have to pray in order that we might continue with the Lord. If we do not pray we will not go on with God. In John 15 Jesus uses the magnificent description of himself as the ‘vine’ and his disciples as the branches. It is in this context that fruit is to be brought forth through pruning.
Jesus goes on to speak about the necessity of pruning so that there is ‘much fruit’ (John 15:2,8). The question is, what kind of fruit are we talking about? Most people would say that it is the life of Jesus in the believer, the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. However, the Apostle Paul had not yet written that! The ‘fruit’ is not just a general type of fruit of the life of Jesus working in a person; nor is it the fruit of evangelism, which is another kind of biblical fruit (bringing in the harvest is to bring in the fruit from evangelistic outreach – Matthew 9:37–38).
The best way to begin to interpret anything is to look into the text itself and see what it says.The fruit in this passage is already defined (John 15:7–8):
If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples.
What, then, is ‘the fruit’? The fruit is: ‘ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this . . .’ The fruit is praying and receiving an answer, talking to God and seeing things change.
In case we are not quite convinced we can go to the only other place where there is a definition of the fruit, John 15:16. ‘You did not choose Me but I chose you, and appointed you that you would go and bear fruit, and that your fruit would remain, so that whatever you ask of the Father in My name He may give to you.’This is the fruit – answered prayer!
If we do not keep asking and receiving answers then the pruning will cease and the branch will be taken away.The Lord’s warning to us is clear.We need to go deeper and deeper in prayer, learning how to ask for something and how to receive it.
There is a story of an old country chapel. An erudite new preacher came to visit. He was given the opportunity to preach. Before he began he decided to pray. His prayer went all around the houses from the North Pole to the South Pole, explaining current world situations, applying complex theology to them, and quoting obscure Scriptures. The preacher was merely talking to God about things God knew already! While he was still in full flight the old farmer who locked and unlocked the chapel each week stood up at the back and called out: ‘Here Mister! Why don’t yer call ’im Father and ask ’im for summet?’ This is what real praying is – calling on the Father and asking him for something. As our prayers are answered we grow up with God and are encouraged in our faith.
Jude 20–21 confirms this teaching:
But you, beloved, building yourselves up on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting anxiously for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to eternal life.
In other words, we build up and deepen our relationship with God as we continue to pray. We are going to be presented before his throne ‘blameless, with great joy’ (verse 24) because we have continued and kept going. How have we continued and kept going? By building ourselves up, praying in the Holy Spirit.
Finally, we must pray because praying is the way of doing battle, of confrontation, of driving the enemy out. There is an element of praying that is aggressive and war-like. Mark 11:22–23 tells us that if there are mountains in our way it is time that we commanded them to go and throw themselves into the sea:‘Truly I say to you, whoever says to this mountain,“Be taken up and cast into the sea,” and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says is going to happen, it will be granted him.’ Jesus goes on to say (verse 24) ‘all things for which you pray and ask, believe that you have received them, and they will be granted you’. Looking at a mountain and telling it to jump into the sea is prayer. If you face your problem, declare it out of the way, believing that it will go, that is praying, even though you are not directly addressing God. You are speaking towards the mountain, but
you are actually talking to God, or talking before him in his presence.
Some people make a great deal of fuss about this. They say, ‘You shouldn’t really talk to the difficulties, you shouldn’t address the devil or demons.’Nevertheless, casting out a demon is a type of praying! In the book of Jude we see that ‘Michael the archangel, when he disputed with the devil and argued about the body of Moses, did not dare pronounce against him a railing judgment, but said, “The Lord rebuke you!”’ (verse 9). There is not much to choose between saying, ‘Lord, rebuke the devil!’ and saying, ‘Out, devil, in Jesus’ name!’ There is no real difference, for both prayers call on the Lord and appeal to God in his power to deal with the demon. Calling upon God to exert his power on our behalf is the only way to confront some situations. If you confront these situations without God there is no hope. Confront them with God and ‘all things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive’ (Matthew 21:22).
Alternatively, look at Ephesians 6:11–12:
Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.
We come into this realm and begin to attack only through prayer and speaking God’s word.We know that the Father is listening as we declare Jesus’ name to break the spiritual strongholds and as we take up the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. How? Through prayer! The answer, then, to our chapter’s question is that we must pray to be truly human, to know God, to obey him, to co-operate with him, to bring forth fruit and to oppose evil.