Series Theme: Looking at Prayer Afresh
Phase Two : Thinking into the Issues
Title: 8. Confident Asking: A Nail in the Coffin of Unbelief
As I have reread the previous pages in this series, I still sense that there is a central thrust that needs even more emphasis and so this page seeks to add that.
Proposition: Many expressions of the modern church prayer meeting are, in reality, expressions that verge on unbelief, and we therefore need to look afresh at the heart of prayer and then pray in line with what we learn through that – that corporate prayer is all about finding the will of God and then doing it.
1. Concerns about Unbelief
a) Unbelief in Low Expectations
Be fair, many church prayer meetings are NOT the picture of a cauldron of faith. I agree with the church leader who wrote: “Some churches are being vacated not because people are abandoning God, but rather are looking for him, and have given up hope of finding him in what have become temples of the tedious. The exodus from church happens, not necessarily because of doctrine but dullness.”
Faith is not boring! Working with God is not boring? Listening to God is not boring! But so often our prayer meetings are – if only we'd have the courage to be honest and say so.
But there's an even more worrying concern about church prayer meetings and that is, I'm sure, that they are often bastions of unbelief or, at best, zones of passive faith (which I'll explain later) called to appease our consciences and minister in a therapeutic way to our ‘self'.
What are the expectations of the average church goer who attends a church prayer meeting? I suggest the following two likely options (which we'll refer to again later) for consideration:
In the first one, the focus is on us praying, but in the second one it is all about being led by God and responding to God. I dare risk saying that sometimes the first one should be described as godless. The differences may also be observed in terms of outcomes:
In the first one, the people leave with a satisfied sense of having off-loaded a bunch of concerns to God (and they may genuinely be so), and maybe with the hope that some things will change.
In the second one the people leave with a sense of having encountered the Lord, of having been in the heavenly realms, of having received heavenly revelation and direction, and of going out into the world with a freshly built sense of faith with the expectance of seeing the Lord moving to achieve His declared will.
I dare not hazard a guess at how many churches fit into each group, but I suspect it is many more in the first one than the second one. Let's consider this matter of expectations from a slightly different perspective.
b) Unbelief in Over Confidence
Now there appear to me to be two extremes in modern Christian circles. The first extreme comprises those people who have little or no confidence in the matter of prayer, and so pray rarely. They need teaching and encouraging.
The other extreme are those people who appear to be over confident in their praying and pray about anything and everything, which may vary from asking for Aunty Mabel in Australia (you've read of her before!) to what shirt they should wear tomorrow. Now that may sound derogatory but, as I have commented in other pages, I often sit in prayer meetings where the content is unguided ‘shopping lists', things people think would be a good idea for God to answer and I am certain that this is just another form of something that verges on unbelief or, as I said above, passive faith.
c) Unbelief in Failing to Take Responsibility
Now I believe that the Lord wants us to sometimes take responsibility for our lives and so He allows us to make our own decisions – the mundane things of life – what shirt to wear tomorrow!!! At such times I am sure His response, if only we could hear it, is “Whatever are you asking for? Why are you waiting? You know what my will is; it is spelled out quite clearly in my word! Just do it!”
But it can be much bigger than that. There are behavioural things or grace issues. For instance you have someone who is not particularly easy to get on with. Don't pray for them to change, don't pray for grace – you know you have it because you have the Spirit of love living within you. Just love them. If you want to pray, pray for wisdom (Jas 1:5) to know how to approach them, but otherwise, be nice to them; look to bless them – that will change them! But it starts with you and God's will is quite clear. Jesus said, “Love your enemies” (Mt 5:44) so for someone who isn't exactly an enemy but just someone a bit difficult to get on with, it's got to be easier, hasn't it! The need here, is for a people who know the teaching of the Bible and who will then live it!
d) Unbelief that is not Doing
Why do we pray for things that we know we should be doing something about? Our starting point – to find the will of God – is to ask about any person or situation we might think of praying about, what could I be doing in this situation, what might God want me to do here? We need to stop telling God what we think He ought to be doing, and ask ourselves what He wants us to be doing – and then pray!
What does prayer then become? It becomes coming close to the Father, committing to Him what you believe is His will, and checking with Him in your spirit, that you've got it right. Prayer thus becomes submitting your will to His. Now isn't that exactly what John has in his mind when he wrote, “ if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.”
The crucial thing is finding out what His will is and then asking for it, but the tricky bit is finding out what our part is in it all, because that may surely be part of His will.
The one area where, it seems to me, that there will be difficulties, is when we pray for the salvation of someone else, because the Lord never forces the will of people. He may put so much before them that their hearts are opened to respond, but only He knows who such persons are. There are clearly other people whose hearts are set and will remain set for the rest of their time on this earth, but we never know who these will be (unless the Lord specifically shows us, which seems rare). Yes, we can pray for their salvation for we know that “He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Pet 3:9) but that doesn't mean that every person will be saved. Pray for them by all means, but also ask, “Lord, is there a part you want me to play in drawing them to yourself?”
So there it is: find out God's will – read His word, listen to Him – and find out how it involves you, and pray and do it and then expect things to happen!
e) Unbelief in Asking for God to be Nice
Sometimes it seems as if God's people are trying to twist God's arm to make sure He will be nice to them and, as we've already noted above, they ask for things they've already got but just haven't appropriated.
I struggle with God's love and with the idea that God wants to bless me more than I want Him to bless me, and that He promises to provide for me. That is a confession of the sin-tainted-ness that we each suffer from, but that should not be used to excuse us. No, we each have the responsibility to take control of our thinking and decide to do what we can do and then ask God to do what we can't do.
Next time you are at a prayer meeting, listen to the things people ask for and then ask yourself, “Do we already have that?” The next time you hear someone pray, “Lord, please help me be more loving,” or more joy, peace, patience, kindness etc., reflect on the fact that the source of these, the Holy Spirit (Gal 5:22,23) lives within us. Next time you are getting stressed at having to wait so long for something, how about turning your praying round to be, “Lord, thank you that you have allowed this situation so that patience IS being formed in me.”
We often say it in the prophetic realm, if someone brings you a prophetic word that the Lord is going to make you a victorious warrior, it means you are going to go through battles! You don't win peace and tranquility; you win battles! So when the going gets tough, instead of crying out, “Lord, please help me, please help me,” instead pray statements of faith: “Lord thank you that you are here with me in this (Heb 13:5), Lord thank you that you are working good in all of this (Rom 8:28), Lord, thank you that you will meet all my needs (Phil 4:19) and thank you that you can make your grace abound in me in all situations and at all times, so having all I need, I will abound in my serving you (2 Cor 9:8).
And if you find that challenging, so do I! Why? Because we haven't arrived there yet, and that's why parts of the New Testament were written, to guide us in the way we should go.
2. Passive Faith & Active Faith
I don't want to leave the impression that all the good people who pray in the first of the two options in 1a above are bad or poor Christians; it is just that they have been led into a ‘passive-faith' approach to spiritual life. Let me try and explain what I mean. Consider the following:
Heb 11:2 By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God's command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.
Heb 11:7 By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family
In our ‘options' in the first part of this paper, those who go to the prayer meeting and utter words are sincere in their beliefs about God but they are not turning those beliefs into active faith. Frankly, they don't need God at their prayer meeting. They are expressing genuine concerns and they do it because they believe that somehow this will help the kingdom of God .
‘Helpers' are people who try to help God out. Sarai was a ‘helper' who wanted to help God out, so God's word might be fulfilled – through Abram's maid. Ultimately she didn't believe that God could do the impossible so she helped out – with what consequences! In many of our prayer meetings we are trying to help God out! Helpers have passive faith, faith that believes in God, but not that He might want to turn up here and now.
‘Servants' are those who hear the words of the master and go and do what is required of them. Servants move in active faith. Active faith, hears God and goes and does it.
3. It's all about knowing the will of God!
Let's let some Scriptures about prayer speak to us:
1 John 3:21,22 Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him.
Mt 7:7 “Ask and it will be given to you,”
Mt 18:19,20 “I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them."
Mt 21:22 “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer."
Jn 14:13 “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father.”
Jn 15:7 “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you.”
Jn 15:16 “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit--fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name.”
Thus, although there are one or two general verses, most of the time the promise of answers is linked to conditions
4. And So…
This has been a plea to look at what we do and say in the average church prayer meeting and to honestly assess whether the meeting is a formality or a faith exercise.
If it is a formality, it is something we will do again and again, and little will change. If it is a faith exercise, we will be changed and we will go out and change the world around us as God shows us the way. My prayer is that anything I have to do with, will become a faith exercise. May that be for you also.
If you are a leader, how about approaching your next church prayer meeting as follows:
We may have to unlearn some past habits and we may need to teach new practices but, watch out world, here we come!