April 30, 2014

Power for ministry to others

As I come to this last day of this study on prayer, God impresses me with the connection of prayer to power in ministering to others. Another book, Power through Prayer by Edward M. Bounds, calls this power divine unction.

Unction is an anointing from God that is difficult to describe. However, as Bounds says, without it those who preach the gospel have no more power to propagate it than any other system of truth. This anointing is the seal of its divinity and puts God in the gospel. Without it, God seems absent and the gospel can only be delivered by the “unsatisfactory forces that the ingenuity, interest, or talents of men can devise.” Simply put, without unction God’s Word fails to make any difference to those who hear it.

This anointing on the preacher can stir and even create friction in a congregation for the power of God can both bless and discomfort. Yet in contrast, truth can be told strictly to the letter and no ruffle is seen, no pain felt. Bounds says, “All is quiet as a graveyard” without unction, the preaching is hard, dry and dead and so are the people. But when one speaks with this mysterious anointing on him, the letter of the Word becomes fired by the Holy Spirit and a mighty movement is felt. The hearers are stirred, their hearts broken to God.

Does God anoint His people randomly? I don’t think so. Bounds says unction is not an inalienable gift, but conditional. It is given to Spirit-filled people who offer unceasing prayer to God, people whose hearts passionately desire Him and who seek Him tirelessly, deeming all else loss and failure. This gift of God’s anointing is then perpetuated and increased by the same process by which it was at first secured.

Jesus used different words than unction and anointing, but He asked for both as He lifted up his eyes to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you . . .”  (John 17:1)

He also sought it in Gethsemane when He said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I go over there and pray.” He took Peter, James and John, and deeply troubled He said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” As He went a little farther He fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:36–41)

Jesus sought the anointing of God on the greatest ministry of all. He sought grace and the strength to go to the cross and die for sinners. He went to the extreme to minister to humanity. To receive the unction needed for this ministry, He prayed with such fervor that He sweat great drops of blood.

Bounds says that only praying hearts are filled with holy oil. Much prayer is the price of this unction and the condition of keeping divine anointing. For anyone who ministers to others, prayer is critical, not just prayer for those others, but for the one who seeks to minister to them. Even those whose main ministry is prayer, God’s anointing is needed. We must seek it for ourselves even as we pray so we are effective in praying for others who need God or who serve in other ways.

Bounds adds that this unction or anointing is also like Old Testament manna. That is, it requires more than a one-time gathering. Serving God calls for perseverance and continual reliance on the God who supplies. Otherwise our ministry to others will be like over-kept manna that dries up, breeds worms, and is good for nothing.

April 29, 2014

Mouth shut, ears open

Cartoons illustrate God speaking with a booming voice from heaven, but that is not how it works. In the Old Testament, the words “God said” or “God spoke” often appear, but as the story of Elijah reveals, it was not with noise but a low whisper.

In that story, Elijah had fled from his enemies and hid in a cave. The Lord asked him why he was there, and after his short explanation, God told him to “Go out and stand on the mount before the Lord.”

The Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:9–13)

Christians today also hear the Spirit of God speak, but seldom if ever audibly. Because He lives within His people, and we recognize His voice, He does not need to shout or even whisper. Jesus affirmed this with, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me . . .  My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.’ (John 10:14, 27)

Our relationship with Him is intimate. As our Shepherd, we “hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” (John 10:3–5)

Sometimes when I go to prayer, I have so much on my heart that I do all the talking. The Lord is patient and listens, but I know that He wants me to listen as well . . .

Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his saints; but let them not turn back to folly. (Psalm 85:8)

He does speak peace, peace that erases the anxiety of those prayer burdens. If I rattle on and on, I’ll miss that important blessing of being able to communicate with Him and listen. However, He may also speak a warning like the one in the above verse. I need those warnings too, for I so easily turn back to old bad habits. He is with me and desires to help me avoid that folly, but I need to be a better listener.

See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. (Hebrews 12:25)

This verse also points out that listening is only half of it. The other half is not doing my share of the talking, but taking action on whatever He warns me about or says to me as instruction, a command, or even as encouragement. He meets my need to hear Him through His Word, but also in that low whisper to my heart — as long as when I am praying, I keep both ears open.

April 28, 2014

Thankful for my Helper

Jesus intercedes for me in prayer no matter what I am doing, but does the Holy Spirit help me pray when I’m not actually praying? This might be the only situation where that old saying about God helping those who help themselves is actually true! To have the Spirit’s intervention, I need to actually be praying . . .

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God . . .  If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:26–32)

Not often, but sometimes when I pray words come out that surprise me. I think, Where did that come from? Obviously the Holy Spirit was prompting them. He wants me to pray in the will of God. However, for the most part, I don’t know God’s will. This means that the Holy Spirit is an incredible gift from God to interpret and translate my prayers. Some say that no matter how garbled prayer might be when they leave our mouths, they get to God in excellent expression.

Praying in the name of Jesus is important too. I cannot stand before God on my own merit, nor ask anything of Him based on my own qualifications. Jesus intercedes. He is my advocate like a lawyer who speaks for a criminal in a court of law. Yet the formality of a law court is softened and modified because of another Helper . . .  

Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you. (John 14:13–17)

All of this is the fulfillment of God’s promise: “And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” (Ezekiel 36:27)

Without the Spirit, I am not able to live for God. He lives in His people and helps us pray properly and live righteously. This is true of individuals, but also true of the entire body of Christ. The pronouns are plural in these lines from the New Testament, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.” (1 Corinthians 3:16–17)

Today is the beginning of a new week of challenges. I have a term paper to write and am frankly nervous about the time needed. A family member is ill and the phone will be ringing. Two meetings are scheduled the first part of the week, and we have guests coming Thursday to stay until Sunday. Every minute will be filled, so I am glad for this reminder about the Holy Spirit. I need His help as I pray for many things, but also for a clear head to write that paper, wisdom in listening and comforting, wisdom in knowing what to say or when to be silent at those meetings, grace to be a gracious hostess, and energy for all my regular chores.

Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit . . . but the Spirit gives life. (2 Corinthians 3:4–6)

Lord God, thank You for Your precious promises and for the Holy Spirit. May the reality of life from You be the source of all I need during these full days ahead.

April 27, 2014

What to do when the mind wanders in prayer

Uncle Edward had a wandering mind. When he told a story, his own words reminded him of something other than the story, so he would wander down that trail for a bit, then another, and another, but eventually he would wander back to his original topic and finish the story. I’ve had sessions of prayer just like that!

Today’s devotional reading says if your mind wanders, pray for the thing to which it has wandered. Make it a prayerful direction rather than a distraction.

In many Bible passages, Paul seems to wander as well. In this one, he begins with thanksgiving, jumps to assurance, then to his feelings about a relationship, then to the love and spiritual growth of those he is praying for, then to praise for God, then to words about how God is using his situation for good . . .

I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel . . . (Philippians 1:3–12)

At first, this rambling style was hard to follow, perhaps because I expected godly people to think in a more orderly fashion than the way I think. However Paul, who was a very godly man, did not pray or write in a systematic fashion. He rambled. Yet , as for the working of our minds in prayer, he did give some advice . . .  

Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Philippians 4:5–8)

He says to be reasonable (mild and gentle) and let that be evident in that I am not worrying, but praying in such a way that God is guarding my thoughts. I will know that He is doing so when my mind is filled with the good things he describes.

In another place, Paul also writes that “we have the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16) so it is possible to think godly thoughts, but as he demonstrates, that does not exclude wandering thoughts.

This is both a comfort and an encouragement. I can let my wandering thoughts be fuel for prayer. The only thing I need to watch out for is this warning Paul also wrote to the Christians at Corinth . . .

But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. (2 Corinthians 11:3)

Today’s advice still holds, for if my wandering mind is led in the wrong direction, I can pray about that too, asking God to forgive any sin in those distractions, and to set my mind off that trail and unto a trail of righteousness.

I’m so thankful for this helpful “tip” on prayer. I’m encouraged to do this instead of being fearful that my prayers are becoming too much like the story-telling style of our beloved, but rambling Uncle Edward.

April 26, 2014

Items on my prayer list

All those at our Bible study had prayer requests, but one person. She said she had nothing that she needed to pray about, which was a surprise. I’ve never found myself in that place. If I don’t have something I want from God, I can think of others who have needs and need prayer.
Today’s devotional reading draws attention to some of the possibilities to put on a prayer list.

Forgiveness of sin and healing: “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” (James 5:16) God promises both for prayer is a powerful thing.

Dire circumstances: Such as Jonah when he ran away from God and wound up in the belly of a great fish. “When my life was fainting away, I remembered the Lord, and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple. Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love. But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the Lord!” (Jonah 2:7–9)

To understand why God allows difficulties, exemplified by Paul’s thorn in the flesh . . .  
So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:7–10)

Weakness and a sense of need, a common motivation to pray . . .
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:14–16)

Forgiveness and cleansing: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” (1 John 1:8–10)

This short and incomplete list begins and ends with requests for forgiveness. Christ died that we might be set free from the penalty and power of sin. In the economy of God, I am justified and can rely on what Christ has done. At the same time, whenever I sin, guilt will always keep me from praying. It might be something like resisting God, but it can also be the sin of not caring about the needs of others, or being oblivious to my own needs. For this, asking forgiveness is at least two times on the prayer list.