‘DOWN AND DIRTY’ PRAYING
I urge you, brothers and sisters, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in my struggle by praying to God for me. Pray that I may be kept safe from the unbelievers in Judea and that the contribution I take to Jerusalem may be favourably received by the Lord’s people there, so that I may come to you with joy, by God’s will, and in your company be refreshed. The God of peace be with you all. Amen (Romans 15:30-33).
The final element of the ‘NoPlaceLeft’ vision from heaven is referenced by Paul in a request for their involvement through supportive prayer. As with many of the previous ‘NoPlaceLeft’ trail markers, this one invites the ‘contempt’ that accompanies things that carry a semblance of ‘familiarity.’ We are all too familiar with the idea that we need to pray for kingdom of God work to be fulfilled. My plea for fervent prayer is not a simple plea for prayer itself, but a plea about the kind of prayer we are praying. Let us first notice some of the things Paul was asking of the Roman believers related to his work.
First of all, he explains that this work is a struggle. Well, all I can say is, “Amen to that.” I reckon it is a huge struggle. In our culture the word, ‘struggle’ is almost an expletive. We are more likely to offer people outside and inside the kingdom a path where there is greater comfort and self-indulgence. Our whole culture has been built around the idea that less effort is more desirable that more effort. Less pain is preferred to more pain. Less risk carries a greater sense of virtue than more risk. I have rarely heard any preacher inviting people to leave a life of relative ease and choose a life of struggle. The word in the original language means “to agonize with.” In other words, Paul is asking people from a church he has never visited to participate in something that involves genuine agony. Wow! I doubt that many people from my culture would rush to enlist. The idea that the task of proclaiming the gospel until there is ‘NoPlaceLeft’ involves such acute pain seems as strange to us as it is uninviting. If we look for an example from the ministry of Jesus, we need to see Jesus weeping in prayer over the intransigence of his people as he pleads with the crowds listening to him during his last week in Jerusalem,
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’ ” (Matthew 23:37-39)
This statement was made at the end of three whole years of travelling to every town and village in Galilee and Judea. It was after the miracles, the signs and the crowds from every part of the region. It expressed his sentiment following a litany of laments about stubbornly resistant religious leaders. These people had watched a man in their midst who brought the greatest revelation of God’s redemptive love of all time. They were on the brink of political oblivion and Jesus was offering them the very pathway they were chosen for. But they rejected it as stubbornly as we have done in our own nation and culture. In the midst of that, Jesus’ only desire was to lovingly gather his people around his presence. It was what he woke up to every morning and went to sleep with at night. This work in any generation anywhere in the world involves a monumental struggle.
Paul invited the Roman believers to join this struggle by praying for him and his work. He was referring to much more than the parroting of certain religious words. He was asking them to experience and represent the very heart and purpose of God. Such prayer can never be a form or a formula. It must come from a genuine awareness of the immeasurable value of people who are lost from God. They are not to be judged by us but rather, carried by us into the presence of God. They must not be ignored by us but find a welcome in our hearts and lives. It is not a religious duty for us but a heartfelt honour. It is not an option but a regular part of our lifestyle.
The fact that people can join the struggle by prayer defines the very nature of the work. It is primarily a spiritual work. I admit to getting a little worried when people start talking about prayer as some form of accumulative divine arm-twisting. If we pray, enough God will act. Just have a long think about that and ask yourself what kind of picture of God is represented by the idea. Is God hard of hearing like Elijah suggested of Baal (1 Kings 18)? I am certain he is not. Could God be tallying up the hours waiting for some tipping point? Hardly. Is it not prayer that changes things but God working through people. Could it be that our communion with our Father and fellowship with the Father and the Son that IS the supernatural weapon against the powers of darkness? I think so on both counts.
The second feature of the prayer Paul asked for was specific and detailed. He was going to Jerusalem. There were influential people there who didn’t like Jesus and were still incensed that their greatest anti-Jesus ally had made an 180-degree turn and was now serving Jesus. He was not praying that harm and threat would be avoided but that the intentions of his enemies would not be successful. Later in the record of Acts, he receives a prophetic warning that prison and hardship are waiting for him in Jerusalem. Like the Jesus whom he served, he was not trying to avoid any of those things. He only wanted all of those things to end up serving the purposes of the gospel. This prayer was answered, though in a way that many would not have preferred. His arrest and imprisonment resulted in him having the opportunity to preach to the king and his guests and then he was given an all-expenses paid trip to Rome protected by Roman soldiers. On the way, those soldiers all got to hear and see the gospel. People on the island of Malta were treated to the same proclamation with power. When Paul writes to the Philippians from his house-prison in Rome they hear that the members of Caesar’s household have been impacted by the gospel. All of this came about because people were willing to strive and struggle for it as they cried out to God.
Paul further employed the intercessory power of the Roman Christians about the matter of the offering. In this request, we are given yet another picture of the challenges that Paul faced and the faith he mustered. You have to ask the question as to why Paul would be asking people to pray that the Jerusalem church would favourably receive the offering from the Gentile churches. The only explanation possible would be that certain people may have some objection. We must presume that certain conservative Jewish believers might have been unwilling to receive Gentile money – even when there were people among them who were in extreme poverty. So there was a spiritual battle involving some of the believers, as there was with unbelievers in Jerusalem. Paul was aware that to have people crying out to God for these things was a weapon capable of prevailing against both of these threats.
The essential issue of intercession described here should awaken us to at least two universal principles that we need embrace and implement in our prayer experience. The first of those is the need to pray from hearts that are akin to the heart of God – hearts that agonize. We have to become people with those hearts so we can pray from our hearts. When I think of many of the prayer meetings I have been involved in they are so often full of form and formula. People pray to impress each other. Others pray out of some kind of religious spirit. They pray but they don’t get close to Jesus. If you can agree for even a moment that prayer is a gift from God that allows us to “participate in the divine nature” as Peter talks about (2 Peter 1), then the most important goal in prayer is to connect with God and fellowship with God. It is the time to bring specific issues to God so that we can encounter him and gain his perspective and intention. Then we can unload salvo after salvo on all enemy positions with the assurance that we are joining with God’s purpose and not our own. It is only a religious heart that can abide an experience of prayer without knowing God. Paul was asking the Romans to understand and be personally affected by that understanding. Only then would they join the struggle.
The second principle involves the matter of specifics. So much prayer is generalized and ambiguous to the point that we are not being intercessors at all. The word intercession requires the intercessor to stand between two parties. In the matter of prayer, the intercessor should be bringing human circumstances into the presence of God and then being enabled to go to those human circumstances with God’s kingdom purpose. I think the reason why we do this is because we have so little faith. When you don’t have faith, you are not inclined to be specific in your requests simply because you don’t want to face the likelihood of nothing happening. It’s like the challenge of asking God to heal someone who is in pain and then asking them how they feel at the end of the prayer. We are often more likely to pray a general prayer and then avoid the issue of possible results. Not having faith is no shame. The shame comes when we aren’t prepared to own the fact that we don’t have faith. Faith is knowing what God will do before he does it and rejoices in the opportunity accept God’s invitation to be part of the process of seeing that action come to pass. If we don’t have a particular faith, then we should seek God and his Word so that we can gain genuine assurance. The writer to the Hebrews refers to this assurance when he says that “faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1,2).
I am beginning to see much more of this in my own ‘NoPlaceLeft’ enterprise. The reluctance, insecurity and fears that arise from embracing such a goal are not created by the people and areas where we are seeking to proclaim the gospel and make disciples. The main issues are within me, maybe us. I am finding that the things I need are those contained in the imperatives associated with the actual Great Commission statements (see the list in the earlier blog, “No Place Left Markers #7, Fully Proclaiming the Gospel”). Since these things have become my prayer agenda, I find that I am beginning to change. This change then makes the ministry different. I know that specific, targeted prayer for actual people attacks the defense shield created by the enemy. Put those two things together and we have a recipe for stories of amazing grace.
There will be no success in accomplishing a ‘NoPlaceLeft’ goal unless we allow God to change us. We will we be successful without destroying enemy defenses. I am certain Paul is describing this in his second letter to the Corinthians,
For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. And we will be ready to punish every act of disobedience, once your obedience is complete. (10:3-6)
It is not just praying that disables enemy strongholds. When humans, transformed through prayer, engage lost people with kingdom attitudes and kingdom actions, then enemy defenses crumble. We must stand and speak with hearts that are like the heart of God. We need to know how the Holy Spirit will be working in the people we are seeking to love. The more these things are part of us the more we will see outcomes telling the story of fields that are ripe for harvest and of a gospel is, indeed, the power of God for salvation. We will neither be ashamed nor fearful but bold and confident. Then we, like Paul, will arrive at the “NoPlaceLeft” destination in our Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth.