Altar Call – Opelika-Auburn News
March 22, 2015
Is prayer more than our imagination?
Sixty-four years ago this week, at age 19, I was granted a license to preach by the Methodist Church. A freshman at Auburn University (then API), I had been pondering a career in journalism. I longed to write for a newspaper. However, the compulsion to preach seemed stronger so I yielded to what I believed was the call of God to the ministry.
I wish I could say that I made my decision after many days of agonizing prayer. At that young age I knew little about prayer. However, I did pray. I spoke to God. I asked him for guidance. Did God speak to me? I believe he did but not audibly.
It would be fair to ask if I “imagined” God calling me into the ministry. Is the whole idea of talking to God our imagination at work? Is there a Supreme Being who actually hears and responds to our prayers? These are legitimate questions.
My search for answers has led me repeatedly to the Bible. The Bible tells of a God who speaks. This Creator God carried on conversations with people. He spoke to people; people spoke to him. Sometimes his voice was audible; at other times it was not.
The best evidence that prayer is real is the record of Jesus praying. To Jesus God was his Father. He prayed to his Father and his Father answered him. For me it seemed reasonable to believe what Jesus believed about prayer so early on I followed the example of Jesus by talking to God.
As it is with so many things in life, the proof is in the pudding. The best way to find out if prayer is more than imagination is to get on the knees of your heart and pray. Ask for guidance. Thank him for your blessings. Plead with him to throw his light upon the darkness of your life. Then listen for his answers. He will answer. He will guide. He loves us too much not to respond to the petitions of our hearts.
We can learn about the reality of prayer by studying some of the heroes of the Bible. Take Daniel for example. The stories of Daniel highlight the validity of prayer.
Daniel prayed. Daniel prayed for his nation, the people of Israel. Daniel was confident that God heard his prayers. Daniel’s prayers were so real that they still show us how to pray. No one around Daniel would have dared ask if he believed in the power of prayer. To hear him pray would have convinced even the skeptics that it makes sense to take your burdens to the Almighty.
Add Daniel’s example to the example of Jesus and you have no doubt that intercessory prayer must have a vital place among the disciplines of genuine Christian disciples. Jesus prayed. He expects us to pray. Praying is not optional. Prayer is as natural as breathing for it is the lifeblood of the believer’s relationship with the Father.
As we grow in grace Jesus teaches us how to pray. We learn to move from selfish, childish prayers to prayers of submission and surrender to the will of God. Eventually we discover that intercessory prayer is both a privilege and a sacred responsibility of those who follow Christ.
The spirit in which Daniel prayed is impressive. He included himself in the sins of his people. Observe his words, “We have sinned and done wrong.” Like Isaiah, Daniel felt the shame of his own sins as well as those of fellow Israelites. Once Isaiah had seen the King, Almighty God, he confessed, “For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips” (6:5).
Daniel uses beautiful imagery to make his passionate plea for God’s mercy. He invites God to demonstrate his forgiveness by letting his “face shine upon” the people. This idea calls to mind the beautiful words the Lord gave to Moses about how to bless the Israelites: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace” (Numbers 6:24-26).
This is a beautiful truth! A child can experience no greater joy than to look upon the smiling face of an approving father or mother. On the other hand it causes agonizing pain for a child to observe angry disapproval on the face of disappointed parents. Imagine what joy Jesus must have felt when he heard his Father say, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”
Like Jesus we all created with a need for the affirmation of our heavenly Father. Daniel was wise. He knew that the shining face of the Lord, beaming with affirming love, would bless and transform the people as nothing else could.
Daniel’s example in intercession should inspire us to take more seriously the privilege of praying for others. Richard J. Foster, in his acclaimed book, Celebration of Discipline, observes that “the work of prayer involves a learning process.” He explains, “One of the most critical aspects in learning to pray for others is to get in contact with God so that his life and power can flow through us into others.”
How do we do that? By listening to God. Foster says: “Listening to the Lord is the first thing, the second thing, and the third thing necessary for successful intercession.” Before we can know how to pray for others, we must learn to “listen for guidance” from the Lord.
One day our dear friend Sara walked in the front door of our home. It dawned on me that she had come because she had been listening to God. God told her to come. She obeyed God. She brought food but the food was incidental. She had come to pray for my wife Dean who was just home from the hospital.
The three of us held hands as Sara prayed. What she asked the Lord for was exactly what we needed. The doctor had “shocked” Dean’s heart to restore its normal rhythm. Sara asked the Lord to “seal what the doctor had done so that Dean’s heart will continue to beat normally.” She asked the Lord to strengthen Dean and continue to make her life and testimony a blessing to others. We felt Christ present with us, keeping his promise to be present “when two or three gather in his name.”
When Sara departed our hearts were overflowing with joy. A friend had come and prayed for us, reminding us once again what a powerful difference it makes when others pray for you. It is a privilege and a ministry that followers of Christ must not neglect.
Asked to explain his success as a preacher, Charles Spurgeon said, “My people pray for me.” Foster writes, “Your pastor and the services of worship need to be bathed in prayer.” Miracles happen when people fill the church with prayers.
Foster quotes Frank Laubach saying to his audiences, “I am very sensitive and know whether you are praying for me. If one of you lets me down, I feel it. When you are praying for me, I feel a strange power. When every person in a congregation prays intensely while the pastor is preaching, a miracle happens.” Indeed miracles do happen in church, and outside the church, when people are praying.
We must not suppose we have no time for intercessory prayer, as though this is a ministry for retired people. Intercessory prayer, Foster says, “is not prayer in addition to work but prayer simultaneous with work” so that “prayer and action become wedded.”
Foster helps us relax by inviting us not to make prayer “too complicated.” This is a good word. We are prone to think of prayer as an exercise for professional prophets and priests, monks and nuns. Not so. Foster reminds us that Jesus taught us to come like children to a father. He says wisely, “Openness, honesty, and trust mark the communication of children with their father. The reason God answers prayer is because his children ask.” Oh, Yes! And I plan to keep on asking!
After sixty-four years in the ministry I have no doubt about the reality of prayer. The Voice I have heard is not the product of my imagination but the God and Father of Jesus Christ, who is in fact the Word of God. Though I have been losing my capacity to hear, I will continue to pray for ears of the soul to hear the sweet voice of my Savior. I am confident that if I will but listen he will direct my life until the day he calls me home. + + +