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Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Prayer Class Report

I'm in Chicago right now attending my class on the Theology and Ministry of Prayer. Yesterday, we talked about our reponses to the reading. This is my report:

Insights & Lessons from the Reading

The readings for this course were challenging–both personally and theologically. There were many helpful insights, ideas, and concepts to be gleaned for (1) personal/family prayer, (2) leadership prayer, and (3) church-family prayer. Some of the books lent themselves well to all three categories, others were more helpful for one or two. There were also a number of points at which I disagreed with the authors or was disappointed by the lack of theological anchoring in the text of Scripture. This paper is a survey of the insights and lessons gathered from the reading in the order in which I read the books (as well as a few comments of a more critical nature).


The Pursuit of God

The strength of this book comes from the obvious personal connection of its author (A.W. Tozer) to God. This man has drunk deeply from the well that he is commending to us, and it shows.

Personal & Family Prayer Life
I think this book would be most helpful on an individual basis. At heart, it’s about encouraging a deep personal prayer life–“There are some, I rejoice to acknowledge who will...hunt some lonely place and pray, ‘O God, show me thy glory.’ They want to taste, to touch with their hearts, to see with their inner eyes the wonder that is God. I want deliberately to encourage this mighty longing after God” (pg 17).

I have (like many others before me) read this book before. The most helpful chapter for me this time around was chapter 9, “Meekness and Rest,” where Tozer commends the nurturing of meekness in the Christian. One of my personal goals in 2006 has been to root out pride and cultivate humility in my heart and life. This chapter offered motivation for that pursuit (including a description of the burdens of pride, pretense, and artificiality that meekness lifts from the believer), as well as a short prescription of the answer: rest on the person and work of Christ. This must inform my prayer life in prayers of confession and supplication.

Leadership Prayer Ministry
One of my good church-leadership friends loves Tozer, and I assumed that I would want to give this book to elders and others leaders to read for their personal prayer lives. I was surprised this time around, however, to see how much Tozer didn’t ground his arguments in specific texts of Scripture. Instead, he mainly uses Scripture for illustrative purposes. I think Tozer has lots of truth to offer, but I’m not sure I’d use him for development with my leaders. There are probably better books for that now.

Church Family Prayer Ministry
I’ll definitely quote this book in my preaching–Tozer has a way with words. Among the more “mystically-inclined” of my flock, I might recommend it for a discussion group, though I would be much more inclined to suggest The God Who Hears or A Hunger for God.


The strength of this book was the idea of categorizing–thinking of different things that could be called prayer. The author (Richard Foster) has delineated twenty-one different forms of prayer in as many chapters. My prayer life can often fall into ruts becoming nothing more than some adoration and intercession (with a little confession thrown in). This book helped me to think about prayer in more polyphonic tones.

Personal & Family Prayer Life
The most powerful lessons I learned from this book were actually in the opening pages. In the Preface, Foster explains his qualifications to write the book, “The years have come and gone, and while I am still a novice in the ways of prayer (who can ever master something in which the main object is to be mastered?), I somehow sense the divine nod of approval” (pg. xi). I don’t know if he had the “divine nod” to write or not, but his parenthetical description of prayer was really striking to me. Prayer is about being mastered.

He continues this thought in the first chapter: “Our problem is that we assume prayer is something to master the way we master algebra or auto mechanics. That puts us in the ‘on-top’ position, where we are competent and in control. But when praying, we come ‘underneath,’ where we calmly and deliberately surrender control and become incompetent” (pgs. 7-8). This accurately described my inner wrestlings with prayer and was a great relief to me.

That first chapter describes what Foster calls “Simple Prayer” or “The Prayer of Beginning Again.” When I am frustrated by my prayerlessness or lack of faith (because of needing to surrender control), the answer is to simply begin again.

Leadership Prayer Ministry
This was, by far, the most difficult book to read for this class. While the author may be an expert in the spiritual disciplines, he is not an exegete!

Church Family Prayer Ministry
I would not recommend this book for anyone to read who is not already very strong in the Scriptures. It is drifted loose from biblical moorings and has made it onto my “dangerous books” list.


Three Crucial Questions About Spiritual Warfare

The strength of this book was the author’s (Clinton Arnold) strong grasp of New Testament teaching. His three questions were given a thoroughgoing biblical work-up. Even when I disagreed with some of his conclusions, I was helped by Arnold’s application of Scripture to each item.

Personal & Family Prayer Life
Personally, it was very helpful to be reminded once again of the reality of the supernatural and the spiritual arsenal I am called to use in the daily war. Arnold’s first chapter “What Is Spiritual Warfare?” was the best of the three and a great, balanced introduction and overview to the Christian life seen through the lens of spiritual warfare–“Spiritual warfare is a way of characterizing our common struggle as Christians” (pg. 27). I will return to it again–especially to teach on the subject.

Leadership Prayer Ministry
Arnold’s answers to the second and third questions were not as persuasive to me. In the second, “Can A Christian be demon-possessed?” Arnold writes, “A Christian cannot be owned and controlled by a demon” (pg. 79) but then says, “Christians can be inhabited and controlled by demons” (pg 88). He nuances his statements quite a bit, but they still seem basically contradictory to me. He also seems to misunderstand David Powlison’s book Power Encounters on page 114, and I have been persuaded by Powlison’s arguments for what he calls “classic mode” spiritual warfare in cases of morality (though perhaps “ekballistic” warfare is appropriate for cases of demonically induced suffering and disease).

These concerns lead me to not be able to recommend this book very highly to other leaders in my church (though I might if they were wrestling with these questions already for some reason).

Church Family Prayer Ministry
Arnold’s answer to the third question, “Are we called to engage territorial spirits?” is a very nuanced “No.” I agree with him, and think that he has tried to be very irenic and conciliatory to fellow believers with different viewpoints (perhaps too sympathetically?).

I have no plans to lead our church in “strategic level warfare” as described in this chapter.


The Praying Church Idea Book

The strength of this book was its variety–430 pages of assembled assorted ideas for intensifying prayer in the local church. No need to get stuck in the “same old, same old” patterns. There is an idea here for every church (though some of the ideas seemed “cheesy” to me).

Personal & Family Prayer Life
Our family will be using some of the “Prayer Formats” and “Small Group Prayer Ideas.” I’m looking forward to leading my daughter (5½) and my oldest son (4) in the “Alphabet Prayer” (pg 41) and the “Hand of Prayer” (pg. 64).

Leadership Prayer Ministry
The ideas in the section on “The Leader’s Prayer Life” would be helpful for our elders for study. The article “Praying with Your Leaders” (pg 135) was very good–“Extended time for prayer must be scheduled into meetings; placing prayer at the beginning of a meeting underscores its priority, reminds us that Christ is the head of the church, sets the proper atmosphere for discussion, and prevents running out of time for prayer in the end.”

Church Family Prayer Ministry
I’ve already begun to use this book in church-wide ministry. For example, I have begun to use “bidding” prayer prompts (pgs 300, 306) in our worship celebrations.

It was from this book that I had the idea of asking my church family for prayer requests from each family unit for me to take on my Personal Prayer Retreat for this course. That idea bore immediate fruit in my relationship with my flock. They felt cared for by me, I got to know some more specifics of their concerns, and I was very encouraged to hear some of their requests couched in phrases directly from my preaching. I’ll be doing that again!

Our church has been targeting a nearby town for a possible church-plant. We’ve not done anything like that before and have had some trouble figuring out what to do next. The section in Douglas Kamstra’s book on “Harvest Prayer Ideas” gave me an idea for taking our church-planting plan to the next level. We are going to schedule a prayer meeting in the tallest building in this city where there is a ballroom and a commanding view of Philipsburg and the surrounding area. This will help us to pray for the lost of Philipsburg and get a vision for church planting at the same time.

The Praying Church Idea Book will be going in our church library in a conspicuous spot. And when God surfaces a Prayer Ministry Coordinator for us, this will be an early resource to put in their hands.


A Hunger for God

The strength of this book is the “truth on fire” of John Piper. Piper consistently blends careful exegesis with white-hot passion (what I like to call “Hot Orthodoxy”) and somehow winsomely communicates it on the written page. A Hunger for God is one of his best books. [Read it online here.]

Personal & Family Prayer Life
Piper says that fasting is like an exclamation mark on our prayer lives that proclaims our desire for God. My heart needed these words–“If you don’t feel strong desires for the manifestation of the glory of God, it is not because you have drunk deeply and are satisfied. It is because you have nibbled so long at the table of the world. Your soul is stuffed with small things, and there is no room for the great. God did not create you for this. There is an appetite for God. And it can be awakened. I invite you to turn from the dulling effects of food and the dangers of idolatry, and to say with some simple fast, ‘This much, O God, I want you.’” (pg 23).

Leadership Prayer Ministry
This book served to awaken my appetite for God (and does every time I read it). It also clears up a lot of the fog that exists about this form of Christian devotion (answering the tough questions). I think the way it ties together Christian activism with Christian devotion is a particular strength that I need to figure out how to capitalize on with my leadership. What other book has chapter titles like this: “Fasting and The Course of History” (chapter 5), “Finding God in the Garden of Pain” (chapter 6), “Fasting for the Little Ones” (chapter 7)?

Church Family Prayer Ministry
This book is not a how-to book, but it is one of Piper’s easier books to read. I would recommend it to our entire church family, maybe for our Summer Book Club some year. Whenever I preach on fasting, I always return to this book to graze on its spiritual grass and quote from it (especially the quote section in the appendix (pgs. 183-210). I am currently preaching from the Gospel of Mark and re-read chapter 1 “New Fasting for the New Wine” again to prepare for preaching Mark 2:18-22.


The God Who Hears

The strength of this book was its God-centeredness. The author (Bingham Hunter) surely has the right approach to a theology and practice of prayer–start with God. Who God is determines what prayer is, what prayer means, and how we should pray. We need to extrapolate our theology and practice of prayer from the character of God.

Personal & Family Prayer Life
I was helped by this book’s definition of prayer, “Prayer is a means God uses to give us what he wants” (pg. 12). That may not be the only possible definition of prayer, but it is a helpful way of conceiving it. This idea appears again in the book’s conclusion, “And that is the point of this book. Who does God hear? He hears those who pray and live to glorify Him. Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart” (pg. 198, emphasis his). If I get this right, then all the rest will follow from it. If I miss this, I’ve missed it all.

I’ve read this book before (about eight years ago), but I was much more helped by it this time. I think that’s because I’ve grown in my appreciation for good theology and my desperation for good answers to the tough questions about prayer. For example, I was really helped by Hunter’s observation on page 42, “What can you tell God if he knows everything? And notice the opposite conclusions: Western logic: Nothing. Jesus: Anything. The point is that since God already knows everything about you and still loves you, then there is nothing you can tell him that will change his feelings for you” (emphasis his). That motivates me to bare my soul to God. He certainly isn’t fooled by my spiritual facade.

Leadership Prayer Ministry
I’ve already begun using the ideas in this book in leadership development. And I’ve found myself using “Theology Proper” to pastorally answer questions about prayer. There were a few weaknesses, I thought, in the chapter on God’s goodness (especially the discussion about God’s turning evil into good, which I thought missed the biblical balance that was present in Grudem’s discussion of providence), but the balancing chapter on God’s sovereignty definitely made up for it.

Church Family Prayer Ministry
We’re already using this book in church-wide ministry. My small group is using it as our text for our bi-monthly discussion groups. We’ve only had three or four meetings, but the discussion has been rich, rewarding, and God-centered.


The strength of this reading assignment is the careful, comprehensive, and yet, accessible systematic thought of the author (Wayne Grudem). And I think he is right in nearly all of his conclusions in these three chapters (Providence (16), Miracles (17), and Prayer (18)).

Personal & Family Prayer Life
I was motivated to pray by reading this good theology. I was also motivated to do good thinking about prayer myself. Grudem’s model of careful, readable, biblical, systematic theology incites me to follow.

I love the application questions at the end of each chapter. “Can you name five good things that have happened to you so far today? Were you thankful to God for any of them?” (pg. 351). That’s good theology!

Leadership Prayer Ministry
I have used Grudem in leadership training before. I’m always visiting the copier machine with my copy of Systematic Theology. As leaders, we need our orthopraxy to come out of our orthodoxy.

Church Family Prayer Ministry
I would recommend that every Christian home own a copy of Grudem’s Systematic Theology and couples and families work their way through the chapters one at a time (in whatever order meets their needs) making sure to pause and consider the application questions. For some families, a copy of the condensation Bible Doctrine (475 pages instead of 1000, edited by Jeff Purswell) might be better, and the chapters on providence and prayer cover most of the same ground as the big one (with no footnotes, though the helpful miracles discussion is mostly missing). I’m presently working through his latest abridgment, Christian Beliefs, with the Junior High Youth Boys class at church on Wednesday Nights.


Lectures to My Students

As an addendum to this paper, I want to mention the reading (unassigned) that has made the biggest impact on me during this pre-course period: Charles Spurgeon’s classic lectures: “The Minister’s Self Watch” and “The Preacher’s Private Prayer.” I’ve made it a minor goal in 2006 to work all the way through Spurgeon’s lectures to his students (my first time). I think it was providential that I would be doing that at the same time as preparing for this class, because the thoughts of Spurgeon [especially (1) the preacher always praying, (2) praying while your discourses are yet upon the anvil (3) prayer will singularly assist you in the delivery of your sermon, (4) prayer after the sermon, (5) preaching with unction, and (6) getting alone to pray] were very convicting and motivating at the same time. Just the words I needed to hear. Praise God!

4 comments:

It's providential that I read this post immediately after teaching on Daniel 9. We spent most of the time on the 70 Heptads prophecy, but devoted a good twenty minutes to the first part of the chapter.

What was worth noting was Daniel's ability to hold in tension the seemingly contradictory principles of God's sovereignty on one side and passionate prayer on the other. The chapter starts by noting that Daniel determined from Jeremiah's writing that God promised that the exile would last for 70 years (which, at this point in Daniel's life, was soon approaching). Now in my apathetic theology, the response to something like that would be to simply sit and wait for God to act as He promised.

Daniel's response, however, is a half-chapter-long prayer of confession, climaxing in a plea for God to forgive the Israelites and allow them to return. In other words, Daniel is passionately begging God to do exactly what God promised to do already!

The quote you gave from Hunter's book, "What can you tell God if he knows everything?...Western logic: Nothing. Jesus: Anything," reminded me of Daniel's response. How many times in the OT did people fervently remind God of something that He already knew? (Hezekiah's response to Sennacherib's threat in Isaiah 37 is a classic example.)

The other insight we gleaned from Daniel's prayer is how he bases his request for God to show mercy to His people upon God's honor. That is another quite common theme throughout the OT: people beg for God to act for "His name's sake" (i.e., for the sake of His reputation, His honor). Imagine if we prayed in those terms!

"God, change the hearts of the people in the 10-40 window, lest Your name be dragged through the mud there."

"God, give me the strength to resist this temptation, because my sin tarnishes your reputation."

"God, forgive our sins, not because we deserve it but because the world needs to know that You are a God of grace."

I know I have a long way to go in my theology of prayer. My actions betray my true beliefs on the issue. Heteropraxy reveals heterodoxy, right?

You're absolutely right on both counts.

-Matt

Kipp and Matt,

I'm also studying/teaching Daniel 9. What grabs me is that Daniel takes responsibility for the sin of Israel - we have sinned, not they have sinned. We bear such conviction in regards to the role we as Christians play in the world's sin. We have a difficult time being in the world but not of the world. It is easy to feel self-righteous, but Daniel knew he, too, was imperfect before a Holy God.

Having spent time recently with Daniel, I feel a strong need to learn more about prayer in my own life, so have enjoyed reading this blog entry.

Susan

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