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A Call to spiritual reformation

Priorities from Paul and his prayers

D. A. Carson

ISBN: 9780851109763
232 pages, Paperback
Published: 16/10/1992
Currently out of print We are currently unable to accept orders for this title



I doubt if there is any Christian who has not sometimes found it difficult to pray. In itself this is neither surprising nor depressing: it is not surprising, because we are still pilgrims with many lessons to learn; it is not depressing, because struggling with such matters is part of the way we learn.

What is both surprising and depressing is the sheer prayerlessness that characterizes so much of the Western church. It is surprising, because it is out of step with the Bible that portrays what Christian living should be; it is depressing, because it frequently coexists with abounding Christian activity that somehow seems hollow, frivolous, and superficial. Scarcely less disturbing is the enthusiastic praying in some circles that overflows with emotional release but is utterly uncontrolled by any thoughtful reflection on the prayers of Scripture.

I wish I could say I always avoid these pitfalls. The truth is that I am a pare of what I condemn. But if we are to make any headway in reforming our personal and corporate praying then we shall have to begin by listening afresh to Scripture and seeking God’s help in understanding’ how to apply Scripture to our lives, our homes, and our churches.

This book is not a comprehensive theology of prayer, set against the background of modern debate on the nature of spirituality. Elsewhere I have been involved in a project that attempted something along those lines. Here the aim is far simpler: to work through several of Paul’s prayers in such a way that we hear God speak to us today and to find strength and direction to improve our praying, both for God’s glory and for our good.

1. Lessons from the School of Prayer

Throughout my spiritual pilgrimage, two sources have largely shaped, and continue to shape, my own prayer life: the Scriptures and more mature Christians.

The less authoritative of these two has been the advice, wisdom, and example of senior saints. I confess I am not a very good student in the school of prayer. Still, devoting a few pages to their advice and values may be worthwhile before I turn to the more important and more authoritative of the two sources that have taught me to pray.

Among the lessons more mature Christians have taught me, then, are these.

1. Much praying is not done because we do not plan to pray
We do not drift into spiritual life; we do not drift into disciplined prayer. We will not grow in prayer unless we plan to pray. That means we must self-consciously set aside time to do nothing but pray.

What we actually do reflects our highest priorities. That means we can proclaim our commitment to prayer until the cows come home, but unless we actually pray, our actions disown our words.

This is the fundamental reason why set times for prayer are important: they ensure that vague desires for prayer are concretized in regular practice. Paul’s many references to his “prayers” (e.g., Rom. 1:10; Eph. 1:16; 1 Thess. 1:2) suggest that he set aside specific times for prayer-as apparently Jesus himself did (Luke 5:16). Of course, mere regularity in such matters does not ensure that effective praying takes place: genuine godliness is so easily aped, its place usurped by its barren cousin, formal religion. It is also true that different lifestyles demand different patterns: a shift worker, for instance, will have to keep changing the scheduled prayer times, while a mother of twin two-year-olds will enjoy neither the energy nor the leisure of someone living in less constrained circumstances. But after all the difficulties have been duly recognized and all the dangers of legalism properly acknowledged, the fact remains that unless we plan to pray we will not pray. The reason we pray so little is that we do not plan to pray. Wise planning will ensure that we devote ourselves to prayer often, even if for brief periods: it is better to pray often with brevity than rarely but at length. But the worst option is simply not to pray-and that will be the controlling pattern unless we plan to pray. If we intend to change our habits, we must start here.

2. Adopt practical ways to impede mental drift. Anyone who has been on the Christian way for a while knows there are times when our private prayers run something like this: “Dear Lord, I thank you for the opportunity of coming into your presence by the merits of Jesus. It is a wonderful blessing to call you Father. . . I wonder where I left my car keys! No, no! Back to business. Heavenly Father, I began by asking that you will watch over my family-not just in the physical sphere, but in the moral and spiritual dimensions of our lives. . . Boy, last Sunday’s sermon was sure bad, I wonder if I’ll get that report written on time! No, no! Father, give real fruitfulness to that missionary couple we support, whatever their name is. . . Oh, my I had almost forgotten I promised to fix my son’s bike today. . .” Or am I the only Christian who has ever had problems with mental drift?

But you can do many things to stamp out daydreaming, to stifle reveries. One of the most useful things is to vocalize your prayers This does not mean they have to be so loud that they become a distraction to others, or worse, a kind of pious showing off. It simply means you articulate your prayers, moving your lips perhaps; the energy devoted to expressing your thoughts in words and sentences will order and discipline your mind, and help deter meandering.

Another thing you can do is pray over the Scriptures. Christians just setting out on the path of prayer sometimes pray for everything they can think of, glance at their watches, and discover they have been at it for all of three or four minutes. This experience sometimes generates feelings of defeat, discouragement, even despair. A great way to begin to overcome this problem is to pray through various biblical passages.

In other words, it is entirely appropriate to tie your praying to your Bible reading. The reading schemes you may adopt are legion. Some Christians read a chapter a day. Others advocate three chapters a day, with five on Sunday: this will get you through the Bible in a year. I am currently following a pattern set out by Robert Murray M’Cheyne in the last century: it will take me through the Psalms and the New Testament twice during this calendar year, and the rest of the Old Testament once. Whatever the reading scheme, it is essential to read the passage slowly and thoughtfully so as to retrieve at least some of its meaning and bearing on your life. Those truths and entailments can be the basis of a great deal of reflective praying.

A slight variation of this plan is to adopt as models several biblical prayers. Read them carefully, think through what they are saying, and pray analogous prayers for yourself, your family, your church, and for many others beyond your immediate circle.

Similarly, praying through the worship sections of the better hymnals can prove immensely edifying and will certainly help you to focus your mind and heart in one direction for a while.

Some pastors pace as they pray. One senior saint I know has long made it his practice to pray through the Lord’s Prayer, thinking through the implications of each petition as he goes, and organizing his prayers around those implications. Many others make prayer lists of various sorts, a practice that will be discussed in more detail later.

This may be part of the discipline of what has come to be called “journaling”. At many periods in the history of the church, spiritual1y mature and disciplined Christians have kept what might be called spiritual journals. What such journals contain varies enormously. The Puritans often used them to record their experiences with God, their thoughts and prayers, their triumphs and failures. Bill Hybels, the senior pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, takes a page to record what he did and thought the day before, and then to write out some prayers for the day ahead of him. A t least one seminary now requires that their students keep such a journal throughout their years of study.

The real value of journaling, I think, is several-fold: (a) It enforces a change of pace, a slowing down. It ensures time for prayer. If’ you are writing your prayers, you are not daydreaming. (b) It fosters self-examination. It is an old truism that only the examined life is worth living. If you do not take time to examine your own heart, mind, and conscience from time to time, in the light of God’s Word, and deal with what you find, you will become encrusted with the barnacles of destructive self-righteousness. (c) It ensures quiet articulation both of your spiritual direction of your prayers, and this in turn fosters self-examination and therefore growth. Thus, journaling impedes mental drift.

But this is only one of many spiritual disciplines. The danger in this one, as in all of them, is that the person who is formally conforming to such a regime may delude himself or herself into thinking that the discipline is an end in itself, or ensures one of exalted place in the heavenlies. That is why I rather oppose imposition of such a discipline on a body of seminary students (however much I might encourage journaling): true spirituality can never be coerced.

Such dangers aside, you can greatly improve your prayer life if you combine these first two principles: set apart time for praying and then use practical ways to impede mental drift.

3. At various periods in your lifer develop, if possible, a prayer-partner relationship. Incidentally, if you are not married, make sure your prayer partner is someone of your own sex. If you are married and choose a prayer partner of’ the opposite sex, make sure that partner is your spouse. The reason is that real praying is an immensely intimate business - and intimacy in one area frequently leads to intimacy in other areas. There is good evidence that after some of the Kentucky revivals in the last century, there was actually an increase in sexual promiscuity. But whatever the hurdles that must be crossed in the pursuit of rectitude, try to develop an appropriate prayer-partner relationship.

In this connection I have been extremely fortunate. While I was still an undergraduate, in one summer vacation a single pastor took me aside and invited me to pray with him. We met once a week, on Monday nights, for the next three months. Sometimes we prayed for an hour or so, sometimes for much longer. But there is no doubt that he taught me more of the rudiments of prayer than anyone else. One or two of his lessons I shall detail later; for the moment, it is simply the importance of this one-on-one discipleship that I want to stress.

At various periods of my life, other such opportunities have come my way. For the last year or so of my doctoral study, another graduate student and I set aside time one evening a week to pray. Eventually (I was rather slow on this front), I got married. Like most couples, we have found that sustained time for prayer together is not easy to maintain. Not only do we live at a hectic pace, but each stage of life has its peculiar pressures. When you have two or three preschool-age children, for instance, you are up early and exhausted by the evening. Still, we have tried to follow a set pattern. Quite apart from grace at meals, which may extend beyond the expected “thank you” to larger concerns, and quite apart from individual times for prayer and Bible reading, as a family we daily seek God’s face. About half the time my wife or I leads the family in prayer; the rest of the time, the children join us in prayer. We have discovered the importance of injecting freshness and innovation into such times, but that is another subject. Before we retire at night, my wife and I invariably pray together, usually quite briefly. But in addition, at various points in our life together we have tried to set aside some time one evening a week to pray. Usually we achieve this for a few weeks, and then something breaks it up for a while. But we have tried to return to it, and we use those times to pray for family, church, students, pressing concerns of various sorts, our children, our life’s direction and values, impending ministry, and much more.

If you know how to pray, consider seeking out someone else and teaching him or her how to pray. By teaching I do not mean set lessons so much as personal example communicated in player-partner relationship. Such modeling and partnership lead to the sorts of questions that will invite farther sharing discipleship. After all, it was because Jesus’ disciples observed his prayer life that they sought his instruction in prayer (Luke 11:1),

If you know little about praying, then consider seeking someone more mature in these matters any setting up a prayer-partner relationship for a period of time. If you cannot find a person like that, then foster such a relationship with someone who at your own level of Christian growth. Together you may discover many useful truths. Prayer partner relationships are as valuable for the discipline, accountability, and regularity they engender as for the lessons that are shared.

There are many variations on this sort of relationship. I know a few pastors who seek out a handful of’ people who will meet, perhaps early in the morning, to give themselves to intercessory prayer, The ground rules vary quite a bit from group to group. In some suburban churches, an early morning prayer meeting may be quite open and public, simply a good slot in the day to hold a public prayer meeting, granted the difficulties of suburbanites. But I am primarily thinking of more private groups of carefully selected prayer warriors. The ground rules for such groups may include the following: (1) Those who agree to participate must do so every week, without fail and without complaint, for a set period of time (six months?), barring of course, unforeseen circumstances such as illness. (2) They must be Christians without any shadow of partisanship, bitterness, nurtured resentments, or affectation in their lives, In other words they must be stamped with integrity and with genuine love for other believers, not least the obstreperous ones. (3) They must not be gossips..

Such clusters of prayer partners have been used by God again and again to spearhead powerful ministry and extravagant blessing. They may continue unnoticed for years, except in the courts of heaven. Some little groups grow and become large prayer meetings; others multiply and divide, maintaining the same principles.

But whatever the precise pattern, there is a great deal to be said for developing godly prayer-partner relationships.
9. A Sovereign and Personal God

Prayer changes things. You find plaques promulgating this notion everywhere. You may have one in your home. Countless sermons have been preached, countless prayers prayed, under this assumption: “Prayer changes things.”

Or does it ?

If prayer changes things, how can we believe that God is sovereign and all-knowing? How can we hold that he has his plans all worked out and that these plans cannot fail? If not a bird falls from the heavens without his decree, if we live and move and have our being under his sovereignty, if he works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will (Eph. 1:11), .a then in what meaningful sense can we say that prayer changes things?

Indeed, that is precisely why some people argue that God must be severely limited in certain ways. They reason something like this: “Frankly, it seems to us that although God is extraordinarily powerful, it is unreasonable to think he is all-powerful, absolutely sovereign. Surely that would reduce the entire universe to a toy, God’s toy. We would lose our freedom; we would become mere puppets, chunks of matter moved around by a despotic Deity. If in that sort of universe we pray, well, we pray only if God has ordained that we pray; if we do not pray, God has ordained that, too. In either case it is hard to see how our prayers actually change anything. Certainly there is little point in encouraging people to be fervent or passionate in prayer: your encouragement has been ordained, and if they listen to you and offer fervent prayer, that too, has been ordained. The entire business becomes pretty phony.
Surely there is no other reasonable option: we simply have to conclude that God cannot be utterly sovereign, absolutely omnipotent.

If God is not absolutely sovereign, goes this line of reasoning, maybe the reason he does not answer your prayers as you would like is that he can’t. Suppose you are praying for the conversion of your sister. If God has already done everything he can to bring her to himself, but somehow she won’t give in, why bother asking him to save her? Isn’t it a little indecent to pressure God to do more when he has already done the best he can!

Or, one might reason that Lord is powerful, hat somewhat aloof, unwilling to do very much until we ask him. Then, of course, he grants some requests but turns down others simply because he can’t do any better.

So prayer does change things, after all—even if the price of these sorts of reasoning is that God is not as powerful, and therefore not as trustworthy, as we might have thought. In fact, if God is not really all-powerful, one might wonder, in darker moments, how we can be certain that he will make the universe turn out all right in the end.

Others argue that the only change prayer effects is within person praying. Because I pray for certain things (they hold), I focus on them and strive for them, and I myself am changed. 1 may pray to do a good job at work, and because I am praying along such lines my determination is reinforced, I am slightly changed for the better, and the result may be that my work really improves. But the only immediate change effected by the prayer is in me. Put crudely, this means it does not really matter if God is out there at all. Prayer is nothing but a psychological crutch. Prayer is all right, but only for weak and insecure people.

Christians will never think along any of these lines, for such thoughts are basically atheistic. Ironically, some of us adopt a Christian version of the same approach. We, too, sometimes say that what prayer changes is primarily the person who prays, but we attribute this change not to psychology but to obedience. The only meaningful prayer, we may think, is, “Not my will, but yours be done.” If that is answered, then we have become better attuned with the will and purpose of God, and that is a good thing.

Yet despite the importance of praying that God’s will be done, it is certainly not the only prayer in the Bible. In the Scriptures, believers not only pray for themselves, they ask for things. They ask God to change circumstances, to give them things, even to change his mind. In many passages, as we shall see, we are told that God, on hearing such prayers, “relented” which is not much different from saying that he “changed his mind.”

But if God changes his mind, why do other passages of Scripture. picture him as steadfast, reliable, immutable?

Sad to tell, we are sufficiently perverse that we can find reasons for not praying no matter what perspective we adopt. Consider missions. If you believe that God “elects” or chooses some people for eternal life, and does not choose others, you might be tempted to conclude that there is no point praying for the lost. The elect will infallibly be saved: why bother praying for them! So you have a good reason not to pray. If on the other hand you think that God has done all he can to save the lost, and now it all depends on their free will, why ask God to save them? He has already done his bit; there’s very little else for him to do. Just get out there and preach the gospel. Either way you have another reason not to pray.

You can really hurt your head thinking about this sort of thing.

The Bible insists that we pray, urges us to pray, gives us examples of prayer. Something has gone wrong in our reasoning if our reasoning leads us away from prayer; something is amiss in our theology if our theology becomes a disincentive to pray. Yet sometimes that is what happens. The slightly ingenuous but enthusiastic believer may have more experience at prayer than the theologian who thinks a lot about prayer. Or again, sometimes when a Christian develops an increasing appreciation of “the doctrines of grace”-truths that underline God’s sovereignty, freedom, and grace—-one of the first results is a tragic decrease in the discipline of prayer. That was part of my own pilgrimage at one point. The fault was not in the doctrines themselves, but in me and in my inability to mesh them properly with other biblical teachings.

God’s Sovereignty and Human Responsibility

In this chapter I want to take some steps that have helped think about prayer a little more biblically than I used to. Although I am far from the kind of maturity in prayer I would like to achieve, these biblical reflections have helped me not only to think about prayer but to pray. I shall begin by articulating two truths, both of which are demonstrably taught or exemplified again and again in the Bible:

1. God is absolutely sovereign, but his sovereignty never functions in Scripture to reduce human responsibility.

2. Human beings are responsible creatures - that is they choose, they believe, they disobey, they respond, and there is moral significance in their choices; but human responsibility never functions in Scripture to diminish God’s sovereignty or to make God absolutely contingent.

My argument is that both propositions are taught and exemplified in the Bible. Part of our problem is believing that both are true. We tend to use one to diminish the other; we tend to emphasize one at the expense of the other. But responsible reading of the Scripture prohibits such reductionism.

We might begin by glancing at the large picture. Proverbs 16 pictures God as so utterly sovereign that when you or I throw a die, which side comes up is determined by God (16:33). “The LORD works out everything for his own ends—even the wicked for a day of disaster” (16:4). “In his heart a man plans his course, but the LORD determines his steps” (16:9). “Why do the nations say, ‘Where is their God?’ Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him” (Ps. 115:2-3).

According to Jesus, if the birds are fed it is because the Father feeds them (Matt. 6:26); if wild flowers grow, it is because God clothes the grass (6:30). Thus God stands behind the so-called natural processes. That is why biblical writers prefer to speak of the Lord sending the rain, rather than to say, simply “It’s raining” - and this despite the fact that they were perfectly aware of the water cycle. The prophets understood the sweep of God’s sway: “1 know, O LORD, that a man’s life is not his own; it is not for man to direct his steps” (Jer. 10:23). “The LORD does whatever pleases him, in the heavens and on the earth, in the seas and all their depths” (Ps. 135:6). The passage (Eph. 1:3-14) is as strong as any: God “works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will” (Eph, 1:1). In some mysterious way, and without being tainted with evil himself, God stands behind unintentional manslaughter (Exod. 21:13) family misfortune (Ruth 1:13), national disaster (Isa. 45:6-7), personal grief (Lam. 3:32-33, 37-38), even sin (2 Sam. 24:1; 1 Kings 22:21ff.). In none of’ these cases, however, is human responsibility ever diminished. Thus although it is God in his wrath who incites David to take the prohibited census (2 Sam. 24:1), David is nevertheless held accountable for his actions.

The second of my two statements is no less strongly supported in Scripture. There are countless passages where human beings are commanded to obey, choose, believe, and are held accountable if they fail to do so. God himself offers moving pleas to incite us to repentance, because he finds no pleasure in the death of the wicked (1s’0:18; 65:2; Lam. 3:31-36; Ezek. 18:30-32; 33:11). In his day, Joshua can challenge Israel in these words: “Now fear the LORD and serve him with all faithfulness. . . . But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve. . . . But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD” (Josh. 24:14-15). The commanding invitation of the gospel itself assumes profound responsibility: “That if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. . . As the Scripture says, ‘Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame’” (Rom. 10:9, 11). Of course, none of’ this jeopardizes God’s sovereignty: only a few verses earlier we find the apostle quoting Scripture (Exod. 33:19) to prove that “God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden” (Rom. 9:18).

Hundreds of passages could be explored to demonstrate that the Bible assumes both that God is sovereign and that people are responsible for their actions. As hard as it is for many people in the Western world to come to terms with both truths at the same time, it takes a great deal of interpretative ingenuity to argue that the Bible does not support them.

In fact, not only does the Bible support both these truths in a large number of disparate passages, both truths come together In many passages. We have space to mention only seven.

Genesis 50:19-20

After the death of their father, Jacob’s sons approach Joseph and. beg him not to take revenge on them for having sold him into slavery. Joseph’s is instructive: “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”

We shall best understand what Joseph says if we carefully observe what he does not say. Joseph does not say, “Look, miserable sinners, you hatched and executed this wicked plot, and if it hadn’t been for God coming in at the last moment, it would have gone far worse for me than it did.” Nor does he say, “God’s intention was to send me down to Egypt with first-class treatment, but you wretched reprobates threw a wrench into his plans and caused me a lot of suffering.”

What Joseph says is that in one and the same event the brothers intended evil and God intended good. God’s sovereignty in the event, issuing in the plan to save millions of people from starvation during the famine years, does not reduce the brothers’ evil; their evil plot does not make God contingent. Both God’s sovereignty and human responsibility are assumed to be true.