For 5 years I was the pastor of Trinity International Church in Strasbourg, France. I created this blog with those people in mind. In mid-November 2018 I will become the Senior Pastor of Word of Life Church in Coon Rapids, Minnesota. The focus of this blog will therefore shift, but I pray that people from the blogosphere will continue to find it helpful wherever they might be found.
The churches' websites includes recorded sermons for those who are interested. Click the links below to access them.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

The Greatest Prayer Book Ever Written

Coffeehouses are wonderful places for study and conversation. There is nothing like a good cup of coffee to brighten the day. This is an imaginary conversation about an important topic that I've discussed with many people over coffee. 

Tom took a sip of his fancy latte. We had talked about the routine stuff of life as I waited for him to get to the reason he wanted to to get together. I was pretty sure it wasn't to talk about the weather.

"Pastor, I am struggling with my prayer life. Do you have any good books I could read? What is the best book you have ever read on prayer?"

So there it was. He seemed uncomfortable asking it because he assumed that there was something terribly wrong with his relationship with God. He thought his question might shock me, but it really didn't surprise me at all. Many people wrestle to pray, it is just that most do not admit it. Sermons on prayer tend to bring feelings of guilt rather than inspiration. Books on prayer are a little like diet books: often read, but seldom followed. I decided to probe a little bit.

"Tell me a little bit about your prayer life."

"Well, Pastor, I have several prayer lists and I use the ACTS formula. You know, Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication. I hate to admit it, but I find it all boring. I don't pray that much anymore. But I want to. I just don't have the discipline."

I've heard that before. Boring prayer has been the ruin of many a prayer life. I took a sip of my coffee. Strong and black, just the way I want it. I've always figured that if the coffee is good there is no need to add things to it.

"Tom, I've learned that many people try to sustain personal prayer lives that are like most church prayer meetings: boring. No wonder the church prayer meeting is the least attended event in the church! Here's the format of the typical church prayer meeting: someone will say, 'does anyone have a prayer request, something we should be praying for?' and a prayer list is made. Someone's uncle has a hernia, someone else has cancer, and someone's cousin needs a job. Then everyone folds their hands, stares at the carpet, and each thing is mentioned a second time only in the form of a prayer. This may be sacrilegious, but I think even God falls asleep!"

Tom looked at me with disbelief. "Are you slamming prayer meetings?"

"The way a lot of them are run, yes. Sure, God wants us to pray for those physical things, but when you look at how people prayed in the early church, they had a completely different experience. And they turned the world upside down through the power of their praying. Not only that, but when you look closely you see that they were constantly praying whether they were togehter or alone. It is impossible to conceive that they found prayer boring."

"Well, what do you recommend? What book should I read?"

"There are a lot of good books, but only one revolutionized my prayer life. Once I learned how to use it, I never looked back."

"Really? Which one? Does the bookstore have it?"

I laughed, "Yeah, I'm pretty sure the bookstore has it. It is the Bible."

He looked confused and disappointed.

"Tom, I went to seminary and learned how to study the Bible. Studying the Bible is important but by itself is pretty powerless. In fact, it can easily lead to spiritual arrogance. The Pharisees, after all, were scholars!"
"Here is a key verse that opened things up for me: John 15:7. 'If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.' It is an if-then statement. The promise is that you can ask whatever you want and it will be done. That's a pretty awesome promise! The condition, though is that we abide in the Lord and his Word abides in us. That's a simple formula, but it is true and it works!"

"Really? I've tried claiming promises before and nothing happened."

I sighed. It is so common to hear teachers say that you should find a verse to claim. The only problem is that there are over 30,000 verses in the Bible! And many people have shipwrecked their faith by finding a random verse that seemed to promise what they wanted, "claimed it in faith", only to be devastated. I've drunk many cups of coffee trying to help people recover their faith in God after following those teachers.

"Tom, I am not talking about claiming promises. Look, I know you believe the Bible and this verse is true. Jesus is making an incredible statement about of answered prayer, but what does it mean? Take another look."

Tom was looking at his phone. "It says here that the word 'abide' means to 'live in' or 'to remain in'."

"That's right. "Abide" is the Greek word meno. But what does it mean? Explain to me what it means to abide, live, or remain in Jesus. How do we know we are fulfilling the condition of the promise? Is it even possible to know? And what does it mean to to have his word abiding in us? Does it mean memorizing it? And if so, does that mean that God will answer more prayer based on how much Bible you memorize? You've defined the word, but what does it mean?"

"You're the pastor. You tell me!"

I laughed and said, "Do you really want to know the answers to those questions? Do you want to experience what it means to abide in Jesus and to have his Word abiding in you? There's no way to know where this may lead."

The expression on his face had become serious. "Yes. That's what I want."

I leaned forward and look intensely into his eyes. "I dare you to ask Him."

He stared at me and I continued, "It is the Holy Spirit that will teach you, not me. Your Bible app is good. But it only told you that 'abide' means 'to live in.' You knew that before you looked at your phone. Looking it up and confirming that gave you a sense of satisfaction. But it did not answer the question of how to abide. Nor did it give you any assurance that you actually are abiding. Study is good. Theology is important. You will go astray if you ignore it. But the Bible is primarily a prayer book."

He took a sip of his latte, looked out the window, and said, "I still don't understand."

"Okay. let's take this verse and use it as a basis for a prayer." I wrote the verse on the top of a piece of paper. "What can we ask God to do based on this verse? What questions do we have that we want him to teach us?"

Here's what we came up with:

If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, 
ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 
  • Lord, the idea of abiding sounds like something to be known by experience. Teach me by experience what it means to abide in you.
  • Jesus, the opposite of abiding is departing. I don't want that to happen! 
  • Show me anything in my life that is keeping me from fully abiding in you.
  • Lord, it says that your Word should abide in me. I am not sure what that means. Is it simply the word of salvation (the gospel) or is it the Bible hidden in my heart. Teach me what you mean by this, Jesus.
  • My life has been full of unanswered prayers. If the conditions are not met, then there is no promise of answered prayer. Have I not been abiding in you? Has your word not been abiding in me?
  • Jesus, how I hunger for the fullness of this abiding! 
Tom's eyes were getting big. I smiled. He appeared to be learning quickly.

"Tom, Jesus gave us this promise because he wanted it to be our experience. It's important to study, but we must not stop there. We need to turn the passage into prayer."

"I've never seen anything like this."

"Few people learn the obvious secret: to pray in God's will, pray God's Word back to Him! But it isn't about finding a verse and using it like a magical incantation to 'speak into existence' whatever you want. Did you notice as we made our list the Spirit deepened our hunger for him and that we were brought to a place of submission? That's the way it works. Praying this way increases our desire for Him and we grow to understand what he want. We then become a junior partner with him by praying for what is on his heart. Here, Jesus wants us to abide in him. Praying the passage back to him is a key way to make it happen."

"Have you been praying this way for very long?"

"Years. When I am alone with my Bible open, sometimes I am studying it like you might any book. But usually I am in a conversation with God. I am praying based on what the Bible says. Sometimes I pray for myself and other times the Spirit seems to lead me to pray for another person. In my praying for our church I am praying through the book of Ephesians. I will read a few verses listening for the Spirit to tell me to stop and linger in prayer. It is usually no more than a paragraph before I am stopping to pray based on something I am reading. I pray that the truths would become reality in our church."

"Thy kingdom come, thy will be done..."

"Exactly. He answers those kinds of prayers."

I took a sip of coffee as Tom looked at the list of prayers we had written. Finally he looked at me and said, "I'm excited to try this. Is there anything else I should know about doing it?"

"Well, there is a lot I could say, but really you learn by doing. I guess the one thing I would add is that it is important to slow down. Pray for insight and a willingness to obey what he tells you to do. Those are keys. Why don't you try praying this way for a while and tell me how it goes?"

"Sounds great! You're praying through the book of Ephesians. Maybe I'll start there and we can talk about it."

"Sure, Tom. Any excuse to have another cup of coffee with you!"

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