Original from July 2014 (slightly revised). Applying the principle of Right Division to prayer.
Prayer is the breath of the new nature.
It doesn’t need any artificial props and helps - anything of that kind. And you don’t have to put it on. It should be a spontaneous function of the new nature. Prayer is fellowship and conversation with God. .. So it’s up to us to take the low place, and not tell God how to run His Universe, as we’re so inclined to do, but to be occupied with Him. -Oscar M. Baker (What is Prayer?)
I guess I have wrestled with the concept of prayer all my life. From my days in religion wherein prayer had a mystical aura and prayers often resembled an Athenian calling on the gods to intervene on his behalf (or on behalf of loved ones) to times when I doubted that God would ever act in this age of grace.
I have studied, discussed and agonized over this topic for countless hours since becoming a Christian almost 25 years ago and I’m certain I’ll continue it until I fall asleep or receive my resurrection body.
In my early days in Christ, my prayers were most often just a crying out for God, a desire for his comfort and presence, a crying out for mercy. That simplicity (often in ignorance, I admit) was soon to be complicated by religious systems which teach that prayer is a means to manipulate God’s grace, mercy and love into personal gain (or simply for personal advantage).
I left one system of prayer, briefly entering into a more pure mode of prayer, and quickly into another system. I had lost the privilege of prayer and was seeking how I could make it more effective on my account. Over the years, as I discovered the vanity of such an approach, I have pondered “what is prayer?” and what to expect of prayer for the Christian in the Body in the present age.
What is prayer for? Why are we told so often to pray?
Prayer is intended to humble us by putting us into the place of helplessness and dependence. Prayer is meant to put us with our faces in the dust before the Mighty God. Instead of that, what do we find? We turn that place which is meant to humble us and keep us in the low place, into a Throne, from which we dictate to God what He shall do in our affairs, how He shall help to carry out our plans, what He shall do among the governments and political affairs of the world. That is the outcome of the pride of the "old man" within us. So that we, who cannot manage our own affairs, do not hesitate to take on ourselves the management of the universe, and "move the hand that moves the world."
–E.W. Bullinger (The Christian’s Greatest Need)
Before I start on what to expect of our prayers in this age
, I need to start with what NOT to expect.
Scripture presents God’s response to prayer as varying throughout the pages of scripture. Therefore, expectation varied. Abraham could cry out in prayer according the specific promise he had been given in regard to an heir and being the father of a nation (Gen 17). Isaac had expectation based on that promise. Isaac could pray according to promises given to him that were not given to Ishmael. That is, Isaac could pray in expectation according to the promises given him in a way Ishmael could not.
Israel could cry out to God in light of his promise that his covenant of an earthly priesthood, and the promise of a kingdom in Israel, would stand as long as the sun and the moon stood (Jer 31:35-36). But in the current age (Eph 3:1-12; Titus 2:12) , even Israel can no longer expect answers to the daily promises of God (Deut 28; 2 Chron 7; etc.) even though the ultimate promise will be fulfilled. We often see the promises to Israel claimed for the Body (but rarely the curses, of course). This does not reflect a desire for God’s presence, grace and mercy; it often seeks gain. It is an attempt at robbery. Just as we would never claim Abraham’s place as the head of a special nation, neither should we claim the promises made to that nation.
In the NT, can I claim Peter’s promise that he could walk on water? No. That was a promise specific to Peter at a specific time. If I enter a boat with no life jacket with the expectation that I can claim that “Bible promise,” I am going to be sorely disappointed (and wet). And even if I could claim that promise, would walking on water accomplish anything apart from personal gain? In its place, Peter’s experience (which he never “claimed” again) pointed him to the Lord in dependence, not to his accomplishment.
The snake-handling pastor who recently met his demise from a snake bite never learned the Bible principle of rightly dividing the Word of Truth
. He tried to claim someone else’s promise. I hope he doesn’t expect to sit on one of Israel’s twelve thrones. If so, he’s going to be quite surprised when the music stops and there is no throne for him upon which to sit. He can pray and claim these promises all he wants, but they are not his to claim. Wrong age. Wrong promise. Wrong hope.
The great fact to be faced here is that God has never, at any time, in any manner, or in any place told you or me to walk upon water, to move a mountain, to heal the sick, to cleanse lepers, to raise the dead, to cast out demons. We cannot "act in faith" in regard to any of these things. If we try, we will be motivated by our own desires, acting in self-will. –Otis Sellers (Concerning Prayer)
I cannot claim the promises of Abraham or the promises of Israel for my nation. I cannot expect promises to others (including those given to the twelve disciples of the Lord in the Gospels) to be applied to me. My prayers should only reflect the age in which I live and the promises given to me.
Of all the papers I’ve ever read on the subject of prayer in this age, I still believe that Sir Robert Anderson’s summation in Note IX of the appendix in “The Silence of God” is the most useful. Here is an excerpt:
And here the striking fact claims attention that while the record of the Pentecostal dispensation presents us with the practical counterpart of all such promises, the Epistles, which unfold the doctrine of the present dispensation, and describe the life which befits that doctrine the life of faith inculcate thoughts about prayer which are essentially different, and which are entirely in accord with the actual experience of spiritual Christians.
The “actual experience of spiritual Christians” is that surely God does not do whatever we ask simply because two Christian agree on it (Matt 18:19), nor does He automatically respond because Christians are physically touching each other (or a TV screen or radio speaker, etc.). The reason for this is that Matthew 18:19 has nothing to do with prayer and it was not universally promised to all believers. It is a promise given to the twelve in regard to righteous judgment in the future kingdom, in Israel, when they will judge Israel from twelve thrones (Matt 19:28; Luke 22:30). I have no right to claim their thrones, I have no right to claim their authority.
Anderson is correct that our view of prayer is to be found in the epistles. If Sir Robert applied his reasoning to the epistles, he would have to separate the epistles written during the Pentecostal age to either Jews specifically or to both Jew and Gentile (separate but equal) from the epistles written to the “one new man” (The Body) in the current age. Paul teaches that some principles and truths “carry through” and some do not ("testing the things that carry through/differ" -Phil.1:10). These must be discerned. To wit, we can rest on the truth that “God is love” carries through all ages, but the practice of going “to the Jew first” or that the good news is to “the Jew first” do not.
Principles may carry through. We can apply the pattern of discipline in Matthew 18, but we surely cannot claim the authority to bind and loose, neither can we claim the authority of his approval of our decisions. We note that the end of the passage regarding two or three gathered in his name, although often applied in the area of prayer, has nothing to do with prayer. Is God not in the presence of the one who goes into his prayer closet (as instructed by the Lord in regard to prayer in Matthew 6:6)?
So we cannot claim a promise or command given to others nor can we expect conditions of one age to necessarily carry over into another. We also cannot take passages which have nothing to do with prayer and apply them to prayer. As Anderson notes, our experience over time should testify to the realities of the conditions in which we have been placed in this age
The most serious offenses in regard to prayer are those committed by Christians who claim promises that were never made to them, and those who take passages that have nothing to do with prayer and apply them to this subject. This is done habitually, and there are as a result of this misapplication many who are disillusioned and sorely distressed at the seeming failure of God to make good on what they call "the plain prayer-promises of the Bible." –Otis Sellers (Concerning Prayer)
A full study of the ages is left for another day. For now, let us assume, based on our daily experience with prayer that God does not do whatever we ask merely because two of us agree or because there is some mystical power in physically touching each other. [Note: the word translated “touching” in the KJV is the Greek word “per” and merely means “with respect to” (Strong’s) or “concerning” (Thayer’s). There is no magic in holding hands or touching a TV screen.]
So what is our expectation in the present Age?
So why does it seem that God doesn’t seem to be moving on our behalf as he has in other ages? No pillars of fire. No withered limbs restored before our eyes (note that so-called faith healers always seem to heal things we can’t see). People are not regularly raised from the dead. These are overt signs for Israel grounded in God’s promise of her coming earthly kingdom. But that plan is currently on hold. We don’t have their promises or their destiny; hence we shouldn’t expect their miracles.
It is not that God cannot perform these miracles in this age
, it is simply not the pattern of this age nor does it accomplish his goals for this age of grace. There is no blank check as Israel had. Our prayers and expectations must reflect this truth.
The answer to why God doesn’t seem to move today as he often did in scripture is found in the age in which we live; to wit, the present age of grace.
For the purposes of this note on prayer, I am going to assume an age of grace (as most of my readers will understand that we are living in the dispensation of the grace of God, hidden from before the foundation of the world, as revealed by Paul in Ephesians 3).
So what should we expect of prayer if there are no pillars of fire? I will use my most recent medical experience to try and explain my current understanding of prayer and the expectation we should have in regard to answers to our prayers.
When I discovered that I had a life-threatening condition (double aortic aneurysm) which required immediate open-heart surgery, I went to the Lord in prayer. My friends and family joined me in prayer. My Christian friends prayed over me “claiming” the promises of Matthew 18. They “agreed in prayer” and “touched” me.
Suddenly! Nothing happened. I went into surgery not visibly different than before all the “claiming” and “touching” and “agreeing.” The usual excuses are given, “not God’s will,” “selfish nature of the prayers,” “God answered, but said ‘no’,” etc. There are scriptural bases for these answers (sometimes God does say “no”), but they would contradict Matthew 18 if Matthew 18 was about prayer and about this age. The promises given there are unconditional to whom they were given.
God was capable of healing me. There was nothing wrong in praying that God would heal me. But God was under no obligation or covenant to heal me. So I suffered the surgery.
As I lie in recovery, often in great pain, I knew my prayer had been answered. That is, I felt the presence of God. I saw the fruition of a promise that was given to me, in the Present Age, in Philippians 4:7 (“in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”).
Of course, that will not fully satisfy every question we have, and it did not satisfy all my questions. It was only when I experienced the debilitating post-surgery cough (seven weeks of it) and fully meditated on the events that led to the discovery of my fatal condition that I began to better understand how God responds to the prayers of his own in this age.
Although God does not destroy San Francisco in this age as he did Sodom, although we don’t raise the dead as Peter did, or heal the sick as Paul did, that does not mean that God does not move in this age
or that he is unable to move on our behalf. He surely can and does (above all we can ask or think)! But in this age, God moves in grace and he moves in a way that is consistent with his purpose for this age; men must come to God by faith because of the grace he offers, not solely out of fear or because they witnessed a pillar of fire, etc.
By contrast we can say that God is not now demonstrating His power, majesty, justice or judgment. He is demonstrating His grace. This is His present purpose. –Otis Sellers (God’s Present Purpose)
I had my cough for seven weeks. It was seriously hindering my recovery. It kept me from going for walks (a very necessary exercise for my recovery). So I turned to the Lord and earnestly prayed. The Lord allowed me to go through the surgery, he was with me when I was suffering in pain, he opened my family’s eyes to the brevity of life and the need to express our love in word and deed while we can… but why this cough? Why had it puzzled my doctors?
Within a few days the cough was gone. It wasn’t immediate. There was no cloud of smoke. Nobody laid hands on me. I knew it was an answer to prayer; my prayers and the prayers of my brothers and sisters in the Lord.
As I look back over the circumstances that led to the discovery of my condition, the ordeal of surgery itself and the inexplicable cough that I had to endure, I believe my concept of prayer has advanced (if only slightly). God works in ways that we cannot see with physical eyes.
God is working in grace
He moves in ways we cannot understand. We will see the fruits of our prayers in ways we do not always expect. In some cases, we will not understand his will until a future age. The biggest mistake we can make, I believe, is to map out in our minds how we believe God should answer our prayers. Leave the request with him and expect the unexpected. His grace is beyond comprehension and his love beyond description.
Paul refers to the unfathomable riches of God’s grace in this dispensation
(Eph 3:8-9). The Holy Spirit uses the Greek word “anexichn” which gives the sense of being “untraceable” (Strong’s) and “beyond comprehension” (Thayer’s). We must see God with our spiritual eyes. We must trust him to act according to his eternal purpose. That’s not an easy thing to do, and it’s a lifelong endeavor.
My study of prayer will continue until I fall asleep in Christ, but until then I hope to trust him more and more as I leave my requests with him.
Here is one of the finest summations of prayer in this age
I have ever read:
The prayer of the Pentecostal age was like drawing cheques to be paid in coin over the counter. The prayer of the Christian dispensation, that is, of the life of faith, is to make known our requests to God, and to be at peace. If the matter were one within the power of a friend to deal with a friend whose wisdom we could trust and of whose love we were assured should we not be content to say, after telling him all," Now you know my feelings and my wishes, and I leave the case entirely in your hands." And this is just what God invites. –Sir Robert Anderson (The Silence of God)