What Should We Pray For?


January 7–13 is the national week of prayer in the Assemblies of God. Throughout this week, I will be sharing daily devotions on prayer. May you draw closer to God in 2018 as you seek His face.

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In Matthew 6:9–13, Jesus teaches us the Lord’s Prayer:

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.

Notice the pattern of this prayer and the specific requests it makes.

The pattern is vertical and horizontal. First, we direct our attention to God and His concerns; then we ask God to direct His attention to us and our concerns. In Matthew 22:37–39, Jesus says: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

Prayer simply follows the pattern of these two great commandments.

The Lord’s Prayer makes six specific requests. First, we pray, “hallowed be your name.” The name of God is revelatory; it tells us about His person and works. According to Matthew 1:21, for example, Joseph and Mary named their baby Jesus “because he will save his people from their sins.” In Hebrew, Jesus simply means, “The Lord saves.” So, the first thing we do in prayer is praise God for who He is and what He has done. By doing so, we focus on God’s powerful love for us.

Our second and third requests are, “your kingdom come, your will be done.” The will of God is what He wants to accomplish in the world He created and the people He is saving. Through prayer, we prioritize God’s agenda for our lives.

Fourth, we pray, “Give us today our daily bread.” In first-century Palestine, most people lived at a subsistence level. They worked as day laborers, earning only enough money to buy what short-term provisions they needed. So, the prayer for daily bread was a prayer for actual bread. In our day, it includes other things. When we pray, we can ask God for whatever we need. Interestingly, there is a connection between doing God’s will and receiving our daily bread. As Jesus says in Matthew 6:33, “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things [food, drink and clothing, among others] will be given to you as well.”

Fifth, we pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” When we pray, we seek God’s grace and promise to send it along to others as well. Prayer is the nexus between our reconciliation with God and our reconciliation with other people.

Finally, we pray, “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” Life is difficult. God uses these difficulties to make us better people. So, when we pray, we must learn to trust God in trying times.

When we pray, we ought to follow the pattern of the Lord’s Prayer and make its requests our own.

Your Father Knows What You Need


January 7–13 is the national week of prayer in the Assemblies of God. Throughout this week, I will be sharing daily devotions on prayer. May you draw closer to God in 2018 as you seek His face.

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Four “how” questions arise from Jesus’ discussion of prayer in Matthew 6:5–15: How often should we pray? Where should we pray? Should we use patterned prayers? And what should we pray for? We have answered the first three questions, but before answering the fourth, I want to take a look at something Jesus says in Matthew 6:8: “your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” Later, He says, “your heavenly Father knows that you need [food, drink and clothing]” (Matthew 6:32).

Why does Jesus tell us that God knows what we need even before we pray to Him? For at least one very simple reason, I think: He wants to assure us that God always has our best interests in mind. Often, we let the anxieties of life pile up on us before we take them to God in prayer. We forget about God until the very moment we realize we cannot live without His help. But God has not forgotten us. “Look at the birds of the air,” Jesus tells us in Matthew 6:26, “they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?”

God already knows our needs, so when we pray, we can rest assured that He desires to meet them and has the power to do so.

But if God already knows our needs, why do we need to ask Him to meet them? Soren Kierkegaard hints at the answer when he writes, “Prayer does not change God, but it changes him who prays.”

God could meet our needs without our prayers. By asking for our prayers, He meets a need deep within us that we may not even know we have — our need to depend on Him.

Consider what John Calvin wrote in this regard: “Believers do not pray with the view of informing God about things unknown to him, or of exciting him to do his duty, or of urging him as though he were reluctant. On the contrary, they pray in order that they may arouse themselves to seek him, that they may exercise their faith in meditating on his promises, that they may relieve themselves from their anxieties by pouring them into his bosom; in a word, that they may declare that from him alone they hope and expect, both for themselves and for others, all good things.”

“By our praying,” Martin Luther concludes, “we are instructing ourselves.”

Because God knows all things, including our needs from hour to hour, we can be confident that He will take care of us. This confidence is evident in Paul’s assertion that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).

Not all things that happen to us are good, of course, but God can turn even bad things to good ends. The real question is whether we love God and express our need for Him.

Should We Use Patterned Prayers?


January 7–13 is the national week of prayer in the Assemblies of God. Throughout this week, I will be sharing daily devotions on prayer. May you draw closer to God in 2018 as you seek His face.

~~~~~

Matthew 6:7–8 says: “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

Other translations speak of “empty phrases” (ESV) and “vain repetitions” (KJV).

Does Jesus prohibit using set phrases or repetition in prayer? Should we use patterned prayers? No and yes, respectively.

Let me give you two examples of patterned prayers. At meals: “For what we are about to receive may the Lord make us truly thankful.” At a child’s bedtime: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.”

Does Jesus prohibit the use of patterned prayers such as these? No! Consider His instructions to the disciples in Matthew 6:9: “This, then, is how you should pray….”

The Lord’s Prayer is a patterned prayer. Jesus not only taught His disciples patterned prayers, He used them himself. His prayer from the cross — “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46) — is a quotation from Psalm 22. When you read that psalm in its entirety, you see why Jesus prayed it as He died. It is the appropriate prayer for that agonizing moment. In fact, the Book of Psalms is simply a collection of patterned prayers. If such prayers are good enough to be included in the Bible and used by the Lord, they are good enough for our use too.

What Jesus really prohibits is pointless prayer, not patterned prayer. As John Stott explains, He prohibits “any and every prayer which is all words and no meaning, all lips and no mind or heart … a torrent of mechanical and mindless words.”

So, should we use patterned prayers? Yes, but only if they help us express our minds and hearts to God.

I find patterned prayers useful for two reasons: First, they help me say exactly what I want to say. In the morning, I pray, “This is the day that the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:24, ESV). When I sin, I pray, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13). And when I go to sleep, I pray, “Guide me while waking, and guard me while sleeping, that waking I may watch with Christ, and sleeping I may rest in peace.” Why invent new prayers when old ones express my feelings exactly?

Second, patterned prayers help me organize my thoughts. The Lord’s Prayer presents an outline of prayer. It begins with focused attention on God (“hallowed be your name,” “your kingdom come, your will be done”) and then turns to our needs (“daily bread,” forgiveness, and deliverance from evil). When I pray, I use this outline, adding my specific requests under the appropriate headings. Under “daily bread,” for example, I ask God for whatever I or my family and friends need.

Patterned prayers are simply tools. Use them if they help you get the job done.

Where Should We Pray?


January 7–13 is the national week of prayer in the Assemblies of God. Throughout this week, I will be sharing daily devotions on prayer. May you draw closer to God in 2018 as you seek His face.

~~~~~

In Matthew 6:5–6, Jesus answers our second question about the “how” of prayer: Where should we pray? He says, “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

We should not interpret Jesus’ words too literally. True, “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (Luke 5:16). But He also prayed in front of others, such as the crowd of 5,000 men, besides women and children, whom He fed miraculously (Matthew 14:19).

Jesus’ disciples also prayed in front of others. According to Acts 1:14 and 2:1–13, it was because of what the crowds saw happening at a Jerusalem prayer meeting that they asked Peter, “What does this mean?” God used the evangelistic sermon Peter preached in response to their question as a tool to convert about 3,000 of them that very day. All because of a public prayer meeting!

When Jesus tells us to pray in our rooms, in other words, He is more concerned about the spiritual location of our hearts than the geographical location of our bodies. He does not want us to be hypocrites, which derives from the Greek word for an actor. A hypocrite acts one way in public but lives another way in private. His onstage role is driven by a need for public approval. Because Jesus does not want our prayers to be corrupted by this hypocritical desire “to be seen by others,” however, He counsels us to pray alone, in secret, behind closed doors. Solitude enhances authenticity. Alone, we are able to speak our real concerns as our real selves to a real God who really cares.

Unfortunately, many people have trouble practicing solitude. We live in a highly individualistic culture, and they feel isolated and alone. When Jesus talks about solitude, they feel creeping pangs of despair. “I am already lonely,” they say to themselves, “must I continue to be lonely to experience God?” No! Solitude and loneliness are not the same thing. Solitude is healthy individualism; loneliness is unhealthy individualism. In the Christian life, there must be balance between solitude and sociality. Without that balance, we can neither be our authentic selves nor experience healthy relationships. So, let us heed Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s warning: “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community…. Let him who is not in community beware of being alone….”

Let us make time and space in our lives to approach God in solitude. By the same token, we should not give up meeting together; instead, we should encourage one another (Hebrews 10:25). As long as our desire is to be rewarded by God rather than seen by others, we can draw near to Him alone and together.

How Often Should We Pray?


January 7–13 is the national week of prayer in the Assemblies of God. Throughout this week, I will be sharing daily devotions on prayer. May you draw closer to God in 2018 as you seek His face.

~~~~~

We have touched on the whether and the why of prayer. Now we need to pay attention to the how. Four questions arise: How often should we pray? Where should we pray? Should we use patterned prayers? And what should we pray for?

First, how often should we pray?

Jesus does not say. In Matthew 6:5, He begins, “And when you pray…,” then talks about where to pray. Jesus assumes we will pray; He does not tell us how often.

Jesus’ own life suggests an answer, however. According to Luke 5:16, “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.”

Luke does not quantify the word often, but his words indicate that Jesus prayed at regular intervals. I think we can safely assume that Jesus observed the set hours of prayer practiced by His fellow Jews. Several clues point in that direction:

  • Jesus’ parents kept the Old Testament laws regarding circumcision, purification, presentation of infants to the Lord and sacrifice, as “the custom of the Law required” (Luke 2:21–27).
  • Not only that, according to Luke 2:41–42, they went to Jerusalem every year for Passover, “according to the custom.”
  • Luke 4:16 tells us that Jesus “went to Nazareth … and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom.”
  • According to Acts 2:42, the early church members “devoted themselves … to prayer.” (Without explanation, the NIV translates the Greek plural with an English singular.) The prayer or prayers mentioned here most likely refers to set hours of prayer observed throughout the day.
  • Finally, according to Acts 17:2, “As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures.”

What emerges from these clues is that Jesus, instructed by His parents and imitated by his protégés, faithfully practiced Jewish customs, including Sabbath observance, synagogue attendance and prayer. If we want to experience God through prayer, we ought to follow Jesus’ example. At minimum, this means making time for biblical meditation and prayer twice daily. Psalm 1:1–2 tells us that the person whom God blesses “meditates on his law day and night.” And in Psalm 88:1–2, the psalmist exclaims, “Lord, you are the God who saves me; day and night I cry out before you.”

Going further, it means praying whenever a need arises. James 5:13–14 says, “Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them….”

Ultimately, when we have developed good spiritual habits, prayer will come as naturally to us as breathing; that is, we will always be praying. Consider Luke 18:1: “Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.”

Or Ephesians 6:18: “pray in the Spirit on all occasions … always keep on praying.”

Or 1 Thessalonians 5:17: “pray continually.”

So, how often should we pray? Routinely, occasionally and always!

Two Questions About Spiritual Discipline


January 7–13 is the national week of prayer in the Assemblies of God. Throughout this week, I will be sharing daily devotions on prayer. May you draw closer to God in 2018 as you seek His face.

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If you are going to experience God through prayer, you will need a better guide than me. Because I am a minister, I am embarrassed to admit that I am not the greatest at prayer. I experience moments when my prayers lurch along in fits and starts. I often find my prayers directing God’s attention to me rather than my attention to Him. I am not the best guide for your journey.

Fortunately, I am not your only choice — nor do you have to turn to other pastors or spiritual writers. God himself provides ample guidance on how to pray. Remember Hebrews 1:1–2: “God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets … but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son….”

God speaks to us in both the Old Testament (which focuses on the ministry of the prophets) and the New Testament (which focuses on the ministry of the Son).

What, then, does the Bible tell us about prayer? A whole lot, actually. Thankfully, Jesus offers a précis of prayer in Matthew 6:5–15. Those 11 verses are the central part of a larger discussion about acts of righteousness, or spiritual disciplines. They are bookended on either side by teaching about generosity to the poor (6:1–4) and fasting (6:16–18). The entire discussion begins with a warning: “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven” (6:1).

As I read that warning, I find myself asking two questions: Do I practice the disciplines? If so, why — what is my motivation? Take a moment to ponder both.

First, “Do I practice the disciplines?” Generosity, prayer, fasting and other spiritual disciplines are habits we must develop to become the kind of people God wants us to be. Prayer and fasting remind us of our overriding need for God, for His tangible and spiritual blessings. Generosity to the poor reminds us that there is a greater purpose to wealth than mere acquisition — namely, meeting others’ needs and making the world a better place. Without disciplines such as generosity, prayer and fasting, we cannot love God with all our being; nor can we love our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:37,39).

Second, “Why do I practice the disciplines? What is my motivation?” Jesus offers two possible answers: to be seen by others or to be seen by God. People who practice the disciplines to be seen by others are looking for a temporary spiritual reputation. But people who practice them to be seen by God are looking for an eternal spiritual relationship. According to Jesus, both groups will get what they want (Matthew 6:2,5,15), but only the latter group will receive what all of us truly need — the reward of heaven (6:4,6,18).

So, do you practice the spiritual disciplines? Why? Your answers to these questions are important if you want to experience God through prayer.

Our Conversation with God


January 7–13 is the national week of prayer in the Assemblies of God. Throughout this week, I will be sharing daily devotions on prayer. May you draw closer to God in 2018 as you seek His face.

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God is not an idea to be contemplated but a Person to be loved. According to Matthew 22:36–37, “the greatest commandment” is this: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”

This summarizes everything the Bible teaches about our relationship with God.

The Bible also teaches that God loves us. According to John 3:16, “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

God’s love for us precedes our love for Him and in fact makes it possible. First John 4:10–11 tells us, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”

So, our relationship with God consists of giving and receiving love. It is a personal relationship, and like all such relationships, it requires communication, which is a two-way street. The Bible is God’s side of the conversation. According to Hebrews 1:1–2, “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.”

Prayer is our side of the conversation. “Do not be anxious about anything,” the apostle Paul says in Philippians 4:6, “but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”

When we think of our relationship with God as a conversation, we see why Bible reading and prayer must be practiced together. A relationship cannot exist when only one person talks, after all. Both speak, and both listen. In our relationship with God, first we hear God’s Word to us, and then we respond to Him.

A little story from the Old Testament offers a powerful example of this principle. According to 1 Samuel 3:1–4:1, God spoke to Samuel when he was a boy living in the household of Eli, the high priest of Israel.

“Samuel!” the Lord called.

Thinking Eli was calling him, Samuel said, “Here I am; you called me.”

But Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.”

This happened three times. The third time, Eli realized that God was speaking to Samuel, so he told him: “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’”

Samuel did what Eli recommended, and God “revealed himself to Samuel through his word.” Because Samuel paid attention to what God said, God expanded his sphere of influence: “Samuel’s word came to all Israel.”

God speaks to us through the Bible. We respond to Him through prayer. From this conversation, we experience God’s love for us and learn His plans for our lives.

Speak, Lord, we are listening!

Review of ‘Miracle Work’ by Jordan Seng [Updated]


Miracle Work Jordan Seng, Miracle Work: A Down-to-Earth Guide to Supernatural Ministries (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2013). $17.00, 224 pages.

Miracle Work by Jordan Seng is, as the subtitle explains, “a down-to-earth guide to supernatural ministries”: healing, deliverance, prophecy, intercession, and Spirit-baptism. Written in an engaging, folksy style, the book combines personal anecdote, biblical teaching, and practical, experience-based guidance. It is one of the most interesting books I have read this year, for several reasons:

First, Jordan Seng is not the guy you’d expect to write this kind of book. He is a graduate of Stanford University with a PhD in political theory from the University of Chicago who served for a time as a National Security Fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. In his infamous essay, “On Miracles,” David Hume argued that reports of miracles arose among chiefly “ignorant and barbarous nations,” or were received by “civilized people” from “ignorant and barbarous ancestors.” Clearly, Hume never imagined the possibility of a miracle-working PhD, which simply shows the limits of his imagination and the extent of his prejudices.

Second, Seng is neither a member of the word-of-faith movement nor an advocate of the prosperity gospel. By the same token, he is not a proponent of classical Pentecostalism, with its doctrines of healing in the Atonement and tongues as initial physical evidence. In other words, he doesn’t fit the public stereotype of a “faith healer,” nor can he be easily fitted into ready-made theological grooves. He is the pastor of Bluewater Mission in Honolulu, Hawaii, which is affiliated with Vineyard Churches, and thus shares some of that movement’s emphases. Nonetheless, he ministers across a wide variety of denominations. (His publisher, InterVarsity Press, is a mainstream evangelical book house.)

Third, whereas faith healers emphasize the importance of faith in the person seeking healing, Seng emphasizes the importance of power in the person performing the healing. Indeed, the heart of the book is a chapter entitled, “The Power Equation,” where Seng lays out his understanding of how supernatural power flows through a person and results in supernatural ministry: Authority + Gifting + Faith + Consecration = Power. “[T]he amount of authority [determined by obedience to Jesus], gifting, faith and consecration you develop will combine to determine, in large part, the amount of supernatural power you have for ministry.” This shift of emphasis has important pastoral consequences: A person who does not experience healing should not be faulted for lack of faith, which is the implication of word-of-faith theology.

Fourth, whereas prosperity evangelists are often captive to the American dream, which emphasizes a life of health, wealth, and peace, Seng argues that supernatural ministry “radicalizes” Christians. “If you accept that you can do even the supernatural things that Jesus and his followers did in the Gospel stories, then you’ve pulled a linchpin: If you can do Jesus’ miracles, then you can live Jesus’ lifestyle across the board. In this way, supernatural ministry reinforces kingdom living. The supernatural begets the radical.” A major theme of the book is that “supernatural ministry will do a lot to make you a supernatural person” [emphasis in the original], and—I would add—vice versa. Rather than seeking health, wealth, and peace, supernatural people should do hard things: “Believers should be attracted to impossible situations like frat boys to beer. We should be drawn to every warzone, disaster area, cancer ward, violent ghetto, impoverished people or unreached group. Wherever the world has no solution, the believers should rush in. Why? Because God makes all things possible.”

Fifth, at the end of the day, the point of supernatural ministry is to draw us closer to Jesus. In the book’s final chapter, Seng shares his personal story. It includes the instability of his birth family, his wife’s seven miscarriages, long stretches of depression, academic frustration, and feelings of personal unworthiness. At a critical juncture, he has a vision of Jesus who comes to him and says, “Good job. I love you.” Reflecting on this, Seng writes: “I have lots of provocative stories about supernatural ministry, but the supernatural experiences that have shaped me most are the simple, intimate ones—the personal interactions in which I’ve gotten to feel, for a short while, the manifest presence of God there for me.”

Despite my interest in this book, even enthusiasm about it, I would like to note three reservations. The first is from the perspective of a classical Pentecostal. Whereas we believe that tongues is the initial physical evidence of Spirit-baptism, Seng argues that it is an evidence—the most common, perhaps, but not “necessary” evidence. The second is from the perspective of an evangelical. I worry that Seng overemphasizes the necessity of prophetic utterance. I don’t deny that such utterances happen, but I’m not sure small groups need to put members in the “mushpot” and prophesy over them on a regular basis. I’m worried, in other words, that giving prophetic advice might crowd out seeking guidance from biblical teaching. Does God have a unique word for everyone in every situation? That’s the impression Seng gives me, but I’m not sure that’s true. The third is from the perspective of an unhealed person. Seng writes, “in the kingdom of God, healing is the default position.” As a classical Pentecostal, who believes that healing is provided for in the atonement, I resonate with this statement. But as a sufferer, I also recognize that there are elements of timing (healing in this age or the age to come?), divine purpose (“my grace is sufficient”), and mystery that complicate expectations of healing here and now. (UPDATE: It might be helpful to read Miracle Work and Dying Out Loud in tandem, for they capture the two sides of the coin. Miracle Work talks about divine power to heal, while Dying Out Loud limns the divine purposes of sickness and death. See my review of Dying Out Loud here.)

Despite my reservations, I recommend reading Miracle Work. It is an interesting, faith-building book. If Jesus and his followers did supernatural ministry, why can’t we?

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

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