How is your prayer life? If you are like me, your answer is "inadequate and needs improvement." When I walk in the morning, I try to pray and look for God's leading in writing this lesson. However, my mind is like a squirrel constantly trying to dart off onto other matters. If you think your prayer life could use improvement, let's race into our Bible study to see how we can improve our conversations with God!
Frequently, prayer assumes a self-centered posture. Believers present their wish lists before God, hoping to get that which they ask for. Though, of course, we are told to set our petitions before God, sometimes our motives are not pure. After all, are not our hearts corrupt, wicked, and deceitful? Might not our prayers, at times, simply reflect the sinfulness that lies within?
Discipleship and Prayer
Commentary for the January 18, 2014 Sabbath School Lesson
“If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” Matthew 21:22, NIV
In December, 2013, Smithsonian Magazine published the picture seen here and declared it the oldest known telephone in the Western Hemisphere.[i] Constructed of gourds and approximately seventy-five feet of twine, we can only speculate what this 1200-1400 year old device might have been used for. It was apparently made by the Chimu people of the Northern Andes who were eventually conquered by the Incas. There apparently is no indication that the Inca ever adopted this technology. One cannot help but wonder where we might have been if there had been an unbroken line of innovation traceable back to this ancient instrument.
Communication over distances has been a challenge throughout history. Whether we used signal fires, semaphore flags or horseback couriers as in the past or smart phones, e-mail and social media as we do today. The effort to approach instantaneous communication, without degradation, over vast distances is the holy grail of communication inventors. As we approach closer to that goal, we find the weak link is more likely to be the humans doing the communicating. Who hasn’t been told, “I didn’t get your e-mail?” And who hasn’t called a phone that we know is with the call recipient at all times only to go directly to voicemail every time? We may have the technology to provide almost instant communication, but it cannot guarantee that every call will be welcomed.
Biblically, instantaneous communication is apparently nothing new. When Daniel was praying to God, the angel, Gabriel, appeared to him and told Daniel that when he began to pray, he was sent to bring Daniel a special message.[ii] Even if Gabriel had only been in the next town, the rapidity with which the message was delivered in response to the prayer would have astounded the ancient Hebrews. However, if the angel had been in heaven and heaven was assumed to be out somewhere in space or beyond, the speed of response would have been mind boggling. Of course this might be no great trick for a transcendent God. A God who is everywhere every time would probably find the idea of being constrained by the linear flow of time in any way ludicrous. We might say, “Yes, this is true of God, but Gabriel is an angel and not God.” But perhaps, we are overlooking a basic principle of how our universe operates.
As the Apostle Paul is reported to have stated when quoting the Cretan philosopher Epimenides, “in him we live and move and have our being.”[iii] Again, he wrote in his letter to the Philippians, “…it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.”[iv] Perhaps if the active agent sustaining the universe is a God who transcends the limitations of time and space, then those who are wholly dependent upon Him have available through Him ability that challenges our comprehension. Possibly they might have the ability to step from one dimension to the next as easily as you or I might walk through a door. Perhaps such abilities beyond our perception may be why Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”[v]
Of course, Jesus’ words regarding the mountain may be taken literally or seen as metaphor. But even with a metaphorical mountain, the summation that “Nothing will be impossible for you,” leaves little room for symbolism. “Nothing” is usually not interpreted to mean “some things,” no matter how much we may desire to avoid a literal understanding. But this begs the question, “If the prayer of faith has such awesome properties, why aren’t we seeing mountains moving right and left all over the place? Could it be that, once again, we are overlooking how the universe operates?
While it is true that some will see the failure to move mountains around as a reason to deny that there really is a God, they may be as guilty of black-and-white, absolutist thinking as some Christians at times tend to be. Such thinking can be a barrier to allowing for possibilities beyond the threshold of our understanding. It also implies that God is finite, easily defined and therefore subject to scientific methodology that can prove or disprove His existence. While we may choose to define God in this manner, it only serves the purpose of allowing our “straw man” to be summarily dismissed based not on observed reality but on a construct of our making. But if God exists beyond our perception or understanding then we had all better hedge our bets as we cannot logically dismiss that which we cannot perceive or understand.
Returning more specifically to communication, some might say regarding God that since they prayed to Him and did not observe an answer to their prayer (i.e. moved a mountain), He does not exist. Some Christians may glibly reply, “Yes, He did. The answer was simply ‘No.’” But that is just as presumptuous as the one who says there was no answer. On the one hand, the former might be better off to say, “I saw no answer,” than to say there was none. This acknowledges that there may be things beyond our perception, which we already know scientifically to not only be possible but likely given the finiteness of our knowledge and understanding.
On the other hand, the Christian response implies a perfect perception of all possible divine responses. However, a scientist might be able to share how difficult that is to accomplish at times even in a controlled environment. As for the Christian response, they may be speaking of a lesser god that can always be understood and interpreted to their liking. When faced with a crisis that they do not understand, they will find how little comfort such a god can be in the face of heartache and loss.
There is nothing facile about prayer. It can be rather a conundrum even for the Christian who asserts its effectiveness. For instance, if God is all-knowing, why do we need to pray to such a deity? Wouldn’t He already know what we were going to pray even before we said it? And if Jesus was/is God, why did He pray? Was He talking to Himself? Logically these things don’t make sense, and perhaps this is a reason why some find it hard to take Christians seriously. Yet, once again, both Christians and their opponents approach these things with assumptions implying that they see the entirety of the situation for what it is.
On a fundamental level, we may see prayer as communication. However, could prayer be something that, like God, transcends understanding? Perhaps even the word “communication” is inadequate to define prayer. We may be able to begin to get an understanding of how that could be when we look at simple oral communication. In such a process, we have a speaker and a listener. The speaker speaks and the listener hears the words. This is one-way communication. Dialogue occurs when both participants alternatively play both roles. However, what happens when we include other facets, such as body language. The communication can quickly become more complicated. We can even send conflicting messages by saying one thing and indicating the opposite with our body posture. This is only communicating on two levels. If communication can become so difficult to understand at this basic level, what happens if we are using a method of communication that transcends every level of our understanding? Perhaps that is what happens with prayer.
The Bible hints at that possibility. Paul wrote in his Epistle to the Romans, “…the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.”[vi] Perhaps where we stand now, we are unable to communicate adequately on every level and only divine assistance is capable of overcoming that lack. Maybe it is like a tribal villager whose child is sick and goes door-to-door in the village, but all their pleading is useless as no one else has what he needs to help the child either. Then someone shows up in the village with a satellite phone, something the villagers have neither seen nor owned, and a call is placed for medical assistance and the child is saved. The person with the phone made up what the villagers lacked.
While this illustration is a rather poor attempt to show that what we need for prayer may be outside our understanding, it should not be understood to be saying that every prayer will provide the equivalent of the person with the satellite phone. That would be arrogance on my part, for it would imply that my understanding of prayer was authoritative. It is not. I can no more guarantee efficacious prayer than anyone else.
Do I pray? Yes, and I do so regularly. Why? I do so for two reasons. First, I pray because Jesus did. If He was/is divine that implies a perception that transcends any that I might have, and if with that enhanced perception, He still felt it necessary to pray, perhaps it would be good for me as well. Perhaps this is what is meant by the phrase “prayer of faith.” Second, I pray because when I deal with life each day, I must admit that there are things and events that are beyond my ability to deal with. Whether perceived to be efficacious or not, prayer allows me to feel as though I am participating in a solution rather than endorsing the problem.
While prayer can be a way of avoiding confronting problems that we can deal with without it, it doesn’t have to be. In fact, when we use prayer in this way, we may be abdicating our responsibility for making things right in the very troubled world we live in. Perhaps we should pray, but we may also need to advocate in other ways as well for changes to the problems that confront us. Maybe prayer will give us the strength and courage to do that.
[i] “Can You Hear Me Now?” Smithsonian Magazine, December, 2013
[ii] Daniel 9:23
[iii] Acts 17:28, NIV
[iv] Philippians 2:13, NIV
[v] Matthew 17:20, NIV
[vi] Romans 8:26
She seems an unlikely character for this week’s discussion on discipleship and prayer. Throughout her story as recorded in the Gospel of John, prayer is not once mentioned. She is not one of the many who came seeking Jesus for miraculous healing from some incurable illness. As a matter of fact, she didn’t even initially recognize Jesus as they conversed together. Yet, her brief interaction with Him speaks volumes about our experience with God as it relates to prayer.
While her entire story from beginning to end is full of valuable lessons for many aspects of life, we will listen to just a small part of her discourse with Divinity.
Jesus, in his humanity, sits at Jacob’s well in Sychar. Unable to draw the water himself he asks this woman of Samaria for a drink. In her shock that a Jew would dialogue with a Samaritan, she seeks an answer from Him about this break from tradition. It is here where the lesson of prayer begins.
“Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” John 4:10 NIV. If you only knew who you were talking to…
What would life for us be like if we really appreciated who we were conversing with in prayer? Sure, we all readily agree that prayer is talking to God one on one. But the evidence shows that we often pray in a spirit of lowered expectations.
This is not a problem exclusive to our generation. In the days when Jesus walked this earth as man, He addressed this issue in a way to show the higher priorities of life. “Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not; and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. If then God so clothe the grass, which is to day in the field, and to morrow is cast into the oven; how much more will he clothe you, O ye of little faith? And seek not ye what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink, neither be ye of doubtful mind. For all these things do the nations of the world seek after: and your Father knoweth that ye have need of these things. But rather seek ye the kingdom of God; and all these things shall be added unto you.” Luke 12:27-31
Today, I am reminded that God “is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think” Ephesians 3:20 I hear Jesus saying to me as he did to the woman of Samaria, “I that speak unto thee am he”. John 4:26
My operating in a spirit of low expectations must be replaced with a deeper belief that comprehends the priceless offer of heavenly resources when He says “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” Luke 11:9, 10
I must no longer limit my prayers to primarily seeking relief from financial or other common life trials. Realizing more fully who it is I am speaking to I will ask Him to do what no other can do; make an entire change in my heart and life. Whether I’m rich or poor let me be content but free me from the sins that do so easily overwhelm me. My expectations must be higher.
And as I pray for my deliverance from evil, so too will I pray in earnestness and desperation for my family, friends, co-workers, neighbors and even my enemies. I will pray for God’s blessings on their lives and I will be a part of the answer to those prayers by following the example of Job, “I was eyes to the blind, and feet was I to the lame. I was a father to the poor: and the cause which I knew not I searched out.” Job 29:15, 16. My expectations must be higher.
Whether I’m free or bound, give me excellence in my service to the Kingdom of God. Help me to rise above selfish goals of success that feed my ego and allow me to be one of those at the end of time when the King shall say “Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.” “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” Matthew 25:34-26, 40. My expectations must be higher.
Here are a few Hit the Mark questions for this week’s lesson discussion:
?Are there conditions to having one’s prayers answered?
?Why do you answer yes or no?
?Isn’t it true that if I believe hard enough for something God will answer that specific prayer of faith?
?Why do you answer yes or no?
?Psalms 37:4 says, “Delight thyself also in the Lord: and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart.”
?Question one: What does “delight thyself also in the Lord” mean?
?Question two: Is this a promise that anything I desire God will give it to me?
?Why do you answer yes or no?
We close this week with John 15:5-8 which speaks of the foundation and life transformative power of a connection with Christ that includes prayer: I am the Vine, you are the branches. When you’re joined with me and I with you, the relation intimate and organic, the harvest is sure to be abundant. Separated, you can’t produce a thing. Anyone who separates from me is deadwood, gathered up and thrown on the bonfire. But if you make yourselves at home with me and my words are at home in you, you can be sure that whatever you ask will be listened to and acted upon. This is how my Father shows who he is—when you produce grapes, when you mature as my disciples. The Message
INTRODUCTION. What would you do if by some gigantic supernatural power you were denied the gift of prayer? Of course that can't happen, but doesn't the very thought of existing without prayer send a chill down your back? In this week's lesson we consider the value of prayer in our role as God's witnesses to others on earth.
1. The prayer of compassion. Is there even one example in this account of Daniel's sinning against God? Then why does Daniel consider himself one of the fallen ones? Why doesn't he present himself to Jehovah as one with a pure heart, living without sin in the midst of sinners? What is Daniel's major concern as he pours out his heart to God? Can you put yourself in Daniel's place?
2. Time for prayer. Do you have enough time for prayer? What are the events in your life that draw you to prayer? Does it seem out of place to you to enjoy a good meal without taking time to let God know you appreciate His blessings? What about when you first wake up in the morning? Or when you're starting the engine of your car to begin your day? Or when you're immersed in prayer at the end of the day? How is prayer like an artery pumping blood from your heart to sustain your body?
3. Timeless teaching. Can prayer connect finite souls with the infinite Creator? How does that work? Or is it just your imagination? What is the greatest danger, as you see it, in praying a self-centered prayer? How do you feel when a prayer you have prayed earnestly is not answered as you expected it to be? Have you ever been upset with God in such a situation? Or have you learned to accept what happens and keep praying for God's guidance?
4. Timeless compassion. Can you describe all the characteristics of a perfect God? It not, why not? Even if you can describe only a few of the attributes of God, are you able to absorb them as your own? Why not? What are some ways you can I can be involved in other people's lives so that we can share compassion with them and lead them to Jesus? What should be our primary goal concerning those who are not following Jesus or walking with Him? Should we scold or encourage them? Why?
5. Timeless compassion replicated. Did Christ's disciples catch the joy and power of prayer? How did they leave a record of their compassion for us to study and follow? Think of Stephen. What feelings filled his heart even as he was being murdered? Should we also pray prayers of intercession for people who are rude? critical? full of hate? What about those who believe they are so "holy" that they elevate themselves above everybody else? Are some people beyond prayer? Beyond reach? Why or why not?
6. Prayer changes things. Can prayer change those prayed for without first changing those who pray for them? Do you find comfort, joy, strength, and wisdom in your prayers? How precious is the gift of prayer to each of God's children?
"Discipleship and Prayer"
January 18, 2014
Texts: Daniel 9:2-19; Matthew 14:22, 23; Matthew 26:36; John 17:6-26; Hebrews 2:17; 1 Peter 4:7
He doesn't list his last name. Nevertheless, he is real. His first name is Fryd. He is the creator of Instapray-a free mobile phone app. Fryd has
a passion for intercessory prayer. His goal is to connect people around the world through prayer. When you scroll through the profile of online users to note their home country, you see countries like Sweden, Qatar, Ireland, Bahrain, Netherlands, South Africa, Zambia, Canada, and the United States, to name a few. Fryd has a good start toward his goal.
If you have an Android, iPhone, or tablet, you can go to your app store and download Instapray. This week a user logged on to Instapray and asked for prayer for her two-year-old cousin who is in the hospital. "A dresser fell on her. Please pray with me," she wrote.1
Or perhaps you would prefer to tweet your prayers. Try #instapray. A recent tweet read: "Thank you Lord for not abandoning me to deal with hard issues alone!"
Fryd posts encouraging Scripture on Instagram photos. And as if to leave no stone unturned, Instapray is also available on Pinterest, LinkedIn, Tumblr, and Facebook.
In her blog on January 9, 2014, Angela Jamene wrote that when she shared on Instapray that her grandmother had died just before Christmas, Fryd posted a prayer for her and her family. This request for prayer and Fryd's prayer for comfort resulted in thousands of other prayers from around the globe. Through Instapray, Angela received messages from Indonesia, Australia, and Alabama-all letting her know they were praying for her. Even more surprising to Angela was the fact that prayers were still coming to her as long as three weeks later.2
Prayer is the theme of our Bible study this week. So is intercessory prayer, if we are to be engaged in disciple-making for those who don't know Jesus. But first, we who are Jesus' followers must learn to center our prayers on the needs of others, with less emphasis on our own needs.
John Harper had a passion for people who didn't know Jesus. On board the Titanic, Harper handed his life jacket to a fellow passenger as he called out, "Women and children and unsaved people into the lifeboats." John had mingled with those on board and knew that some had not given their lives to the Savior.
Survivors reported seeing John on the upper deck on his knees, surrounded by terrified passengers, and praying for their salvation. Even when thrust into the icy waters, he held on to a piece of floating wreckage and swam to every person, urging them to put their faith in Jesus Christ.
One of only six people pulled out alive from the frigid waters ends the story by saying, "There, alone in the night with two miles of water under me, I cried to Christ to save me. I am John Harper's last convert."3
Instapray user Matthew reminds us in his prayer: "Lord, help us remember that being a Christian is a #lifestyle not a #label."
Who will you intercede for this week?
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