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Friday, July 27, 2007

The Flesh Is Weak

When you want to pray, have you ever noticed that "the spirit is willing but the body is weak" (Matt 26:41)? Jesus said these words in Gethsemane to Peter when asking him to pray. I've always thought of it in this way, "Peter you need to pray so that you have the strength to do what you know is right". But perhaps the Lord was explaining to Peter why he was finding it hard to pray. It wasn't that Peter didn't want to pray but that his physical body was rebelling against the idea.

Who's In Charge Here?
It is probably universally true that when we try to change our behaviour from a negative pattern to a positive one our flesh cries out against it. It could be eating more healthily, taking more exercise, giving up smoking, watching less TV, getting our tongue under control. Whatever it is, we may be very sincere in our desire for change but our body craves the taste of the chocolate, longs to put the feet up on the couch and share that little tidbit of gossip (just for prayer you understand).

So it shouldn't surprise us that when it comes to something as important as prayer our flesh tells us we really would be happier doing just about anything else. The problem we all face is the power struggle between our body and our spirit to see which is really in control. The first stage in gaining the victory is to recognise that we are spirits which happen to live in a body. It is the spirit who should be in control and not the body. You will never find true joy and you will never develop a powerful prayer life as long as the body is dictating the terms of the relationship. That's why Paul says, "offer your bodies as living sacrifices" (Rom 12:1). Getting our body into line is part of our worship and a prerequisite for becoming a pray-er.

It's About Choices
Here's an example. Almost every day in the past month it has rained. When it's time for my prayer walk my flesh starts telling me how much it doesn't want to get wet and cold and how it would much rather sit down with a hot chocolate and good book. At this point I have a choice. I can give in and do what my body wants and neglect my spirit. Or I can tell my body that the walk will do it good and get on with doing what I know will nourish my spirit and give me the space I need to intercede for those on my prayer list. It's like disciplining a child - each time it gets a little easier to do the right thing, but give in once and you're back to square one.

It's not easy to get up half-an-hour earlier to fit in a quiet time before going to work, it's not easy to go to the prayer meeting every week, it's not easy to commit to praying for your church leaders on a daily basis, it's not easy to take time to be quiet and listen to God. In fact, anything to do with prayer is not going to be easy. It requires utter commitment and determination. That's why Paul claimed, "I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should" (1 Cor 9:27, NLT). It takes time and effort. But if we will persist and not give up, our flesh will come into line, submit to our spirit and our prayer lives will be transformed.

Prayer College Assignment
It has been said that it takes 6 weeks to develop a new habit. In my personal experience it often takes a lot longer, especially in spiritual matters. If you are aware that the grumblings of the flesh are restricting the development of your prayer life make a conscious decision to put your spirit in control and to persist with the self-discipline required to develop a new habit. It's not good enough to say you are going to give it a try. That leaves a loophole for the flesh. The only thing that works is to make a firm decision and determine to see it through whatever happens.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Awake, Oh Sleeper

Do you ever find yourself falling asleep when you pray? I've found prayer so effective at making me drop off that, on those occasions when I wake in the night and can't get back to sleep I often begin to pray for members of the church. Very often I'm asleep before I've prayed for a handful of people.

Spiritual Warfare
I think there are three main reasons why prayer and sleepiness go together. The first of these explains the situation I've just outlined. We have an enemy who doesn't want us to pray. Prayer is an act of warfare in the spiritual battle that rages around us and the devil wants to stop us. He will do all he can and one of his methods is to make us feel sleepy so that we cannot concentrate. The best way I've found to counter this is by walking while I pray.

Lack of Vitality
Another reason why we get sleepy during prayer is that the vitality has gone out of our quiet times: little acts of disobedience mar our relationship with the Lord; a never changing routine can become dry and stale; failure to learn a lesson means we can't move forward. We have to do all we can to avoid creating meaningless ritual and to keep our prayer lives fresh. But above all we must make sure there is no sin or rebellion in our lives which is inhibiting the relationship between us and our Heavenly Father. If we feel as though our prayers are hitting the ceiling and going no further we will very quickly become tired of prayer.

The third reason we become sleepy in our prayer times is simply because we're tired! Most people in western society are sleep deprived. The average person today gets about 2 hours less sleep a night than was typical 100 years ago. Being a person of prayer means being alert and that requires appropriate times of sleep. Yes, I know the stories about John Wesley getting up at 4 o'clock in the morning to pray, but do you think he was up until midnight watching TV?

Not only do we need sleep, but we need to obey our Maker's instructions and actually take a day off each week. For many Christians Sunday is their busiest and most tiring day. If that's the case for you and you work 5 of the other 6 days of the week, you need to think seriously about how to apply the scriptural injunctions about keeping Sabbath. I once heard a preacher lament the number of times Christians complain about being tired but never say how much they are looking forward to the refreshment of their day off. Is that you?

Prayer College Assignment
Most adults have a pretty good idea about what time of day they function best. For some it is early in the morning, for others it may be during the afternoon or late evening. As far as you are able move your prayer time as close as possible to the time of day you feel most alert. Also think carefully about whether you are getting enough rest and sleep and consider modifying your lifestyle. You will find such changes affect your general sense of well-being and your physical health as well as your relationship with God.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Waiting on God

Andrew Murray in his classic book, "Waiting on God", says this,

The giver is more than the gift; God is more than the blessing. And, our being kept waiting on Him is the only way for our learning to find our life and joy in Himself.

Why God Keeps Us Waiting
There are some of the current "name it and claim it" school of prayer whose only explanation for us not receiving immediate answers to our requests is a lack of faith on our part. There are other pray-ers who think it sufficient to dash into the throne room of heaven, run off a quick list of needs and dash out again. Both have missed the point. The main purpose of prayer is not to ask God for things but to dwell in His presence.

If the only way our Heavenly Father can get our attention is by withholding blessings from us so that we keep coming back to Him, then He will do this. The delay in receiving an answer may not be a lack of faith, or a misunderstanding of God's will, or sinful behaviour. It may simply be that the Lord wants us to spend time in His company and the only way some of us will do that is if we are feeling needy and want something.

Where to Find the Best Blessing
The truth is that we don't really need the vast majority of the things we ask God for. Paul recognised that the greatest needs of believers were spiritual. When we look at his letters and read of the prayers he prayed for those under his apostolic care we see nothing about physical needs being met. Instead we see phrases such as, "to give you spiritual wisdom and insight," or "that your hearts will be flooded with light," or "that you may experience the love of Christ" (Eph 1:17,18, 3:19).

If only we could get our thoughts away from the material world and all it's troubles for a few moments and "fix our eyes on Jesus" as the writer to the Hebrews exhorts us (12:2), we would find not only our prayer lives transformed, but also our ability to cope with the day-to-day troubles that so easily drag us down.

Ask a persecuted Christian how you can best pray for them and very often they will not ask for relief from their sufferings but for patience and endurance. This is because they have learned, like Paul, that there is a fellowship with Christ through sharing in suffering (Phil 3:10). Most of us would rather have the quick fix than to learn intimacy with God through leaning on Him in our struggles.

But if we can learn not only to wait for God, but also to wait upon God, and to accept His comfort in our trials we will find, as Andrew Murray says, that God is more than the blessing, and that we would rather have fellowship with Him than answers to our requests for the material and physical things that loom so large when our spiritual eyes slip away from gazing intently upon Jesus. As the hymn writer said,

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of His glory and grace.

(Helen H Lemmel)

Prayer College Assignment
Don't even try to begin the day without turning your eyes and fixing them on Jesus. Not everyone has sufficient mental alertness for a full-blown quiet time first thing in the morning. But it is perfectly possible to fellowship with the Lord, even before you've managed to open your eyes, if your heart is set on Him.

"Oh, if God's children only knew what a glorious God they have, and what a privilege it is to be linked in fellowship with Him, then they would rejoice in Him!" (Andrew Murray in "Waiting on God").

Friday, July 06, 2007

Eden Within

I have talked before about the importance of sacred spaces to our prayer lives. If we have a place where we regularly and consistently meet with God - a room, a chair, a garden - it becomes easier to slip into His presence there than in more unfamiliar surroundings.

A Lost Eden
In this past week circumstances have denied me access to one of my sacred spaces. A place that had become like Eden to me, somewhere to walk and fellowship with the Lord, is no longer available. At first I was extremely upset by this, but through the subsequent days of finding a new place to walk I have learned again that the most important sacred space is not external but internal. True intimacy with God does not take place in beautiful surroundings, but in the depths of the human heart.

Quest for God
My personal quest for intimacy with God began in my early teens when I realised that if the Creator had bothered to make people it must be because He wanted relationship and therefore it must be possible to know God personally. I went to church, read my Bible and prayed. I surrounded myself with people who called themselves Christians. But I never found God until I began praying with a friend at university. When we knelt together I sensed the presence of Jesus for the first time and knew she had what I wanted - relationship with God.

God-Shaped Hole
When the Lord Jesus came into my life it was, in a sense, the end of a search. But it was not the end of my seeking after God. The truth is that once we have tasted relationship with the Lord, all we really want is to be closer to Him. The "God-shaped hole" is a somewhat overused analogy, but we do all try to fill the space in our lives which is meant for intimacy with God. It's easy to see worldly people do this with material possessions, drugs or sex. But even Christians can fall into the same trap of trying to find satisfaction in places other than the Holy of Holies. In my experience that is the way to despair.

Homesick for Heaven
The Christian can never find contentment except in seeking the face of God. We have what one writer calls a homesickness for heaven. We don't belong here and we know it. We are offended by the lifestyles of sin around us, we struggle with frail and decaying bodies and sometimes when we get to the end of a day the best thing we can say about it is that we're one day closer to Glory. The only way to be a whole person in this life is to be continually turning our eyes on Jesus, taking whatever time we need in His presence to provide us with the strength to cope with each day. But above all we need to be cultivating a prayer life which is founded on seeking and obtaining intimacy with God.

Prayer College Assignment
The psalmist says that God gives us the desires of our heart (Ps 37:4). But there is a condition attached to this promise, and that is that we delight in the Lord. Our desires become confused and debased when we fail to focus primarily on God. When our mind and heart are set on delighting in the Lord our desires become sanctified and we become consumed with a longing for His presence. Ask the Lord to lead you into a deeper desire for intimacy with Him.