Prayer is the most ancient, most universal, most intense expression of the religious intellect. It touches infinite extremes, for it is at once the simplest form of speech that infant lips can try and the sublimest strains that reach the Majesty on high. It is indeed the Christian’s vital breath and native air.—J. Oswald Sanders (late Director of Overseas Missionary Fellowship)1
Indeed! Prayer is the very life blood of the Christian. It is to engender real, fervent, and intelligent prayer that the following articles are directed. I fear, that if we were to take Mr. Sanders’ words literally—“[prayer] is the Christian’s vital breadth and native air”—many Christians would have died some time ago due to asphyxiation. But again, as a fellow struggler, I am not here to derail and condemn, but merely to call us forward to a life of prayer and personal communion with God.
In his sermon, The Disciples Prayer, Haddon Robinson recalls:
“When our children were small, we played a game. I’d take some coins in my fist, They’d sit on my lap and work to get my fingers open. According to the international rules of finger opening, once the finger was open, it couldn’t be closed again. They would work at it, until they got the pennies in my hand. They would jump down and run away, filled with glee and delight. Just kids. Just a game.”
“Sometimes when we come to God, we come for the pennies in his hand. ‘Lord, I need a passing grade. Help me to study.’ ‘Lord, I need a job.’ Lord, my mother is ill.’ We reach for the pennies. When God grants the request, we push the hand away. More important than the pennies in God’s hand is the hand of God himself. That’s what prayer is about.”2
We must be reminded that the Lord’s prayer begins with “Our Father” not “Our needs.” Prayer involves access to the presence of God, first and foremost. C. S. Lewis observed essentially the same thing. In discussing the question of whether prayer really “works,” with his usual uncanny insight, he commented frankly,
“The very question ‘Does prayer work?’ puts us in the wrong frame of mind from the outset. ‘Work’: as if it were magic, or a machine—something that functions automatically. Prayer is either a sheer illusion or a personal contact between embryonic, incomplete persons (ourselves) and the utterly concrete Person. Prayer in the sense of petition, asking for things, is a small part of it; confession and penitence are its threshold, adoration its sanctuary, the presence and vision and enjoyment of God its wine. In it God shows himself to us. That he answers prayers is a corollary—not necessarily the most important one—from the revelation. What he does is learned from what he is.”3
Now we are clearly not saying, nor would God ever endorse the idea, that requests of Him are unChristian or pure paganism. Not at all. But, we are saying that coming to Him only for things, or constantly coming to Him, first, for what he can give us, is sub-Christian. This is the same mistake made by those who revel in God’s promises all the while divorcing them from the Promise-Giver who wants to be known personally as the Faithful One. They want the gifts, but not the giver. Fortunately, it doesn’t work that way. So then, the place to begin to understand prayer is in the broader context of the relationship we have with God.
A. W. Tozer has said that,
“what comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us. …the gravest question before the church is always God himself, and the most portentous fact about any man is not what he at any given time may say or do, but what he is his deep heart conceives God to be like. …Always the most revealing thing about the Church is her idea of God, just as her most significant message is what she says about him or leaves unsaid. …Were we able to extract from any man a complete answer to the question, “What comes into your mind when you think about God?” we might be able to predict with certainty the spiritual future of that man. Were we able to know exactly what our most influential religious leaders think of God today, we might be able with some precision to foretell where the church will stand tomorrow.”4
Our knowledge of God is absolutely crucial to our relationship with him and our prayer lives. Prayer is carried to God in faith. Faith is, in large measure, dependent on who we think God really is. Therefore, the vibrancy of our prayer lives is directly dependent on our thoughts and our personal knowledge of God.
This may answer the question as to why there is so little real prayer in our churches. People do not think about their God very often, and according to the latest polls in evangelicalism, not very seriously either. Here I am not referring solely to “knowledge” as mastering systematic theological outlines and details, though it most certainly entails that. But it is deep theological understanding of God, ourselves, and our world, as pressed home to our hearts in study, meditation, prayer, and temptation. But, while the distance from the head to the heart in most people is only about 12 inches, the pipeline joining the two appears to be less than the width of a straw. The solution: Repentance and Trust—trust expressed in sincere and devout reflection on God in his Word and what godly theologians as teachers of the church have said about Him. But we must do so in humility and meditation, not just to fill our heads for the next unsuspecting victim. We must lay hold of God himself!
So let’s spend some time right now thinking about the God who has called us into fellowship with his son, Jesus Christ our Lord (1 Cor 1:9). Worship Him as we meditate on his person and his deeds. May our minds be invigorated with great thoughts about Him—thoughts that until today we had never had, or even dreamed of having. Hey, maybe we could become Ephesians 3:20 people, believing that God can do more than we can ever ask or imagine! Let’s meditate on his personalness5 and his faithfulness (if I may), his sheer greatness, his infinity (we’ll explain this term), and his passion to redeem people. In this lesson we will concentrate on his personalness and his faithfulness.
The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—indeed the God revealed in and through Jesus Christ, my God and your God—is a super-personal being. But, the way some people pray today reveals the fact that they think about God more as a machine—a nickelodeon, so to speak—where you put your money in (i.e., your prayer) and hopefully get what you want. This, of course, says more about the person praying than it does the God who revealed himself in Jesus Christ. The apostle John said that “no one has seen God, but God the Only Son who is at the Father’s side has made him known” (i.e., interpreted him for us; John 1:18).
The idea that God is somehow a machine or at least “on the order of” a machine has a long and sad history, having been believed by various peoples and groups throughout all recorded time. During the Enlightenment period, Georg W. F. Hegel (1770-1831), though more sympathetic to certain Christian doctrines than his predecessor Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), nonetheless treated God, that is, the Absolute, as more of an impersonal force in which everything in history was regarded as a developing manifestation.6 There was no face to Hegel’s God.
Hinduism is also very impersonal, though present expressions of it worship a myriad of deities. It has been popularly said that there are over 330,000,000 deities in the Hindu religion and that if one began to say all their names at five seconds a piece, it would take fifty-two years to address all of them. As Winfried Corduan points out, this is obviously an exaggeration, but the hyperbole makes the point. In Hinduism, Brahman is impersonal and a pantheistic expression of reality/deity. The worshiper (Atman) does not turn outward to the deity, but instead looks inward in an attempt to lose his/her own self-consciousness and identity in the whole. Nirvana is the stage at which a devotee stops striving and comes to rest.7
Thus, while it may be common among some Christians, and while it has been advanced in philosophical writings, and is tragically endemic to certain world religions, it is not the biblical concept of God. God is not impersonal, but indeed possesses personality and personalness. He is not to be perceived as the deistic One who wound up the clock (i.e. the world), so to speak, and then left the “scene.” As I said already, he is the super-personal being. This truth is prior to, and absolutely fundamental to, any possibility of having a relationship with him—let alone enjoying a healthy, vibrant relationship with him (John 1:14, 18).
Scripture reveals in many ways that God is indeed a person. Let’s look at the case of God’s revelation of himself to Moses. Do you remember that? In Exodus 3:13-15 God appeared to Moses, and Moses spoke with him:
3:13 But Moses said to God, “If I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they say to me, ‘What is his name?’—what should I say to them?”
3:14 So God said to Moses, “I AM that I AM.” And he said, “Thus you will say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you’.” 3:15 And furthermore, God said to Moses, “Thus you will say to the Israelites, ‘Yahweh, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you. This is my name forever, and this is my memorial from generation to generation.’–NET Bible
Several important observations emerge from this exciting encounter, including the revelation that God is personal, i.e., he has a name—a name which He revealed to Moses. It is crucial to realize that Moses did not give him this name, like when a parent names a child, God revealed it to Moses. Hey, but what’s in a name? Answer: Lots! You may recall that Adam was told to name the animals and that Jesus asked the name of certain demons. A name is important for getting a “handle” on who we’re talking to or about. Here God reveals the fact that he has a name and that that name undoubtedly is important for understanding who he is.
Many names in the Hebrew Bible tell us something about a particular person’s character. In the Hebrew mindset, the name of a person or entity often indicated essentially who that person or entity was, what they were like. Think for a moment of Abraham and how God changed his name from Abram to Abraham (Gen 17:5). The first name, Abram, means “exalted father,” probably referring to Abram’s father Terah and the fact that he was a man of some economic or societal standing. Thus Abram was born of noble birth. The name change to Abraham, however, closely links the patriarch with the covenantal promises, outlined for example, in Genesis 12:1-3. This new name sounds like the Hebrew term for “father of a multitude” which speaks directly to the fulfillment of God’s promises given Abraham concerning a great nation to come from him (see also Nehemiah 9:7). One can also see the same principle at work in relation to Jacob’s name, which means “deceiver” or “supplanter,” and the details in the narrative regarding his character and life. Therefore, a name is very important, especially when God reveals his name to us. Remember Jesus’ words: “Until now you have not asked for anything in my name….” (John 16:24).
But what does God mean here in Exodus 3:14 by calling himself, “I AM”? Well, this name certainly reveals that he is not just another pie-in-the-sky, nameless, Canaanite deity, but is indeed a very real person—a person to whom absolute importance should be attached. He wants to be known as Somebody specific and not just another face in the pantheistic crowd. When you pray to him he wants you to know with whom you are speaking and to be conscious of that!
God’s name has special significance for who he is and what he’s like. The name “I AM” is taken from the Hebrew verb “to be.” This seems to indicate that God (YHWH) is the self-existent, eternal one who lives in an “eternal now.” Therefore, he is the God of the past, the present, and the future. He is the God of the present, whenever that is! The mention of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob serves to remind the Israelites of this fact. “How,” you ask?
Well, first, the mention of the patriarchs connects Israel to her past in terms of God’s choice of his people. He chose them as the apple of his eye; he is the One who chose Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the nation. He was with the patriarchs; he entered into covenant relations with them and by historical extension, the nation. Arnold Toynbee once said: “I am not a determinist. But I also believe that the decisive choice is seldom the latest choice in the series. More often than not, it will turn out to be some choice made relatively far back in the past.” And so it is with God’s people, including us. The most important thing about us is that God chose us in eternity past to be part of his family and to enjoy his presence—the presence of the “I AM” (Eph 1:4). Wow!
Second, the mention of the patriarchs reminds Israel that her future is rooted in divine fidelity and promise. Chuck Swindoll tells the story about the expectation of the future:
You remember coming home in the afternoon after school feeling very hungry and your mother had supper on the stove? And you remember at times she would have a cake in the oven? I don’t know why mothers put children through such torture. When you were so hungry, the aroma of the cake filled the house, and you wanted a piece of that cake. “Not until after supper.” Every mother I’ve ever met says that. Being the model child I was, I would wait patiently, except on a few occasions I would badger her for a slice of that cake. And then she would take an exceedingly sharp knife with an exceedingly thin blade and slice off the smallest slice of cake one can imagine and give me a little taste of the first fruit of that cake. It was only a sample of what was to come later.
What God did for the patriarchs and what he has done for us in Christ is only a sample of what is to come later. Our lives and future are rooted in the divine promise of getting all the cake in the future, that is, to know the beauty of Christ firsthand, when seeing through a glass darkly gives way to better than 20/20 vision. What a hope!
Third, the mention of the patriarchs not only reminds Israel that God was with his people in the past, and that he has a bright future for them, but that he is always present with his people, just as he was with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob. Indeed, he is the One who has heard their groanings in Egypt and has raised up Moses to redeem them from bondage. When Moses goes to Pharaoh, God will be with him. This he can be certain of.
Leslie Weatherhead tells the story of an old Scot who was quite ill, and the family called for their dominie, or minister. As he entered the sick room and sat down, he noticed another chair at the opposite side of the bed, a chair which had been drawn close. The pastor said, “Well, Donald, I see I’m not your first visitor for the day.”
The old man looked up, was puzzled for a moment, then recognized from the nod of the head that the pastor had noticed the empty chair. “Well, pastor, I’ll tell you about the chair. Many years ago I found it quite difficult to pray, so one day I shared this problem with my pastor. He told me not to worry about kneeling or placing myself in some pious posture. ‘Instead,’ he said, ‘Just sit down, put a chair opposite you, and imagine Jesus sitting in it, then talk with him as you would a friend.’” The aged Scot then added, “I’ve been doing that ever since.”
A short time later the daughter of the Scot called the pastor. When he answered she informed him that her father had died rather suddenly and she was quite shaken for she had no idea death was so near. Then she continued, “I had just gone to lie down for an hour or two, for he seemed to be sleeping comfortably. When I went back, he was dead.” Then she added thoughtfully, “Except now his hand was on the empty chair beside his bed. Isn’t that strange?” “No,” said the minister, “it’s not that strange at all.”
The aged Scot had come to learn the spiritual lesson that we all need to learn: God is with us all the time. Just as he was with the children of Israel in their helpless estate and in their misery, so he is with us. Jesus said in John 14:23-26 that the Trinity, the New Testament revelation of the “I AM,” would take up residence in our hearts, establishing a relationship that would never be broken. Oh, it is true, that unconfessed sin blurs our fellowship with Christ, but God’s Spirit never leaves us. Instead, he prods us along, mediates the presence of Christ to us, and glorifies the Son of God in our hearts (John 16:13-14). He is God with us and for us, the down payment who guarantees our eternal home with God (Eph 1:13-14; 2 Cor 1:21-22).
Therefore, the name “I AM” in Exodus 3:14 reveals that God is indeed a person who chooses unworthy, but not worthless, people in covenant friendship and sticks with them, through thick and through thin, come high water or come what may! The name speaks volumes about his untiring and pervasive faithfulness to his people, both in the big “things” of life as well as the details of life. Often it is the details that make the difference.
In Robins Reader, Frank W. Mann, Jr. writes:
An enlightening pastime is to make a list of favorite sounds: a distant train whistle; a mother talking to her new baby; the scrunch of leaves on a bright autumn day; seagulls crying; a hound baying in the woods at night; the absolute silence of a mountain lake at sunset; a crackling fire on a bitter day; a stadium crowd singing the national anthem; the screech of an airplane’s tires as they touch down; his wife’s voice at morning.8
Such is God’s faithfulness in the details of our lives. Throughout all our lives he is working—not as our slave, but as our gracious sovereign—to provide us with a rich (rich does not always equal pleasant) experience of himself and his world and one for which we ought to be thankful and one in which we ought to trust our faithful God. He is our “I AM;” the one who was there at our birth, there during our upbringing (no matter what kind of home it was, he was there; he saw our tears and heard our cries), is with us today and will be there in the future. He will never leave us or forsake us, for He is faithful. We can trust him implicitly.
Dr. Bruce Waltke tells the story of a “brave” individual who attempted to cross the frozen St. Lawrence river in Canada. The man was unsure of whether the ice would hold him so he first tested it by laying one hand on it. Then he got down on his knees and gingerly began to make his way across. When he got to the middle of the frozen river, where he trembled with fear, he heard a noise behind him. Looking back, he saw a team of horses pulling a carriage coming down the road toward the river. And upon reaching the river, it didn’t stop, but bolted right out onto the ice, and past him, while he kneeled there on all fours, turning a deep crimson.9
Sadly, some Christians’ faith in our faithful God never seems to grow a great deal, much like this man who tried to cross the St. Lawrence river. He was ignorant of the strength and sheer reliability of the ice, so he doubted it throughout his journey across. The truth of the matter is, however, that the faithfulness of God—his utterly reliable commitment to his people expressed in his word—can bear the weight of the greatest faith. So why keep wondering and doubting? God is able. Our God wrote the book on faithfulness. Those who faithfully trust him know that! When we come to God in prayer let us be conscious of who it is we approach.
We suggested throughout this article that in order to learn how to pray, a person ought to meditate on God and his character. This is true because all prayer is offered in the context of our relationship with God—he is not a mindless robot waiting to receive commands or an unwilling compliant needing to have his arm twisted. But this relationship cannot really mature if we do not grow in our understanding of who God is, how he wants to be known by his people. With this in mind, then, we looked briefly at God’s self-revelation in Exodus 3:13-15, especially, the “I AM” of 3:14. From this we have come to understand that God is super-personal and not some impersonal force in the universe. We have also come to understand that he is in love with the people he has chosen unconditionally, that is, through no merit of their own, and that he has guaranteed his presence with them forever. This is the relationship into which we have been called and the context in which we have been invited by Him to pray.
So we need to persevere, looking a little deeper at our God. As we said, he is the super-person and he wants to be known as the God who is always there and always faithful to his people and the promises he has made to them on their behalf. But, how is it that he can make wonderful promises of his presence and provision? What is his nature like that he can actually come good for what seems to be impossible feats. What kind of God do we worship? Answer: A God of sheer greatness! The psalmist cried out, “Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise. His greatness no one can fathom” (Psalm 145:3). We’ll develop his greatness a little in the next lesson.
5 By “personalness” I mean that God has personality and is consistently represented in Scripture as functioning as a person, including thinking, feeling, and acting, and desiring intimate relationships with others.
6 See Mortimer J. Adler, “History,” in The Great Ideas (New York: MacMillan, 1992), 310-15; P. H. DeVries, “Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter E. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), 502-3; Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985), 268; Diogenes Allen and Eric O. Springsted, eds., Primary Readings in Philosophy for Understanding Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1992), 210-18.