Editor's note:

In A Life of Prayer and Holy Obe­di­ence in a War-Wracked World Richard tells us that the pri­ma­ry pur­pose of prayer is to bring us into such a life of com­mu­nion with the Father that we are con­formed into the image of his son Jesus Christ. We are inward­ly tak­en over, changed, trans­formed.” He makes four sim­ple points about prayer. Prayer dri­ves us … draws us … invites us … leads us.” And then teach­es us through both sto­ry and scripture.

This is an arti­cle to read over and over, high­light and under­line. It requires time for thought, reflec­tion and prayer and it is well worth the effort. Arch­bish­op Tait said, I want a life of greater, deep­er, truer prayer.’” If you want that kind of prayer life, I encour­age you to take the time need­ed to learn from Richard’s insight­ful writing. 

—Margaret Campbell

Con­sid­er­ing the rela­tion­ship between the life of prayer and holy obe­di­ence in a war-wracked world is a mas­sive task. In an exis­ten­tial sense, prayer brings us into the holy of holies in the Chris­t­ian life. We move from the periph­ery to the center. 

Edward Payson said, Prayer is the first thing, the sec­ond thing, the third thing nec­es­sary to a min­is­ter. Pray, then, pray, pray, pray.” Sir Thomas Bux­ton wrote, You know the val­ue of prayer; it is pre­cious beyond all price. Nev­er, nev­er neglect it.” William Penn said of George Fox, Above all he exceed­ed in prayer.” Arch­bish­op Tait said, I want a life of greater, deep­er, truer prayer.” Mar­tin Luther declared, He who has prayed well has stud­ied well.” 

Most per­ti­nent of all are the words of William Carey, Prayer — secret, fer­vent, believ­ing prayer — lies at the root of all per­son­al god­li­ness.” Our task is to see how prayer opens us to this per­son­al god­li­ness and to med­i­tate on that real­i­ty with­in the wider social con­text of war and peace. 

Prayer dri­ves us into holy obedience 

My first point is a very sim­ple one: prayer dri­ves us into holy obe­di­ence. The pri­ma­ry pur­pose of prayer is not to give us spir­i­tu­al goose­bumps. It is not to tit­il­late our fan­tasies with visions and dreams and man­i­fold rev­e­la­tions. It is not to bring about such great answers that the won­ders of God are known through­out the land (and, inci­den­tal­ly, so are we). By the grace and good­ness of God we are giv­en times of goose­bumps, and rev­e­la­tions, and answers that bog­gle the imag­i­na­tion. These, how­ev­er, are byprod­ucts of some­thing much deep­er and more pro­found. The pri­ma­ry pur­pose of prayer is to bring us into such a life of com­mu­nion with the Father that we are con­formed into the image of his son Jesus Christ. We are inward­ly tak­en over, changed, transformed. 

Dou­glas Steere said, To pray is to change.” Frankly, none of us will keep up the work of prayer for long unless we are will­ing to change. We will either give it up, or we will turn it into a lit­tle sys­tem that keeps the form of god­li­ness but denies the pow­er of it — which is the same thing as giv­ing it up. In prayer, if we are not into the life and the pow­er of the Spir­it we are not into prayer. When we begin to walk with God he is gra­cious, and mar­velous­ly answers our fee­ble, ego­cen­tric, greed-moti­vat­ed prayers. We think, Hal­lelu­jah, this is great! God is real after all.” Then, after a time, we try to push that but­ton again and God says, Wait a minute! I would like to be your teacher and to lead you into a more excel­lent way. I want to set you free of your greed and avarice, your fear and hos­til­i­ty.” We may chafe under that and strug­gle against it for a while, but in time we learn the good­ness of God’s grace. We begin to be set free of our bondage to our­selves. We begin to live in obedience. 

One of the most love­ly things that comes into us through this process is the abil­i­ty to lay down this ever­last­ing bur­den of always need­ing to get our own way. Do you know what free­dom that is? No longer is there the sti­fling pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with our­selves. We have new, lib­er­at­ing desires to care deeply for the needs of oth­ers. Most won­der­ful of all, we can lay down the crush­ing bur­den of the opin­ions of oth­ers. François Fénelon wit­nessed, With this puri­ty of heart, we are no longer trou­bled by what oth­ers think of us, except that in char­i­ty we avoid scan­dal­iz­ing them.” We do not have to be liked. We do not have to suc­ceed. We can enjoy obscu­ri­ty as eas­i­ly as fame. We begin to under­stand the mean­ing of self-denial. We begin to live in com­mu­nion, wor­ship, and ado­ra­tion. We begin to walk in holy obe­di­ence. We begin to think God’s thoughts after him. We begin to desire his ways, not out of oblig­a­tion, but because it is what we tru­ly want. We begin to care and love the way he cares and loves. The words of an old hymn,“He walks with me and talks with me,” cease to be pious jar­gon and become liv­ing real­i­ty. We are dri­ven into holy obedience.

All the saints have tes­ti­fied that this is so. Think of Joseph. In a dream he had sheaves bow­ing down to him; as well as the sun, moon, and stars (Gen­e­sis 37). Joseph said to him­self. How can a guy be hum­ble when he has dreams like this?” The Lord answered, I’ll show you!” And as you know, Joseph went through many expe­ri­ences before he learned to walk in holy obe­di­ence. I can imag­ine that he had expe­ri­ences of com­mu­nion with the Father the likes of which I have nev­er dreamed about, in order to come out even­tu­al­ly with that incred­i­bly com­pas­sion­ate spir­it toward his brothers. 

So it is with us. It is a won­der, this liv­ing in com­mu­nion, this hear­ing God’s voice and obey­ing his word. It makes all the plas­tic extrav­a­gan­zas of our mod­ern reli­gious world seem pale by com­par­i­son, and so they are. Prayer — that won­der­ful gift of con­ver­sa­tion between a finite spir­it and the infi­nite spir­it of the uni­verse — will dri­ve us into holy obedience. 

Prayer draws us into trust 

A sec­ond real­i­ty, which we need to under­line par­tic­u­lar­ly in light of our con­cern for a war-wracked world, is that prayer draws us into trust. My chil­dren like to eat pan­cakes, so once in a while I get up ear­ly to fix them a batch. It is inter­est­ing to watch those boys. They wolf down pan­cakes as if there were an end­less sup­ply. They are not wor­ried one whit about the price of eggs or my abil­i­ty to pro­vide them with more. Not once have I seen them slip­ping some into their pock­et think­ing, I don’t know about Dad; I had bet­ter put away a lit­tle stash so that I can be sure of pan­cakes tomor­row.’’ As far as they are con­cerned, the reser­voir of pan­cakes is infi­nite. All they need to do is ask — they know they will receive. They live in trust.

Prayer will give us this pos­ture of trust. And with­out this spir­it of trust, it is impos­si­ble to live on the basis of prayer for dai­ly bread. No, we would need an ade­quate stash some­where just in case — and be assured that what we now have is nev­er adequate. 

The life of trust which comes through prayer frees us from our greed. Remem­ber the words of James, What caus­es wars, and what caus­es fight­ings among you? Is it not your pas­sions that are at war in your mem­bers? You desire and do not have; so you kill. And you cov­et and can­not obtain; so you fight and wage war.” That is the way of the world in which we live. That is the spir­it of the flesh. James goes on to describe anoth­er way, a more excel­lent way, the way of the king­dom of God. You do not have because you do not ask.” The way of prayer brings us into the life of trust which sets us free from our greed. 

James goes on to say, You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrong­ly, to spend it on your pas­sions.” Many of us, as we are mov­ing into this life of holy obe­di­ence, have not yet had the spir­it of greed removed and been able to enter into this life of trust. But as we go along, we’re set free from the need to desire things that do not please God and are not con­sis­tent with his way. As we grow and enter into holy obe­di­ence and its essen­tial part­ner, trust, there are many things we sim­ply do not need. For what we do need, we can ask, and we will receive. No longer is there the need to watch out for num­ber one; we are told to cast all your anx­i­eties on him, for he cares about you.” We live in trust. 

Trust defeats the spir­it of climb, push, and shove. In trust we are set free from the spir­it of fear: fear that we won’t have enough, fear that we will be left out in the cold, fear that infla­tion will impov­er­ish us, fear that the com­mu­nists will over­take us, fear, fear, fear. In the min­istry of prayer we are freed from fear. God did not give us a spir­it of timid­i­ty but a spir­it of pow­er and love and self-con­trol.”

Think of the mis­ery that comes into our lives by our rest­less gnaw­ing greed. We plunge our­selves into enor­mous debt and then take two or three jobs to stay afloat. We uproot our fam­i­lies so we can have a more pres­ti­gious job or house. We grab and nev­er get enough. Our flashy cars and sports spec­tac­u­lars and back­yard pools have a way of crowd­ing out much inter­est in civ­il rights or inner-city pover­ty or the starved mass­es of India. Greed has a way of sev­er­ing the cords of com­pas­sion. The apos­tle Paul saw this clear­ly when he warned that lust for wealth caus­es peo­ple to fall into all sorts of fool­ish and dan­ger­ous ambi­tions which even­tu­al­ly plunge them into ruin and destruc­tion” (1 Tim­o­thy 6:9, Jerusalem Bible). 

But we don’t need to be impris­oned by avarice. We can be ush­ered into a life of peace and seren­i­ty. We can say, If we have food and cloth­ing, with these we shall be con­tent.” And it is only as that kind of expe­ri­ence under­girds our lives that we are able to speak with prophet­ic vig­or to a greedy, cov­etous, war-wracked world. Prayer draws us into trust. 

The life of trust which comes through prayer frees us from our greed. 

Prayer invites us into compassion 

A third real­i­ty occurs in us with the life of prayer: prayer invites us into com­pas­sion. Prayer gives us the pow­er to sense peo­ple’s spir­its. As we learn to walk with God and to live a life of per­pet­u­al com­mu­nion, we come into a gen­tle­ness by which we love all peo­ple. We have an amaz­ing dis­cern­ment to see what is in peo­ple — not out of curios­i­ty or because it will give us an edge over them, but so that we can enter into their fear, hate, and hurt, and thus call forth the peace and heal­ing of Christ. 

Do you remem­ber the sto­ry in 2 Kings of the woman who came to Elisha in des­per­a­tion because her son was dying? Elisha said,“She is in bit­ter dis­tress; and the Lord has hid­den it from me, and has not told me.” Note that Elisha was sur­prised that he did not per­ceive her inward dis­tress; evi­dent­ly he often had that kind of sensitivity. 

Are you able to enter into the spir­it of indi­vid­u­als and see what con­trols them? I’ll nev­er for­get one com­mit­tee meet­ing ear­ly in my days of learn­ing to pray for peo­ple. This was an ordi­nary meet­ing to dis­cuss the youth work in our church, but I noticed one woman and could feel the anger, hurt, and dis­ap­point­ment in her. I decid­ed to make her a lit­tle prayer project dur­ing the com­mit­tee meet­ing. Through­out the three hours that meet­ing went on, she was con­stant­ly tak­ing lit­tle jabs at a young cou­ple in the group. Her hurt was com­ing out in bit­ter­ness toward those two. I thought, I’m not doing very well in this prayer project.” But, right when the meet­ing came to a close, she turned and began to cry and asked the group, Would you pray for me before you leave?” She began to share the hurt and bit­ter­ness in her heart. Then the most beau­ti­ful thing occurred. That young cou­ple came over and sur­round­ed her and prayed a mar­velous prayer of heal­ing. You could just feel the bit­ter­ness and hos­til­i­ty ease away and the peace of Christ come in. In the lives and words of that young cou­ple the peace­able gospel of Jesus Christ had become a reality.

Of course, it isn’t only peo­ple that we come to know inward­ly, but all of cre­ation. In this way of prayer and walk­ing with God, we have the gen­tle­ness to love the lit­tle crea­tures that creep on the earth and even love the earth itself. Have you ever walked about and felt the very earth groan­ing and cry­ing for the redemp­tion and heal­ing that it need­ed? I hope you pray for the peace and heal­ing of Christ to come on the earth, to trees and plants and ani­mals. We pour poi­sons into the ground and waters. We slap pave­ment over every­thing. We rape the land. There needs to be peo­ple who will pray for this earth’s healing. 

Do not get me wrong. I’m not talk­ing about some kind of sen­ti­men­tal­ism or mushy peace that wants to avoid con­flict at all costs. The peace­able gospel of Jesus Christ brings the sword of the Spir­it that divides and judges. As we enter into the spir­it in peo­ple, we are incensed at the pover­ty, injus­tice, and evil in human soci­ety. We seek to call peo­ple to relin­quish vest­ed inter­ests, anger and hos­til­i­ty, prej­u­dice and fear. We sense deeply the soci­etal­ly incar­nat­ed nature of evil and seek its defeat in the pow­er of the Lamb. 

Prayer leads us into conquest 

That leads to my fourth and final point: prayer leads us into con­quest. Prayer enables us to wage the peace­able war of the Lamb against all principalities.

I have always been moved by Eph­esians 6 where we have the descrip­tion of our weapons of war­fare. Paul writes, Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the dev­il. For we are not con­tend­ing against flesh and blood, but against the prin­ci­pal­i­ties, against the pow­ers, against the world rulers of this present dark­ness, against the spir­i­tu­al hosts of wicked­ness in the heav­en­ly places.” In say­ing that, Paul does not mean that flesh and blood are unim­por­tant. He sim­ply means that behind the flesh and blood, and con­trol­ling them, are pow­ers and prin­ci­pal­i­ties of a spir­i­tu­al nature. The aim of our attack is to defeat the prin­ci­pal­i­ties that con­trol and incar­nate them­selves in flesh and blood. 

When we approach an absen­tee land­lord of ghet­to apart­ments, we speak to the prin­ci­pal­i­ty of greed that con­trols him or her. When we con­front polit­i­cal pol­i­cy­mak­ers or cor­po­rate exec­u­tives, we do so with an inward strength born out of prayer and fast­ing, seek­ing to defeat the inward spir­it of vest­ed inter­est and cov­etous­ness. Paul goes on to describe the armor we are giv­en: loins of truth, breast­plate of right­eous­ness, hav­ing our feet shod with the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the hel­met of sal­va­tion, and the sword of the Spir­it. Here Paul’s metaphor runs out, but that does not stop him from adding more weapons, espe­cial­ly prayer: Pray at all times in the Spir­it, with all prayer and supplication.” 

What we so often fail to under­stand is that those weapons are incred­i­bly pow­er­ful. They are more pow­er­ful than B‑1 bombers and Tri­dent mis­sile sys­tems, and M‑X mis­sile sys­tems, if we will only learn to equip and train our­selves to use them effec­tive­ly. No weapons sys­tem is effec­tive unless sol­diers are trained to use it. I am often drawn to those pow­er­ful words of James Nay­lor when he wrote, Christ puts spir­i­tu­al weapons into our hearts and hands to make war with our ene­mies … not as the prince of this world with pris­ons, tor­tures, and tor­ments on the bod­ies of crea­tures, to kill and destroy men’s lives, but with the word of truth, return­ing love for hatred, wrestling with God against the enmi­ty, with prayers and tears night and day, with fast­ing, mourn­ing and lamen­ta­tion, in patience, in faith­ful­ness, in truth, in love unfeigned, in long suf­fer­ing, and in all the fruit of the Spir­it, that if by any means we may over­come evil with good.” Are we going to learn to say No” to the lit­tle tin gods of our mod­ern nation States that try to call us into their blas­phe­mous inter­trib­al wars?

We sense deeply the soci­etal­ly incar­nat­ed nature of evil and seek its defeat in the pow­er of the Lamb. 

Con­sid­er the sto­ry in 2 Kings, when Syr­ia was war­ring against Israel and the king of Syr­ia would set his bat­tle plans, but God would reveal the plans to the prophet Elisha and he would leak the infor­ma­tion to Israel. That, of course, made it very hard to wage an effec­tive war. Final­ly, he dis­cov­ered that God was giv­ing the infor­ma­tion by rev­e­la­tion to Elisha. The king sent a huge army to take this one man and the next morn­ing Elisha’s ser­vant woke up and saw an army with hors­es and char­i­ots sur­round­ing the entire city, and he was petrified. 

But Elisha said, Take it easy, don’t be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Then he turned and said, Lord, would you open the eyes of my ser­vant?” And the Lord opened his eyes and he saw that the moun­tains were full of the hors­es and char­i­ots of the Lord sur­round­ing the oth­er army. Wow! That’s power. 

Then Elisha prayed, Lord, would you please blind this entire army,” and they were blind­ed. And Elisha went up to them and said, This isn’t the place where you need to go, let me lead you to the right city.” And he led them right into the heart of Samaria. Then, of course, the armies of Israel sur­round­ed them and Elisha said, Now Lord, I would appre­ci­ate it if you would give them back their eye­sight.” And, when they were able to see again they real­ized that they were sur­round­ed and they surrendered. 

The king of Israel said, Ha, ha. Now, Elisha, shall we let em have it?” and Elisha replied, No, leave them alone. Just feed them a good lunch and send them home.” And so they did, and that par­tic­u­lar war was ended. 

Per­haps you are think­ing, Well, that was Elisha, and I’m not Elisha.” My ques­tion is, Why not?” God needs a num­ber of Elisha-type peo­ple in our day. Obvi­ous­ly, we won’t do it the way Elisha did, but the pow­er and pres­ence of God are to be man­i­fest on the face of the earth in ways that will not be unlike what Elisha did. Prayer gets us in touch with the pow­er source, and when we have our hearts straight in this mat­ter God can use us in won­der­ful ways. 

Frank Laubach tells about a small group who gath­ered to pray for Franklin Roo­sevelt dur­ing World War II. They put a pic­ture of Roo­sevelt on the fire­place man­tel and gath­ered around it in a cir­cle to be a chan­nel of the light and pow­er of Jesus Christ into this man. He tells how Rufus Jones, a mem­ber of the group, led them in one of the most pow­er­ful prayers Laubach had ever heard. As they were fin­ish­ing, the tele­phone rang. It was Pres­i­dent Roo­sevelt seek­ing the coun­sel of a mem­ber in that group on an impor­tant matter. 

No one can prove that their prayers caused the Pres­i­dent to seek coun­sel from a mem­ber of the group, but it is absolute­ly amaz­ing how these things begin to hap­pen when peo­ple gen­uine­ly seek to bring the gospel of Christ to apply specif­i­cal­ly to the world in which we live. We can­not do it in an attempt to get our own way or make our lit­tle pet projects come to pass, but to see the good­ness of God spread abroad in the hearts of human beings. 

We live in a war-wracked world. Are we apply­ing the weapon of prayer, along with all the oth­er weapons of Eph­esians 6, to the task of bring­ing the ever­last­ing gospel of peace to this world?

Unless oth­er­wise not­ed, all Scrip­tures are quot­ed from the Revised Stan­dard Ver­sion.

First pub­lished in Radix, March/​April 1983.

Originally published February 1983

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