Praying in the real world

J. C. Albert has to be one of the greatest followers of Jesus I’ve ever met. I met him in India in 2012. He was the most open, loving, friendly guy and he had these wonderful stories to tell of adventures with Jesus. He has visited and shared the good news of Jesus Christ in nearly 3,000 tribal villages in India. He has walked nearly 10,000 miles for Jesus while being chased by tigers and bears and Hindu extremists. He is a true adventurer who is fueled by the love of Jesus.

Every need Albert has had since beginning in ministry in the 80s has been met without him ever asking anyone for anything. He lets God determine both the need and the provision. Here is what he says about that in his little book on evangelism:

“Prayer is the fuel that runs our ministry. Every experience, trial and inspiration I have recorded is a result of prayer. The foremost thing I learned in ministry is prayer followed by Bible study. Prayer empowers and gives vision.”

Those words resonate with me and are proven not so much by my faithfulness as my failures. In seasons when my faith has faltered, I can invariably point to a fumbled prayer life. Prayer empowers and gives vision; the lack of it weakens trust and causes me to wander.

Maybe for the sake of improving my vision, God has been leading me more deeply into the place of prayer. For the last three years, I’ve been on a journey with God centered on intimacy. It started late in 2014 when the Lord spoke and challenged me to give my whole heart to him. Wholehearted devotion is not for the faint of heart. It will break and expose us like nothing else can. And it can also lead us into depths of joy and surrender that are too rich for words.

I’ve written elsewhere about things I’ve learned on this journey toward more intimacy in prayer. This year, I add these thoughts to an ongoing list:

  • I’m learning how prone I am to pray my wishlist, and how quickly I lose interest in just having good conversations with Jesus. If I had a dollar for every prayer I’ve prayed in twenty years of ministry asking God to accomplish some thing for me so I can be happy and fulfilled as a pastor, I’d be a rich woman (and the tithe on that would set my church up until Jesus comes back!). In this season, God has revealed to me the joy of being in conversation with him — not just being with him but talking to him about things and sharing hopes and fears without expectation that he will be my Cosmic Fixer who makes it all right. This is about learning to trust God’s character, not his ability to come through for me.
  • I’m learning to seek God’s perspective. Rather than begging him to get on board with my needs (which are defined by my limited perspective), I’m learning to ask God to show me what he sees. This kind of prayer is a doorway into the prophetic. It is a call to God to show me that which is not as if it is. Praying in this way has increased my deep-level joy and decreased my chronic anxiety. I find myself actually believing God’s got this.
  • I’m learning to pray my hungers. I’m hungry for Heaven, for the Kingdom to come, for seeing God move in real and tangible ways, for deeper and more vulnerable love, for purity of motives. I hunger for all those things, but rather than praying for God to make them happen, I’m simply praying so God will hear my heart … and maybe so I can hear it, too.
  • I’m learning to pray for the healing of others. As I’ve let go of my own wishlist prayers, I’ve discovered an increased ability to pray for others’ healing. My gift is inner healing; I rarely see physical healings, but have seen quite a few miraculous inner healings. In this season, God is giving more authority to move around in this realm of prayer. I’m discovering that as I let go of my begging prayers, God is increasing my authority in prayer.

Mostly, I’m realizing just how vast and good God is, and how deep is his well. As I explore this call to wholeheartedness, I find myself hungry and hungrier still. I want to encourage you to explore new pathways in prayer in 2018. Let prayer lead you more deeply into relationship with the One who loved you first and loves you most.

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The War is won in the General’s tent.

Some time ago, I was in the place of prayer and heard this word: “The war is won in the tent.”

As I heard this word I saw an army tent, far back from the lines, buzzing with the activity of strategic thinkers studying maps, positioning troops, sending out orders. The General was there, taking in the big picture, gauging the trajectory of the enemy’s movement, weighing strengths and weaknesses of the warring sides.

The tent was where the war was being won … or lost.

Before that word and that vision, I’d never given that guy or that tent a thought, but the principle I heard is authentic. In warfare, the saying goes, “The war is won in the General’s tent.” The point is that wars are won on strategy, not brute force. Planning makes all the difference in the outcome of a battle. The General may never see the front lines but his strategic mind determines the win.

In a very busy time, this came as a prophetic word. It was a warning not to neglect the place of strategic prayer. It was a call not to work harder but to pray smarter, to spend more time in the tent.

In spiritual terms, what is the “tent”?

The place of prayer: Someone somewhere has discovered that when electrons are observed they behave differently. Just the fact of their being watched changes how they act. This tells me that even down to the smallest particle, the world is designed to act according to the light-and-dark principle of John 3, where Jesus teaches that things in the dark remain under the influence of the enemy of our souls while things brought into the light come under the influence of Christ. In other words …

Behavior changes when brought under the gaze of God.

This isn’t a guilt thing. This is a law of the universe, proven at the scientific level. We are changed simply by being in the presence of God, aware of ourselves under his gaze. This makes “tent-praying” all the more strategic. When we submit to sitting in the presence of God, it changes our perspective. We think differently about our circumstances and consequently, go away from that place acting differently toward them.

The place of intimacy: I’m thinking about the tent Moses used to take outside the camp, when he was traveling with the Israelites through the desert. He’d go out there and get deeply personal with God, sharing intimately about how he felt and what he needed. In one conversation, Moses asked God (Exodus 33:12-14) to teach him His ways. Moses wanted to know how to lead these people like God would lead these people. He wanted to hear God say, “Okay, Moses. Here’s how you do it. Step one … ” But that’s not how God responded.

Moses asked for direction and God responded with presence.

Wow.

“My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest,” God promised. This is the promise of intimacy. When we let God lead, whether it is into a desert or into battle, we will experience a kind of restfulness that only the Holy Spirit can produce. In that tent, a kind of confidence breeds that changes how we return to the front lines. We may not comprehend the whole plan, but we can rest in the One who executes it.

The place of spiritual warfare: I remember years ago, praying for my husband when he was going through yet another season of depression. His worst days of depression were absolutely a kind of spiritual war for us. We’d tried everything and nothing was working, so finally — out of desperation, I assure you, and not out of some heightened sense of spiritual maturity — I decided I would pray for him for twenty minutes every day. Every day, Jesus and I would spend time on the subject of Steve. For a while, I used the time to tell God everything I thought about our situation. After a week or so, I ran out of words. After that, God and I would sit there together and — in the Spirit — stare at Steve. I now know this was “tent time.” This was Jesus and me staring at a map, waiting on a strategy to emerge. Eventually, one did. Through the Holy Spirit, I saw a way forward that brought hope into our situation. It wasn’t a cure, but it was a strategy. I’m so grateful for that time in the tent and for the relief it gave in that season.

The war is won in the General’s tent.

Do you need to rethink your strategy? Maybe you’ve been on the front lines, battling an enemy for so long you’ve lost all perspective. You’re lobbing one grenade after another with no plan or purpose … just frustration. What if the better next step is not to lob another grenade but to find your way back to the General’s tent, where you can regain a sense of the big picture and get God’s perspective?

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Is there anything left to be done (or are we sunk)?

I am not a victim.

There are plenty of things in this world I can control. Whether I want to admit it or not, I can make all kinds of things happen that will improve my life. I can will myself to exercise, diet, save money, do Bible study. Heck, I can even make myself cook every day if I want it badly enough (clearly, I don’t).

There are things I can will into existence and things I can’t. There are character flaws, sinful inclinations, health issues and broken relationships I cannot control no matter how hard I try.

In fact, sometimes trying seems to make it worse.

Followers of Jesus discovered this principle in a marketplace one day when they were asked to heal a woman’s child. They tried all the techniques shown them by Jesus himself. They put their faith on the line and called on God to act.

Nothing happened.

Try as they might, they got only frustration. Then Jesus showed up and with a gesture, accomplished the healing. Later in a private conversation, they asked him why they couldn’t make this thing happen. Jesus said, “Some things only come out by prayer and fasting.”

But they had prayed. Clearly, calling on God to heal someone is prayer, right? What did fasting add that prayer didn’t?

Fasting is the deep water of the spiritual life. There is a mystery to it that defies definition. There is a discipline to it, also. Nothing will cut through our impure motives and unhealthy agendas quicker than this spiritual discipline.

What makes fasting so effective?

Bill Bright, the man who founded Campus Crusade for Christ, says fasting is “a biblical way to truly humble yourself in the sight of God (Psalm 35:13; Ezra 8:21).” King David said, “I humble myself through fasting.” Not a prophet or king, Nehemiah was an average guy who loved the Lord and loved his people. When he heard that the wall of Jerusalem had been destroyed, he was crushed. He sat down and wept and for days he mourned, fasted, and prayed to God. He repented on behalf of a nation. It was a wake-up call for him. His people had allowed their inheritance to slip through their fingers.

In that season of fasting and prayer, Nehemiah gained a vision for rebuilding the walls, a vision that rode in on the wind of humility.

Fasting humbles us. It is an act of obedience. It is proof that discipline matters to God.

Bright says fasting “enables the Holy Spirit to reveal your true spiritual condition, resulting in brokenness, repentance, and a transformed life.” And as we begin to cut through the agendas and see truth more clearly and as we honestly begin to repent of unconfessed sin, we experience more blessings from God.

Fasting will transform your prayer life. But let me state the obvious: fasting is tough.

No healthy person likes missing a meal (in fact, if you’re someone who misses a lot of meals due to unhealthy body image issues, you probably shouldn’t fast). Combine that with the fact that fasting will put you in touch with your truest motives and it is no wonder we avoid it so religiously (pun intended).

The fact is, nine out of ten of my motives stink and painful as it can be, fasting and prayer together help me face up to that fact in a way that opens me to a higher knowing. When my motives are more pure, my worship of God is more real and my prayers are more effective.

No wonder the enemy of our souls would rather we find a reason not to fast!

As a corporate discipline, fasting can have a mighty effect on a community. Some years ago, our church entered into 21 days of fasting to prepare for the purchase of our building. I am convinced that our spiritual preparation paved the way for the success of that campaign. Since then, we’ve made an annual habit of corporate fasting. We’ll fast again as a church in January.

I wonder, though, if now might be the time to call all Christians in our country to fast and pray for a renewal of spirit and for Kingdom vision. What if, as Maxie Dunnam says, there are some things God cannot do or will not do until or unless we pray? Spiritual fathers through the ages assure us that God honors this kind of sacrifice. What if prayer is the best offense we have as we move into the final days of this election season? What if fasting is how our country moves from spiritual sloth to a great awakening?

Through fasting and prayer, the Holy Spirit can transform our lives, our families, our churches, our leaders, our communities, our country, our world. It isn’t about forcing God’s hand but finding where he is at work so we can join him. God said, “When you seek me with all your heart, I will be found by you” (Jeremiah 29:13, 14). When a person sets aside something important to concentrate on the work of praying, they are demonstrating that they mean business, that they are seeking God with all their heart.

Wondering if there is anything left to be done with this anxious season? Or are we sunk? Nope. We are not victims. We are people with access to the power that raised Lazarus from the dead. Some are tired of hearing Christians say, “All I know to do is pray.” But what if that is exactly what God is waiting for? What if a torrent of prayer is not our last hope, but our best hope?

Another thing Maxie has said: “Our country is a mess. Our (UMC) denomination is a mess. We are ripe for revival!” Yes. The question is, are we hungry enough yet to see God do a new thing that we’ll miss a meal, humble ourselves and pray?

Fast and pray. Seek God’s face. And may God richly bless all of us who seek to serve Him in the world.

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