February 2013

Persistence and power in prayer

Series: An edited adaptation of the book Prayer, Power, and Proclamation by C.L.Peppler published by Chrispy Publications in 2009 (ISBN 978-0-620-43583-3). Chap 2; part 6: 


Jesus taught that we should persist in prayer. Luke 18 records the parable of the persistent widow, and Luke 11 records the story of the man who woke his friend to ask him a favour and did not give up until the man granted his request. The idea expressed is one of asking, and continuing to ask.

Why do we need to ask more than once? Jesus stated that our heavenly Father “knows what you need before you ask him.” (Matthew 6:8). It cannot be a case of having to ‘get through’ to God with persistent prayer. More likely, the need for persistent prayer is primarily a question of timing. We live in space and time, but God does not. From his perspective, the answer to prayer is immediately effective. From our perspective, there is often a time lapse between the request and the response, and between the response and the effect. In addition to this, God’s response to our prayer requests often affects others in very direct ways. These ‘others’ are also on a timeline, and so God often requires delayed gratification from us, because he considers their wellbeing as well as our own. It seems to me, therefore, that persistent prayer is also for our benefit. We need to continue asking in faith, so that our hope will not diminish as we wait for God’s response to actualise on our life timeline in harmony with the timelines of others.

Two Greek words express the difference between the eternal and the temporal aspects of time. Chronos indicates linear time. We get the word ‘chronological’ from this. The word describes how we usually understand time as a straight line moving in one direction. Kairos, on the other hand, describes what happens when all things come together in right alignment and synchronicity. The King James Version of the Bible often translates kairos as ‘in the fullness of time’.

Another benefit of persisting in prayer is that the experience of waiting, changes us. Søren Kierkegaard said: “prayer does not change God, but it changes him who prays.” William McGill also identified another benefit when he wrote that “the value of consistent prayer is not that he will hear us, but that we will hear him.”

Prayer is a form of communication within both eternal and temporal time, but is it also a means of releasing power?

Power in prayer?

I often hear the expression ‘There is power in prayer’, but how can there be power in prayer if prayer is simply communing with God? God is certainly powerful, but how can the act of speaking to him have power in itself? Yet preachers often tell us that prayer ‘works’ (another expression which confounds me). Are powerful results of prayer simply evidence of God’s response to prayer, or does prayer itself have some supernatural efficacy? If it does, then how should we define prayer?

A woman from our local church organised a 24/7 prayer chain. The objective was to pray for a member of the congregation who had been in terrible physical distress for the last three years. Twenty-four people signed up for an hour of prayer each day for a week. They did not inform the afflicted subject that they were praying for her in this way. At the end of the week, she reported that she had experienced seven days of partial relief from the high levels of pain that she was used to experiencing. Although she relapsed the next week, with hindsight we can see that the 24/7 prayer initiative constituted a turning point. Just a few months later, she was once again living a relatively normal life. What happened? Let us consider the options:

1.             God wanted a couple of dozen people to ask him before he would respond. Surely this cannot be. God knows our condition even before we pray. In any event, people had been repeatedly asking him for mercy in this particular case. Perhaps God responds to the prayers of the many to impress upon us his omnipotence and our dependence both on him and each other. Perhaps, but this explanation does not satisfy me.

2.             It was just a coincidence. This could be the case, yet it seems unlikely because of the many other corroborating reports concerning the efficacy of prayer. In this case, the timing of her improvement was also significant.

3.             Somehow, power was released through the prayers of the many for the benefit of the one. This seems to be a reasonable explanation, yet it poses some real problems. Could the act of simply speaking to God release a power that somehow changes reality? If this is so, then is God, himself, essentially superfluous to the process?

4.   God made power available in response to the prayers of his people.

These questions are central to the whole concept of Prayer, Power, and Proclamation.

It is true that some texts do include a hint of the ‘power of prayer’ idea. James 5:16, for instance has, “confess your sins to each other pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.” Even here, though, the implication could simply be that God is more likely to respond favourably to the requests of a righteous person than to someone unaligned to his will. The Amplified Bible actually translates the last part of this verse as “The earnest (heartfelt, continued) prayer of a righteous man makes tremendous power available.” In my opinion, this is the crux of the matter.

The scriptures are clear on the fact that God responds to prayer, and they even indicate that we often miss his best for us because we do not ask him. For instance, James 4:2 says, “You do not have, because you do not ask God.” Yet this is not an indication that the mere act of asking in prayer produces the desired results. The same text goes on, “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” We ask God in prayer, but he determines whether he will grant our request. What determines God’s response is, divine purpose, timing (kairos), and our motivation.

If prayer is essentially communicating with God, then the prayer itself is not ‘powerful’. God is powerful, and he often acts powerfully when we ask him to in prayer.  We confuse the response with the request when we say that there is power in prayer. Even more seriously, we confuse the object with the method. God is the one to whom we pray (object), and prayer is the method of communicating with him.

There is no power in prayer, but prayer precedes power. Jesus said, “If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him! (Luke 11:13)


Stewardship/sonship

Although most people acknowledge prayer as communicating with God, there is often a subtle, and as I have shown, sometimes not so subtle, insinuation that it is somehow more than this. The contention is that in some way or other God needs us to pray before he can do what he needs to do. Does God only act in the affairs of his kingdom when Christians ask him to? The only self-imposed restriction on God’s action that I can find in the Bible is the statement in Amos 3:7 that, “Surely the Sovereign LORD does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets.” He doesn’t need us to ask him to act, but he does warn or advise us of his impending actions.

What I do find in scripture, however, are the recurring themes of ‘stewardship’ and ‘sonship’. God expects us to act as good managers of his resources (stewardship), and as responsible children of The Most High (sonship). In order to grow in both of these aspects, we need to be involved in the affairs of God’s kingdom. We also require a degree of discretion and the power to give effect to the choices we make. I believe that as children of God, we have both authority and access to spiritual power. We come to God in prayer, and he instructs us in the exercise of our privileges. He also imparts power to us so that we can give effect to the prayerful choices we make. Of course, our prayer requests do not limit God, and he often intervenes uninvited in human affairs. It seems, however, that he prefers to wait, and then respond to our prayers, because this involves us in the exercise of his dominion and gives us the opportunity to grow.

The Lord Jesus modelled this dynamic. He had all authority in heaven and earth (Matthew 28:18), and he possessed the power of the Holy Spirit to fullest measure (John 3:34), yet he stated that he only did and said what his father instructed (John 8:28-29).

Prayer is a privilege we enjoy as sons and daughters of Almighty God. He responds to requests made in the name of Jesus. He also graciously allows us to grow as responsible heirs by granting us both authority and spiritual power.

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The process of praying

Series: An edited adaptation of the book Prayer, Power, and Proclamation by C.L.Peppler published by Chrispy Publications in 2009 (ISBN 978-0-620-43583-3). Chap 2; part 5: 


I don’t think there are any rules for praying, but there are principles and processes. I have already mentioned that I do not find the categorisation of prayer into praise, intercession, and petition very helpful. If I were to establish some principles concerning public speaking, they would include, speak audibly, make eye contact, and use many illustrations. In similar vein, my key principles for praying are see, wait, and hear.

SEE

When I use the word ‘see’, I am not talking about visions. God, not us, initiates inspired dreams and visions. I am referring here to visualisation. Pray while reading the Bible, but go beyond an intellectual analysis of the text; see the subject matter of the text. In Ephesians 1:18 Paul prays that “the eyes of your heart may be enlightened.” If you are reading a narrative passage, then try to see the action; see Jesus breaking bread, healing the blind man, or walking on a stormy sea. If it is a teaching passage, then try to visualise the context; see Paul dictating the letter, an Elder reading the scroll to a local congregation, and so on. Then go a step further and put yourself into the passage – experience the text as if you were actually there.

The account of the transfiguration is a good example. For the sake of brevity, I will use only the first part of the event as recorded by Matthew.

Matthew 17:1-3 After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.  Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.

See yourself as a fourth disciple slowly winding up that mountain. Feel the tiredness in your legs and the thin air straining your lungs. Jesus is a few paces out ahead. What are the other disciples talking about to each other? What are you expecting to happen? Now you are at the place where Jesus separates and goes off a little distance away to pray. You are feeling very tired and the rarefied atmosphere is making you sleepy. Suddenly Jesus starts to radiate a brilliant light. What do you actually see? How do you feel? What do you hear? Then you see two figures appearing through the haze of light – Moses and Elijah. What are they saying to Jesus?

Visualisation has been severely criticised by some Christian leaders. It is true that several Eastern religions advocate the practice. It is also true that New Age practitioners often make use of visualisation. However, it is just a methodology, and all techniques such as this are neutral. I remember when the government introduced TV into South African society. Some church leaders complained that it was like letting the devil into the lounge. When I see some of the programmes screened on TV, I can sympathise with this sentiment. Television is, however, just a method of communicating, and as such, it is neutral. People can use the medium of TV to convey both the Gospel and porn! The problem is the use of TV, not TV itself. Similarly, people can use visualisation for both good and evil, and it is up to us to ensure that we use it for good.

In 1 John 4:1 he writes: “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God.” That is precisely what we need to do. Use the technique of visualisation but always within the constraints of biblical principles and revelation. “Test everything. Hold on to the good.’”(1 Thessalonians 5:21)

Jesus communicated in word pictures. He painted pictures with words and invited his audience to enter into the pictures he presented. He spoke in parables and analogies, because he knew that our brain functions with both words and pictures. God created us in his image. As God is triune, so are we – body, soul, and spirit. This 3D model of the human constitution is called trichotomism. I am an advocate of functional trichotomism – we are an integrated unity whilst on earth, we have a material and an immaterial component (dichotomism), yet functionally we consist of a body, a soul (mind), and a spirit. The brain is a body part and consists of two hemispheres, the left and the right. The left hemisphere processes speech and analyses data. The right hemisphere works mainly with images. So, visualisation is the language of at least half of the brain.

Moreover, the brain does not seem to be able to differentiate between the external realities it processes (LH) and the internal reality it ‘sees’ (RH). What we visualise can be as real to us as what we perceive through our eyes. Perhaps that is why Jesus said that, “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:28) Indeed, seeing with the eyes of the heart is as real as seeing with the eyes in the head!

WAIT

It could be that God will instantly respond to our prayer communications, but often he doesn’t choose to. Therefore, we need to wait; but waiting should be active not passive. Jesus told us to ask, seek, and knock (Matthew 7:7). The verb in each case is in the present linear tense, and can be translated as, ask and keep on asking… This ‘keeping on’, this active waiting, requires sustained focus.

Once again, there are no three easy steps to waiting with sustained focus, but here are some tips. Firstly, try to reduce the noise. Go somewhere quiet and switch off your phone. Don’t have food or anything other than water with you. Take a notebook and jot down all random thoughts that present themselves. By writing them down you are saying to yourself, ‘OK, relax, I won’t forget that, and I can attend to it later’. Set aside as large a block of time as you can. It is not that God cannot speak in thirty minutes; it’s that we usually cannot hear in under an hour or so.

The second technique is to control your breathing. The breath features in a number of places in scripture; the Lord breathed into Adam the breath of life (Genesis 2:7), and Jesus repeated this with his disciples (John 20:22-23). By controlling the rate of breathing, we influence both our heartbeats and brain waves. The more slowly we breathe, the more our bodies calm down, and the more our brain waves move into a contemplative wavelength. I use what I have called a triangular breathing pattern. I breathe in for a slow count of four, then out for four, and then I hold my breath (out) for four, before breathing in again, and in this way starting the next cycle. Very gradually, the count slows until I reach a natural state of alert relaxation.

At this point, I must clarify that I am not borrowing from Yoga or any other Eastern religious system. God made us as we are and part of his design concerns breath, and heartbeat, and brain waves. Yoga masters have realised the value of controlled breathing, and so have included breathing exercises in their routines. The fact that they have adopted such techniques does not make the technique bad or anti-Christian. For too long we Christians have shunned anything we deem to be ‘Eastern’. The real criteria should be the nature of God, the Word of God, and divine creation.

The third technique is to use music as the breathing, heart, and brain wave regulator. Slow and majestic worship music is ideal. Elisha used this technique, because 2 Kings 3:11-16 records how, when requested to bring the king a word from God, he called for a harpist. The text states that “while the harpist was playing, the hand of the Lord came upon Elisha and he said,This is what the Lord says:’”

We wait in order to hear.

HEAR

I have already written a lot about how we hear from God. I need to add, however, that hearing from God is a major component of prayer. In prayer, we express our love and dependence. In prayer, we speak out our concerns, fears, hopes, and gratitude. But we are sons who serve, and so a prime part of prayer is to hear what the Father has to say to us. Jesus said: “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.” (John 5:19)

Seeing, waiting, and hearing are principles of prayer, but we should employ them within the context of persistence…but more of that in the next post. 

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Corporate Prayer

Series: An edited adaptation of the book Prayer, Power, and Proclamation by C.L.Peppler published by Chrispy Publications in 2009 (ISBN 978-0-620-43583-3). Chap 2; part 3: 


Corporate, like personal prayer, starts with one-way communication. However, if we believe that God is immediately accessible to us, should we not expect him to respond immediately, in some form? Yet many of the prayer meetings I have attended reflect the clear expectation that God is not likely to respond immediately. We pray in tongues. We pray aloud simultaneously. We pray sequentially, adding to each other’s prayers. We pray silently. We break up into groups and pray. Yet seldom do we pause and wait expectantly for God to respond. However, if we understand prayer as our part in a bi-directional communication, then we should be expecting, and providing an opportunity for a response.

How should we expect God to respond immediately to our corporate prayers? Perhaps he will manifest himself in power as he did when the first disciples prayed and the place they were in was shaken (Acts 4:31). Perhaps he will speak a word through one of the people present (prophecy). Perhaps he will inspire someone to speak out a word of knowledge or wisdom. Perhaps he will place a vivid picture into someone’s mind. Perhaps he will bring to mind a scripture. Whichever way he chooses to communicate, we should be expectant, and we should therefore instruct one another and provide opportunity when we come together to pray.

Taking into account all I have written so far, why do we pray? We pray to communicate with God. Why? To express our dependence on him and to know his will. Jesus said, concerning himself, “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does.” (John 5:19-20) This must also apply to us. Our purpose for living is to know Jesus, to become like him, and to help others to be and do likewise. We pray, in this context, to determine God’s will, and he responds because he loves us and is committed to our development and maturity.

I have mentioned words of prophecy, visions and so on, but the way God usually responds is through the Bible. This occurs at a number of levels. Firstly, if we study the Bible, and if we have read all of it, we will have a good idea of his general will. The Holy Spirit will help us to retrieve the biblical information we need from our memory banks. Jesus said, “All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you.” (John 16:15) At another level, the Holy Spirit might lead us to a particular passage while we are praying. The words of the text might fill our consciousness, or he might make us aware of just the text reference, which we then look up. He might even illuminate a passage of scripture as we are reading it during or after a time of prayer.

Perhaps I need to give some concrete examples. Is it God’s general will that a sick person should receive healing? Yes. He instructed his disciples to heal the sick, and there are many New Testament injunctions to minister to the infirm. Therefore, the default position should be positive, and we should only refrain from ministering healing if convicted that, in that particular case or period, God has another purpose for the afflicted person. I have had this experience a number of times. I remember very clearly wanting to minister healing to a cancer sufferer when I felt the Holy Spirit prompting me to prepare the man for heaven. I sat with him and read him passages from the book of Revelation. His face lit up and he was at peace. He died and went to be with Jesus just days later.

I have received text references in answer to prayer on many occasions. The one I remember vividly was the first time this happened. I was preparing to deliver my very first sermon, and I was nervous and apprehensive. I was asking myself “what if I mislead the people? What if I fail to meet their spiritual need?” As I was praying about this, the text reference Numbers 21:16 came into my mind. I looked it up; it read, “Gather the people together and I will give them water.” I was so encouraged! I understood immediately that God was telling me that my job as a preacher was to bring his people to the place where they could receive living water from him, but that it was his prerogative, not mine, to give them that ‘water’.

Many years ago my wife, Pat, became very ill. The doctors could not diagnose the problem, but she felt as though she was slowly dying. At her lowest moment, as she was reading the Bible and praying, the actual printed text started to glow as though the ink were made of gold. The verse read, “I am your God and will take care of you until you are old and your hair is gray. I made you and will care for you; I will give you help and rescue you.” (Isaiah 46:4) Just a day or so later the final blood tests came back from the lab and the doctor was able to diagnose her condition.

Prayer, as communication, has more than one facet; it consists of intermingled verbal and nonverbal speech both to and from God. It functions within a multidimensional model of reality.

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The nature of prayer

Series: An edited adaptation of the book Prayer, Power, and Proclamation by C.L.Peppler published by Chrispy Publications in 2009 (ISBN 978-0-620-43583-3). Chap 2; part 2: 


The Bible records how the Lord Jesus prayed for his disciples, how he prayed alone, and what he taught concerning prayer. As usual, he is the first we go to in determining doctrine and practice. The most well-known, and often repeated, prayer formulation is that which he articulated in response to his disciples’ request to teach them how to pray – we call it ‘The Lord’s Prayer’.

The Lord’s Prayer

The prayer that Jesus formulated for his disciples defines several aspects of communicating with God the Father.

This, then, is how you should pray:
‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.’
Matthew 6:9-13  

The prayer is like that of a child to a father. The first concern of the one praying is the Father’s honour and purposes. The second concern is petition for provision, forgiveness, and protection. It is very simply like a child honouring the Father and expressing dependence. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could scrap all that stuff about how we must follow praise with thanksgiving, followed by intercession, followed by petition, and so on? When did praying stop being a simple heartfelt communication, and start becoming a series of formulas?

I church services we often recite this prayer as a sort of verbal punctuation mark to a time of led prayer. I have heard it spoken so rapidly and monotonously that I have to question its value as a valid form of communication with God. Did Jesus give this prayer to us to use as part of a religious liturgy? I really do not think that this was his intention. Certainly, his own prayers give no indication of this.


Jesus’ prayers

The Gospels record several of Jesus’ own prayers. John 17 records his comprehensive prayers concerning his disciples and all future Christians. He prayed when his disciples returned from their field trips (Luke 10:21). He prayed in the garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:42). The commonality in these prayers is that they are all genuinely intimate communications between Jesus and his Father. There is no hint of the release of power in these prayers, or of the prayers themselves being the means of effecting results.

If we defined prayer purely from observing Jesus’ practice of prayer, we would include words such as intimate, heartfelt, and interactive, and we would have to exclude the concepts of control, power, and coercion.

Perhaps the actual words in the original biblical Greek will give us further clarity on the nature and purpose of prayer.

Words translated as ‘prayer’

The three main Greek words translated as ‘prayer’ in the New Testament are: Proseuche, signifying prayer in general; Deesis, referring to prayer for particular benefits; and Enteuxis (1 Timothy 4:5), meaning confiding access to God.

The word Proseuche is an expression of devotion. Deesis is an expression of personal need. Enteuxis is an expression of childlike confidence in heartfelt communication with the Father. These words used by the authors of the New Testament writings carry through the tone and purpose of Jesus’ prayers.

It is clear that we are to pray, not only concerning ourselves, but also for others. For instance, 1 Timothy 2:1-2 reads, “I urge that petitions, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all those who are in authority” It is also obvious from the scripture cited, that there are several acceptable forms of prayer such as petition, intercession, and thanksgiving. However, despite the form of prayer, or the length of prayer, or the frequency of prayer, all scriptural references to prayer have one thing in common; prayer is to God. Prayer is a way of communicating with God. 
In itself, prayer does not constitute the release of spiritual power. Nor is it a liturgical exercise performed in the absence of a sense of the communing presence of God.


What then is prayer?

There is no power in prayer. Prayer precedes power, but in itself, prayer is simply intimate communion with God. Prayer is the communication component of our relationship with God. More broadly speaking, prayer is bi-directional and includes both our communications with God and his communications with us. I have defined it this way, because communication is essentially an exchange of heart and information. A one-directional data-flow falls short of true communication and does not constitute ‘communion’. Strictly speaking, the word ‘prayer’ describes our end of the communication process. I have included God’s communications to us within the subject of prayer to allow for the immediacy of much of the intimate communication between God and us. God is not limited by temporal time, and sometimes his responses to our communications occur ‘later’ on our time-line. He also often initiates communication. Prophecy, visions, dreams, angelic appearances, and even preaching, are all ways in which God communicates with us.

Communion is intimate and involves heart as well as information. Prayer makes known the innermost thoughts and emotions. When we pray, we express to our Father God that which is ‘inside’ of us. However, prayer also includes listening, because God also is prepared to share his heart and mind with us.

We commune with God verbally through spoken and ‘thought’ language, and through tongues. My understanding of tongues is that they are ostensibly unintelligible utterances from a believer to God (1 Corinthians 14:2). It is for this reason that tongues spoken within a congregation need to be interpreted so that others will understand the prayer and thus be able to concur and say “amen” to it.

Tongues express what we cannot express with our normal mental faculties; tongues communicate the deeper things of the spirit. We also communicate with God nonverbally through such things as dance, art, and sacraments.

Within the context of the immediacy of prayer, God communicates with us through the Bible, through the inner witness of our spirit, through visions, and even through the agency of other believers.

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About Me

My name is Christopher Peppler and I was born in Cape Town, South Africa in 1947. While working in the financial sector I achieved a number of business qualifications from the Institute of Bankers, Damelin Management School, and The University of the Witwatersrand Business School. After over 20 years as a banker, I followed God’s calling and joined the ministry full time. After becoming a pastor of what is now a quite considerable church, I  earned an undergraduate theological qualification from the Baptist Theological College of Southern Africa and post-graduate degrees from two United States institutions. I was also awarded the Doctor of Theology in Systematic Theology from the University of Zululand in 2000.

Four years before that I established the South African Theological Seminary (SATS), which today is represented in over 70 countries and has more than 2 500 active students enrolled with it. I presently play an role supervising Masters and Doctoral students.

I am a passionate champion of the Christocentric or Christ-centred Principle, an approach to biblical interpretation and theological construction that emphasises the centrality of Jesus

I have been happily married to Patricia since the age of 20, have two children, Lance and Karen, a daughter-in-law Tracey, and granddaughters Jessica and Kirsten. I have now retired from both church and seminary leadership and devote my time to writing, discipling, and the classical guitar.

If you would like to read my testimony to Jesus then click HERE.