Prayer for Spiritual Transformation (Praying Scripture, Part 3)

My earliest encounters with Scripture were not always the life-giving, relational experiences they are now. I started reading the Bible in earnest when I was 12. On every page, however, it seemed that I was discovering yet one more thing wrong with me. God was holy. I was not. And I needed to shape up—or else. That’s pretty much how I saw it in those days.

My view of Scripture was imbalanced. So was my view of God. The combination didn’t make for very encouraging times in God’s Word. The fact that I saw the multitude of ways I was not measuring up did not empower me to change. Quite the opposite, in fact. The only effect this knowledge seemed to have was to defeat me and to cause me to distance myself emotionally from God. After all, if every time I read His Word I discovered one more thing wrong with me, how motivational was that?

Obviously, I was messed up. But God kindly, over the years, has been gently straightening me out, giving me more accurate views of both Him and His Word, and drawing me into closer relationship with Him.

Here are three crucial things He has shown me:

  • Scripture is more about Him than it is about me. Sure, my sin situation is described in there, but it’s always against the backdrop of His mercy, grace, and salvation. Yes, Scripture shows me I’m a sinner—count the ways! But more importantly, it shows me my Savior.
  • My sin does not surprise God. He knows what I’m made of (Psalm 103:13-14). My sin has never, ever, kept Him from loving me or wanting to be near me. In fact, He is like the prodigal’s father in Luke 15—He is just waiting for me—ragged and dirty—to come to Him. So, although His Word shows me my sin, it’s not a cause to distance myself. Rather, it’s a reason to draw near to Him.
  • The Holy Spirit is the change agent—not me! For year I tried diligently to overcome certain sin patterns. But even though I’m a pretty disciplined person, I simply could not do it. Then God showed me that overcoming sin happens through partnership. He shows me the sin issue. I agree with Him about it, but tell Him how powerless I am to change. Then I ask Him to help. And He does!

These three key insights have changed the way I read and pray Scripture. I don’t gloss over the parts that draw attention to my sin—that would be like looking in the mirror, then walking away with dirt still on my face (see James 1:23-24). But now, convinced that God has provided for my sin, wants to be with me, even in my mess, and has given me the Holy Spirit to empower my transformation—coming face to face with my sin patterns is no longer the crushing thing it used to be.

Now when I read something convicting, I don’t just close my Bible and walk away, discouraged. I dialogue with Him about it. Suppose, for example that the sin I’ve encountered in that day’s reading is the sin of arguing. My conversation with God might go something like this.

Oh, Father, I do that!

God: I know.

I’m sorry! And I just did that the other day with so-and-so! Please forgive me!

God: I do! I love you!

Why is arguing such a struggle for me, Father?

God: Because you don’t trust Me. You think you have to defend yourself or no one else will. That’s not true. I am your shield and your defender. I protect you as the apple of my eye!

Oh, Father, You’re right. I don’t need to take up my own cause—You have promised to be my Advocate.  Help me to remember that, to really believe that. Holy Spirit, in the time of temptation, before I even open my mouth, remind me that Abba will take care of me. Give me both the desire and the power to resist arguing my own case.

***

This combination of reading Scripture, dialoguing with God about it, and asking for the Holy Spirit’s transforming power, has become one of the main ways God transforms me spiritually. I need to be clear that this does not happen instantly—it’s usually incremental change that involves more Scripture, more dialogues with God, and more failures—but also more victories.

But, I’m happy to say, that I no longer dread being convicted by God’s Word. Instead, it is just one more opportunity to enjoy relationship and conversation with the God who is all about transforming me gently and gradually into His Son’s likeness.

Letting God Make My Prayer List (Praying Scripture, Part 2)

I confess that Zechariah is not my favorite book of the Bible. It has some beautiful, quotable, even sing-able passages, like 9:9, for example: “Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

But those are few in contrast to the many confusing and sometimes disturbing passages; if you don’t know what I mean, take a look at 1:18-21, or 5:1-4.

Anyhow, I recently read through Zechariah again. But this time I read it differently. Instead of racking m brains in an attempt to figure out what it all meant, I asked the Lord instead to teach me about His heart. What is important to You in this, Lord? What do You show me so I can better align with Your purposes for the world?

And He did that. I read a chapter a day and prayed my way through the verses. I didn’t understand everything. That’s an understatement. But I did learn a lot about God’s priorities and longings and plans, and it was meaningful to join hearts with Him and pray into some of those.

To show you what I mean, here are some of the passages He highlighted to me, and the kinds of prayer they elicited from me.

“Ask all the people of the land and the priests, ‘When you fasted and mourned … was it really for me that you fasted?” (7:5). God’s voice seemed almost wistful to me, pained by His people’s neglect and self-interest. So I prayed first about my own heart and attitude toward worship. Then I prayed for the church as a whole.
• “ ‘ Many people and the inhabitants of many cities will yet come, and the inhabitants of one city will go to another and say, ‘ “ Let us go at once to entreat the LORD and seek the LORD Almighty” (8:20-21). I read this and thought about how people from every tribe and tongue and nation will one day bow before God’s throne. Moved by that picture, I prayed for four or five nations that God has put on my heart—nations choked by darkness, where Jesus’s light desperately needs to shine.
“ Ask the LORD for rain in the springtime; it is the LORD who makes the storm clouds. He gives showers of rain to men and plants of the field to everyone” (10:1). It was cool for me to find this verse because I had already been praying for revival rain to fall on my own nation. So this verse for me was God’s smile of encouragement to keep on praying for those rains to fall. To ask!

I hope these few examples help you see the kind of hand-in-hand reading and praying I was doing in Zechariah. It was different from the typical kind of Scripture praying that I’m accustomed to, because a) I was not looking for certain texts to support what I wanted to pray for, I was just praying what came along as I read and b) it felt very God-directed. I was praying what was on His heart. He was the initiator. He was making up my prayer list each day.

The unexpected byproduct of the experience was that I actually enjoyed reading Zechariah this time! I still can’t explain all the symbolism or say when and where the prophecies will or already have been fulfilled. But I felt connected to God’s heart, and I prayed things I knew were important to Him. And that was a lot of fun.

No More Intercessor’s Proof Texts (Praying Scripture Part 1)

It all too easy to pray for my will to be done when I’m interceding for others. When my loved ones have a need or they are hurting, I know what I want for them: I want the pain to go away and the need to be met, ASAP! But if I pray that way, I’m risk being short-sighted. God’s plans for my friends and family—even if they are not always quick—are far more wise, good, and loving than mine.

So how do I pray? I pray Scripture! But I don’t just reach for my concordance, either.

In my early days of praying Scripture, that’s what I would do. If the person I was praying for had overdue bills, I’d ransack my Bible to for promises that God provide. If the person was sick, I’d do the same, looking for verses about healing. It was an intercessor’s version of proof texting.* It was certainly a lot better than presumptuously offering God my best ideas for how to handle the situation. Nevertheless, He’s shown me something even better.

Take yesterday, for example. Some friends SOS’d me with a prayer request. They have recently moved to a different country where Christians are few and far between. They have not yet found a church. They have not yet made many friends. One couple who looked as if they might be friend potential unexpectedly announced that they were moving. It was hard for my friends not to be discouraged.

I wasn’t sure how to pray—but I figured God would know. So I asked Him. Specifically, I asked Him to lead me to Scripture to pray for my friends. Quickly, Scriptures started coming to mind. They weren’t “promises” per se; they were verses about other people in the Bible who had felt alone—and what God had done about it.

I thought of Elijah who said he was the only one left—but God corrected him and said that he still had “7,000 others in Israel who have never bowed down to Baal or kissed him!” (1 Kings 19:18, NLT). Then, one after another, I thought of biblical examples of lonely servants of God whom God had blessed with companions: to Moses, He gave Aaron; to David, He gave Jonathan; to Naomi, He gave Ruth; to Saul, He gave Barnabas.

In almost no time, God had showed me how to pray. I think He was telling me that though my friends felt isolated and alone, overwhelmed by the path ahead of them, they were not alone. I feel quite sure that He was leading me to pray for Christian companions for my friends. So that is what I did.

God is a relational God. He loves conversation. So why should I rack my brains trying to figure out the best Scriptures to pray? It’s much easier just to ask Him! He seems more than glad to show me. And this is just one more of the ways He is growing my friendship with Him.

* Using a biblical quotation to justify a theological position, without regard for the context of the passage from which the quotation comes.

Agonizing Prayer

The following post is adapted from an article I wrote for the Sep/Oct 2006 issue of Pray! magazine. I was challenged personally when I re-read it recently. I need to stay active on both the giving and receiving ends of “Agonizing Prayer.”

When I started to be more serious about prayer and realized the huge personal investment in time and emotion it really is, an odd thing happened. I became more hesitant about asking people to pray for me. I know how easily overwhelmed I can get by all the prayer requests that come my way—especially if I try to pray for them all in any kind of deep and significant way. I didn’t want to overburden my friends, but I did want people to pray who will make the sacrifice that powerful prayer requires.

But I was challenged about this hesitance when I heard Daniel Henderson of Strategic Renewal (http://www.strategicrenewal.com/) speak on praying for pastors and spiritual leaders. His key passage was Romans 15:30: “I urge you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in my struggle by praying to God for me.” Daniel gave his audience the Greek meaning for the word translated “struggle.” It’s sunagonizomai, which can also be translated “agonize.”

The Apostle Paul boldly asks his friends to agonize in their prayers for him. My first impression was, “What chutzpah!” Who wants to ask friends to agonize about anything? But, as Daniel pointed out, spiritual leaders are on the front lines of the spiritual battle. For them, struggling, agonizing intercession is not optional—it actually may be a matter of life or death. Paul knew this, and we should be aware of it, too.

Daniel told his audience that he refuses to preach unless he knows someone is in his church’s prayer room praying for him. He follows the example of the great preacher Charles Spurgeon, who said that without prayer, his preaching “is nothing but the lifting of a dead man’s arms, or the lifting up of a blind man’s eye.”

If you’re a spiritual leader (and I suspect many who read this blog are!), I hope you will be bold like the Apostle Paul and ask people to sunagonizomai in prayer for you. And for all of us, leaders or not, may we be willing to make the sacrifice of struggling in prayer for our friends who serve on the spiritual frontlines. The intensity of the battle requires it.