Is prayer imaginary? Why don’t we see prayer being answered? What should we ask God to do? What does God expect us to do?
This is a follow-up to the “Why Should We Pray
” devotional from Andrew Wommack
‘s provocative CD series: “A Better Way to Pray
.” In particular, it attempts to answer the question left hanging from last time: if God is all good and all powerful, why doesn’t He answer prayer immediately? Why do we need to persevere in prayer?
This is an uncomfortable question for me, and I’m sure others, which isn’t surprising since it touches on foundational issues in theodicy
. What I appreciate about Andrew Wommack’s hermeneutic is that he starts by affirming these three central principles:
- God really is all-good and all-loving
- The ultimate test of theology is how well it works
- The bible accurately represents how God works in the world
None of these are themselves controversial in evangelical circles. What is remarkable, though, is that:
- he simultaneously affirms all three
- he implicitly places them in that order (at least in my interpretation of his views)
- he trusts the rather unusual and relatively unique conclusion this leads to
To be sure, that doesn’t mean that I agree with all his assumptions, or all his conclusions. But, my purpose here is neither to critique him or defend him, but (as is my usual policy) simply to learn from him whatever I can. And, since I largely agree with his premises — that is, reinterpreting empirical data that appears to conflict with God’s goodness, and rejecting biblical interpretations that contradict empirical observations — the resulting insight seems relevant to my personal theology as well.What is that insight? Basically, he asserts that:
- God has already granted our prayers in the spiritual realm (“heaven”, where He has sole authority), so
- our prayers are needed to manifest those answers in the physical realm, by taking authority over the social, personal, and demonic forces (i.e., “the world, the flesh, and the devil”) that oppose His kingdom
Because of that, he recommends that:
- our “prayer time” focus less on requests, and more on thanking God for what’s he’s already done
- rather than ask God to change our circumstances, we take (spiritual) authority to change them in His name
I must admit, I’m not entirely comfortable with that model. Sure, it is easy to accept it at a certain vague philosophical level, but he’s proposing we apply it consistently as the primary practice of our relationship with God. But, if I agree with his premises, why am I so uncomfortable with the conclusion?
I suspect it is because I find it hard to think of the spiritual world as following certain well-defined laws that constrain and characterize how God interacts with us (and the physical world). Yet, ironically, the entire history of physical science (and, arguably, Western civilization) depends on the realization that:
- there are certain intrinsic laws that govern the natural world and human behavior, and
- it is possible (at least in part) to know them.
Why shouldn’t the same be true of the spiritual world? If God is a god of order, and created an intelligible natural world whose laws we are bound by even if we don’t understand them, it seems not only possible but inevitable that the spiritual world should be similarly constrained.
Still, that’s a philosophical argument. The ultimate question, as before, is whether it is biblical. In this case, the crucial passage is Gabriel’s visit to the prophet Daniel
. [Read More] for my exploration of what that episode implies about how God answers prayer.
Lord, speak to me through your Spirit and your Word, your Body and your Blood;
that I might know you as you are, and manifest the image of Christ on earth
as in heaven. Amen.
In the third year of Cyrus king of Persia a thing was revealed unto Daniel, whose name was called Belteshazzar; and the thing [was] true, but the time appointed [was] long: and he understood the thing, and had understanding of the vision.
I realize the primary context here is revelations and visions (which is a whole ‘nother can of worms), but I will take a risk and assume that this is “of a piece” with how God answers other prayers — since (as far as I know) we have little control over what form God’s answer takes when we pray. That assumption can (and should) be tested against other passages, but I have to start somewhere.
In those days I Daniel was mourning three full weeks. I ate no pleasant bread, neither came flesh nor wine in my mouth, neither did I anoint myself at all, till three whole weeks were fulfilled.
We don’t know the precise context, but I’ll take the easy way out and assume Daniel was mourning because… he was unhappy! While that may seem less than profound, I think it relevant: Daniel clearly saw something in his surroundings that didn’t match his understanding of what was good and right — and thus (given a high view of God’s goodness) it was presumably also contrary to God’s will. In such circumstances, mourning is arguably the healthiest possible response.
To me, mourning represents both an acknowledgment of the severity of the situation, as well as our own impotence in dealing with it. Yet, there’s something beyond mere grief here, since it seems he had set himself to a full three weeks. My best guess is that he is explicitly mourning before the Lord, which would certainly help explain God’s response:
Then I lifted up mine eyes, and looked, and behold a certain man clothed in linen, whose loins [were] girded with fine gold of Uphaz:
Hmm. Why did Daniel look up? Did he hear or sense something first, because the man was already present? Or, conversely, was it because he’d finished his three weeks of mourning that he looked up, which opened the door for this man to appear?
And I Daniel alone saw the vision: for the men that were with me saw not the vision; but a great quaking fell upon them, so that they fled to hide themselves.
I’d be tempted to assume that Daniel’s mourning had purified him enough to see the vision and avoid the quaking fear that scattered his companions, save for the following verse:
Therefore I was left alone, and saw this great vision, and there remained no strength in me: for my comeliness was turned in me into corruption, and I retained no strength.
Hmm. Maybe it is the other way around: his mourning had weakened him so much he could not run away from God’s revelation! I must admit, that is often the way with me: it is only when I run out of energy for fighting God that I am quiet enough to hear him speak.
Oddly, this figure both humbles and exalts Daniel (literally):
And, behold, an hand touched me, which set me upon my knees and [upon] the palms of my hands.
And he said unto me, O Daniel, a man greatly beloved, understand the words that I speak unto thee, and stand upright: for unto thee am I now sent. And when he had spoken this word unto me, I stood trembling.
Now, here is where it gets interesting:
Then said he unto me, Fear not, Daniel: for from the first day that thou didst set thine heart to understand, and to chasten thyself before thy God, thy words were heard, and I am come for thy words.
To the extent this verse can be taken as paradigmatic, it is quite profound. It implies that:
- our first duty in prayer is to seek to understand God
- our second duty in prayer to humble ourselves before Him
- God hears and acts on our prayers instantly
So far, so good; after all, that’s pretty close to what we learn from the Lord’s prayer. But here’s the kicker:
But the prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me one and twenty days: but, lo, Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me; and I remained there with the kings of Persia.
This is where I (and probably most charismatics and evangelicals) get a little freaked out. I suspect most of us have mental model of God always working via ‘instantaneous action at a distance
‘, a la “Let there be light; and there was light.” Yet, it is not easy to prove such a view biblically (plus, it seems a priori invalid in a relativistic universe
In fact, the whole idea of instant, direct transmission of information and action between us and God is arguably a modern myth based on our idea of radio waves. Biblically, I believe God’s action is primarily shown as being mediated by angels or people. Heck, even modern physics assumes all interactions are mediated by non-trivial force-carrying particles
, which are themselves subject to interactions.
In fact, at the risk of becoming even more geeky, this reminds me a lot of the way we use complex numbers
in electrical circuits. The basic idea is that capacitors and inductors (e.g., AC transformers) are most naturally modeled using so-called imaginary numbers
to represent that part of the electrical signal we can not see. Yet, though we can’t measure it directly, different components act as if they are “shifting” the imaginary part into real space (and vice versa).
Perhaps surprisingly, this concept has a precise analogue in theology called “dual-aspect monism
” (well, less surprising when you realize it is advocated by another former physicist, John Polkinhorne
). The basic idea is that rather than mind and body (or spirit and material) being the exact same thing, or two completely different things, they are two different manifestations of one underlying substance.
The bottom line of all this is to justify the concept that God acts immediately in the spiritual realm, but there is a “weak coupling” between that and the physical realm, which is mediated by a combination of human and angelic/demonic interactions (oddly reminiscent of my even geekier theory of complex relationships
). To be sure, it feels counter-intuitive, but it is supported both by biblical evidence and our understanding of both mathematics and the natural world (which are themselves counter-intuitive!).
If that’s true, then the surprising result is that work
also become two sides of the same coin: they both spring from placing ourselves in proper relationship to God
, in order to take authority over the physical world.
Okay, this has gotten insanely long (one hazard of being on vacation :-), so I’ll wrap things up even if they aren’t completely settled. Having finished three OT books, I’ve decided to start on the New Testament with Matthew, to test this model of how Jesus acts and prays. Should be interesting…
Father, have mercy on me. I want to think rightly about you, yet not waste so much time thinking
about you that I lose sight
of you. Be with me this day as I seek to worship you with my small group, and come before you with a humble heart. Make me a wise husband and father who manifests your character in the world. Save me from living out false emotions or false ideas about you. By the blood of Christ, help me to enter into your presence in spirit and truth. That I may see you move clearly, love you more dearly, and follow you more nearly. Day by day. Amen.