Sunday, 21 February 2010

Praying in the Secret Place

The word devotion means profound dedication or consecration. It is seen as an earnest attachment to a cause or person. We sometimes speak of the devotion of wealth and time to these things. I want to show how we can gain traction in our life by making this part of our daily routine. Various names have been given to what I’m talking about; a prayer time; a quite time or a devotional are common. Perhaps you know others. The real issue is setting aside time with God. It’s the place where we try to shut out distraction and be with Jesus, in our secret place.

For me there are four key elements to a good devotional time that I find really helpful. Think of them as ingredients to making a meal. They can be mixed together in different proportions on any particular occasion, but we gain traction best when they are all present. The four ingredients I have found the most valuable are, Worship, Bible reading, Prayer and Confession. Let me unpack these so that we understand what I mean by these terms. The text I find most inspiring in developing this model is Matt 6.5-15.

This is often called the Lord’s Prayer, but that is a misnomer. It is the prayer He taught His disciples to pray, so it is really the Disciples prayer. Jesus could never pray vs12, “And forgive us our debts”. That was for our benefit, not His. This whole passage is a response to two errors in the way the Pharisees prayed. The first was their hypocrisy. They did it to be ‘seen by men’. In contrast Jesus speaks of a secret place – a room where we shut the door and all are excluded.

The second error was the heathen approach to prayer. The use of ‘vain repetition’. Prayer became a mantra – a word or phrase repeated over and over as though through repetition it would finally be heard. This was something the prophets of Baal did in 1Kings 18.26-29. It was not characteristic of real prophets who knew how to pray.

Jesus helps us understand why we should avoid both these errors. The danger with public prayer is that it can easily play to the ego. After all we get noticed. We can impress people with our rhetoric and knowledge of God. We can as it were ‘play to the gallery’ and lack any real sincerity. This is hypocrisy. Their only reward for such praying is the recognition they get at the time. But in the secret place, where no one else is listening but God, all of that is removed. God sees. God knows. God hears. And in the end that is what really matters. And He is the one who rewards us.

The second error assumes God is ignorant of our needs and therefore has to hear over and over our petitions. Wrong! Our Father knows the things we need before we ask. That’s interesting. Then why do we need to pray? Now we start to touch on the real nature of prayer and devotion. It is not just about requests – it’s about relationship. God knows our needs but He wants to spend time with us. We were made to spend time with Him. We are hard wired this way. People try to find substitutes for this deeply ingrained need, but those substitutes can’t truly satisfy the God shaped hole in our hearts.

Notice how Matt 6.5 begins; “When you pray....” Jesus doesn’t say, “If you pray”, but “When you pray...” The assumption is we will! (This is true throughout the teaching of Matt 6. It is “when you give...”, “when you fast....”). He assumes we will schedule time to do this. It’s a given. He advises us to find a place where we can be alone, shut away from all distractions. This was His practice.

Mountains seemed to be one of Jesus' favourite spots. In Luke 6.12 He went to a mountain to pray and stayed there all night, praying. Then in the morning He chose the twelve. He climbed a mountain with Peter, James and John in order to pray, Luke 9.28-29. As He did so He was transfigured! In Matt 14.23 He was up a mountain, alone, praying. He prayed in the wilderness, Luke 5.16 and often went to the Garden of Gethsemane when in Jerusalem. This too was on a mountain, Luke 22.39-40; Matt 26.36.

If we are going to spend time with God it needs to be a place where we can unwind and stay focused; a place where we feel at peace with little or no possibility of distractions. That’s hard to do today, but necessary. We need to be somewhere where mobiles and phones can’t break into our time with God. That is sacred. Imagine going on a date where your partner constantly speaks to other people on their mobile, in your presence. What signal does that send? How would you feel? What does that communicate to you about the value they place on the relationship?

Choose a place that inspires you to connect with God. For the most part Jesus chose outdoor places, for they sounded forth the mastery of the creator. Rising long before dawn He would have gazed at the same stars that Abraham looked on. He Himself was the fulfilment of all the covenant promises given to Abraham. And in this place of solitude He communed with the Father, inspired by the awesome display of His creativity and power displayed in the Heavens, Psalm 19.1-6.

During His busy schedule Jesus made time to be in the presence of His Father, regularly. Hear Mark’s record; “Now in the morning, having risen a long while before daylight, He went out and departed to a solitary place; and there He prayed”, Mark 1.35. It was His first priority of the day. Notice too that this followed on from a day of ministering to people, well after the sun had set, Mark 1.32-34. His passion to do the Father’s will drove Him to seek His face as a priority. We should take inspiration from Jesus. It’s about keeping the main thing, the main thing.

Mary learned that lesson and sat at Jesus’ feet, while Martha got all hot and bothered doing good things – for Jesus! To paraphrase Jesus – “Martha, you’ve missed it. The good stuff is robbing you of the most important stuff. Take a lesson from Mary”, Luke 10.38-42. King David understood this principle; “One thing have I desired of the LORD, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to enquire in his temple”, Psalm 27.4.

So let’s unpack these four ingredients of a good devotional:

1. Worship. By that I mean engaging our hearts in praise and adoration for who God is. This is the essence of the phrase, “Hallowed be they Name”. The first thing a young man does when he goes on a date is to comment on how nice the girl looks. It’s the first thing that catches his attention. This is what worship is like. To use David’s words: “To behold the beauty of the Lord”. Something captures our hearts and we speak it out in praise and adoration. In doing so, our hearts get caught up with the greatness of God.

This comes before any request or petition. It’s where we take time to admire the Lord. Scripture encourages us to offer thanksgiving to God. I usually do that during my worship time but it can be added almost anywhere in a devotional, Phil 4.6; Eph 5.19-20.

To make this easy I sometimes go to YouTube or Spotify and put on a worship song that I either sing along to or just listen to and soak in. One or two songs are all I need to be in God’s presence. Through this my heart and mind become oriented to receive for that day.

2. From here I move to reading the Bible. I learned this from the writings of George Muller. He struggled to enjoy prayer. It was hard work until he hit upon the idea of praying after reading the Bible rather than before. It changed his devotional times and revolutionised his prayer life. He found that scripture inspired him to pray. There were promises that he claimed, for himself and others. It became a life-long pattern for him. He read the Bible in order to understand its message and to receive personal promises, rebukes or encouragements he could apply to his life. That is exactly what the early believers did in Acts 4.21-31. They prayed using scripture, which gave a new level of authority to their petition.

This is different to Bible study which is more intensive and more in depth. Every morning when I open my computer there is a daily reading of scripture. It enables me to read the whole bible in a year. That part takes me about ten minutes to do but you don’t have to be so adventurous. A little often is the key. If I miss some days I don’t beat myself up. I just carry on with that days reading. Have a pen and paper nearby to write down what impresses you. I often try and memorise a verse so that I can think about it for that day. This is called in the Bible meditation.

Unlike Eastern meditation, which requires you to empty your mind, this is just the opposite. You fill your mind with a thought or scripture and dwell on it. Joshua was given this as a command by the Lord in order to ensure success in life and ministry, Joshua 1.8, “This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous and then you will have good success.”

Once a scripture is memorised it is easy to return to it and think about it at any time, day or night. Meditation opens our spirit to receive revelation, which is how God communicates with us. It is knowledge we receive that goes beyond learning with the mind. You don’t have to get a new scripture every day. Begin with one that you have for the week. In a year you’ll have learned fifty two!

3. Prayer. Looking at how Jesus did this, we may well call it listening prayer. It’s dialogue. For as we speak, we also listen. God is a speaking God and He wants to direct us. Many times I will pray with a pen and paper to hand. I expect to hear something. Now, in case you think I have a hot line to heaven, let me explain how that works for me. While I am enquiring over a particular issue I will often get a thought, an impression or a scripture. I write these down and pray over them, asking for confirmation. I allow time for conviction to grow in my heart about what I think God is saying. I may carry this for days, weeks or even months.

I also speak with friends I trust, seeking their wisdom. I am open for God to speak in other ways too. It’s a process. I don’t rush it. Eventually I act on what I believe God is saying. I never reach the point of 100% certainty. There is always a knowledge gap that requires faith. I think that’s how it’s meant to work!

The scriptures highlight three specific kinds of prayer helpful in devotionals:

a) Petition or asking, such as “Give us this day our daily bread”, Matt 6.11. The focus here is any needs that we have.

b) Intercession, where we pray on behalf of others, like Jesus did for Peter, Luke 22.32 and Paul did for the churches, Eph 3.14-21.

c) Inquiry, where we want understanding or direction. David used this often; 1Sam 23.9-13; 30.7-9. It is during this part of our praying that we should expect God to speak and be open to prophetic revelation. In the New Testament this was often done corporately. That is where personal convictions were always weighed and tested, Acts 13.1-3; 16.6-10.

4. The final part of a good devotion is confession. This operates at two levels. The first is about keeping a clean slate with the Lord. 1John 1.9 says; “If we confess our sins He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness”. In Jesus language we say, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors”, Matt 6.12. Notice that this works in two directions.

When we ask God to forgive us for the things we have done wrong we must be prepared to forgive those who have offended us in some way. These are two sides of the same coin. The point is so crucial to living a blessed life that Jesus returned to it at the close of the prayer, Matt 6.14-15; “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

Whenever Jesus spoke of forgiveness He used money as a metaphor to help us understand the real nature of forgiveness. It all about releasing debts; releasing people from things they owe us. He doesn’t focus on how we feel about it. That’s where most people make a mistake. Forgiveness is like accounting. You’re either in debt or not. There may be emotional issues to resolve, but forgiveness is a choice based on what God has done for us in Christ. This is the point of Jesus teaching in Matt 18. Our debt to God is huge compared to what others owe us; and He has forgiven us!

The other aspect of confession is about what we say. Our language needs to reflect the promises we carry in our hearts. Salvation comes to us by making the right confession, Rom 10.10. But this confession must reflect a heart revelation. It has to be real for us on the inside or we just parrot words. Take John’s prayer for Gaius in 3John 2. “I pray that you may prosper in all things and be in health, just as your soul prospers”. Let’s turn that into a confession and make it personal. “Today I will prosper in all things and be in good health even as my soul prospers”.

Joshua and Caleb are two examples of me who allowed their confession to line up with God’s promise to take the land in Num 14.6-9. However the other ten spies confessed their unbelief and discouraged the heart of the people. They missed their inheritance! Words have such power. Let the close of your devotional time be a confession you take with you for that day. If it’s rooted in a promise it has the power to take you and others into your inheritance. That’s what I call building traction into your life.