Mobilizing the prayer life of a congregation is unquestionably the most important task facing a church leader. The Word and worship are central thrusts to cultivating a praying people, but two recent personal involvements have reminded me of the challenge I faced when the Holy Spirit issued a direct mandate to become a people of intercession.
The first was my being teamed with Stormie Omartian to write a book on prayer that will draw people to pray together, really believing it will make a difference. The other was a weeklong interaction with 40 pastors, dealing among other things with the growing blur on the subject of "the sovereignty of God." In both pursuits, I faced the reminder of how much our people need to understand the difference between (1) solid footings in knowing the truth of God's unshakeable and absolute almightiness; and (2) the faith-crippling notions that we live in a preset universe where every circumstance, however horrible, is automatically deemed the will of God.
The conjunction of those two experiences prompt the following. If it seems too simplistic to you, forgive me--but at the same time, consider that you and I may need to go further back to basics with many of our people than we think. Here are some key concepts born of the above discussion and which appear in the new book I was honored to share in writing.
1. A false presupposition. One of the hindrances to intercessory prayer is ignorance of the church's collective mission--the call to prayer. There is woven into the fabric of man the supposition that everything is already die-cast, there's some cosmic arrangement of things, and the best you can do is try and cope with it the way it's going to be.
But Jesus taught exactly the opposite. There is nothing whatsoever anywhere in the Bible that suggests that man is the victim of an irretrievable circumstance. The whole concept of redemption argues against that. Still, distorted ideas about God's sovereignty have, as many pastors acknowledged, begotten widespread supposition that to pray boldly is to somehow renounce belief in that truth.
2. An accurate, adjusted definition. God's sovereignty refers to His absolute, irrevocable power as the Ultimate Being, the almighty God of the universe. It incorporates all the greatness that is inherent in His Person, His power as Creator and the wonders of the fact that He is all-knowing, all-powerful and everywhere present.
Make no mistake: we strongly assert the great truth of the sovereignty of God. However, for some today, God's sovereignty has come to mean that God arbitrarily, or randomly, exercises His power, and He somehow has fatefully designed the course of human affairs toward a destiny that involves nothing of human participation. But in contrast to this, the Bible unfolds the entry of a new realm of possibilities regarding what God does with reference to earth.
3. An inescapable evidence. In Jesus' coming and reversing the power of death itself--transforming the future by His resurrection--an inescapable statement has been made that nothing is irredeemable. But this event is also a statement saying that even though anything may be redeemed, nothing changes without someone stepping in.
"Stepping in" is the intercessor's action, initiated and modeled by Jesus as He fulfilled the Isaiah 53:12 prophecy, which, as no other, defines "intercessory." Now, on the grounds of everything His intercession achieved--through His death and resurrection--today's believer is called to "step in" to see the power of His triumph applied.
4. A reintroduced partnership. In His Son, the sovereign God is saying, "I'm honoring Him by welcoming all who will to become earthly representatives of what has been accomplished through Him." It is His decision to reintroduce (as at creation, before the fall) the potential for human responsibility to effectively partner with divine almightiness. To miss this is to either glibly pass over or sadly misconstrue the grand and wonderful truth of the sovereignty of God as He Himself seeks to exercise it today in and through human affairs.
5. An enfranchising with 'the keys.' Jesus said: "Here are the keys to the kingdom. You have the privilege of moving in partnership with the Father's kingdom, and whatever you bind on earth is bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth is loosed in heaven" (see Matt. 16:19).
"Binding" is when we take action to invoke His rule by revoking the sin or evil workings of flesh or devils. "Loosing" is when we take action by welcoming His power to release the flow of His mercies and grace into the middle of earth's pain and problems. And all the while, we remember--the power is His, but the privilege of tapping into it is ours. It's His plan: Without His sovereign power, we can do nothing; without our obedient partnership, He will do nothing."
MOVING PEOPLE FORWARD
Moving a congregation forward unto bold, biblical constancy and consistency in prayer requires us to grow their understanding of why prayer is so important, and how it really works. It is essentially an issue of God's choice to invest or enfranchise the redeemed with the profound privilege and responsibility of deciding if we will or won't invite His power, might, grace and glory into earth's affairs.
1. Start with the Lord's prayer. In the Lord's prayer, Jesus does more than provide a model; He shows us the way the redeemed are called to intercede--to step into earth's circumstances and "do business" in a way that introduces heaven's options--redeemed possibilities instead of humanly predetermined ruin.
His teaching opens by underlining the fact of our relationship as sons and daughters in the Father's family, saying, "Pray, Our Father" (see Matt 6:1). He makes that relationship the grounds of a privileged partnership with God, beckoning us to bow in gratitude and worship ("Hallowed--holy, holy, holy--is Your name") as we enter His presence to do the business of prayer--to invite His rule into human circumstance.
2. Bring understanding to the pivot-point. What follows is unquestionably the most astounding instruction ever given about prayer: "Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven" (see Matt. 6:10). Pastors I spoke with--Spirit-filled, charismatic pastors--agreed: most Christians have no idea of Jesus' intent in teaching us to pray this way.
The staggering fact is humbling, awe-inspiring and commissioning, and brings us face to face with the reality of prayer's pivot-point. In those words, Jesus thereby appointed each believer to become one of God's earthside agents of His heavenside purposes! Intercessory prayer is made the delegated means by which God has ordained that His almightiness shall be invited into earth's scene. The power is His, but the privilege--and "business"--has been given to us.
3. Praying according to God's will. God's desire--His will for earth is that His kingdom rule advance in human hearts. He wants His gracious love, peace, healing and saving power to penetrate human experience everywhere. But Jesus taught that the goodness and purpose of God's mighty kingdom would only advance in our present world where people pray. Things will change where they pray: "Your Kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven."
What God's power alone can do becomes available where His presence is invoked and His power is invited. He didn't say it would be a cakewalk, because sin and darkness are not overcome without a struggle (see Matt. 11:12). But prayer is His assigned means of attack, and victories are those earthside blessings and transformations we see when God's heavenside kingdom's will and ways are invited to invade situations for which we pray (see Luke 16:16).
NEITHER FATALISM OR TRIUMPHALISM
How well we help our people understand and accept this privilege and responsibility we have in prayer will determine how much of God's power will penetrate their world ... and thereby, our world. At the bottom line, redemption's implications regarding prayer might be summarized in these words: All power in heaven and earth is His--but all prayer invoking heaven's power into earth's need is ours.
The only power that can change history is God's, but His choice is that the only way that power will enter earth's historic settings is by the direct invitation of His redeemed--in prayer. Pastor, let's teach it--over and over again. The potential for confusion is everywhere. We need to avoid teaching that produces either fatalists or triumphalists.
Even-handed presentation of the truth that it is God's will to wait for our invitation of His sovereign power will beget responsible prayer. Rightly taught it will also beget a deep humility, fidelity and constancy in prayer, and when that is brought to bear on earth's suffering and pain, things will change. Not because God changes His mind, but because His people gained an understanding of His sovereign mind-set.
Jack Hayford is chancellor of The King's College and Seminary in Van Nuys, California. He has edited a CD-ROM resource titled, Hayford's Electronic Spirit-Filled Life Library.