A Personal Struggle: On Prayer

I wanted to write about something that has been revealed to me recently. It is a weakness, a personal struggle of mine that I am now wrestling with, since this revelation came to me.

I am very much a “creature of habit,” I tend to feel as though consistency is the best way to establish those habits which are beneficial. Thus, every morning, I awaken and come in to my study. As has become my custom, I grab something to drink, sit down and allow myself a few moments to awaken, and then begin to read through my Scripture readings for the day. I have a system that I was given by a Protestant pastor wherein you read ten chapters of Scripture and then begin your day. And I have been avowed to that system ever since it was presented to me.

Recently, however, it has been revealed to me that while I can sit down and dedicate an hour to reading the Holy Scripture each morning with no rebellion from my body, it is always a struggle for me to stand in prayer to our beloved Lord. I recognized that, while my nature doesn’t resist the reading of Scripture, even for an hour straight, it resists what turns to 20 minutes of prayer. It was something that until recently, I had never thought anything about. I had never even thought about my struggles with prayer, much less considered the possible causes for it.

I remember once hearing that the body naturally resists the things of the spirit. It is perfectly logical to consider that the carnal side of me would naturally resist the spiritual side, and thus create this battle within me. And that anything which “feels” natural may not necessarily be healthy, whereas those things which don’t “feel” natural tend to be healthier for spiritual growth. Consider fasting; the body naturally leads us against doing it. In fact, I have often found it harder to abstain from food when I know that it is in the name of fasting than I have ever found it when it wasn’t spiritual in nature. Many times when I am not fasting, I find myself hungering very little, whereas during a fast I often awaken to a voracious appetite that I must struggle to resist all throughout the day. It’s that carnal urge within me desiring to fight against the spiritual growth that accompanies the discipline of fasting.

So, in applying this principal to my normal, daily routine, I find something quite interesting. See, we naturally enjoy learning things; it’s in our nature to seek answers and understanding. Our human nature tends to not allow us to not know all of the answers to something. Entire web-based conglomerates are based on exploiting this aspect of our nature. And yet, it is completely in opposition to our carnal nature to seek to be in the presence of the Lord, to accept the unknowable, the incomprehensible; and especially to accept that it shall always in fact be unknowable and incomprehensible. It’s hard to allow ourselves to not know and not understand, and to be able to accept that fact. And that was what was revealed to me recently.

See, what I realized was that in the busy-ness of seeking to attain knowledge, I struggle daily to find the Truth. Truth is not an idea, or an interpretation, or some epiphany derived from formulating hermeneutic principles to dig deeply beneath the surface of writings, often finding things that even the authors didn’t know were there. No, Truth is a person, and to know the Truth is to know Him. And to truly know Him is to commune with Him. It is not to read what others say about Him, it is to actively seek to be in communion with Him, as Adam was in the garden before the fall. I heard a well known pastor, in one of his talks, refer to what it’s like to be content to listen to Moses. To hear or read what others have experienced. To stand at the bottom of the mountain and allow Moses to go and talk to God, and then come back and bring us what he was told, what he saw, what his experience with God was. To be content to go to a talk and hear someone else talk about their prayers, or their communion with Jesus. But, we seem to have forgotten that, with the New Covenant, we no longer have need of that intercession. We no longer have need of that intercessor, that one who speaks to the Lord and tells us about Him. We can no longer be content to listen to Moses speak, we must go up the mountain ourselves. We have been granted this ability to know Jesus firsthand, not to hear accounts of Him, not to read about what He did in other’s lives, but to truly experience Him ourselves.

And this is a gift which has been given to us. Through His Scripture, through His Church, through Prayer, through fasting, through meditation on His word. All of these gifts, all of these means to learn about Him and to know Him. See, I had been taught that “if you want to hear Jesus speak, read His word; and if you want to hear Him speak out loud, read His word aloud.” And so, for so long, I mistook knowledge for maturity. For so long I considered reading the Scriptures to be the sole way through which I could commune with Him. And how comfortable I am with doing that has recently been revealed to me. To be able to sit and read these eyewitness testimonies is amazing, but it in itself isn’t a relationship. If I buy a celebrity’s biography, then I can learn a lot about him, but I would never claim that I have a relationship with that person. If I read my wife’s diary but never speak to her, I have no relationship with her. Similarly, when I read Scripture but never enter into prayer, I can learn a lot about Jesus, but I can’t actually claim to have a relationship with Him. When I look into Scripture itself, I see all of these people who knew Him, who communed with Him, through the entire Book of Acts, we see people who never met Him in the flesh, but walked with Him through their faith. Pentecost didn’t happen because the disciples read the Scriptures, actually Jesus says the opposite. He warns the Pharisees, “You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me. But you are not willing to come to Me that you may not have life.” (John 5:39-40). See, the Scriptures are imperative, as they teach us about Him, they answer questions, as Paul says, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness,” (2 Timothy 3:16), but, as Jesus makes so plainly clear; they are imperative as a tool, not a replacement for actually coming to Him, to knowing Him, to walking with Him in faith. And we do ourselves a disservice when we think otherwise. I am by no means saying that we should forsake the Holy Scriptures, merely that studying them must never become a substitute for communing with God. We must be careful of mistaking knowledge about Jesus for actually knowing Jesus.

Do not misunderstand what I am saying here. It is of great importance that we know the words of Scripture. I believe completely in the inerrancy and perfection of the Holy Scripture. And there is a very important reason that it is so imperative that we know the Scripture. For, when we enter into prayer, we must be constantly vigilant to guard our hearts against the wickedness of the evil one. We must constantly, as John admonishes us, “test the spirits to see that they are of God.” (1 John 4:4), for as Paul warns, “even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.” (2 Corinthians 11:14), and the Psalmist warns us that “Unless the Lord guard the city, those who guard it stay awake in vain.” (Psalm 126:1). And it is through the knowledge of Scripture that we are able to do those things, to test the spirits to see that they are of God. See, we must seek always communion with the Lord, however, we must also be knowledgeable in the things of the Lord lest we be deceived. Take, as an example, a man who prays concerning leaving his wife for someone else. He hears a voice telling him that it is acceptable to do so; however, if he is learned in the Scripture then he knows that Jesus forbids divorce, and thus is able to stop himself from being misled. Thus, in his knowledge of the Lord, he is able to discern what is of the Lord versus what is of the enemy. Had he not that knowledge, then it would be easy for him to mistake that tempting voice as the voice of an “angel of light” and be lost. See, the Lord will never lead us into temptation (James 1:13), nor is there any wickedness in Him. We must know the will of the Lord and His ways lest we be easily led astray by the enemy, disguising himself as an angel of light. The Psalmist is warning us that unless the watchman arises, the Lord will not watch the city, our need to learn the ways of the Lord to guard ourselves against the enemy, to keep vigil over our souls and protect them, our call to action to learn the ways of the Lord and to live them out. However, he is also warning that unless we turn to the Lord constantly in prayer, then we can awaken whenever we wish, and full knowledge of everything will be of no avail if we are not walking with the Lord, if we are not in constant communion with Him. It’s this idea that we must constantly watch the doors of our own heart while never ceasing to call upon the Lord for help.

The antinomians believed that mere belief in God was enough, with no doctrine; the legalists believe that obedience to the Law and the Prophets was enough, with no relationship with God. Scripture warns us so frequently to “turn neither to the left nor to the right. We must know the words of Scripture for sound doctrine, but we must have a true relationship with Jesus, not merely a knowledge of Him. Obedience is easy if you truly know and love the object of your obedience. There’s an expression that I’ve heard all of my life that when we practice something completely, it becomes “second nature.” I’ve always used that expression, but when it comes to the Lordship of Jesus, it extends far greater; when we know and love Him, and commune with Him, obedience to Him doesn’t become a second nature, it becomes our very nature.

And while we must study Scripture, we must be mindful to never allow our study of God to replace our relationship with Him. It is so easy to fall into this trap of human comfort, this trap that will allow us to very comfortably sit and read ten, twenty, one hundred chapters of Scripture every day, allowing us to grow in knowledge; and yet prevents us from walking away from our theological equations and insatiable thirst for knowledge to take the time to establish a relationship with Him in prayer. When we approach the Holy Scripture in such a manner as to try to “break down” the words and commands of Scripture, we place our own wisdom and the wisdom of our age above the very words of God, and we must be ever so careful not to do that. As St Paithos the Athonite warns, “theology that is taught like science usually examines things historically and, consequently, things are understood externally. Since patristic abscesis and inner experience are absent, this kind of theology is full of uncertainty and questions.” We will never know all of the answers, and seeking to learn everything, those things which are mysteries will destroy our faith, either by sheer disbelief in that which we cannot understand, or by our formulating our own answers in the name of interpretation.

Rather, my beloved brethern, let us read the words of Holy Scripture, applying them as they are written, to our own lives, rather than interpreting them as a means of judging others, and allow the words of Scripture to help us understand those things which we hear in prayer. Let us understand what we truly do when we “interpret” the words of Scripture to mean something different than what they say, what we are truly doing is proclaiming our interpretation to be the authority rather than the words of God, we are placing our own logic above His words. Rather, may we understand that when Jesus states that it is hard for a rich man to enter into the kingdom, what He means is that it’s hard for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom. May we understand that when He says, “whatever you have done to the least of these you have done to Me,” what He means is that whatever we have done for the least of these, we have done to Him. May we see each person as an icon of Christ, being formed in His image, and thus worthy of the love and compassion that we would show Jesus. And let us not relate the words of Scripture to others, but to ourselves. When we read His saying about the rich man, we tend to think of the Bill Gates or Donald Trumps; let us consider instead that as we are driving home from our jobs to our home and our cooked meal, to the homeless beggar on the street, we are the rich man. May we consider “the love of money is the root of all sorts of evil” in terms of how we handle our own money. May we consider all of Jesus’ commands from the perspective of how He would handle the situations in our lives. When we are commanded to pray for our enemies, we must remember that His final words on the cross were in prayer for those who had placed Him there.

May we resist the fleshly urging to allow our own comfort to dictate our faith, and instead “discipline our bodies and bring them into submission.” (1 Corinthians 9:27). Remembering the spiritual disciplines, allow us to determine which of them we are struggling the most with and, through the power of the Holy Spirit, allow those to be the things that we focus most on. Are you comfortable reading Scripture? Pray. Are you comfortable praying? Read Scripture. Are you comfortable with both? Fast. Serve others. Feed the poor. Further, in considering the disciplines, we can never allow the focus of one to detract from the others, rather, like a painter must paint layer after layer, so too must we add discipline upon discipline. When we focus on prayer, we can not forsake Scripture reading, when we focus on reading, we can not leave forlorn service. The previous layers must remain, we merely add layer after layer on top of it. Much as the painter paints his background, and adds the mountains atop that layer, and the clouds atop that layer, until, at the last, the perfect image is before them. As Peter exhorts us, “add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness to godliness brotherly kindness, to brotherly kindness love.” (2 Peter 1:5-7). Notice, he never says to replace one with the other, but rather to constantly add onto the foundation that has already been lain. So must we be spiritually. If Christianity were meant to be comfortable for us, Jesus would never have admonished us to count the cost of following Him. Paul would never have compared it to all of these massive sporting events and competitions. If the Church were thought to be comfortable, it would never have survived the first century. All the lives of all the saints and martyrs bare witness to the fact that we must truly deny ourselves and pick up our crosses to follow Him. As G.K. Chesterton says, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.”

May the peace of the Lord be with you, my beloved family.

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