Our “intentional spiritual formation” group has been meeting now for more than two years. My time in this group is making it clear to me that prayer is battle. Prayer is communion, and prayer is petition, but prayer, I’m more deeply realizing, is also battle.
In settings where the focus is on individual spiritual formation, sometimes prayer is viewed as no more than communion with God. Certainly, prayer is a unique opportunity to become internally quiet enough to hear from God’s Spirit as he draws us into the Father’s presence by way of the Son. There is no higher value to prayer than its power to let us actually taste God, to party with the Trinity. But that’s not all there is to prayer.
Where the focus is swapping stories, when we let safe friends know what’s really going on in our lives, prayer tends to center on petition. Every story brings with it a prayer request. Health scares, job loss, ministry opportunities, schooling decisions for children—there is never a shortage of reasons to ask God to intervene, lead, or provide. The Father, of course, is delighted when his kids ask for help, if they ask humbly, without demand, without the too familiar attitude of negotiation that whispers under one’s breath, “If you do this, I’ll do that,” or the equally familiar spirit of entitlement that says, “You should do this. I deserve it!”
Better to pray in childlike trust, to make our requests known and then to add, “I’d really like you to do this, but if you don’t, I’ll still follow you. I trust you to do what’s best.” Petitionary prayer in the right spirit is good, but there’s more to prayer than petition.
Prayer is also battle. And that becomes clear when Christians meet to focus on the inner life, not only on our movement toward God but also on the forces locked deep in our being that oppose it. The redeemed soul is a war zone, a battleground between the tendency toward self-obsession (that is often disguised as God-honoring) and the Spirit-created desire to be God-obsessed, which to many seems far too radical even to consider.
When we are willing to risk a level of uncomfortable authenticity that exposes for others to see (often before we see it ourselves) our self-obsessed attitude that makes self-protection and self-enhancement at any cost seem reasonable, when we face in ourselves and each other the determination to keep ourselves intact, then it becomes clear that prayer is battle.
In this article, I want to do two things. First, I want to sketch my understanding of the real but often unseen battle being fought in the inside world of every follower of Jesus. And second, I want to suggest one simple way of doing battle for another’s soul through prayer. It’s a way of praying that our small group is finding more necessary.
The Real Battle
At the time of this writing, a friend of mine (someone not in our group) is fighting the battle of his life—and at this moment, he is losing. The dark side seems to be winning. He’s on the verge of turning his back on his wife and children and ministry in order to keep experiencing the satisfaction he is finding in relationship with another woman. The satisfaction is not sexual. That would be easier to explain and argue against.
He describes his experience as “soul joy,” the profound sensation of feeling alive, free, connected, and wanted. It is an intensity of fulfillment that decades of seriously and fervently following Christ have never provided. He sees himself as built for this joy and can recognize only two options: pursue the experience and walk away from what he has always understood the Bible commands, or come back to the Christian fold and give up all hope of deep joy in this life. That’s how he sees things. How should I respond? How should I pray?
I can recall persuading myself, as a younger man, that the clean pleasure of coming home to my wife having not looked at pornography on the hotel television was enough to keep me on the straight and narrow path. The argument is typically “Christian”: the felt joys of obedience exceed the felt pleasures of sin.
But that’s true only when, as is true in my case, I really like my wife. As long as I have blessings that I sincerely enjoy, then the moral path allows me to keep on enjoying those blessings. But notice, the joy is not the enjoyment of God. It is the enjoyment of blessings. Remove the blessings, give the man a wife that he doesn’t much like, and the pleasures of sin may exceed the pleasures of holiness.
The old hymn says, “There is joy in serving Jesus.” And there is. But if we are counting on an experience of soul satisfaction to accompany obedience reliably, and if we expect that our felt pleasure in doing good will exceed the pleasure we could enjoy by indulging our favorite sin, then it won’t take long for sin to seem irresistible.
Here’s the point: if we live for an experience of joy, if we elevate desire to central status and live for nothing higher than its felt satisfaction, then we are no longer living by faith. We are idolaters worshiping desire. We are no longer living for God.
I agree with Jonathan Edwards that there is no incompatibility between our unquenchable longing for happiness and the command to worship God. But if God becomes the means and our happiness becomes the point, then we are self-obsessed pragmatists, not worshipers. When God is the point, and obedience designed to bring him pleasure becomes the focus, then there will eventually be a fullness of joy that makes sin unthinkable and unappealing, thoroughly repulsive.
But that fullness of joy comes later, in heaven. In this life, it’s by faith we put God first, especially when following him yields suffering. Of course, there are seasons of great joy, and there is an abiding sense that we belong to the most wonderful Person in the universe, that the privilege of knowing him really does exceed all other blessings whether we feel blessed or not, and that living for him is what we most want to do. But if we’re living for the maximum sense of pleasurable satisfaction now, we will obey God only if he provides blessings that obedience allows us to continue enjoying. Take away the blessings and live life to gain satisfaction of even the noblest human desires, and eventually you’ll find yourself moving away from God.
One prevailing heresy in evangelical culture is that living for Jesus provides the soul reliably with a depth of satisfaction that exceeds the satisfaction found in sin. That heresy keeps a pastor I know driven in his ministry. He works long hours, he studies hard, he is well disciplined in his habits, his church is growing, he is highly respected—and he keeps living the “Christian” life because it keeps him feeling important and alive. He is living for satisfied desire, not for God. It just so happens that what we would call a Christian lifestyle provides him with enough pleasure to keep him going.
Let him become honest enough to face the emptiness in his soul that every self-aware pilgrim feels (the Bible calls it “groaning”) and keep him believing the lie that serving Jesus is supposed to relieve emptiness, and you have a pastor ripe for an affair or burnout or an extra dose of legalism. Satan has a golden opportunity to bring along just the right woman, who can become his soulmate, and the appeal will be experienced as irresistible. Or the pastor will become disillusioned and drop out, or he might become more rigid and relationally aloof. (Yes, I’m prognosticating. But I’m also describing a well-worn path I’ve seen traveled by many who’ve opened their lives to me in counseling.)
We’re trying very hard in Christian circles to convince ourselves that even without the prospect of heaven, the Christian life is worth living. It’s not, unless, like me, you’ve been blessed with a spouse you genuinely like, kids who delight your heart, a job or ministry that provides both meaning and income, and decent health. Then keeping your nose clean makes sense as long as the blessings keep coming. Why give up the enjoyment of what you have? Christian living then is pragmatically smart.
But mess with the blessings, let just enough go wrong to reduce the pleasure you feel in them to a lesser intensity than the pleasure that comes from bagging Christian standards and doing whatever makes you feel alive, and doing wrong will seem justified, necessary, legitimate, reasonable. The wrong way will seem right. That scenario has led to countless divorces.
The real battle in the human soul that knows Jesus is not to find a way to feel now what we long to feel in our inmost being, whether it’s love, meaning, or the satisfaction of living an other-centered life in the service of a cause greater than oneself. The real battle is to continue in faithfulness even when faithfulness brings no immediate experience of joy, even when it brings no prospect of felt joy until heaven. That’s what it means to live by faith. That’s the message of Hebrews 11. That’s the cornerstone of the gospel, first declared by Habakkuk, then established as the core of the spiritual journey by Paul.
My friend followed Jesus for several decades. It didn’t “work.” He hoped that he would feel an overwhelming satisfaction that would make resisting sin as easy as passing up dog food in favor of prime rib. He believed the prevailing heresy of the evangelical church. He discovered that a woman whom it was not God’s will for him fully to enjoy provided more soul joy than anything he had known in years of faithfulness to the will of God. For him, the call to obedience meant giving up joy and returning to lifeless Christianity.
He was not helped by the erroneous but popular teaching that there is a way to feel so alive in God that sin loses its appeal, and that pursuing the experience of aliveness is the legitimate center of the spiritual adventure. That teaching is deadly, all the more so because it’s so near the truth. Knowing God is life. But living to feel alive is not the same as living to know and glorify God. When the bottom line is reached, the issue is not finding an experience of overwhelming joy in knowing Jesus. That will happen later. It may happen now. If it does, praise God. When the bottom line is reached, the issue is faith: What do you most deeply believe? How then shall you live? Heaven is coming up. Only that fact makes sense of the choice to persevere when blessings are withheld.
Fighting the Battle through Prayer
If the real battle is to keep from making an idol of desire, if the real battle is to let our choices be ruled by a desire for God that sometimes leaves us empty and lonely, then, although we can rightly celebrate whatever blessings come our way and enjoy the pleasure they bring, we must never deposit that pleasure in the bank and write checks on that account. We must rather hope in Christ when life makes no sense, when sin does a better job of relieving emptiness than righteous living. We must write checks on the account of faith. Our hope must be fixed on Jesus and the hope his presence brings, not on satisfied desire in this life.
With that slowly growing understanding of the battle going on in each of us, our intentional spiritual formation group is engaging in three practices: (1) lectio divina, which begins our meetings in order to attune our spirits to God’s Spirit; (2) storytelling, where we share authentically where we are on our journey toward hope in only God, not in his present blessings or in our experience of satisfaction; and (3) battle prayer, the kind that is carried along by the recognition that the spiritual battle is between the demand for felt satisfaction and the life of faith.
Our prayer is simple. We listen to each other with only curiosity, not advice, not perspective giving, not even empathy or affirmation. We really want to see where the front lines are. How is the battle, the one between the hope of experiencing pleasure now and the hope of wanting only God whatever our feelings or circumstances may be—how is that battle taking shape in this person’s life?
Then we retreat by ourselves for ten or fifteen minutes, to pray, not to commune with God for our sakes, not to ask God to do something for our friend, but to do battle for that person’s soul. We call it “listening to the Spirit on behalf of another.”
My version of prayer as battle is to imagine my friend in the presence of the Trinity and to eaves-drop on their conversation. I claim to hear neither audible voices nor inerrant messages. I simply reflect on what I know of God as revealed in Scripture—the Father’s unconditional love, the Son’s atoning grace, the Spirit’s gentle rhythm—and I imagine what they are right now saying to my friend and how they are feeling and thinking about him.
Whatever impressions come to mind, I register, ponder, and try to put into words. Then, when we regather, we each share whatever, if anything, seems to be clear and clean and alive within us, and consistent with what we know of God from Scripture. We assume that whatever has prophetic weight, that is, whatever comes from God, will lift the person’s focus to see God, and not to center his hope on satisfying desire.
We do our best not to yield to the urge to help. That’s not our burden. That’s not the battle we’re fighting. We yearn rather to be yielded vessels that pour divine life into each other, not necessarily to provide an experience of joy now (though we celebrate when that happens), but to deepen faith that eternal joy is coming, that perseverance on the journey is a profoundly good thing, that living for God is different from living for pleasure, but it will lead to eternal joy.
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I prayed for my friend who was about to throw away a life of faith for the experience of satisfied desire. I did not pray that he feel more joy in following Christ than in sin. I prayed that he would get in touch with a longing to know God that is stronger than his desire for an experience of joy and life. I imagined him in the presence of the Trinity. I could sense their pain as their child valued the experience coming from a woman who was not his wife over the hope they had promised, the hope that it cost the death of Jesus to provide.
I spent last evening telling him what I heard. He called me five minutes ago. He told me he was ending his relationship with this woman. His words were, “I can explain my decision only as the work of God in answer to prayer. It feels awful, but in some strange way, it’s what I want to do.”
I’m afraid the heresy is still alive in his mind, that he may still believe that the choices we make should be determined by the joy they will bring in this life. Does he think he’ll feel better after giving her up? I don’t know. Will he in fact give her up? Or will he go back to her when he discovers that his soul experienced more aliveness with her than in following God? Again, I don’t know.
So I keep praying. Prayer is battle.