Prayer

Dallas Willard Part 28 of 34

In 1993 Dallas began teaching an intensive two-week residential course for Fuller Theological Seminary’s Doctor of Ministry program. His task was to teach about spiritual life in a systematic way so that its full connection to the work of the minister was clear. These sessions from 2012 are from Dallas’s last year of teaching the course before he died. Though a bulk of the course was usually centered on the nature and practice of disciplines, the beginning of the course dealt with more theological themes like the nature of spiritual reality and the end of the course dealt with topics in spirituality like vocational issues. [Editor’s Note: We know that the class was taped on other occasions and would be glad to find these recordings.]

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There are actually two main themes now that I am trying to emphasize here. One is that prayer involves a genuine cosmic power. That’s one and the other theme that I am trying to emphasize is that we work with God in prayer. We work WITH God in prayer and more distant themes that come out of this have to do with—we are learning how to live in the Kingdom of God that prayer is a part of and then finally, we will want to talk a little more about the disciplinary aspect of prayer. [1:03]

 

Right now, I’d like you to look at page 93 in your notebook and this is the little piece by C.S. Lewis—one of the most illuminating things I think you will ever read on prayer. There are a lot of very nice distinctions drawn here that I won’t have time to go over but Lewis understands that prayer is fundamentally bringing something to happen. It is a variety of causation and he is very concerned to emphasize that. He does recognize that one reason why prayers have to be handled very carefully is not because they are weak but because they are too powerful and that there are some varieties of causation that we don’t need to pray about. For example, if you have weeds in your flowerbed, probably you shouldn’t pray about it unless you leave them there too long and then you might need to pray about it.

 

On the second page there at 94 at the stop of the left hand column, he is quoting Pascal. Pascal says that “God instituted prayer in order to allow His creatures the dignity of causality. It would perhaps be truer to say that He invented both prayer and physical action for that purpose” and that certainly is true because there are many areas of causality that we don’t need to pray about but, we do need to go through God with reference to many things that are so important that we cannot reliably deal with them on our own but in prayer as in action, you are trying to bring about a result. [3:36]

 

Now, probably you can just go ahead and pull the weeds but if you are trying to cure your friend or cousin or something of drug addiction, that’s probably something that you shouldn’t just “do” and probably you can’t just do. In any case, it would involve other people in a way that it probably is not safe to be left in your hands and so, we have these two different ways of influencing events and some of it does not involve the causation of God and there the causation still can be problematic but we want to recognize of course that, God is overall and all of that but when we come to pray, we are involving an incredibly vast power which we cannot be left to exercise on our own. [5:00]

 

So, on the second page there on the left hand side, a little paragraph at the middle. “The two methods by which we are allowed to produce events may be called work and prayer; both are alike in this respect that in both we try to produce a state of affairs which God has not seen fit to provide on His own.” He’s not going to pull the weeds and He does want us to be involved with the needs of people so He doesn’t just automatically cure everyone who is addicted. Now, from this point of view, the old maxim of the Benedictines, Laborare est Orare—work is prayer takes on a new meaning and I must say a very problematic one for many people because they tend to want to say, “If I am working, I am praying.” Not necessarily. Or, those old lines from Coleridge’s’ poem, The Ancient Mariner—“He prayeth best who loveth best all things both great and small because the great God who made us both loved and made us all.” Well, that sounds good; it’s just not true. There is a connection between love and prayer but you have to get it right and it doesn’t automatically fall into place. So, this last couple of paragraphs here I think are extremely important for understanding prayer. He continues to talk about the kind of causation that we are involved in. He says, “We cannot be sure of a good harvest; whatever you do to a field but you can be sure that if you pull up one weed, that one weed is no longer there.” You can be sure that if you drink more than a certain amount of alcohol, you will ruin your health or that if you go on for a few centuries more wasting the resources of the planet on wars and luxuries, you will shorten the life of the whole human race.” So now, he says, “The kind of causality we exercise by work is divinely guaranteed and therefore is ruthless. By it, we are free to do ourselves as much harm as we please but the kind which is exercised by prayer is not like that. God has left Himself a discretionary power; had He not done so, prayer would be an activity too dangerous for human beings and we should have the horrible state of things envisioned by juvenile, enormous prayers, which heaven in anger grants.”  So, prayer is not always granted or answered and this is not because prayer is a weaker form of causation because it is a stronger kind of causation. “When it works at all, it works unlimited to space and time. That is why God has retained a discretionary power in granting it or refusing it. Except on that condition, prayer would destroy us all. It is not unreasonable for a headmaster at a school to say to an incoming student, such and such things you may do according to the fixed rules of the school but such sand such other things are too dangerous to be left to general rules. If you want to do them, you must come and make a request and talk over the whole matter with me in my study and then we will see.” So, again, to emphasize a theme that has come up over and over in prayer, we are dealing with a personal relationship. We are talking with a person and in particular we are talking with a person who is a great King over the universe—has great power and He wants to share it with us, but that requires that we grow in our understanding and many of the astonishing prayer statements of Jesus about prayer are designed precisely to help us come to terms with that. [10:08]

 

So now—John 14. This is one of the passages that kind of makes me want to run and get under the table like someone had thrown a hand grenade. The setting here is where Jesus is getting ready to leave His disciples and they of course are worried sick. They don’t know what they are going to do and Jesus is trying to draw them into a larger picture of Himself and among others things, He is saying to them, “Now, you believe in God, believe in me. In my Father’s house are many dwelling places. I am going to prepare a place for you. That’s what I am doing and I will come back and bring you to those places and we will be together again.” So, this evokes their curiosity of course and you have Thomas piping up and saying, “Well, we don’t even know where you are going. How can we know the way?” And Jesus had said, “You know the way.” “No, we don’t know the way. We don’t know where you are going.” And then Jesus, trying to help them enlarge their understanding, says, “I am the way—I am the way, I am the truth, I am the life; no one comes to the Father except through me.” And that peaks Philip’s interest and he says, “Oh, okay—show us the Father and that will do.” And that’s where Jesus says to Philip, “Have I been with you all this time and you haven’t knows me?” And the truth is they hadn’t. They hadn’t known him and they continued to think in a mistaken way about Him and so He draws them into a further discussion about what has been going on in Him and He says to Philip, “Don’t you believe that the Father is in Me and I in the Father? Don’t you believe that? The words that I speak, I don’t speak of myself but the Father does the works.” Now, you know if I had been there and even now, it’s not all that perfectly clear what’s going on here. But, Jesus continues to try to work with them and says, “You know if you don’t believe that the Father is in me, believe because of the works you have seen.” In other words, “Look at what I actually did and ask yourself, ‘where could that come from if not from God the Father?’” [13:24]

 

So now then, He gives them this stunning statement in verse 12: “Truly I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do, he will do also, and greater works than these shall he will do; because I go to the Father.” That is, His going to the Father is what explains why they will be able to do even greater works than He has done and now, these words—verse 13: “Whatever you ask in My name, that will I do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in My name, I will do it.” And then He goes on to give a further teaching about the situation. “If you love me, keep My commandments and I will send another Comforter, other Strengthener other than Jesus Himself.” I will send another and then the discussion about the Spirit and how the world can’t receive the Spirit because it doesn’t see him and so forth and so on. [14:29]

 

But, what I just ask you to think about is this repeated statement in 13 and 14; “If you ask me anything in My name, I will do it.” And, now, that is to me a great personal challenge. There are some things that I have asked that haven’t been done. That might be true of you. So, now, how are we to think about this? Asking in His name is obviously the location of the problem, shall we say? The statement is very clear, “If you ask anything in my name, I will do it.” So, if I ask something, even if I think I am asking in His name and He doesn’t do it, then one explanation would be, “Well, I didn’t ask in His Name.” Hmmmm… Now, I have asked for some things and they have been given. Sometimes rather surprising things. That’s probably true of you as well. They’ve been given and I do think that in this matter of answered prayer, there is the intent and desire on God’s part to help us learn and work with it but asking in His Name seems to be something that you can’t just flip a page and do. So, let’s talks about it a little bit and maybe we can make some sense of it and understand how it might be something that we would grow in. So, let me try to make a beginning just by saying, “I believe that to ask in Jesus’ name is to ask for something that is entirely for His benefit.” So, let me go slowly here and see if we can think this out a bit. “To ask in Jesus’ Name is to ask for something that is entirely for His benefit.”  Work with me on this and let’s see what you think about it but one of the things that I have often puzzled about is why is it that prayers of individuals for members of their family so often go unanswered? And personally, and my observation, these seem to be among the hardest things to successfully pray for and I am inclined to think that that may be because those are among the hardest things to pray for merely for Jesus’ benefit. Usually, these are things we want so badly that what we want is what we want and one can be tempted to think “Well, what is it—is God playing some kind of game with us here—jerking us around as we might say?” [18:40]

Well, that’s inconsistent with my picture of God at any rate. So, back to our idea of Kingdom living now. If the object is to bring us ever more fully into harmony with His Kingdom where His is the Kingdom, the Power and the Glory, then one might think that what we are doing as we live in the Kingdom with Jesus and try to share more and more of His power required remarkable growth on our part. Right? Suppose we were to think the thought that God’s intent for each of us is that we should grow to the point where He could empower us to do what we want. Let me try that on you again.  Suppose you thought that God’s intent—let’s say even in this whole operation of human history—is to bring people to Him and grow them to the point where they could do what they wanted. Now, you have to stop and let that kind of bounce around in your head a moment. Obviously, you say, “Well there is going to have to be a lot of work done on my “wanter”, right? That’s pretty clear and I would be willing to say I think that in this matter of prayer, our “wanter” is the primary obstruction and I think that is why Jesus so carefully says, “If you ask in My Name.” Now, if that’s true then you could kind of see how He would leave the outcome almost wildly open, you know? And, He talks about this elsewhere, you know. “If you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you can say to this tree, ‘be rooted up and planted in the sea’ and it will just do it.” That’s a point. I don’t know how you feel about that—oh, wow— I’m not even close. Now, you know, some people think they would have magic power; that wouldn’t be prayer. So, that would be a different something, whatever it is. I think the speaking activity is similar in that you cant’ do that on your own and you have to do that with God and so, it’s like prayer, I believe. So, now, the only way I can understand as going forward and you see, I’m not here really talking about such things as whether prayer works. I know it works. I know that I and probably you and multitudes of people have prayed and have received an answer. I’m talking about the dimensions of it and this astonishing thing that Jesus says. I think actually it is God’s intent to grow people to the point where He could empower them to do whatever they want.  Now, again, if you think back on all the stuff we’ve talked about, you will see that’s part of a theme of freedom and responsibility and interacting with God where what we want matters. [23:02] In think a part of His intention in our creation is to enable us to be free and responsible but as long as our desires are turned away from Him, then He can’t empower that.—maybe in some small degree.

 

So, I’m just trying to think about this whole issue of prayer now as Jesus describes it. What I am raising here does not touch or disturb the earlier statements that I made about what prayer is. Prayer is talking to God about what we are doing together, yes, right? Prayer is a power-sharing device for a world of recovering sinners; and so in all areas, for example, where a young person is learning to exercise power, you go slowly. You let them learn—either learn to—and I really think that’s the way it is.

 

Now, what might be the key? Well, I think the key here is love. I think that’s where 1 Corinthians 13 comes back in and it just has these bold statements that “if I had all faith and understood all mysteries and all knowledge so that I could remove mountains,”—that’s another one of Jesus’ figures, isn’t it?—removing mountains? –“and have not love, I am nothing.” So, I think that’s the dimension we are growing in in prayer and that Jesus here in John 14 is trying to encourage His people to think in terms of growing up in what they had seen in Him. So, He’s talking about, what did the work? He didn’t do the work. God did the work—God in Him; now, he’s going to lead them into the idea that they are people who have God and Christ in them and so they must aim towards likeness to Jesus and so He says, “Those who believe in me, the things that I do, they will do also and greater things than these shall they do because I go to the Father.” Now, I don’t think you need to take that as referring to individuals. It could be referring to them all together; perhaps it’s referring to the kind of thing that Peter did on the Day of Pentecost. Perhaps it’s referring to the spread of Christianity across the globe so there is lots of room to wiggle there but it does pose a problem of understanding and if we don’t understand prayer, we will not pray. It will turn into magic and God isn’t into the magic business but actually you see many people and you listen to them pray and you realize they are thinking of it as if it were magic and they will look at these verses and they talk as if somehow you could just learn to hold your mouth right, you could make that happen but of course no one has ever made that happen. Now, maybe it is possible to think in terms of accomplishing greater things than Jesus did but to come to the place where He had the kind of power and prayer than Jesus had, as far as I know, no one on earth has ever come close. Still, many people have lived a life of prayer in which great differences were made. That I think is simply a fact. [27:20]

 

So, prayer is a mighty force-it’s out there. Was it Justin talking about these experiments? Who was talking about experiments? [Raised hand of student—ah, yes!] And people now investigate prayer in many ways trying to find out what kind of power is there and it’s the sort of thing that doesn’t exactly run over you and blot out any of your problems, but it seems like it’s pretty clear that prayer makes a difference under controlled conditions and I think that’s really just a part of the furniture of the universe. It doesn’t prove anything about you particularly or me; it’s just that those powers are there and I think they are not spiritual powers. I think they are natural powers that we are able to tap into and so I would like to distinguish between as many people do—Bonheoffer, for example—between soulish powers and spiritual powers. I think the difference is that soulish power is a kind of power that is present and all kinds of people learn how to work with that and this is a reality but spiritual power is something that comes directly from God and His Kingdom and there is a personal control over that that there is not over psychic powers. OK: well that’s about enough of that I think unless you have some more comments. [29:07]

 

Q: Explain how sharing of power is like the alignment of desire?

 

A: No, but I mean, you and I are in a process of working this out in our lives and there is a lot of it I think we can see very clearly if we can see it at all.  My view is that if you commit yourself to a life of prayer, you will be give enough to assure you that this is a good way to go and you will continue to grow and you will learn more and more about how prayer is to be controlled by love and not by what you want and I mention the case of praying for relatives in families because I think that is one of the hardest places to get what you want out of the way. [29:46]

 

Q: So what you are saying is that you are encouraging us to not worry about the results?

 

A: Now, there will be special occasions where you will be given assurance about it but there will be a lot of cases where you won’t be and we need to remember, I mean, Paul’s teaching that “we don’t know how to pray as we ought.” So, take that as a given. Take that as a given. So, when I pray, I pray humbly, dependently but I don’t shut it down.  I let my requests stand before God; like that guy who stood before his neighbor and I think that a lot of prayer life consists of standing in the tension and that’s—many people just can’t do that so they want something that either works by formula or doesn’t work at all and that’s really why there is so little prayer among Christian people and many of them have interpreted it in such a way that it is not going to make any difference anyway. [30:56]

 

Q: What would you tell someone who is struggling with prayer?

 

A: What I would say, for whatever it’s worth, is I would go into the situation of praying for these people waiting to be guided by the Holy Spirit to tell me what to do because I really think that specificity is the key to prayer. That would include for me waiting, listening, praying for guidance about what I should ask be done and I wouldn’t go in and just say, “Heal ‘em or bless ‘em” or something of that sort. I would listen to them and among other things, I would listen to what they are saying about their faith and it would be best, I believe, if you had at least two or three other people with you and so, praying in that circumstance for me is a matter of listening, of watching, of finding specifically what I might pray for, of asking has anything happened there? So I might pray for them one evening and come back the next day and asked them, “Now, what has happened?” Right? [Comment from a student that could not be heard.] Not every time will anything have happened, right? Sometimes, nothing has happened but you track these situations carefully and specifically and this is the way we stand in the manner of the neighbor before God and wait. Now then, sometimes I believe you will see dramatic changes; sometimes, not all the time and that’s where you have to be committed to a humble, waiting posture and that’s all I would know to say, Simon but I have found that that really does bring encouraging results. And, so the problem is to stay out of the sweeping things where it’s always like this or this is the way it is or I know how to do that. I don’t know how to do it. All I know how to do is come with the need before God and listen, and watch, and ask and that, it seems to me as pastors or just as friends, that’s what we do. [33:41]

 

Q: What is the power of prayer? Is it a type of psychic power or spiritual power? Is it God’s power or my power?

 

A: Well, I don’t know that I can but, in my opinion, in that case at the fig tree, you are definitely talking about spiritual power. You are talking about interacting with God in such a way that you could make something like that happen. I’ve never hard anyone come remotely close to making something like that happen by some sort of natural psychic power. I have no idea what that would mean. [Student talking about additional question but can’t be heard about calling soulish power psychic power?] That would be a power which human beings had to act independently of God and outside of the domain of ordinary physics. Now, a lot of what passes for magic and so no in the world, I think is actually in that domain.

 

OK, well, we will have to finish up a little bit on this tomorrow but now, in the morning, Keith is going to help us with some of the best practical advice I have ever seen on working in a church or in churches with this material.

Listen to all parts in this Spirituality and Ministry 2012 series