In January, Kathy and I were invited to attend the Great Commission Conference at Jefferson Baptist Church in Oregon, with about 25 other folks from our church. It was a two-day seminar, starting noon-ish on Monday and ending about the same time on Wednesday. We stayed overnight at a local hotel, and attended all the sessions, including the evening mealtimes hosted by some of the members of the Jefferson church.
I must admit, I had second (and third and fourth) thoughts about going to the seminar, which I had heard advertised as ‘the Prayer Conference’ … I’ve never been much of a prayer warrior, and I was afraid I would spend the whole time feeling beat-up and inadequate. I didn’t really know what to expect, and I thought several times of canceling, but my parents had already agreed to watch the kids, so we didn’t really have a good excuse not to go.
(Then a wicked scheme crossed my mind: I could still let my parents watch the children, but Kathy and I could secretly stay home! “What are the odds,” I mused, “that my folks will talk to our pastor, who, after the conference, will conveniently be away on sabbatical for three months? Perhaps I could avoid direct questions about the conference or wave my hands and speak generally about prayer, from my vast personal store of knowledge?” It was really that last consideration that brought my whole web of deceit crashing down — frankly, I didn’t know enough about prayer to talk convincingly about it for very long. I could just imagine my Mom, fixing me with a steely gaze, asking, “So, what did you actually learn at this seminar?”)
So we squared our shoulders and drove down to Oregon that wintry Monday morning. Almost the first thing that the speaker addressed was the value of â€˜volume prayerâ€™ as opposed to â€˜token prayerâ€™. Pastor Duke argued that the main missing element in most peopleâ€™s prayer life is volume â€¦ most people donâ€™t know how much they pray and (as a result) they donâ€™t pray very much. He mentioned how many times we are asked to pray in the New Testament, and suggested that we ought to be frequently â€˜strugglingâ€™ or â€˜perseveringâ€™ in prayer:
Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. — I Thessalonians 5:16-18
I found the idea that â€˜volume mattersâ€™ with prayer vaguely distasteful. Iâ€™m reminded of what Jesus said about the prayers of those who wanted to be heard on the street corners and the prayers of those who â€˜babble meaninglesslyâ€™, and I am skeptical that â€˜more is betterâ€™. It seems insulting to God, that He would be impressed, duped or fooled by quantity where there is minimal quality (or at least no guarantee of any particular quality).
But then I think about the other things Jesus said about secrecy in prayer and about the woman who persevered with the unjust judge, and Iâ€™m not so sure. How can you read â€œPray continuallyâ€ or â€œPray without ceasingâ€ and not come to a conclusion that somehow quantity matters? Maybe my hostility to the idea stems from my long-term practice of extremely low-volume prayer.
One thing that people often say, according to Pastor Duke, is that â€œit is not the length of time that I pray that matters, but rather the sincerity of the heart.â€ He chuckled rather cynically over that quote, which was a bad sign of what was coming. But then he gave a very helpful analogy, which really connected with me.
“Prayer is not a matter of a simple yes or no answer,” he claims. “People think that prayer is like sitting down for dinner, and asking God to pass the potatoes. He will either pass them or he won’t — that’s a common misconception about prayer. Instead, imagine a teeter-totter or a see-saw with one of your largest congregants sitting on one end.”
Duke pointed to one of his assistant pastors, amidst general laughter.
“Like Jim, here. Now, suppose there was a large cardboard box strapped to the other end of the see-saw. Prayer is like picking up a rock and putting it in the cardboard box. At first, Jim won’t budge. But if enough of you picked up rocks and put them in the cardboard box, eventually someone would put a rock in the box and Jim would rise off the ground.”
It was helpful for me to reflect on that analogy, especially as I considered that the last rock that was placed in the box was not necessarily the biggest rock, but rather it was the combination of all the rocks that lofted Jim into the air.
Epaphras, who is one of you and a servant of Christ Jesus, sends greetings. He is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured. â€“ Colossians 4:12
Duke suggested that some prayers are fairly easily granted, but that others are more difficult and involve a struggle in the spiritual realm. He reminded us of the passage in Daniel 10, when Daniel fasted and prayed for three weeks about a prophetic vision he had received:
Then he [Gabriel] continued, “Do not be afraid, Daniel. Since the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard, and I have come in response to them. But the prince of the Persian kingdom resisted me twenty-one days. Then Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, because I was detained there with the king of Persia. Now I have come to explain to you what will happen to your people in the future, for the vision concerns a time yet to come.”
Apparently Duke has had many people argue with him that volume of prayer doesn’t matter. He challenged us, â€œIs 60 seconds of prayer a day enough?â€ He seemed to assume that the answer would be â€œNoâ€ (and, in fact, most of the pastors and leaders in the auditorium were shaking their heads). He concluded that people do, in fact, agree that the length of time in prayer matters, but that they merely disagree about how much time is needed.
A formula (used by the JBC church as a motto) repeated throughout the conference is this:
No prayer, no blessing
Little prayer, little blessing
Much prayer, much blessing
My prior experience doesnâ€™t bear this out. I am a thoroughly blessed person, and (before the conference) I prayed (on average) less than 5 minutes a day. Some days I prayed less than 60 seconds, but on Wednesdays and Sundays I tended to pray more. Iâ€™m not sure I really buy into the idea that God only blesses in accordance with our volume of prayer. Of course, maybe I am only blessed a little, but I lack the insight to see how much more blessing is available.
Duke unabashedly admits, â€œIâ€™m greedy. I pray because I want lots of blessing. I want my marriage, my work, my kids to be blessed. I even want my dog to be blessed. I just plain want more blessing.â€
Pastor Duke claims that he prays three hours each day, and prays for nearly everyone he comes in contact with â€¦ the scale of the operation boggles my mind, a little. Am I greedy enough to pray like that?
When we think about blessings, we generally think in terms of our specific needs (and wants) as expressed in our prayers, being answered. I ask God for a better car, He answers, voila, I am blessed. But Duke spoke as though getting specific answers to our prayers were only scratching the surface of prayer. He mentioned several other types of blessings:
- Prayer brings unity
- Prayer brings love
- Prayer brings a deeper knowledge of God
- Prayer brings a willingness to serve
I must admit, as a teacher and a wanna-be prophet, I donâ€™t value unity much. I am more concerned with doctrinal purity than unity, any day of the week. While I acknowledge scriptural calls to preserve unity in the church, I tend to be more passionate about doctrinal purity and I see the call for unity as being often abused by those who seek to water down the scriptures.
There is no question that this is a need in my life. I love very anemically, especially in the church, community and world. I think that this principle is very evident â€“ the more I have prayed about someone or something, the more I have been given a tender heart toward the people involved.
I pride myself on knowing Godâ€™s word, but do I know His heart? One of the things I have long understood about prayer is that it is very helpful in aligning my heart with Godâ€™s â€¦ the more I pray, the more I am sensitive to Godâ€™s will, which changes the way that I pray and the things I pray for.
I am not too geeked about this one. Many times I feel overwhelmed in the service that I am already committed to â€¦ Iâ€™m not sure I really want to be more willing to serve.
Hmmm. I see an interesting trend developing. Among the blessings mentioned, the ones that are personal to me, that involve my health, my marriage, my peace, my family, my job, my prosperity â€“ those are the blessings that I value and am willing to â€˜payâ€™ for, even to the extent of praying (if necessary). But the blessings that impact Godâ€™s kingdom â€“ improving my pastorâ€™s preaching, caring for the needs of others outside my immediate circle, saving the souls of the lost, advancing the ministry of the church â€“ these things donâ€™t seem to matter to me enough to pray about. I canâ€™t help thinking that this is a reflection of my spiritual immaturity â€“ that I care little about the things of God because I love God in a rather shallow and superficial way.
Do I want to accomplish anything of spiritual value in my life? Am I content to join the masses of time-serving Christians who make their way through life as spiritual spectators? Or do I want to be great in the eyes of God? I am sensing that the matter of prayer may be the distinguishing factor in terms of the spiritual quality of my life.
Back in the Fall of 2005, I was invited to take part in our Pastor’s leadership class, which met twice a month on Thursday mornings. About 15 of us were taught and gently encouraged not to settle for mediocrity in our spiritual lives, but to press on for the prize that was put before us. I developed a real fondness for a number of the men who attended the class, and would point them out to Kathy as ‘one of my boys’ when I would see them in church. We pretended to have a secret hand-shake and carried on as if we were sharing all kinds of deep and intimate truths, if only to annoy and mystify our wives. As it happened, though, three of the men from that class went on to become the core of my accountability group; we spend about 90 minutes together each week to pray for and encourage each other in godliness.
I would have to say that it was the men’s leadership class that laid the groundwork for my attendance of this prayer conference, and made me start to think about pressing on in my walk with my Savior. I think it is easy to reach a plateau and to settle for ‘getting by’ as one begins to mature in age — and so years go by and the heart grows cold toward the Lord.
I found it very funny (and typical of this seminar) that Pastor Duke didnâ€™t ask anyone to commit to praying three hours a day. If only he had! Then I could happily reject this whole convicting seminar and go home smug that Iâ€™m pretty darn good, even if Iâ€™m not a â€˜super Christianâ€™ who prays three hours a day. Instead, he spoke about making a commitment to pray 15 minutes a day, just one day a week, and then increasing it in frequency and duration by modest steps over time (even if it takes ten years) until you are praying one hour a day. It is a clever approach, because there is no one who can tell you with a straight face that they are too busy to pray 15 minutes in a week.
I think Iâ€™m sold on the need for me to pray. What am I willing to commit? Can I walk 15 minutes a day, maybe right before lunch, and pray for the people in my spiritual domain? Can I build a prayer journal and start studying the scriptures for the kind of things I need to pray about? Can I commit to praying with my wife every day I work from home?
Editor’s Note: On the way home from the prayer conference, I made the commitment to pray 15 minutes each day. Over the past 3 months, I’ve been able, by the grace of God, to keep that commitment about 85% of the time, which is a huge step forward for me. Interestingly enough, God has seen fit to answer many of my prayers, often within days. Kathy and I have started keeping a spreadsheet which tracks prayer requests and answers, a practice which has considerably strengthened our faith and has encouraged me to persevere in my commitment.