Series: An edited adaptation of the book Prayer, Power, and Proclamation by C.L.Peppler published by Chrispy Publications in 2009 (ISBN 978-0-620-43583-3). Chap 2; part 5:
I don’t think there are any rules for praying, but there are principles and processes. I have already mentioned that I do not find the categorisation of prayer into praise, intercession, and petition very helpful. If I were to establish some principles concerning public speaking, they would include, speak audibly, make eye contact, and use many illustrations. In similar vein, my key principles for praying are see, wait, and hear.
When I use the word ‘see’, I am not talking about visions. God, not us, initiates inspired dreams and visions. I am referring here to visualisation. Pray while reading the Bible, but go beyond an intellectual analysis of the text; see the subject matter of the text. In Ephesians 1:18 Paul prays that “the eyes of your heart may be enlightened.” If you are reading a narrative passage, then try to see the action; see Jesus breaking bread, healing the blind man, or walking on a stormy sea. If it is a teaching passage, then try to visualise the context; see Paul dictating the letter, an Elder reading the scroll to a local congregation, and so on. Then go a step further and put yourself into the passage – experience the text as if you were actually there.
The account of the transfiguration is a good example. For the sake of brevity, I will use only the first part of the event as recorded by Matthew.
Matthew 17:1-3 After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.
See yourself as a fourth disciple slowly winding up that mountain. Feel the tiredness in your legs and the thin air straining your lungs. Jesus is a few paces out ahead. What are the other disciples talking about to each other? What are you expecting to happen? Now you are at the place where Jesus separates and goes off a little distance away to pray. You are feeling very tired and the rarefied atmosphere is making you sleepy. Suddenly Jesus starts to radiate a brilliant light. What do you actually see? How do you feel? What do you hear? Then you see two figures appearing through the haze of light – Moses and Elijah. What are they saying to Jesus?
Visualisation has been severely criticised by some Christian leaders. It is true that several Eastern religions advocate the practice. It is also true that New Age practitioners often make use of visualisation. However, it is just a methodology, and all techniques such as this are neutral. I remember when the government introduced TV into South African society. Some church leaders complained that it was like letting the devil into the lounge. When I see some of the programmes screened on TV, I can sympathise with this sentiment. Television is, however, just a method of communicating, and as such, it is neutral. People can use the medium of TV to convey both the Gospel and porn! The problem is the use of TV, not TV itself. Similarly, people can use visualisation for both good and evil, and it is up to us to ensure that we use it for good.
In 1 John 4:1 he writes: “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God.” That is precisely what we need to do. Use the technique of visualisation but always within the constraints of biblical principles and revelation. “Test everything. Hold on to the good.’”(1 Thessalonians 5:21)
Jesus communicated in word pictures. He painted pictures with words and invited his audience to enter into the pictures he presented. He spoke in parables and analogies, because he knew that our brain functions with both words and pictures. God created us in his image. As God is triune, so are we – body, soul, and spirit. This 3D model of the human constitution is called trichotomism. I am an advocate of functional trichotomism – we are an integrated unity whilst on earth, we have a material and an immaterial component (dichotomism), yet functionally we consist of a body, a soul (mind), and a spirit. The brain is a body part and consists of two hemispheres, the left and the right. The left hemisphere processes speech and analyses data. The right hemisphere works mainly with images. So, visualisation is the language of at least half of the brain.
Moreover, the brain does not seem to be able to differentiate between the external realities it processes (LH) and the internal reality it ‘sees’ (RH). What we visualise can be as real to us as what we perceive through our eyes. Perhaps that is why Jesus said that, “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:28) Indeed, seeing with the eyes of the heart is as real as seeing with the eyes in the head!
It could be that God will instantly respond to our prayer communications, but often he doesn’t choose to. Therefore, we need to wait; but waiting should be active not passive. Jesus told us to ask, seek, and knock (Matthew 7:7). The verb in each case is in the present linear tense, and can be translated as, ask and keep on asking… This ‘keeping on’, this active waiting, requires sustained focus.
Once again, there are no three easy steps to waiting with sustained focus, but here are some tips. Firstly, try to reduce the noise. Go somewhere quiet and switch off your phone. Don’t have food or anything other than water with you. Take a notebook and jot down all random thoughts that present themselves. By writing them down you are saying to yourself, ‘OK, relax, I won’t forget that, and I can attend to it later’. Set aside as large a block of time as you can. It is not that God cannot speak in thirty minutes; it’s that we usually cannot hear in under an hour or so.
The second technique is to control your breathing. The breath features in a number of places in scripture; the Lord breathed into Adam the breath of life (Genesis 2:7), and Jesus repeated this with his disciples (John 20:22-23). By controlling the rate of breathing, we influence both our heartbeats and brain waves. The more slowly we breathe, the more our bodies calm down, and the more our brain waves move into a contemplative wavelength. I use what I have called a triangular breathing pattern. I breathe in for a slow count of four, then out for four, and then I hold my breath (out) for four, before breathing in again, and in this way starting the next cycle. Very gradually, the count slows until I reach a natural state of alert relaxation.
At this point, I must clarify that I am not borrowing from Yoga or any other Eastern religious system. God made us as we are and part of his design concerns breath, and heartbeat, and brain waves. Yoga masters have realised the value of controlled breathing, and so have included breathing exercises in their routines. The fact that they have adopted such techniques does not make the technique bad or anti-Christian. For too long we Christians have shunned anything we deem to be ‘Eastern’. The real criteria should be the nature of God, the Word of God, and divine creation.
The third technique is to use music as the breathing, heart, and brain wave regulator. Slow and majestic worship music is ideal. Elisha used this technique, because 2 Kings 3:11-16 records how, when requested to bring the king a word from God, he called for a harpist. The text states that “while the harpist was playing, the hand of the Lord came upon Elisha and he said, ‘This is what the Lord says:’”
We wait in order to hear.
I have already written a lot about how we hear from God. I need to add, however, that hearing from God is a major component of prayer. In prayer, we express our love and dependence. In prayer, we speak out our concerns, fears, hopes, and gratitude. But we are sons who serve, and so a prime part of prayer is to hear what the Father has to say to us. Jesus said: “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.” (John 5:19)
Seeing, waiting, and hearing are principles of prayer, but we should employ them within the context of persistence…but more of that in the next post.
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