Monday, August 19, 2013

Prayer and Service {Reflections on Prayer}

“Why the ravens, Lord?”  That was my question as I read the story of Elijah’s life and ministry (1 Ki 17-19; 2 Ki 1-2).  “If Obadiah was already hiding and feeding a hundred prophets, surely You could have led Elijah to them.  Why did You send him off to the loneliness of Cherith?”

Perhaps in the hidden place of Cherith he learned the lessons he would need for the work God had given him.  Unique among his contemporaries, Elijah would be God’s choice for the great contest with the prophets of Baal.  This required faith in a great God, a mighty God, a God faithful to act according to His Word.  All these he learned at Cherith, as he experienced firsthand God’s faithfulness, goodness, provision, and sovereign power over men and nature.  He commanded the rootless ravens, and they came.  He commanded a poor Gentile widow, and she gave.  In Samuel Rutherford’s words, “It will be; God hath said it.”

God’s ministry through Elijah first demanded He minister to Elijah, taking him deep into the knowledge of Himself.  As Amy Carmichael notes, “’The work’ will never go deeper than we have gone ourselves.”  The work, for Elijah, would include miraculous supply of food for a widow, restoring her son to life, demonstrating before all the people of Israel that “the LORD, He is God,” and praying to start and stop the rain according to God’s promises (Dt 28:12,24).  James cites Elijah, “a man with a nature like ours,” as his example of what the fervent effectual prayers of a righteous man accomplish (James 5:16-18).  What made the difference? Deep knowledge of and trust in Yahweh, and “direct and habitual contact with Him who is the Source of Life” (Oxford Mission to Calcutta).

In his book Prayer, O. Hallesby calls prayer “the deciding factor in the life of all who surrender themselves to God to be used by Him.  What we do in God’s kingdom is entirely dependent upon what we are.  And what we are, depends again upon what we receive.  And what we receive, depends again on prayer.  This applies not only to the work of God in us, but also to the work of God through us.”  Far from wasted, time spent “by the brook Cherith” shapes who I am.  There He enlarges my understanding of Himself, shows me my sins, and ministers to my fears.  As I see Him more clearly, I am “transformed by beholding” (2 Cor. 3:18) into a vessel fit for His purposes.  Clearer vision of the Lord also produces clearer vision of His purposes for me.

We again find this illustrated in Elijah’s life when he flees Jezebel and brings all his fears and complaints to the Lord under the broom tree and at Horeb.  In the solitude of this other lonely place, the Lord comes to him in gentleness, comforting and commissioning him for perhaps his most demanding work, that of training up Elisha to carry on in his place.  In fact, the next we see of Elijah is prophesying the death in judgment of Israel’s king before being taken to heaven by a whirlwind, leaving Elisha behind “with a double portion of his spirit” to fulfill his uncompleted work.

The farther I travel in life, however, the greater the temptation to relegate this time apart to second place, to minimize it and move on to the tasks and people clamoring for attention.  Early on in my walk with Christ, the Lord led me to set aside the first portion of each day, and one day each week, to turn from the demands pressing on me and spend time before Him with no agenda of my own.  As I have grown in this discipline of trusting Him, I have seen over and over again how dependent I truly am on Him.  When I have done this, so often I see His hand straightening paths, dovetailing duties, enlarging steps, and multiplying strength.  Often I realize the clutter of the unnecessary on my list.  Often I find the grace to accept peacefully the things left undone, or done later in His timing.  Seldom do I emerge unchanged, knowing Him better and exchanging my weakness for His strength.

Having experienced God’s grace and faithfulness so many times in the past, I am all the more culpable in my recent struggles and failures in this area.  How easy to neglect the unseen work of prayer for the showy work the flesh loves!  I hear the rebuke of Hudson Taylor:  “Do not be so busy with work for Christ that you have no strength left for praying.  True prayer requires strength.” (And this from a man known to meet with God from 2-4 am in order to find quiet amid the bustle of Chinese life!)  Another missionary, Andrew Murray, reminds me that Christ Himself faced the same challenge, but intensified:
Christ knew how the holiest service, preaching and healing, can exhaust the spirit, how too much intercourse with men can cloud the fellowship with God, how time, full time, is needed, if the spirit is to rest and root in Him, how no pressure of duty among men can free from “the absolute need of much prayer.” 
Martin Luther, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, George Mueller, . . . all learned the lesson of Elijah, the lesson demonstrated even by Christ Himself, that greater ministry requires deeper prayer, and most battles are won or lost in the secret place before an audience of One.

Lord, teach me to pray.  Take me to Cherith.  Prepare me for what You have prepared for me.

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