Fasting, reading, praying, studying, giving, singing, meditating…all of these biblical “doings” are necessary paths of transformation in our lives. I look at all those words and feel the desire to practice each one more. There are some in our day, as in times past, who strangely contest the value of such disciplines. Yet for most the question is not, “should I do these things?” The more penetrating quandary that most grapple with is, “how can I actually do these things consistently and fervently for decades?” To find the source of such longevity, we must dig deeper than exhortation and inspiration. Fiery sermons and moving books that issue the charge to embrace these practices are wonderful, but simply being told over and over that we must do certain things will not be enough to cause us to do them. God did not create us to function in such a mechanistic way. It may be enough to hold us steady for months or even years, but not for the rest of our lives.
What is true of us as believers is true for all humanity: our actions spring forth from what we believe. Though it may not be the case if looking for a day or a week, observe what a man does over the course of a year and all of his actions can be eventually be traced back to the deep-seated system of beliefs he holds. This basic matrix of faith is often unperceived but it is always present and defined by very simple questions: Who is God? Who is man? What is the truth about the world in which we exist? What does the future hold? Every human soul has answered these primal questions in one way or another, and those beliefs ultimately enslave their lifestyle.
Moving from general to specific, the implication on the subject at hand is simple. In thinking about prayer, for example, we must realize that our prayer life is determined much more by what we believe about Jesus than what we know about prayer. Like all of the disciplines named at the outset, every believer knows they should pray. Why, then, does it seem so rare at times to find a man or woman with a deep prayer life? The vast gap between instruction and authentic obedience simply can’t be explained by claiming the path was vague. The call of the Bible is clarion. The explanation, instead, is found in vagueness shrouding the Person calling us to pray to begin with.
This week began with Father’s Day, and I found myself thinking about what I would tell my two sons if for whatever reason I was only able to tell them a few things. What witness would I leave them with and want them to cherish? It did not take long to compose an informal list in my mind. As I tried to narrow it down to five simple statements, all of them were things to believe rather than things to do. I know that if my boys truly believe that which is most important and defining, they will inevitably do what is most important. Perhaps the most common objection to this would be pointing out that there are many people who know a lot about the Bible but do not have vibrant lives. I would certainly agree with this observation, but say that it misunderstands what Scripture means by the concept of faith. The biblical/Hebraic concept of “believing” was never so abstract and cognitive to allow for the possibility of a life unchanged. The latter is an application of philosophical categories of knowledge applied to biblical truth, which is the sad fruit of the cultural conditioning with which we often read Scripture.
There is a very practical application to all of this as one thinks about the setting of a house of prayer, or corporate prayer. How can we most effectively encourage people to fast and pray? Should we talk to them about Jesus, or about prayer? The biblical answer is, of course, both. Preaching focused intercession and meditation, together with the beautiful catalyst of fasting, is absolutely vital. Yet with all of my heart I believe that the greatest inspiration for fervent prayer is beholding the unsearchable riches of glory found in the face Jesus (Eph. 3:8, 2 Cor. 4:6). Nothing will cause our hearts to persevere in talking to the King and beseeching Him like seeing His splendor and knowing His heart.
In this light it may be possible to conclude that the symptom of prayerlessness, wherever it may be found, can be traced back to the malady of a low, obscure vision of the truth concerning Jesus. By all accounts, from all perspectives, the general trend in preaching in America over the last century has unquestionably been a sweeping move away from doctrine and theology to a more pragmatic emphasis on so-called “normal” life. I believe we must seriously consider whether any gains that have been made in convincing people to do certain things or care about certain issues will be fleeting if not deeply anchored in a revelation of the glory of Christ that makes long-term obedience, and even costly obedience, seem wise and joyful. With every year that passes it seems that the landscape of Western Christianity is at risk of becoming more theologically shallow. The idea that authentic personal discipleship, corporate community, or cultural revival can be achieved within such a milieu is, I believe, tragically mistaken.