When we are tossed about, prayer is an important way to hang on.
It’s sad, but true: people drift away from the Lord. There are plenty of theories about this, but we will not get into that debate here. What I do wish to think about is how we can hold fast in our relationship with God rather than just drifting away.
First, allow me to put forth two of the realities of life that may influence our tendency to drift away: Firstly, life is hard and God doesn’t always answer prayers the way we want and secondly, life is distracting and we are easily swayed and naturally tend to drift. These two realities are reasons for the spiritual disciplines, which are so called because they require discipline.
In my estimation, prayer is an essential discipline. Why? Let’s think about taking fish oil and vitamins for good health’s sake rather than taking an antibiotic to fight a foreign bacteria. Prevention is, after all, the best medicine. So, what I present on these pages is preventative thinking to prepare us for the first reality, that things don’t always go the way we want and God does not always answer the way we ask. (In part 2 of this topic we will consider a practical approach to distraction.)
In the film “Shadowlands,” C. S. Lewis has just returned from the hospital where his wife’s cancer has gone into remission. He and his fellow professors are hurrying to chapel, the chaplain asks about his wife. Lewis replies that the news is good and his friend replies that he knows how hard Lewis has been praying. The script is not a direct quote by Lewis, but it is a good summary of what he said in several of his letters about prayer: “Prayer doesn’t change God, it changes me.”
Now, let’s be clear: Yes, God does answer prayer. I could tell you many stories of answered prayer and, no doubt, you could too. Indeed, God is still in the miracle business. But God does not always answer prayers the way we wish him to. On these few pages, we’ll explore prayer and how it changes us. Specifically, how does it help me to hold fast especially when times are tough?
I believe prayer enables me to hold fast in a life whose winds would seek to blow me off course. Let’s consider what three verses from Hebrews might teach us about this important topic.
“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect, has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:14-16 ESV)
Let’s consider the exhortation to “hold fast.” Recently I watched a movie about a shipwreck. In the story, a vessel was carrying a zoo full of animals as well as their owners. The family and the animals were heading to new lives on a different continent. The ship sunk in a storm leaving a lone boy and a tiger on a lifeboat. In parts of the movie, the boy isn’t actually in the boat. Instead he had his arms and legs wrapped around the pole extending from the front. Sometimes all he could do was wrap his arms and legs around this thing and hang on for dear life. He was holding fast. With the tiger above and sharks below, he held fast with all his might.
When we are in a storm, we want a steady base to hold on to. Let’s think about our own strong base: Jesus himself. Our text from Hebrews tells us: “we have a great high priest.” Let’s remember that in the Old testament, the High Priest would go into the Holy of Holies once annually for a brief time to make a sin offering first for himself, and then for the people. He went through the curtain, stayed to finish his task and then reappeared. But Jesus is different, He is our “great high priest who has passed through the heavens.”
This tells us that Jesus has gone to the “throne” and “sat down” at the right hand of the Father (see Hebrews 10:12). When do we sit down? When our work is finished. Jesus said as much on the cross with the words, “it is finished” – meaning “paid in full” (don’t we love seeing this stamp when we have paid off a loan?!). Jesus paid the price, died, was buried and then rose in victory! Then he ascended through the heavens and, with that work done, sat down at the right hand of the Father. There, he intercedes for us, not like a human priest, not like a distant mythical deity, but as the perfect God-Man.
Look what the writer does next, he uses the names of the savior to describe his nature: “Jesus,” (human) “the Son of God,” (deity). Only Jesus, in his fully divine and simultaneously fully human nature could do this. Therefore, we are exhorted: “let us hold fast.”
The writer explains further: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” Unlike any other person or being in existence Jesus has suffered as we do. He has been tempted more than we have and he understands us better than we understand ourselves. Thus, he has perfect sympathy for us. In our text, this word sympathize, means to feel deeply for someone, to have understanding of another person’s struggle. So, we might put the verse this way: we have a high priest who gets it, who really understands what we are up against and can feel as we do, he really can say “yeah, me too.” Therefore, we should hold fast to him because he understands us. Unlike humans, who often fail us, Jesus is the solid rock we need, so we hold fast to him.
We have all sat with well meaning people who love us but don’t really understand what we’re about, who offer well intended advice (which may miss the mark entirely) because they just don’t understand. Take heart, because Jesus gets it. It is with this comforting truth that the writer conveys: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.”
With that comfort, the writer brings us closer to my point as he writes “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Because of who Jesus is and what Jesus has done and how much Jesus understands us, we may indeed “draw near.” I’m convinced that this is a call to prayer, just as when Jesus himself told us to “abide in” him.
We are urged to “draw near” to “the throne of grace.” What does it mean to “draw near?” Why should we? Because “we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” What is this “mercy and grace?” Is this a promise for health and wealth? That all our sicknesses will be healed? That all our wants will be fulfilled? That all our mistakes will be fixed? I don’t think so.
God does answer prayers. But with many teachers of the past, I agree that God does not always answer prayers the way I want. Indeed, I think that summary of Lewis was right, “prayer changes me.” How? Well, I want to think about this phrase “draw near.”
Let’s consider the connection between “draw near” and “hold fast. I think each of them have to do with proximity, with our going to something or holding on to something, in this case, God. In the text, we are urged to go and hold on to our great high priest, Jesus.
How? By sitting with, abiding in and being in the presence of God. Calvin stated it this way: “we both communicate and commune with our Father in heaven, feeling our transparency in His presence. Like Christ in Gethsemane, we cast our desires, sighs, anxieties, fears, hopes, and joys into the lap of God.” (John Calvin as quoted in Joel Beeke and Brian Najapfour, Taking Hold of God: Reformed and Puritan Perspectives on Prayer, 29) I think prayer is the key to holding fast. I think prayer is the way to draw near and therefore to hold fast.
What about Bible reading? No doubt, it is very important. And let me clarify that I agree that the Bible is, without question, the source of what we know about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit and our own condition. Indeed, because we have the Bible, we know what God has done, is doing and will do. However, I do not believe that the Word of God alone enables us to hold fast. I believe that it is the combination of the exhortation and encouragement of Scripture married to the wonder of prayer that knowing God really can happen. It is not either/or but both/and.
I know lots of people who know and read the Bible faithfully, yet struggle with God. Why? In my experience, it is because they have not developed an intimate prayer life with God. The word of God itself tells us to “draw near,” to “pray without ceasing,” these are done as one struggles to practice the discipline of prayer. Therefore, I contend that the writer would agree with me that a key to “drawing near” and to “hold fast” is prayer. To pray is to be in the lap of God. So what is the effect on us as we sit in the lap of God? Much!
How can we, when in deep communion with God, not be changed? Remember when Moses was on the mountain? When he came down he had to wear a veil to cover the glow from his face, he had been with God, he was changed. When we get into our “closet” to pray, I believe we are changed. How? By dwelling with God in prayer and study, he rubs off on us. Paul called it having the “aroma of Christ.” I believe this is done as we “pray without ceasing.”
“Oh great” you say, “that is one of my most frustrating Bible sayings. I can can barely pray for ten minutes, how can I possible pray without ceasing?” I totally understand that response. But, I want to suggest to you that it is very possible to move toward a life of praying without ceasing. In the next section, I’ll make some suggestions to help us move into such a practice of prayer that, when the seas around us are tossing us about, we may be changed as we “draw near” and “hold fast.”