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Pursuing Peace Through Prayer

Reflecting on the current state of the world, and particularly of the struggle that my friend Jerad's family is facing, it seems like a good time to write down some thoughts about the Bible and prayer.

Jerad mentioned in a recent blog post that he was collecting scriptures for encouragement, and I thought not only about the scriptures I hold on to, but also to how I use them. It seemed to me that unpacking the process of internalizing and living within the truths of scripture might be worthwhile. Hopefully it's either interesting or encouraging to Jerad, and anyone else that ends up reading this.

So my Big Question to ponder is how do we thrive despite the circumstances we each face, and how can we take a proactive stance in prayer to resist the sense of impending doom that surrounds us, at a moment when so many other things are outside our control. 

Thinking on that, one of the key scriptures that comes to mind is what Paul wrote in Philippians 4:4-8.

Philippians 4:4-8 (New American Standard)

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice! Let your gentle spirit be known to all men. The Lord is near.

Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.


Here's another translation of the same verses...

Philippians 4:6-8 (The Passion translation)

Be cheerful with joyous celebration in every season of life. Let joy overflow, for you are united with the Anointed One! Let gentleness be seen in every relationship, for our Lord is ever near.

Don’t be pulled in different directions or worried about a thing. Be saturated in prayer throughout each day, offering your faith-filled requests before God with overflowing gratitude. Tell him every detail of your life, then God’s wonderful peace that transcends human understanding, will make the answers known to you through Jesus Christ.

So keep your thoughts continually fixed on all that is authentic and real, honorable and admirable, beautiful and respectful, pure and holy, merciful and kind. And fasten your thoughts on every glorious work of God, praising him always.


How to not be worried

Working backward through what Paul writes, he urges us to fix our thoughts on what is good, true, noble, right, etc. Dwelling on those things, especially as relates to God himself, His nature, personality, character and actions on our behalf, takes up space in our hearts, and occupies our attention in a way that prevents us from being overtaken by the news of the day.

Paul also urges us to ask God for what we need, rather than being anxious about it. Pray, ask and thank Him, and the peace of God will guard (or rule) our hearts and minds.

This all assumes a posture of faith, that God can and will do for us what we ask of Him. Otherwise, we’d ask all day long and thank Him, but we’d never arrive at a settled, peaceful conclusion because we don’t actually think He’s going to move on our behalf.

That probably means if I’m asking repeatedly and not experiencing peace, I need God’s help in building up my faith, so that once I’ve prayed, asked and thanked like Paul instructs, I can enter into God’s rest (Hebrews 4:11)

Cultivating a high notion of God

Brother Lawrence, a 17th century French monk, was the subject of a time-honored book on personal devotion called The Practice of the Presence of God. He said we should cultivate a high or lofty notion of God. I am always coming back to that idea.

I think what he means is that we should think big thoughts about God, because in truth we don’t see God for who He is. The Bible is full of statements that provide information about who God is, and who we are in relationship to him… 

Romans 8:31-39 says:
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

Just as it is written,

“FOR YOUR SAKE WE ARE BEING PUT TO DEATH ALL DAY LONG;

WE WERE CONSIDERED AS SHEEP TO BE SLAUGHTERED.”

But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.


Paul talks about the problems he’s facing, and says that we are “More than conquerors through Him who loved us”. He was convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love.

If that’s really true, then we can withstand anything that comes at us. I think that we have to give that kind of truth more than just a glance to let it become real to us. Pondering who God is - building up a high notion of God - is a powerful tool to fill us with faith and prevent fear from gaining a place to live in us.

How to build a high opinion of God


In my own devotional practice (full disclosure, I’m not perfect, or even reliable in this, but I try…) I try to be active and intentional in the process of building up my faith. Scripture says that David strengthened (encouraged) himself in the Lord, in the middle of a rock-bottom situation (1 Samuel chapter 30). I want to do the same thing, keeping myself in God’s love by building myself up in the most holy faith (Jude 1:20-21)

I start by sitting down and getting quiet, much in the same way as we describe meditation and mindfulness practices outside of the context of Christianity. Those are useful tools to gain control of your mental attention, and put your focus where you want it to be. As Paul says in Colossians 3, “Set your mind on things above”.

I’ll often start by counting my breaths or a similar tactic to get quiet and gain some distance from my daily life. Then I’ll read or remember one of these scriptural statements about who God is or what he wants to do in my life.

Sitting in prayerful attention to the notion that “God lives in me by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16)” or “God is love (1st John chapter 4)”, or “Jesus is sitting at the right hand of the Father praying on my behalf (Romans 8:34, also Hebrews 7:25, Ephesians 1:17-23, Colossians 3:1)” usually yields some kind of response, whether it’s awe or wonder or gratitude, or whatever.

I try to notice and experience that response, sit with those feelings for a while, and then respond mentally or verbally in whatever way I think is appropriate.  I might thank God for that aspect of who He is, or keep repeating it and sit with the experience of that truth for a while longer, or transforming the scripture into a personalized prayer.  One very effective tactic is to switch the pronouns around, praying back to Him the truth you've been pondering. 

1 Corinthians 3:16 says "Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you". While sitting with that idea, I'll turn it around and say "You live in me by the Holy Spirit, I am a temple where you can dwell".

Warring for your promise by declaring the truth

If my circumstances are bad, but I have faith that God is with me, I'll declare "He will never leave me or forsake me!" over my situation, or over the person for whom I'm praying. Especially while I’m still waiting for it to bloom and bear fruit where I can see it, declaring who God is and what he has promised to do has power to effect change in that situation. 

What happens when I don’t feel anything?

That notion of pondering and responding to a scriptural fact is even more important when I DON'T feel anything about it.   Many times I’m either neutral toward it or I may actually feel that scripture is not true. 

Certainly I may be stuck in a situation where my circumstances contradict what scripture says about who God is and what He’s doing in my life. For example “I will never leave you or forsake you” doesn’t always ring perfectly true when bad things are happening. Job felt abandoned, and inevitably, so will we. How do we pray scripture in those moments?

I’ve learned that it’s perfectly fine to be real in those times. When I feel like scripture is describing an experience I’m not having, it’s an opportunity for me to ask God to make that truth more real, and help me to experience that truth.

"Lord, it says you will never leave me or forsake me, but I sure feel alone right now..." is an honest prayer. Psalm 51 says that God will not despise a broken heart. Offering that brokenness to God is a totally valid interaction, and one that God honors.

I don't find it helpful to pretend something is true when I'm not experiencing it, but I can ask for Him to make it real to me, and to change my mind.

In cases like this, I often ask God to give me faith to believe the truth, despite what I'm seeing. Hebrews 12 tells us that faith is the confidence of things hoped for, the assurance of things we do not see. I will often say to God "I don't feel like you're with me at all, but I give you permission to change my mind, and help me see and experience this differently". 

Entering into His rest

Over time, this practice of rehearsing God's goodness and stretching to believe in areas where we aren't yet full of faith pays off, and we find ourselves able to enter into peace in all kinds of situations. Eventually, we start to connect with Paul's description of "the peace that passes all understanding", founded upon our experiences with God over time, knowing more and more fully that He is good, and that He loves us, even with things are dire.

I can say from my own experience with various struggles and trials, including the loss of my Mom to ALS 8 years ago, and ongoing intractable health issues with my kids, that I have tons of questions about tons of things. Not everything is fine, and I'm not settled in perfect peace, but I think that's a separate issue from whether or not God is good. It's a paradox, that I believe He's good, even as I fail to understand why things are the way they are, but that's what faith is. I persist in believing that He knows better than I do, and I'm going to come around eventually to see how all this was an expression of His love for me. The fact that I don't see it yet just speaks to my finite limitations.

That's not a very satisfying, rigorous, logical system to live my life from. It all seems very pie-in-the-sky, especially when confronted with COVID-19, brain cancer, and everything else life throws at us. But I can say from my own experience that I encounter more peace in this kind of prayer and meditation than anything else I've tried... and my experiences tell me I'm loved by Him, despite the brokenness of the world. The more I get to know Him, the better things work.

Comments

sirkitree said…
Thank you, thank you, thank you so much for writing this Darren. I feel lately like a dehydrating man in the desert, and this feels like I've found a well with some shade. I'll be re-reading this all week.
Darren Petersen said…
For what it's worth, a big piece of what I'm describing in this post is found here https://mikebickle.org/articles/pdfs/How_to_Pray-Read_the_Word.pdf

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