Bold prayer (part 3)

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What do you pray when you’re facing trouble? What do you pray when the trouble passes — if it passes?

There’s no shortage of the different kinds of situations that prompt us to pray. Nor is there any shortage of advice regarding how and what we should pray. There’s no single formula that works in all situations.

Indeed, the word “works” itself betrays a pragmatic and instrumental way of thinking that can set prayer on the wrong footing. Growing in prayer is not about mastering a technique to achieve some spiritual or religious end; it’s about growing in an intimate relationship with God.

Having said that, there’s much to learn by pondering the prayers we find in Scripture. The Lord’s Prayer and the Psalms, of course, are the usual suspects. But as suggested in previous posts, it may also be worth meditating on the prayer of the gathered believers in Acts 4 — their response to the persecution that is beginning to creep into Luke’s story. In this post, I will recap and extend the observations made earlier, and suggest questions for your reflection.

The prayer begins by addressing God as the sovereign master of all creation. This makes the prayer part of a much bigger story than simply the drama of the ups and downs of my own life. God created the universe long before I was born; he is master over a universe that reaches far beyond anything I can imagine. When we pray, do we have a similar sense of God’s majesty and sovereignty?

The prayer quotes Psalm 2, interpreting it as both messianic and prophetic. Though only two verses are quoted, the people probably have the gist of the entire psalm in mind. God has set his anointed king on his holy hill and calls him his son (vs. 7). Let earthly kings plot and conspire all they like; God rules over all.

Two things should be noted here. First, the psalm is quoted as a prophetic and Spirit-empowered word of God through David, who is both God’s servant and “our ancestor” (vs. 25). That’s not the same as quoting some nifty verse we happened to stumble across in a daily devotional; there is a sense of organic connection, of a shared heritage. These people see themselves as David’s descendants, as part of the story of God’s people, a story that had begun centuries before.

Second, they see current events through the lenses of Scripture, as the unfolding of God’s purposes foretold long ago. I confess to being leery of the often ham-handed way people have tried to draw parallels between the arcane apocalyptic language of the book of Revelation and contemporary headlines. But Jesus himself seemed to think it important to help his disciples understand how his crucifixion and resurrection were in fulfillment of Scripture (e.g., Luke 24:27, 45-49), as a way of helping them know that the coming chapter was part of God’s plan as well. Thus the question: When we pray, do we have a sense of participating in the ancient and ongoing story that the Bible tells, a story whose author is God?

Finally, though Luke may not be giving us their entire prayer verbatim, we have no record of their praying for protection from persecution. That’s not to say that there would be anything wrong with such a prayer. But it’s as if praying for protection is superfluous when you believe that God is truly and fully sovereign, and is already working mightily and miraculously in the name of Jesus. All that’s left is for them to ask God to simply take note of their enemy’s threats. The rest is left up to him.

And in that context, what they ask for instead is the boldness they need to continue to declare the gospel even as things get tough. Thus the final question: When we pray, do we ask God to remove or keep us from trouble, or ask for what we need in order to continue to do his will in the midst of trouble?

Luke would probably tell us that these are the kinds of bold prayers that God loves.