When prayer and warfare become idols

prayerI recently sat through a rather painful “bible study” on prayer. The text that was read at the beginning of the study was:

Matthew 16:13-19 (ESV) 13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

To be fair, I had happened upon a study that was in a series of studies, so there is naturally going to be some overlap of previous themes. However, when we got to verse 19 of this passage, we immediately lost sight of the meaning of the passage and of the notion of having a bible study. In a whirlwind of high-motivational pep speech (reminiscent of Joyce Myer or Beth Moore) the meaning of the passage was presented as follows

  • v17 Peter’s identification of Jesus as the Christ came by direct revelation (which was explained as being a result of having learned to pray)
  • v18 Jesus was going to build the church upon the revelation from the Father in heaven, not by flesh and blood (which was interpreted as prayer)
  • v19 the keys of the kingdom of heaven was prayer, and that having prayer as the key would grant authority to bind and loose (personal anecdote employed about how if I give a set of keys to my house to someone else, then I am giving that person authority to enter my house and use whatever is in there).

The point of the passage is the confession of Jesus as the Christ, Son of the living God. If the keys to the kingdom of heaven were “prayer”, the disciples had already been taught how to pray back in Matthew 6; however, Jesus clearly stated that He will give the keys, so there is more to this than prayer. I believe He is referring to the authority in Matthew 28:18 (ESV), “And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me…” as a result of having laid down His life and raised it back up again. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the keys to the kingdom of heaven, for by His Grace we are made righteous in the sight of the Lord and are granted entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven by the blood of the Lamb. If there remains any doubt, let us look at what Peter had to say in his Epistles. Surely since Jesus was building His church upon this rock, then Peter should at least echo this interpretation on some level, right? Well, prayer only gets mentioned 3 times in 1&2 Peter:

  1. 1 Peter 3:7 (ESV) 7 Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.
  2. 1 Peter 3:8-12 (ESV) 8 Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. 9 Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing. 10 For “Whoever desires to love life and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit; 11 let him turn away from evil and do good; let him seek peace and pursue it. 12 For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer. But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.” (Peter quoting Psalms 34)
  3. 1 Peter 4:6-8 (ESV) 6 For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does. 7 The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers. 8 Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.

The over-arching theme of 1 & 2 Peter? I think it best to read the introduction to 1 Peter:

1 Peter 1:1-12 (ESV) 1 Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ,
To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, 2 according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood: May grace and peace be multiplied to you.
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5 who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 8 Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, 9 obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. 10 Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, 11 inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. 12 It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look.

Peter understood the point of it all to be the Grace and Mercy of God the Father in sending His Son Jesus so that we might be saved. While Jesus did call Simon  “Peter” (which means rock) and said that “upon this rock I will build My church”, Peter clearly identifies Jesus Christ as the cornerstone in 1 Peter 2. Since Peter’s confession of Jesus Christ is the foundation of the church, it stands to reason that every stone laid on that foundation would in-turn be measured, trued, and lined up with Christ as the Cornerstone. I don’t think it was Peter (the man) who is the foundation of the church; rather, his confession of Jesus as the Christ, Son of the Living God is the foundation of the Church. Though, the argument could be made that both interpretations are valid given Peter was the first to preach on the Day of Pentecost, and was the first to be shown that God is calling Gentiles also into the fold.

The person conducting the study launched into what was clearly a personal soapbox issue. Once the confession of “being called to intercessory prayer” was made, I realized that there was a great deal of iesegisis at work, so I just let it go and smiled through it waiting for it to end. Do I have a problem with intercessory prayer? Absolutely not! There is a great need for intercessory prayer in the church. There are, however some problematic themes that come up whenever the topic of prayer becomes taught as a profession or ministry unto itself rather than a communion with a loving Heavenly Father, or an in-dwelling God the Holy Spirit.

The only text in the bible where we are specifically taught how to pray is when Jesus (God the Son) taught the disciples how to pray (Matt 6, Luke 11). We are told to pray without ceasing. We should live our lives in constant prayer, and we should also make daily time to pray. But the act of praying isn’t the point, it is to whom we pray and by whom we pray. Even in the realm of intercession, it is the Holy Spirit that intercedes for the saints, not the saints themselves (Romans 8:18-27), so we must not allow our fleshly need for credit to shade our speech/instruction in the discipline of prayer. Whether we are encouraging our brothers to seek the Will of God in their daily walk or for them to engage in intercessory prayer, we must always anchor the charge to pray onto the Holy Spirit of God dwelling within each of us who are called Children of God.  As we pointed out in our discussion of the Gifts of God the Holy Spirit, we must always keep our focus on the fact that it is God who does the work, not men. The individual giving the bible study had to stop several times to issue the caveat “not me, of course, but God working through me”. I’m very happy to have heard that confession in the form of a caveat so many times during the study; however, if a caveat needs to be issued that often then there is a language/emphasis problem with the discussion that should be addressed. Here, it was an over-selling of the “power of prayer”.

Prayer is not unique to Christianity… Our God is. Our understanding of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit is unique to our Biblical Christian faith. Stop looking at routines/ceremonies/principles for power, and look to the person of God the Holy Spirit and His work in our hearts. I want to take a few moments to include any discussion of “spiritual warfare” that focuses entirely too much on the redeemed rather than the Redeemer. Spiritual warfare takes place primarily in your mind and in your flesh. The Spirit of God dwelling within you has made your spirit alive and it wars against your flesh, and your flesh works against the Spirit (Galatians 5:16-26). When it comes to declaring the Word of God, our focus should be fixed on Preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For Only by the Grace of God can anyone be made alive in Christ, set free from the bondage of sin and death, and made the recipient of the Holy Spirit. God the Holy Spirit does all of this work. We pray so that we can grow in the fullness of the Knowledge of Christ, and for boldness and for the Holy Spirit to give teach us how to speak and what to say in the hour of need.  We must guard ourselves against pride and folly. Our authority will forever be a derivative of Christ’s authority; therefore, we must never allow ourselves to lose sight or focus on the work of the Holy Spirit. Stop looking for some “extra outpouring” of the Spirit… God the Holy Spirit has already been promised to those who believe and are baptized in His Name. If you are in Him, then He is in you. There is no extra anything! Walk by faith, pray without ceasing, and remain vigilant in your focus upon the Gospel of Grace, of which you are a Steward. The role of the Church is to preach the Gospel, not to specialize in private prayer and launching special attacks on demons, principalities and powers. Christ defeated them, and it is only by His Blood that we have been made free from them. We expand the Kingdom of God by preaching the Gospel, not by “waging war in the heavenly”.  The Apostles were over-comers not because they were never jailed, hungry, thirsty, persecuted, killed… but because the Gospel of Jesus Christ was preached, and those who were dead in sins and trespasses were brought to salvation by Grace through Faith in Christ.

The Book of Jude stands as a strong warning against this sort of stepping beyond one’s authority. A single chapter full of wisdom and warning. Stepping back from that extreme, though, let us remember how Jesus introduced his lesson on prayer in Matthew 6:

Matthew 6:5-8 (ESV) 5 “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 6 But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 7 “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

Adorning your prayers with militancy is more likely to erode humility than it is to rightly charge your faith, or the faith of those around you. We pray to our Heavenly Father, not to the enemy. We declare the Gospel of Jesus Christ to those lost in the world, so that they might repent and be saved. As with prophecy, we do not presume to “declare the Word of the Lord” on our own, and we dare not blaspheme against things we do not understand. We yield in humble submission to God the Holy Spirit in all things.

Prayer is as essential as breathing. In the same way that breathing can become its own distraction (yoga, tantra, lamaze, etc.), so can an over-emphasis on the art of prayer, rather than the God to whom and by whom we pray. Is the focus of your intercessory prayer self-feeding? Do you spend more time reading about prayer than you do the Bible? Has your quest for spiritual warfare changed your study of the Bible into a search for special phrases to “declare” for defense and for offense (the Harry Potter approach to bible study)? Has your prayer specialization made you unavailable for sharing the Gospel, fellowship with the saints, and meeting the physical needs of the brethren? If so, then prayer and warfare might have become an idol. Just as the Praise and Worship Leader can allow music or his own ability to become an idol, or the pastor who preaches himself rather than Christ, or the affluent giver his affluence, etc. Idolatry is very subtle, and requires constant vigilance to avoid.

Jude 1:24-25 (ESV) Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.

May the Lord bless and keep you,
In Him,