Chapter OneWAR UNCENSORED
Beyond Our Assumptions
I prayed all night, pouring out my heart and wrestling with
God. It was a huge struggle, but the next day, I knew I
had my answer."
The Thai pastor telling me this might have seemed, to
someone just walking in on the conversation, to be talking
about some intractable situation in the church he'd started in
the thick of Bangkok's crowded streets. He could have been
speaking of a prolonged conflict among Christians or a long-endured
family crisis. He could have been praying for the Spirit
of God to move through the city, or any other petition for an
ongoing, critical situation. But he spoke of none of those
things. This was his prayer for salvation. He was talking about
when he became a Christian.
It sounds strange to Western evangelicals, doesn't it? Our
prayers of repentance come at the end of a church service or
during a "time of commitment" at a camp or retreat. We're
saved in an instant. After all, God said if we asked, he would
answer. This godly Thai pastor was just mistaken, being so new
to the faith and all, right? A request for something God has
already promised shouldn't take so long, should it?
Ideally, no. But we don't live in an ideal world, do we? We
live in a fallen world, where the flesh corrupts our motives and
an enemy interferes with our spiritual growth. We're former citizens
of a kingdom of darkness who have been reborn into a
kingdom of light. But the darkness still exists, and we're surrounded
by it. We don't pray in a vacuum.
TACTICS OF AN INTRUDER
Imagine trying to have a conversation with someone while an
antagonist is constantly harassing you, heckling you, and getting
between you and the person you're talking with. You try to
hear your friend, but the pest keeps getting louder and more
obnoxious. He shouts lies to you
and contradicts everything you say
and everything your friend says. He
waves his arms to distract you, and
his tactics often work. You may
actually exchange some meaningful conversation with your
friend, but only by being patient and enduring. It would have
been a lot easier if you two had been alone.
What if that's a picture of your conversations with God? We
frequently assume that when we speak to him, it's just him and
us. We're alone with God, and if we don't get immediate
answers or have intimate communion, it's because he's being
silent today, or we're off base in our requests. We wonder why
he seems so distant or why our words sometimes seem to
bounce off the ceiling. We don't even consider the possibility
that there's an annoying heckler, harasser, and distracter. We
forget that we may not be alone.
Our misperceptions about life in a fallen world among evil
entities who harass us lead us to three false assumptions about
prayer, which we might as well face head-on: (1) We misunderstand
the investment of time most prayers must take; (2) we
underestimate the energy and conflict involved in most of
them; and (3) we confuse the passive and active elements in our
role and God's.
Many of our assumptions are by-products of living in an electronic
society. We push a few buttons, and within seconds,
dinner's ready. We key in a few numbers online, and just like
that we've got a ticket to another continent. We fill out a requisition
at work, e-mail it to the boss,
and expect it back the same afternoon
with a yes or no. It's a simple
transaction, as most transactions
are. It's the same at the bank, the fast-food
drive-through, and the movie ticket window. We specify
what we want, and it's either available or it's not. If we haven't
received it within minutes, we move on to someone who'll give
it to us. Or we look for an alternative product or service. Waiting
is inefficient and annoying.
We've been conditioned to think of life in terms of simple
transactions. Most of the people we deal with are acquaintances
and nothing more, and there's no in-depth relationship with
them. Our communication with them is by necessity brief and
to the point. Those closer to us are different. We spend time
with the ones we love, and we're generally committed to resolve
any conflict we might have with them. Even so, we aren't as
committed as we could be. We sometimes walk away from family
members who seem to be creating too much dysfunction in
our lives. We're committed, but not ultimately. We'll try to
work things out until the costs start exceeding the benefits.
In our relationship with God, getting in line with his will is
a process. A long process. There's no rush with a God who plans
to love us for eternity. And with him, we never reach a point
where the costs of the relationship exceed the benefits. There's
never a time when it's right to give up and walk away. We're in
this relationship forever, and we have to work things out. We're
also in the midst of a messy fight between the kingdom of God
and the one who most opposes it, and that takes time. We have
to be really, really patient.
ENERGY AND CONFLICT
Inevitably, we'll have conflict with God. Perhaps we'd like to
think that once we've been adopted into his family we're home
free. All is peace and light, and there's never a contradiction
between our will and his. But that's another false assumption we
make. In reality, we know that's not true. We're told that his
ways are high above ours, that his will is in many respects a mystery,
and that he has unimaginably good things planned for us.
But in order to get them, we have to submit to him. And that's
where we have trouble.
So prayer is often a conflict resolution process between us
and our God. There's no shame in admitting this. He actually
designed it that way. Just as we learn more about a spouse and,
we hope, grow closer to him or her in the resolution and aftermath
of a disagreement, so do we learn more about God and
grow closer to him when we have to work through the issue of
why our will is so different from his. We understand more of
his ways and appreciate more of his character when we have
to conform to it. Though our relationship with him is solid
and lasting-there's no doubt we'll remain his children-the
practice of that relationship needs work. There are issues to
There's also conflict on another front. Our lives as children
of God are a contradiction to the cultures and social systems
around us. We're called to swim
upstream, and that's not comfortable.
Not only do we refuse to go
with the flow of the world, we also
have to refuse to give in to the
temptations of an enemy. And this enemy doesn't just throw
temptation our way; he tries to make our life a grueling obstacle
course. This is not an impersonal dynamic. We don't just wrestle
with evil; we wrestle with the evil one.
So our prayers will be filled with conflict. We'll have to
resolve our differences with God-admit it, we have many of
them-and we'll have to confront and thwart the will of
demonic entities. Living as light in the midst of darkness can
be exhausting. Our prayers will often sound like a wrestling
We like passivity. Each of us has areas of our lives we'd prefer to
leave to others, tasks we don't enjoy doing or responsibilities
we'd love to defer to someone else if we could. Some of us are
passive by nature, but even those who are more proactive will
still try to arrange a lot of things to be handled for them. We
want to be free to enjoy life.
The belief that God wants us to relax and enjoy our lives is
a third false assumption we make. There'll be a time for that one
day in our relationship with God-in fact, there are many brief
experiences of it now-but that's not the norm for discipleship.
Jesus called his followers to be active: to go into the world and
win it, to heal and cast out demons, to right wrongs, and to
pray with passion and persistence. He didn't say "It is finished"
in the sense that there's nothing left for his people to do. He
gave them specific tasks, and most of those tasks were difficult.
They involve intense effort and a will to endure.
Our prayers are to take on those characteristics. We're completely
dependent on God and our petitions are, in a sense, a
matter of turning things over to him. But that doesn't mean we're
completely passive in the process. In fact, we're to be quite active
in bringing issues to God and seeing them through in our prayers.
When Jesus taught his disciples about prayer, he used a lot
of action verbs (ask, seek, and knock, for example) and a lot of
action parables, such as pestering judges or banging on a
friend's door at midnight. In Paul's illustration of our spiritual
armor-an illustration that in the end focuses mainly on
prayer-he compares our life in this world to a wrestling
match. We're not passive participants in the kingdom of God.
THE STRUGGLE WE WERE MADE FOR
It's clear God didn't create us for simple transactions. Just the
opposite, in fact. He created us for a lengthy, time-consuming
relationship that cannot grow deeper through shortcuts.
Not only that, our relationship with him takes place in the
context of a battlefield. Sometimes
our conversations with him can be
peaceful and relaxing. Sometimes
they can be passive, requiring little
physical or emotional investment on our end. And sometimes
they can be quick and easy. More often, they're none of these
things. Peaceful, passive, and instantaneous are rarely experienced
on battlefields. A war is not a place for simple
transactions. Victories take time and cost a lot. There is blood
and sweat and exhaustion, and there are casualties. Victory is
assured, but it isn't easy. God created us for battle.
Many Christians don't agree with that. I once heard a youth
pastor on a TV show telling his audience how easy prayer is. It's
like when you're a kid and your father comes home from work
or a business trip, and you know he has a surprise for you. He
may keep you in suspense for a little while, but all you really
have to do is ask. This speaker mocked those who stress and
strain in their prayers as though God is reluctant to give good
things. Our good things, like daddy's surprises, are there for the
I know what he meant; he was encouraging a young audience
not to be so intimidated in praying to a big, respectable
God. He wanted his hearers to think of God as a generous,
approachable daddy rather than as a stern, reluctant authority
figure. I agree with the intent, but not the resulting message.
I've heard critics of the "spiritual warfare" movement-a
movement that certainly has its excesses, paranoia, and distortions
of Scripture-insist that the Bible never instructs us to
speak to the devil or to communicate at all with evil spirits. And
if we're looking for direct commandments, that's true. But even
a superficial reading of most biblical characters reveals some
level of intense struggle, and often that struggle comes through
The Bible is clear that a malicious personality is bent on
destroying the people of God, and that this evil one is often
resisted in prayer. Sometimes, he's even directly addressed by
human beings. A Bible so full of examples in this realm has
already, in a sense, given us our instructions. We have numerous
illustrations of militant prayer.
Nowhere does the Bible speak of prayer as a lighthearted,
easy endeavor. It can be delightful, but it can also be strenuous.
The Psalms, for example, are not simple requests, and the
answers received in them didn't come easily. Many of them
took place in the anguish of the heart and in the hostility of the
battlefield. Biblical prayers are not minimal investments.
There's nothing in Jesus' ministry to indicate a prayer life of
peaceful, passive, and instantaneous petitions. Jesus often went
away for the night alone to wrestle in prayer. He spoke directly
to demons, and Scripture indicates he spoke loudly and harshly.
He preached often about hell and the devil. He had extremely
blunt words for scribes and Pharisees, and he pointed to a violent
battle in this world between the kingdoms of darkness and
light. He told us "the gates of hell" would not prevail against his
kingdom, he praised those who approach the kingdom forcefully,
and he gave his disciples authority over snakes and
scorpions and over all the power of the enemy. Jesus spoke like
That militant attitude carried over into his prayers, as we'll
see. The Lord's Prayer implies a hostility between kingdoms,
and he instructed his disciples to pray diligently and persistently
even for things God had already promised. As mentioned earlier,
he compared prayer to a woman pestering a judge for relief and
to a neighbor begging for bread at a completely inappropriate
hour of the night-though God is by no means a reluctant
judge or a sleepy neighbor.
Not only did Jesus pray for the kingdom of God, he
prayed against the works of Satan. And though we cannot read
tone of voice into the biblical text, we can probably safely
assume his prayers against the evil one were not exactly polite
and reserved. The misty-eyed Jesus of old Hollywood epics is
found more in the psyche of secular observers than in the New
Testament. In much of Jesus' ministry, we get the distinct
impression he's at war.
Ah, but that was Jesus. He was sent into this world to fight
evil so we don't have to, right? No, Jesus was clear that his
disciples would follow in his painful footsteps. If the world
hated the master, it would hate the servants, he assured them.
In the world they would have tribulation. Jesus referred to
Satan not only as the father of lies, but also as the prince of this
world and the god of this age. One of Jesus' disciples later wrote
that the whole world lies in the power of the evil one. We can't
get away with thinking that the conflict Jesus came to win is a
conflict his disciples can avoid. Jesus defeated Satan at the cross,
then sent his disciples out into the world to enforce the victory.
It's an enforcement that doesn't come without resistance.
The rest of the Bible bears this
out. Somehow we got the wrong
impression that the tone of the
Bible is calm and sedate. We often
hear the voice of God in Scripture
as a deep baritone with a refined British accent. Centuries of King
James formality and decades of cinematic artistry have conditioned
us to assume civility in all biblical conversations. But God
is not a baritone, and Jesus' disciples were not British actors. The
voices of the Bible range from boisterous shouts to gentle whispers,
and they're filled with excitement, agony, rage, despair, and
wild celebration-sometimes in embarrassing extremes.
When we apply this understanding to prayer, the flavor of
Scripture intensifies. As Joshua the high priest stands before
God's throne in Zechariah 3, we can picture a shouting match
between Satan and God, not a stern but restrained exchange. In
1 Samuel 1, we can envision Hannah staggering and stumbling,
or maybe even writhing on the floor as she prayed, not kneeling
politely and mumbling under her breath. In 2 Samuel 6, we
can imagine David not simply asking God fearfully why Uzzah
had to die when he reached out to touch the ark of the
covenant, but being utterly frustrated, angry, and confused by
the God he thought he wanted to know more intimately.
There's no reason to assume restrained dignity among biblical
characters simply because they're in a holy text. Anyone who
has been overwhelmed in life can relate to those scenes. They
light up in living color when read like that.