February 2010 - Vol. 37

Prayer Shaped by the Word of God

The Lord will prepare a banquet table for those who hunger for his Word

by Don Schwager

Words have power. They can build up and transform or they can tear down and destroy. Scripture tells us that God created the universe by his all-powerful word. That same word took flesh in Jesus Christ who was sent from the Father to redeem a fallen race: “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). His words are words of life because he speaks what the Father has given him (John 8:28).  His words not only have power to instruct, but power to heal, restore, and remake us in the image of God. 

Paul the Apostle said, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” (Colossians 3:16). What does it mean to have Christ’s word dwelling in us? 

If you have a favorite author or two, you enjoy reading their literary works. Sometimes you can’t get enough, so you search for everything they wrote, even their letters and biography, because these can often reveal important things about the personal life and thoughts of the author.  But the people we know the best are those we live with and share our lives with on a personal, intimate level. 

God’s word alive in us
God is the greatest of all authors and the author of life itself. He comes to dwell with us through his Holy Spirit. Jesus said, “If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:23). If we accept his gracious invitation, God literally makes his home with us.

When we read the words of Scripture do we mainly seek wisdom and inspiration for living a better life? A good motive indeed. But God wants his word to not simply improve or reform us. He wants his word to transform our every thought and action. 

Forty years ago the Lord taught me a vivid lesson in how I should approach his word. That lesson comes back to me time and time again as I seek the Lord in prayer and the study of his word.

At the end of my time at university I was 22 years old and at the crossroads of my life. As a student I had been actively involved in an evangelistic campus ministry and was serving in a local Christian community. As I approached graduation, I thought I had a pretty clear idea of how I could best serve God. I saw myself as a junior apostle – ready to go wherever the Lord wanted to send me on mission. My question was “Where do I start to launch out in mission? Perhaps I should move to another university campus where I could begin a new evangelistic outreach.”

“My thoughts are not your thoughts”
The Lord, in his wise and gentle manner, prompted me to pray for guidance and direction. I wanted the Lord to confirm and bless my noble aspirations and plans. The Lord instead led me to his word in the Book of Isaiah, chapter 55:8-9:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. 
I prayed long and hard that summer. What was God saying to me and how did he want me to respond? I felt convicted every time I read the passage from Isaiah 55. Do my thoughts – what I think God wants of me, how he wants me to live and serve him – really conform to his thoughts – what he thinks is best for me,  and what his plan is for my life? How can I best serve him and bring him glory? 

Finally one day, in exasperation, I sank to my knees and prayed, “Lord, I surrender! I surrender my thoughts, my ways, my plans, my aspirations. I surrender everything, Lord, into your hands. Show me your ways and lead me on your path.”

I felt broken, humbled, and spent of my own striving for success. I was like a young wild steed – charging ahead across every hill and valley I fancied to conquer. The Master had to stop me in my tracks in order to get my full attention. He wanted to take the reins and tame my racing spirit and mind, not so much to slow me down but to set me on the right course.

A full-time student in the school of life
I began to realize that I was only beginning to learn how to follow the Lord as a mature disciple. I had much to learn about how to conform my thought patterns and way of life to Christ’s word. In fact, I had as much to unlearn – thought patterns and sinful behavior – as to learn. Paul the Apostle summarized it best:

“Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).
If we want to know God’s mind – his thoughts and intentions for our lives – then we must allow his word to not simply inform us but transform us as well. 

Loving God through his Word 
How can we conform our thoughts to Christ’s? A key step is learning how to listen to God as he speaks to us through the words of Scripture. We can approach Scripture in two very different ways – informational reading and formational reading. The following chart (1) compares the two approaches.

Seeks to cover as much as possible  Focuses on small portions
A linear process  An in-depth process
Seeks to master the text  Allows the text to master us
The text as an object to use  The text as a subject that shapes us
Analytical, critical, and judgmental approach Humble, detached, willing, loving approach
Problem-solving mentality Openness to mystery

In our daily prayer and reflection, we should allow God’s word to form our minds and change the way we think and live as disciples of Christ. Expectant faith and docility open the mind and heart to hear Christ’s voice and to learn from him. 

One of my favorite prayers from Psalm 119:97-104 expresses the joy of the humble man who receives wisdom and understanding from listening to God’s word and then putting it into practice:

Oh, how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day. 
Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies, for it is ever with me. 
I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your testimonies are my meditation. 
I understand more than the aged, for I keep your precepts. 
I hold back my feet from every evil way, in order to keep your word. 
I do not turn aside from your ordinances, for you have taught me. 
How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth! 
Through your precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way.
Wisdom from the early fathers
The early church fathers were steeped in the study of the Scriptures and they passed on the wisdom which was handed down from the apostles, who were themselves taught by the Lord Jesus.(3) The fathers have much wisdom and experience to pass on to us as well. Here are a few quotes to illustrate how they approached the Word of God in Scripture:
You are reading [the Scriptures]? No. Your betrothed is talking to you. It is your betrothed, that is, Christ, who is united with you. He tears you away from the solitude of the desert and brings you into his home, saying to you, “Enter into the joy of your Master.” 
– Jerome, 347-420 A.D.

Nourish your soul with Bible reading. It will prepare a spiritual feast for you.  …You recall that one and the same Word of God extends throughout Scripture, that it is one and the same Utterance that resounds in the mouths of all the sacred writers, since he who was in the beginning God with God has no need of separate syllables; for he is not subject to time. The Scriptures are in fact, in any passage you care to choose, singing of Christ, provided we have ears that are capable of picking out the tune. The Lord opened the minds of the Apostles so that they understood the Scriptures. That he will open our minds too is our prayer. 

– Augustine of Hippo, 354-430 A.D.

“Like a tree planted by streams of water,” (Psalm 1:3) the soul is irrigated by the Bible and acquires vigor, produces tasty fruit, namely, true faith, and is beautified with a thousand green leaves, namely, actions that please God. The Bible, in fact, leads us towards pure holiness and holy actions. In it we find encouragement to all the virtues and the warning to flee from evil. The Bible is a scented garden, delightful, beautiful. It enchants our ears with birdsong in a sweet, divine and spiritual harmony, it touches our heart, comforts us in sorrow, soothes us in a moment of anger, and fills us with eternal joy. Let us knock at its gate with diligence and with perseverance. Let us not be discouraged from knocking. The latch will be opened. If we have read a page of the Bible two or three times and have not understood it, let us not be tired of re-reading it and meditating on it. Let us seek in the fountain of this garden “a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14). We shall taste a joy that will never dry up, because the grace of the Bible garden is inexhaustible. 

 – John Damascene, 676-749 A.D.
Hungry for God
God made us to know him and to be known by him as his beloved. He delights to be with those who hunger for him and who listen to his word. Let him draw you from the distractions of your cares and concerns so you can sit at his feet and listen to his voice. You will not be disappointed, even for a moment. He will refresh you and renew you and give you strength for your journey. Taste and see how good is the Lord (Psalm 34:8)! He will spread a banquet table for those who accept his invitation.

(1) M. Robert Mulholland Jr., professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, expands on this understanding of formational reading in his book, Shaped by the Word: The Power of Scripture in Spiritual Formation, published in 2001 by Upper Room Books. 
(2) For further reading, see essay Shaped by the Word, written by Brian K. Rice, Reformed evangelical pastor, writer, and director for Leadership ConneXtions International

(3) For an excellent presentation on how the early church fathers approached the study of the Scriptures, see The Nourishing Bread of Scripture by Servais Pinckairs, a quote from his book,The Sources of Christian Ethics, Chapter 8, © 1985, University Press Fribourg.

[Don Schwager is a member of The Servants of the Word and the author of the Daily Scripture Reading and Meditation website.]
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