The Apostle Paul is well known for writing what is known as the “Love Chapter,” 1 Corinthians 13. In that chapter, he defines one of the characteristics of love as being the transformation of believers from a childlike way of thinking and behaving to an adult-like way of thinking and believing: “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me” (1 Corinthians 13:11).
Since those words are used in the context of defining love, they certainly mean that choosing to be a loving person involves the choice to start seeing all of life from an adult perspective. In other words, the surest evidence of our spiritual maturation is when we begin to think of everything, even the most basic spiritual disciplines, in terms of how we can employ them to benefit others, not order our world around our own selfish ambitions. This is never truer than it is of prayer.
Even as we grow into biological adulthood, it is easy to continue to think of prayer in childlike ways, only in terms of seeking to get God to order our worlds according to our own wishes.
As seen in today’s passage in the book of Acts, mature prayer is prayer that thinks in terms of submitting ourselves, our ambitions and our resources to the transforming power of God at work within us. As we grow in Christ, we don’t think of prayer in terms of what it can gain us but in terms of how it can transform us according to the will of God. Put simply, mature prayer is as much about listening to God as it is speaking to God. It is more about submitting ourselves to God and less about simply submitting our wish list to God.
We now stand as observers of how the first Jesus-followers behaved under various circumstances. It is a fascinating thing to note their response to the imprisonment of Peter and John and their subsequent release was one of community prayer. It would have been easy for them to try to ascertain the ways of the political winds that were blowing and run for their lives.
Instead, spontaneous prayer broke out. It was open prayer, prayer of the gathered community of faith. Prayer actually drove them more out into the open, not into hiding.
Community prayer also helped them to interpret what was happening to the believers in the broader spectrum of God’s greater purpose. Instead of seeking physical security, they were able to see how God had transformed even their own stubborn rebellion against Jesus into a part of God’s greater plan of the redemption of the world. Prayer resets our spiritual vision.
Prayer does that. It refocuses our vision, helps us redefine even the worst in light of God’s best. Prayer helps us look beyond ourselves, our anxieties, our fears and our doubts to how God is keeping God’s promise of redemption in Christ.
Prayer keeps both the individual believer and the community of believers from withdrawing in despair and the sometimes destructive behaviors that result when people are running in fear instead of standing strong in faith.
The Sadducees were upset with Peter and John for preaching the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead, something the Sadducees strongly disbelieved. It would have been easy for Peter and John to adjust their message to accommodate the people who had power to eventually take their lives. However, they could not have made that adjustment without, at the same time, disemboweling the gospel of its most significant message. Prayer was what infused Peter and John with the power they needed to speak boldly in the face of opposition.
Even by this point in their following of Jesus, Peter and John knew they could not accomplish what God had given them to do without the power of God at work within them. It was Peter, “filled with the Holy Spirit,” (v. 8), who was empowered, infused with power from within, to speak with a power beyond what came naturally and to help bring about the supernatural conversion of many through the preaching of the gospel.
Following that very example after Peter and John’s release from prison, the believers allowed Peter and John’s way of seeking the power of God model for them how to pray as well, “‘Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness’” (v. 29).
Jesus taught us, as recorded in the Gospels and especially the Sermon on the Mount, to ask God for what we need (Matthew 7:7-11). There is nothing wrong with laying our requests at the Father’s feet and praying our God will meet the practical needs of our daily lives. However, the greatest evidence that we are truly people of prayer is not so much that our warehouses will be full to overflowing of this world’s goods. The greatest evidence that we are people of prayer is that we will be filled to the brim with power to bear spiritual fruit that nourishes and empowers others to be the people of God they were created to be (Matthew 7:15-20).
This narrative recorded in the book of Acts is nothing less than a first-century record of that simple truth: “After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.”
For most of us, it is not a lack of material things that hinders our ability to take bold steps. It is a lack of courage. Prayer will not only help us align our list of needs with God’s will, it will empower to use whatever gifts are ours to bear bold witness to a lost and dying world.