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Cultivating the Spirit through the Life of Prayer: Prayers in the Dark

September 9, 2007

Ephesians 1:3-6; 6:10-13; Romans 7:15-25

When Clare and I moved back to Spartanburg from Winston-Salem, in 1980, I thought I should take her to the Beacon Drive-In for a meal. She had been there a time or two, but she was way behind on Beacon food. When she looked at the menu and said, “I don’t really know what to get.” I told her, “Anything is good.” She decided to try the Club sandwich, but added, “but I would like it on whole wheat bread.” I went to the counter and gave my order, explaining, “My wife would like a club sandwich on dark bread.” The person behind the counter responded, “This ain’t no delicatessen.” I must tell you that not long after that, the Beacon added whole wheat bread. At that time though, it was all white.

I have known since the beginning of this series that a time would come when we would have to talk about the dark side of prayer. Not many people want to talk about that topic because it is hard. It requires a lot of emotional energy and sometimes not much return. Nevertheless, it is an important part of the life of prayer; and this Sunday, we will address prayers in the dark.

I came in this Sanctuary Thursday afternoon, as workers were installing the organ’s antiphonal speakers in the balcony. The console was sitting right here in the middle of the room. I heard enough of this organ to know I could not talk about just the dark side of prayer. When I looked at the music Holly had selected, “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee,” “Victory in Jesus,” and today’s anthem, “With a Voice of Singing,” I again confirmed that I could not talk just about the dark side of prayer. I thought, “I will have to change my plan for the sermon this Sunday and include prayer as praise.”

Physics has a theory called the Wave Theory, which applies both to music and to color. We can understand some of the things we perceive by knowing a physical theory. For example, when an orchestra is tuning, the oboe plays the note A440. Musicians tune all other instruments in the orchestra to that one note. A440 simply means that the note has 440 waves per second. Dogs sometimes bark for unexplained reasons, but they can hear certain very high musical tones that we cannot hear. Other sounds are so low that the human ear cannot perceive them. We might call them the sounds of silence, maybe even the voice of God. In the same way, we cannot see some colors, such as infrared and ultraviolet, which are at two ends of the spectrum.

Some people object to reducing things of beauty to a physical theory, but the theory helps us understand much about life. It is true that we experience great variety in our lives. For example, we only have to look at the kings of Israel, those who reigned during the time of the united monarchy, to see great variation. Saul, the first king, had extreme mood swings. During the times he experienced ecstatic experiences, people said he was filled with the Holy Spirit. We know, too, that Saul had bouts of deep despair. Some have said that doctors would diagnose Saul in our day as having a manic-depressive bi-polar disorder. You know, of course, that he ended his life in suicide. Solomon, a man known for his humility and great wisdom, prayed to the great God of heaven, asking for good judgment. He started out well, but he had taken many foreign wives near the end of his life. The religion of Israel became a mixture; it became synthesized with pagan religions. Consider David, perhaps the best known of the kings. Labeled the “sweet singer of Israel,” poet, songwriter, politician, warrior, and leader among men, David was known as “a man after God’s own heart.” He gave us prayers such as Psalm 23, the beautiful shepherd’s psalm. After his tryst with Bathsheba, David wrote Psalm 51:4: “Against Thee and Thee only have I sinned and done that which is evil in Thy sight.” In the lives of all of these men, we see prayers that are at both ends of the spectrum – light and dark.

The life of prayer includes both light and dark. Those of us who have been Christians for a while know of those mountaintop moments, times when we have much praise and gratitude to God. We also know times when we go through deep valleys of despair. We struggle with doubt.

Paul certainly understood both ends of the spectrum, as evident in his letter to the church at Ephesus. Consider the first expression of prayer, located in Ephesians 1:3-6:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love, he predestined us to be adopted as his sons, through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.

Here, Paul is offering expressions of praise because God is putting together His adopted family. Every person who believes in Jesus Christ is included. Paul praised God for what He has done in Christ Jesus.

Now, look at the last chapter of Ephesians. Paul knows that prayer is not always bright and hopeful. At times, our prayers in the dark are, in fact, spiritual warfare. Note what he writes in Chapter 6, Verses 10-13:

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.

Prayer is a spectrum that runs from dark to light. Sometimes it is a blessing, and sometimes it is a battle. Praise and adoration to God are certainly part of prayer. The little acrostic ACTS, which means Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication, identifies four forms of prayer. We know that prayer certainly includes praise to God, adoration. During the life of prayer, we go through what we might call “the Sahara of the soul.” Our lives are spiritually parched. We look for an oasis. St. John of the Cross called this dryness the “dark night of the soul.” Anybody who has been a Christian for any length of time can tell you that it is not always light. Darkness certainly occurs in the life of prayer.

People do not like to talk about mythology in church. I am not endorsing mythology, but I do want talk about it for a minute because it can help us understand how our culture perceives these two ends of the spectrum. Greek and Roman mythology consists of a struggle between good and evil. A whole pantheon of little gods carry out their own soap opera, frequently fussing or fighting and loving or not loving. Determining the good gods from the bad ones is often difficult.

Mythology exists in our contemporary culture. Yesterday during a book signing at Barnes and Noble, I sold a few books. I also sat for a long time, watching what people bought besides my book. A number bought books about a character named Harry Potter. I am not endorsing Harry Potter books; I am leaving that decision to parents because they know best what is appropriate for their children. Apart from the magic and wizardry, Harry Potter books involve a boy orphaned by the forces of evil. Harry faces an epic struggle between good and evil in every episode.

Another contemporary example of mythology is Star Wars, by George Lucas. This series also involves a cosmic battle between an evil empire and the Jedi knights. In cowboy movies with such characters as Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, the Lone Ranger, and most of the time John Wayne, the good character wore a white hat. In Star Wars, however, the storm troopers, the bad characters, wear white. Star Wars is not just a cosmic battle. It is an internal battle involving a gifted young man once named Anakin Skywalker who becomes the evil Darth Vader because he succumbs to the dark side, to evil. His son, Luke Skywalker, encounters the same internal struggle; but strong mentors like Yoda, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and some helpful droids offer him strength and guidance.

We are tempted to think that internal struggle is a new concept. Think back to the very first pages of the Bible where a struggle between good and evil occurs. God created human beings and placed them in a garden that was, by all appearances, a perfect world. A man and woman were in a garden, as was a snake that led the couple astray. Even paradise was not all light; darkness existed there also.

This internal struggle is a part of every Christian life. If you have not experienced this battle, I advise you to get ready. You will likely experience it. Look with me at Romans 7, a letter written sometime during Paul’s mid-ministry. This great apostle also struggled mightily against the forces of evil. Verses 15-25:

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin living in me that does it.

So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!

E. Stanley Jones, commenting on this passage, says that Christians have the mistaken idea that once they have accepted Christ, they will no longer have to contend with the forces of evil. They feel as if Christ has put evil under his feet, and no more conflicts will arise. Jones adds that delusion may last for about a year, but every Christian eventually experiences a struggle with the powers of darkness. How does this darkness affect our life of prayer?

Years ago, I read a thick book by George Buttrick, simply called Prayer. Buttrick says that prayer comes in eight different moods, different forms, which he calls an octave of prayer. He identifies one end of the spectrum as praise and the other end as prayers in the dark. We find ourselves as Christian people in that spectrum. We may have hearts full of praise for God. I felt that Thursday afternoon when I heard this organ played for the first time. It was an amazing experience, and I wept at the beauty of this instrument. God’s goodness may overwhelm us. Our praise, our sense of joy, spills over because God alone is responsible. Our first prayer was probably, “God is great, and God is good,” a simple prayer of praise. Karl Barth said, “All theology begins with doxology,” the praise of God. This praise may come without words. Often it is with tears. Sometimes it is silent, or it may just break forth into singing. “He who sings, prays twice.” “All nature sings, and round me rings the music of the spheres.” “O Lord, my God, when I in awesome wonder…Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee, How great Thou art.” Praise, recognizing the majesty and the grandeur of God, is certainly an important part of our life of prayer.

At the far end of the spectrum is a kind of bi-polar experience of prayer for all of us. We are sometimes absolutely in the pit of despair because we are sinners. Tears – tears of remorse and tears of abandonment – characterize these prayers in the dark. We feel as if the ceiling of heaven is brass, and we cannot get through to God. We may feel fear and dread. We examine our lives and pray the prayer of Psalm 139:23-24: “Examine me, O God, and know my heart. Try me and know my ways. See if there be any wicked way within me.” We must confess and repent.

On the night of his betrayal, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Peter, Satan has sought to sift you” (Luke 22:31). The devil wants to sift every single one of us, even Jesus. Do you remember his experience of temptation in the wilderness? The Scripture says that three times Jesus resisted the temptation. Satan then departed from him to wait for a more opportune moment, which came in the Garden of Gethsemane with tears, sweat like drops of blood. If you saw Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ, you saw a snake, the tempter, in that garden, too. The Lord Jesus set an example for us. First, he lets us know no one is exempt from this darkness, this spiritual warfare; we will all go through it. He does show us, however, how to win the battle. He states to his Father, “Not my will, but Thine be done” (Luke 22:42). It looked as if he were defeated when he was nailed to that cross, but he conquered sin. He conquered death. It is only through that cross that we have victory in Jesus.

I can promise that every person of prayer will eventually come under attack. The enemy will find your weakest link, possibly a child who breaks your heart, failure of health, disappointment in your business, or weakened faith. If you will persevere, looking always to Jesus, “who for the joy set before him endured the cross, and suffered the shame,” (Hebrews 12:2) you, too, will prevail. When you come out of that darkness, you will move into the light, allowing your heart to be filled with praise again. It is not shallow. It is an expression of gratitude for the grace of God, for “Love divine, all loves excelling.” As the hymn writer says, “we are lost in wonder, love, and praise.”

Do you know Jesus Christ as your Savior? If you have never made that decision, we invite you to accept Christ today. Come down the aisle, and take me by the hand. I will pray with you. We will help you begin your Christian journey. It may be that God has laid another decision on your heart, a decision regarding church membership. If that is the case, we invite you to make the decision as we stand together and sing our hymn of invitation, “I Know Whom I Have Believed.”

© 2007 Kirk H. Neely


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