Invisibility, God’s Word, and Prayer

God creates and sustains by his word, which is essentially invisible. A word, any word, is the expression of a mind. Minds are invisible to us. Brains we can see and dissect, but by the time we get around to doing such a thing, the mind is usually gone. If you want to know my mind, the last thing you would do is crack open my skull and poke around in my gray matter. You would need to either hear words from my mouth or read them in print. Either way, the invisible is foundational to the visible. The communication relies on an essentially invisible (but not always inaudible) word.

We cannot see words, except in print, but that is not quite the same as seeing the words in action. The Bible is God’s word made text, and the text is naturally visible. We can read it silently and receive the Spirit-inspired, life-giving truth of it, or we can read it aloud, as Ezra did in Nehemiah 8:1-8, with profound effect. But we do not actually see the words traveling from the speaker’s mouth to the hearer’s ears. And we surely do not see the words enter the human heart like Hebrews 4:12 says. We don’t see sound waves. Nor do we see the thoughts that occur as a result of the words we hear, read or speak. If we were present at the moment of creation and were able to hear the expression of God’s mind as he said, “Let there be …,” we would see the effect of God’s words. Things would appear before us as the Lord spoke. But we would not see the words themselves. God’s word may be heard. When it is, and is believed, amazing things happen in the material world. But the active word of God remains invisible to our physical sight.[1]

The Scripture is certainly God’s written speech, his authoritative word (2 Tim 3:16-17). But the arguments about the Bible between liberals and conservatives, which have dominated discussions over the last two centuries, have not highlighted what I am talking about here. I am a conservative in these debates and glad for the scholarship that retains and defends a high view of Scripture. But out on the edges of these theological battles, where pastors were trying to help the Lord’s sheep hear his voice, only the mystics were tapping into the sort of insight I am addressing here. I am deliberately highlighting the invisible, powerful effect of God’s mind expressed in his word, on the minds of human beings who come under the sound and sway of it. Words come from minds, and bring about effects in minds.[2] The whole thing is invisible. And since God’s word actually creates, the whole thing is also metaphysical.

Jesus is the word of God made flesh, the tangible, human expression of YHWH (John 1:1-5, 14-18; 8:48-59; 14: 7-11; Col. 1:15-17; 2:9; Heb. 1:1-3). When God makes his word (logos) actively visible it is a being, a human being.[3] Let that soak in for a moment. Seeing Christ is the closest we will get to seeing the word of God. Therefore, when Jesus spoke, his words were the very speech of God and so had the same effect as at the original creation. He spoke to the wind and the waves and they recognized the voice of creation, and obeyed (Mark 4:38-41). He spoke to the sick and dead, and their material bodies heard the voice of creation, God’s word, and rose up in life (Mark 5:41-42; John 11:43-44). He spoke forgiveness to a crippled man and it happened, but people couldn’t see it. So to prove that he had the authority to utter the word of forgiveness (a word God alone could speak) he healed the man with a word (Mark 2:1-12). By using words and deeds Jesus brought God’s invisible word to bear on the fallen age. In doing so, he brought the kingdom of God, the light of life, into the kingdom of darkness (Mark 1:14-15; John 12:44-50). Furthermore, his words were the source of spirit nourishment and transformation for his disciples. When they balked at his claim to be the manna from heaven, the divine nourishment for eternal life in this desert age, he said, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is of no avail. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” (John 6:63). When he told them about bearing fruit for him, he tied the life/power to bear that fruit to prayer and letting his words abide in them (John 15:7). When he said he is the Vine and the Father is the farmer, he added that his present disciples were “clean” because of the word he had spoken to them (John 15:3). This is all invisible to our material eyes.

Since a word is the expression of a mind, any word automatically carries the authority of the mind that speaks it. When my grandson utters the words of his three-year-old mind, we smile and hug him. But nobody obeys. His words have no real authority. On the other hand, when the judge in court utters a word, the place goes silent and people’s earthly destinies change. God’s word is the expression of the mind of the Creator for the purpose of accomplishing what he intends in the material world. If the Lord created the entire universe by expressing his mind (speaking), then the power of his mind must be infinitely beyond anything we can possibly imagine. It is. His mind is so powerful, his thoughts so transcendently dynamic, that all life and matter literally hang on his every word. (Deut. 8:3; Isa. 55:8-11; Heb. 1:3)

The idea that words by themselves can alter material reality, rearrange molecules, create life even in dead flesh, is simply beyond our plausibility structure. We can do things with words, but only by influencing other people to move their muscles, or by using voice recognition software. The ability to create with a word is stunning, astounding, metaphysically mysterious to us. Yet, that is precisely what the Bible claims about God’s invisible voice (Deut. 8:3; Ps. 33:6-9).[4]

What this means is that, contrary to our Western naturalistic worldview, the universe does not primarily function on inanimate, invisible “laws of physics,” but on personal, invisible authority, expressed in the word of the One who created everything (Col. 1:17; Heb. 1:3). This is why it is true that for eternal life, the life of the next age and the New Creation, it’s not what you know, but Who (John 5:37-40; 14:6). It seems to me that we pastors should think thoughts like this and say them in some understandable way from the pulpit.

Prayer

What we have just discussed has implications for our prayer life. Prayer is not mystical manipulation of inanimate cosmic forces for our own ends, as New Age spirituality would have it. Neither is it simply meditating on, or talking to, various numinous entities, or communing with nature, as self-styled spirituality implies. Nor is it self-referential, meaningless, mental exercise that calms our nerves “if we believe in that sort of thing,” as naturalism thinks. But it is a metaphysical action based on God’s authority through Christ and our union with him by faith. Real prayer, along with ingesting God’s word (John 15:7; Rev. 10:9; Ezek. 3:1), is the main way that the regenerate, Spiritual person interacts with God, who is the Source of creation and matter, in Spirit and in Truth. It must be exercised in personal relationship with Christ, that is—in his name. This is because in the immaterial realm it is the authority of the mind expressing the word (speaking) that is the dynamic, the power that “gets things done.” So, we find that Jesus received a name above every name, which puts his authority above all authority (Phil. 2:9; Eph. 1:21), which brings about real changes in the material realm. We ask God with our words to express his mind in certain ways, to do what we believe would be in the kingdom’s best interest (John 15:7). He answers even our faulty prayers in His wisdom according to what he knows is best (Rom.8:26).

In Matthew 8:5-10 a centurion whose servant was paralyzed came to Capernaum to beg the Lord to heal him. The Lord offered to come to his home (the Pharisees gasp). But the centurion said, “Just speak the word, Lord. I understand about authority, about how giving a verbal command will accomplish things.” Jesus was rarely impressed with people, but at this utterance from a Roman centurion he marveled and said that he hadn’t encountered this sort of faith among any Jews. Amazing. Invisible authority, expressed by a mind with the requisite gravitas, makes things happen in the material realm. This highlights the fact that practical knowledge of reality is not just about things, but about the Lord’s Ultimate Personal Authority over the heavens and the earth (Matt 28:18; Eph.1:15-23).

The ability to pray effectively comes when our words to God (John 14:12-14) are shaped by his words in us (John 15:7) and conveyed by his Spirit in and among us (John 14:25-26; Rom. 8:26-27) in order to accomplish his ordained will in this age—bringing his kingdom into the material realm through proclaiming and living out the gospel (Matt. 6:10, 33; Eph. 6:18-20). Prayer is invisible, dynamic, Spiritual work. The effect of prayer appears in the material world. But the work is done in the immaterial, invisible realm.

What does this mean on a practical level? At least two things. First, we Christians should see ourselves as actively involved in God’s redemptive, gospel-centered work in the world, through our prayers. Prayer in Christ’s name is powerful, not because we have authority, but because we have the Lord’s ear and he has all authority. Intercessory prayer is the foundational spiritual action in all missional and evangelical effort. It is supremely spiritual, the primary Holy Spirit experience.

Second, we should persist in confident prayer, not because we feel worthy in ourselves, but because Christ is worthy and it is his name, not ours, in which we come to the Father. Many Christians falter in prayer because of a sense of unworthiness, acute awareness of their failures. They think the Father hears them based on their obedience alone, rather than based on Christ’s obedience. But the purchase price of all the answers to all our prayers was paid at the Cross. We do not “earn” the right to be heard by the Father. It is a gift, part of the package that is eternal Spiritual life in Christ (John 16:26-27). Of course, our walk with the Lord is crucial, and the Spirit convicts of our sins and disciplines us in his love, but prayer “in the Name of Christ” means prayer based on his person and work, not ours.

 

[1] Note how often Jesus said, “Him who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Mtt.11:15; Mark 4:9; 4:23; 7:16; Luke 8:8; 14:35.

[2] In 2 Corinthians 4:3 Paul says that Satan has “blinded the minds of unbelievers to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel…” Note that the blindness is mental, in the mind. The sight (insight) is not material, but mental. So is the blindness, caused by sin. God’s word penetrates at this level, below the material sight we concentrate on. Cf. Heb. 4:12.

[3] One of the crucial differences between Islam and Christianity is that in Islam the Koran is the expression of God and in Christianity Christ is. One expression is words on a page, commands to obey; the other is a living Savior, God the rescuer who saves us by his own action and sacrifice. Therefore, Islam can only ever be a form of elaborate legalism. And the gospel of Christ can only be a gracious, personal salvation by adoption. Contrary to common assumption in the West, the real comparison of spiritual authority between Islam and Christianity is not between the Koran and the Bible, but between the Koran and Christ—between a book and a Person.

[4] The “Word Faith” movement in hyper-Pentecostalism (Benny Hinn, and others) is a tragic misappropriation of this biblical mystery. Their mistake is that they try to alter reality with their own words, taking God’s authority, “commanding God” etc. This is radically unbiblical and has caused untold harm to the gospel and the body of Christ. See D.R.A. McConnell, A Different Gospel: A Historical and Biblical Analysis of the Modern Faith Movement. Rev. ed. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995. Also, Costi W. Hinn and Anthony G. Wood, Defining Deception: Freeing the Church from the Mystical Miracle Movement. El Cajon, CA: Southern California Seminary Press, 2018.

Prayer as a Waste of Time

It is a commonplace, not to say a cliché, to refer to prayer as “hard work.” I have never read a book on the subject in which the author did not mention the fact that prayer seems like strenuous effort, real work. This is biblical. Paul in Romans 15:30 exhorted his friends to “strive together” with him in prayer for his ministry. That Greek word means to “agonize together.” It conjures a vision of a tug of war where you are pulling hard together against serious odds. Jesus treats prayer similarly. In Luke 18 he tells the “parable of the unrighteous judge” specifically to encourage people to pray and not “lose heart.” Why did he feel the need to encourage in this way? Because quitting prayer is easy to do. It is strenuous.

But why is prayer such an effort for so many of us? How hard is it to talk? Especially to somebody who doesn’t argue with you on the spot or hijack the conversation? Come on! How arduous should this really be?

The “hard work” of prayer isn’t physical of course, but emotional, mental, and spiritual. Perhaps the most outstanding existential feeling in prayer is a feeling that we absolutely hate—the feeling of wasting time. That’s right. Very often praying feels like we are squandering our valuable hours (Minutes? Seconds? Nano-seconds?), and possibly God’s as well (If he already knows, why should I ask?). I believe that the feeling of time-wasting is the primary mental strain involved in serious secret intercession (Matt.6:6). It’s a strain on our active minds to hold them in check and focus them on issues that we have no personal power over, while talking seriously to a Person we cannot see. The fact is that we get antsy. And controlling that agitated feeling is a big part of the “work” we do in prayer. We can think a lot faster than we can talk, which means it’s hard for us to stay on task mentally. On top of that, we feel guilty for thinking about all the other things we should be doing instead of praying! (I keep a pad and pencil handy to write down the things that crowd my mind during prayer, so that I can delay the gratification of doing them until after prayer).

Here’s what I suggest for this situation. Embrace the fact that praying should at times feel like wasting time. What?! You ask. Why should I embrace such an unspiritual thought?  Well, because it is that feeling that stretches and exercises your faith (which is the opposite of sight, right? 2 Cor.5:7) and makes you put your money where your mouth is. If God is not there, you are wasting your time. Ask Richard Dawkins. On the other hand, if God is there, you are investing the most valuable time in the best way. Ask Jesus. The strain of forcing yourself to reject the atheist intuition (that God isn’t there and that your works are all that matter) and lean into the spiritual reality of the gospel, is precisely the feeling of spiritual formation at its most basic level. When our agitated, activistic, caffeine-saturated brains are “re-minded” that the Lord is really here, and we insist against our basic old-self-reliance and antsy-ness that we can and will talk to him right now and for an extended period about specific things—that is the feeling of growing in faith! Which is an answer to our prayer for spiritual maturity! Faith develops when we insist on acting precisely as if the Lord is right here, listening to our every word, when in fact we cannot see him or the immediate effect of our intercession. So, isolate that time-squandering idea and press right through it. You’re growing like an oak tree through an asphalt driveway.

Just a Thought,

Pastor Rick