Prayer as Pursuing God's Presence

In his article, originally prepared for the Pentecostal Messenger, Rev. Douglas Small urges the church to engage a proper theology and practice of prayer.

Douglas Small

March 1, 2022



Prayer as Pursuing God's Presence

Before it is anything else, prayer is about the ‘presence’ of God, conscious awareness of Him, and our attending to His presence by honoring and welcoming Him. We host His presence! Walter Liefeld suggests that when we conceive “…of prayer basically as a means of acquiring things from God, we trivialize prayer.” And “Prayer,” Rowland Hogben noted, “is an interruption of personal ambition.” Healthy prayer abandons our personal agenda to serve God. Prayer must become less about us and more about God. It must not begin with us; prayer begins with God. It is possible only because God has invited us to come to Him. Indeed, He pursues us. And prayer never ends with us; it ends with intercession for those who have not tasted His presence or responded to His invitation.

James Packer confessed,

“I am often troubled… My fellow believers are constantly seeking to advance in godliness, [but] show little direct interest in God himself… It is as if they should concentrate on the ethics and dynamics of marriage and fail to spend time with their spouse! There is something narcissistic and, to tell the truth, nutty in being more concerned about godliness than about God…, so it is not nice to care more for our religion than for the God whom we are called to praise and please every day of our lives.”

How have we developed a model for prayer that misses God? Thomas Merton warned, “… the danger is that our very prayers get between God and us… If saying your prayers is an obstacle to prayer, cut it out! Let Jesus pray. Thank God Jesus is praying. Forget yourself. Enter into the prayer of Jesus. Let him pray in you … The best way to pray is: stop! Let prayer pray within you…”

The heart of prayer is worship, not acquisition. The edge is mission. Its roots are in Scripture. Between this pursuit of God and concern for the lost, God meets our needs. Enabled by the Spirit and praying over open Bibles, God nudges us toward our missional purpose. Prayer is not primarily about things we want God to give us or do for us. In fact, when we make prayer about God pleasing us, answers dry up (James 4:1-4). God’s face is what we seek, not merely His hand. Pleasing Him must drive our desires.

The church needs reform, and reformations begin with prayer, seeking God’s face, and sharing His heart for the lost. Personal transformation and mission are the triggers for institutional transformation—both are driven by God’s Presence. We discover purpose, meaning, direction, strength, and vision for our lives and congregations only in His presence. Thus, there are some critical shifts we must make in our thinking.

First, we have made Christianity about going to heaven. But heaven, the upward call (Phil. 3:14), is the prize, not the goal. The goal is to “know Him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable to his death” (Phil. 3:10). We must not confuse the goal and the prize. Missing the goal disqualifies one for the prize. The goal is the relationship to which we have been called, and again, we are called not to a place but to a person.

Second, we have told ourselves that in order to go to heaven, we must be good. But Christianity is not about our goodness (Phil. 3:4-6, 9); it is about the goodness and the character of Christ. In prayer and in His holy presence, we are transformed. Our eyes are opened to destructive behaviors. Biblical values convict us and provide a new center for our lives, and then as a result, the grace of God can empower us toward holiness.

Third, we have made Christianity about going to church, rather than going to God in prayer or experiencing and living in the Spirit. Prayer will drive us to serve God and love the church for which Christ died, but going to church cannot guarantee the same results or satisfy one’s personal relationship with God!

Fourth, prayer is not a list we give to God, making Him the divine fix-it man. On one hand, the deprivation of living in a fallen world is real. God cares about our pain, and He knows our very real enemy. Yet on the other hand, we must recognize that praying about this world, fleshly troubles, and spiritual warfare is actually a worldly kind of praying that never escapes the grip of this earthly realm. Prayer, wrapped in faith, tends to focus on needs. But prayer as presence focuses on the relationship.

Fifth, good prayer begins with God. It sits in heavenly places. It experiences God’s presence and lingers there. With God’s presence comes the felt sense of unconditional love. Paul tells us, “Faith works by love.” We don’t have a faith problem; we have a love problem. You can never pray effectively to a God whose love you doubt. When prayer begins with God’s presence and His love, faith is bolstered. Fear flees since faith and fear refuse to travel together. The intermediating determinate is God’s presence: “for Thou are with me!”

Now we can pray! Too often, everything up to this point is the noise we make at the darkness—the deprivation, the fear, the loneliness, and the uncertainty of the world. Only with the sense of God’s presence and His love can one experience peace and joy. You must pray yourself into a place of prayer. Unhealthy prayer obsesses over needs; healthy prayer begins with God and moves us to rest. So you pray yourself to peace and only then can you pray. In His presence, with confidence, out of a clear sense of God’s faithfulness, out of peace and without doubt of His love, we pray.

We tend to pray only when we need to pray, but prayer is not an activity or merely an emergency call to heaven. It is a relationship. It is not something you do; it is someone you are with. Petition is not the heart of prayer, nor is intercession. The center is communion with God—union, unity, oneness, a nothing-between-us-and-God relationship. It is not transactional but transformational. It is not problem-focused, but presence-centered. It is not about the hand of God and His fixing, healing, or touching this or that. It is about the face of God, about knowing the Almighty God.

When healthy missional prayer was lacking and no intercessor served as a bridge between this world and heaven, God wrapped Himself in flesh and came to the earth—to pray! (Isa. 59:16). That’s right, to pray. God among us, praying. Presence and prayer converged in Christ. At the beginning and end of His ministry, He prayed. Now in heaven, He makes intercession. And into that prayer meeting in heaven, even now while we are yet on the earth, we enter in prayer.

Heaven is now having a prayer meeting led by Jesus. The center of prayer has moved to heaven. And now we are invited—as Ben Jennings, the great prayer leader for Campus Crusade was wont to say—into a conversation going on in the Trinity. Astounding. Unbelievable. Empowering. Missional.

Such prayer is revelatory, global, stunning in its breadth. It is sure and certain, a sovereign expression of the determination of God. It is a gathering of the saints, the 24 elders, the four living creatures, angels, cherubim, and the body of Christ on the earth.

In prayer, we taste God’s presence. We hear the music of another world. And having sat ‘in heavenly places,’ we live, walk, work, and war. Victory follows on victory.

Critical Shifts in Prayer Theology

1. From problem-obsessed praying to the perpetual pursuit of God’s Presence.

2. From transactions with God to transformation.

3. From the hand of God (provision) to the face of God (relationship).

4. From being driven to pray out of deprivation to being driven by prayer out of deep divine dependence.

5. From prayer episodes to prayer as a lifestyle—abiding in Christ.

6. From prayer wrapped with faith to prayer baptized in loving God and experiencing His love.

7. From praying promises to praying principles that define destiny and purpose.

8. From superficial agreement in prayer to profound unity that gives birth to mission.

9. From making prayer about God hearing us to learning that the great goal is that we hear from Him.

10. From flighty convenience and self-interested prayer to prayer as a central discipline and the first step toward true discipleship.

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