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Mark Johnston (MDiv Westminster Theological Seminary) is the Minister of Bethel Presbyterian Church (EPCEW) in Cardiff, Wales. He was previously Senior Pastor of Proclamation Presbyterian Church Bryn Mawr, PA and of Grove Chapel in Camberwell, London. He began his ministry as a church planter in Ireland. He serves on the Board of Banner of Truth Trust and has authored several books including three titles in Banner's Let’s Study series, You in Your Small Corner, and Our Creed.

Column: Resident Aliens by Mark Johnston

A Life of Prayer

August 11, 2014 •

There are few places in Scripture where we are given deeper insight into the anatomy of a life of prayer than in the book of Daniel. The well-known words of the old children’s chorus, ‘Daniel was a man of prayer…’ could not be more apt! This great man who was so greatly used for such a great length of time had a great secret that lay behind his usefulness – it was his prayerfulness. From our first introduction to him as a mere teenager to our last glimpses of him – presumably as an octogenarian – it seems as though he exudes an aura of prayer.

The beauty of this biblical cameo is the fact that it is not given merely to be a portrait in some gallery from the dim and distant past, but as a reminder that in the same way as ‘Elijah was a man just like us’ (Jas 5.17), so too was Daniel. The prayerfulness that was bound up with his usefulness is recorded both to instruct and inspire us in our own prayer life.

Every Christian obviously needs such instruction and inspiration – especially as we begin to appreciate that living the Christian life means ‘going the distance’ – but the same is true for those in the Christian ministry in its many and varied forms. If there is such a thing as ‘the loneliness of the long-distance runner’ in the world of marathon running, so too there is a sense in which we can feel as though the same is true in a life of ongoing service. Those in ministry need to cultivate the art of praying.

Even though it is very tempting to develop our abilities in prayer with our eye on its public face, it is clear from the Bible in general and the life of Daniel in particular that there is another facet of prayer that lies behind what is heard in public: that is our private prayer. If we make that the focus of this brief overview of the prayer life of Daniel, then several things come to light.

Conviction and Resolve

Most people are used to being reminded that Daniel as a boy was full of resolve. Almost as soon as we meet him in the opening chapter we are told that he ‘resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine’ (1.8). What is more easily overlooked is the fact that this resolve was born out of clearly formed and firmly held convictions. Even as a teenager (were such boys any less prone to the excesses of adolescence in those days than in ours?) he had certain principles that he would not bend.

In the case of Daniel and his three friends these emerged first in the belief that they should not be defiled in a foreign and a pagan court. This was a conviction that would lead all of them into danger that was often life threatening, but one that was the base line of their very existence. We are not privy to the precise details of what it meant or how it was articulated – commentators use up plenty of space discussing the possibilities – but it is clear that it had to do with the God of Israel and their devotion to him. With youthful zeal and fearlessness they take their stand for Yahweh because they know he alone is God.

Out of that conviction is born the resolve that carries them through a succession of trials. From the first tense moment when they ask for an exemption from the stated food requirement for the freshmen in the Babylonian training programme, right through to their willingness to face flames and lions, resolve is the hallmark of their life.

It might well be asked where the connection is between conviction, resolve and prayer? The answer lies simply in the discipline of prayer. The consistency that underpins the entire existence of this little band of brothers is reflected in the consistency in their life of prayer. A consistency that is not merely naked resolve (that so easily degenerates into the prayer-life of ‘vain repetition’), but a resolve that grows out of conviction. It is the resolve that is found in relationship: the covenant bond between a people and their God that knows both the delight of living communion and the discipline of daily devotion.

That is the starting point in all our efforts to cultivate a meaningful life of prayer. It can only grow and flourish in the context of a relationship with God that we know to be real and that transcends every other relationship and priority we may have in life.

Wisdom and Action

It is strange but true that all too often praying and doing are seen to belong to two different worlds. Too much of our doing is precisely that: our doing; but too much of our praying leads in to fatalism. It is one of the many perversions of Calvinism that jars with everything Calvin stood for. To say, ‘I’ve prayed about it!’ then walk away may salve our own conscience, but it will very often not satisfy God’s expectations and certainly not solve the problems that we face. So with these young men: they prayed, but they also acted.

The first major crisis these young men faced was one that threatened the entire echelon of the Babylonian court to which they belonged. Nebuchadnezzar had a dream and none of his wise men could meet his demand of first of all telling him what the dream was and then explaining what it meant (2.1-13). Daniel and his friends first learned about it when their executioner came knocking on their door. What is so striking, however, is that we are told, ‘Daniel spoke to him with wisdom and with tact’ (2.14). His first recourse in this situation was not to pray, but to be informed and then to explore the possibilities in responding to the crisis. He then returned to his friends and asked them to join with him in praying for all that lay ahead as he looked to God to reveal what he needed to know in order to answer the king.

The point is simply this: the need to pray did not preclude the need for wisdom and action. It is all too easy to turn our piety into a kind of evangelical monasticism – we cultivate a life of prayer, but shy away from any meaningful contact with the very world for which we are praying. Prayer is not a substitute for action; it is its partner.

Devotion and Boldness

The most famous episode in Daniel’s life of service – the one that was so closely linked to his reputation for being a man of prayer – was his skirmish with the lions. By this stage in his career he had proved himself at the highest levels of the civil service over successive regimes under Babylonian, then Medo-Persian rule. He was respected and trusted by the kings he served, but envied by his fellow-courtiers.

Their envy grew but their efforts to find some failure or scandal that might serve to oust him from office all failed. ‘They could find no corruption in him, because he was trustworthy and neither corrupt nor negligent’ (6.4). There was one thing, however, for which he was well known: he was unashamedly a man of God and a man of prayer. The story line hardly bears repetition, but these men knew his reputation for spirituality and knew as well that even in the somewhat pluralistic environment of Medo-Persian religion, there was room for some devious manipulation. So they urged Darius – with all the power of flattery – to issue a decree, of all things about prayer! If the king had had the wit to see beyond his own ego, he might have realised there was something strange going on: why try to legislate for the prayer life of the empire? The answer was really quite obvious – his most trusted advisor was a devout man of prayer, but his prayers were not offered to any god of the Medes or Persians. And the rest, of course, is history.

Once again two things marked Daniel out: he was devoted to God in prayer and he was not ashamed to be known for that devotion. There is perhaps something of a conundrum in this, since Jesus urged against making a public display of our praying and instead to confine it to the privacy of what happens behind closed doors. However, he was not talking merely about the visibility of our praying (he himself was happy to be seen praying in many contexts), but about ostentatious prayer. Our great need, both as Christians and as Christian ministers, is of humble yet visible devotion to God in prayer. Our families should see it in our private life and in family devotions. Others should see it so that they know we depend not on self, but on God.

Humility and Integrity

Just as our most exquisite glimpse into the prayer life of Jesus is seen in his great prayer of intercession in the upper room, so too with Daniel in his lengthy intercession on behalf of his people (9.4-19). That prayer was born out of a time of quiet reflection on the Scriptures – apparently the recently given prophecy of Jeremiah (9.1-3). There are many things about that prayer that are noteworthy, but two things are worth highlighting: his humility and integrity.

There is no hint of arrogance or of a patronising spirit as he prays for a people who it seems had still not learned their lesson after 70 years in exile. He identifies with his failing brothers, even though he himself was not where they were in their spiritual decline. He acknowledged the solidarity that exists within the family of God that binds strong and weak alike together. The only explanation for that can be that he loved his brothers in the covenant and his heart’s desire was that they might know the fullness of covenant blessing.

The ministry of prayer is pursued as we stand shoulder to shoulder with those for whom we are praying. Jesus did not stand aloof from those he came to save and as he pursues his intercessory ministry for them in heaven, it is a ministry fired by his ability to feel for them in their weakness (He 4.14-16). So too for those who pursue that ministry in his name. We are not above our brethren; we are with them and share their same need.

Reverence and Adoration

As we chart the co-ordinates and dimensions of Daniel’s prayer life, they take us through the whole range of what is involved in praying: confession, thanksgiving and supplication. However, there is one aspect of his praying that stands out as being the key to all the others: that is, his reverence and adoration in prayer. In many ways its takes us right back to where we started in our reflection on what made this man tick as a man of God as much as a man of prayer: it was his relationship with and attitude to God himself. Everything about what he was as much as about what he did was tempered by the One he knew so intimately as God and Saviour.

The sheer depth of that relationship is seen most clearly in the closest encounter Daniel ever had with God. We find it in his vision of ‘a man’ beside the Tigris river (10.5-6) – a vision, it seems, of none other than the pre-incarnate Christ. As he listens to what Christ says, he falls down in reverent awe and adoration (10.15). The intimacy of his praying and a true sense of what that entails is reflected in his attitude to God. There is no presumption, or casualness, but rather the most intimate awe.

Real depth in prayer is found in real engagement with God and real engagement with God is reflected in reverent adoration. There is no generation more than ours – including our generation of ministers – that needs to rediscover what that means. The more we do, the more we will enter into the thrill of effective praying and the joy of seeing all that flows from such a ministry.

This article first appeared in Banner of Truth Magazine. It is used by permission.

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