I think I forgot to post this article when I wrote it for Christian Today – it’s done pretty well on the internet and I’m not surprised – it’s a common question, and it’s an important one! Knowing the presence and peace of God is one of the most wonderful aspects of Christian faith. We may not always have it, but seeking it is always worth it.
Martin Luther King is often described as a ‘humanist’, but this is impossible to justify once you have read his work and sermons. His approach, his strategy, was based on Jesus’ teachings. And he frequently relied on God’s strength. I’ve just read the King’s book ‘Strength to Love’, which I would recommend that everyone get a copy of, especially those who are involved in political movements for change. Within there is this clear testimony of how God gave him the strength to do what he did. Without that prayer, it’s possible that the civil rights movement as we know it would never have been.
The first twenty-four years of my life were years packed with fulfilment. I had no basic problems or burdens… it was not until I became a part of the leadership of the Montgomery bus protest that I was actually confronted with the trials of life. Almost immediately after the protest had been undertaken, we began to receive threatening telephone calls and letters in our home. Sporadic in the beginning, they increased day after day. At first I took them in my stride, feeling that they were the work of a few hotheads who would become discouraged after they discovered that we would not fight back. But as the weeks passed, I realized that many of the threats were in earnest. I felt myself faltering and growing in fear.
After a particularly strenuous day, I settled in bed at a late hour. My wife had already fallen asleep and I was about to doze off when the telephone rang. An angry voice said, “Listen nigger, we’ve taken all we want from you. Before next week you’ll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery.” I hung up, but I could not sleep. It seemed that all of my fears had come down on me at once. I had reached the saturation point.
I got out of bed and began to walk the floor. Finally, I went to the kitchen and heated a pot of coffee. I was ready to give up. I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing to be a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had almost gone, I determined to take my problem to God. My head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud. The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. “I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”
At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never before experienced him. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice, saying, “Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth. God will be at your side forever.” Almost at once my fears began to pass from me. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything. The outer situation remained the same, but God had given me inner calm.
Three nights later, our home was bombed. Strangely enough, I accepted the word of the bombing calmly. My experience with God had given me a new strength and trust. I knew now that God is able to give us the interior resources to face the storms and problems of life.
Let this affirmation be our ringing cry. It will give us courage to face the uncertainties of the future. It will give our tired feet new strength as we continue our forward stride towards the city of freedom. When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds and our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a great benign Power in the universe whose name is God, and he is able to make a way out of no way, and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. This is our hope for becoming better men. This is our mandate for seeking to make a better world.
This is an old testimony from the 80s, but it is absolutely extraordinary.
Margaret Mayfield was in a parking lot in San Antonio, Texas, having been prompted in the morning to carry some Scripture and evangelistic materials with her in her car.
She met a man who looked ‘rabid’ and ‘demonic’, and she tried to witness to him. He made her get into the car and had a gun.
What she didn’t know, was that he was serial killer and rapist Stephen Morin, who was on the run from the police after killing someone earlier that day – on top of numerous rapes and murders.
However, she showed no fear, and extraordinarily, showed love to him as they talked for hours. He commented on how she was not trying to escape, and how she did not seem to be afraid. “I’ve felt more love from you than I have in my whole life,” he told her.
She told him that he had a ‘satanic stronghold’ following his traumatic childhood with a mother who hated him. He replied that he knew that force of hate, that sometimes it had made him do things that he didn’t want to do.
She prayed in the Spirit throughout, when she wasn’t preaching the Word to him. “Are you an angel?” he asked. He wanted her to go in and get a paper, but she said she did not want to read what he had done because the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin – the impression she left is that she knew this would increase her fear.
He asked her for money, “whatever is in your heart to give me”. When she gave money to him, he started crying and said: “You are the most wonderful person I’ve ever met in my life. This love I feel is not sexual, it’s nothing like that. It’s something I’ve never experienced before.” She had various opportunities to call for help but she did not.
He wanted to kill himself, but Margy continued to witness to him and tell him that he would go to hell if he did, telling him of the gospel, that Jesus loved him and died for his sins.
Suddenly he said: “You’ve been preaching to me all day, and I finally understand what you’re talking about.” He pulled over, raised his hands in the air, and said: “Jesus I am sorry for everything I have ever done. Please forgive me, I want to go to heaven.” He cried and told her that the hate that had been in his heart had gone. Later, he told her that just before his prayer, he had heard an audible voice say: “This is the last time that I will call you.”
He went on to unload his gun, gave Margy the bullets, and said: “I don’t ever want to do this again. I want to tell people about Jesus Christ!” He continued to praise Jesus all down the road.
They went to get a hamburger (she said, “by this time we were friends”) as he waited to get on a bus.
Many people have asked her, why didn’t you call the police? But she said that she wanted to obey the Spirit of God. If she had listened to reason, she says, she would have called the police but then she could have ended up dead. So she obeyed the Spirit.
She went home, leaving Stephen in the bus station, and there were police everywhere. She wouldn’t tell them where he is for a while, as she didn’t want to hurt his fledgling faith. Eventually she did, and the police went there and found him reading a Bible. He handed over some weapons, and said normally he would have had a shoot-out, but… “I met this lady today, and now I am different.”
Margy said: “The power of love is what won that man. Not criticism, not telling them they’re doing the wrong thing. They already know that. It’s the love of God that cuts across those barriers and wins people to the Lord.”
Later, she realised that God had been preparing her for a long time for this experience. She had spent a lot of time memorising the book of Ephesians, and Psalm 91… she said, that though most people would have been terrified: “[God] had programmed me so much to think the thoughts of the word of God. I think that day, that’s what surprised me so much… how much love and compassion I felt for him. I never would have believed I could have felt that, I mean I couldn’t have, without God in me. I got a glimpse that day of how much God loves humanity, and it’s such a depth! We can’t even fathom it, it’s so great. It’s changed me forever, that’s for sure.”
Morin was later executed for one of his murders, and his last words were a prayer.
I’m just finishing Heinrich Arnold’s book, ‘Discipleship’, which I’d heartily recommend. Lots of helpful wisdom, very Biblical, very absorbed in the reality of Christ’s presence with us. I thought I’d share one little prayer, which I think is beautiful:
The Spirit pierces hearts like a sword
that cuts through bone and marrow.
We plead: give us your Holy Spirit
and pierce us deep into the past,
into the present, into the future.
May Jesus enter deep into our hearts and change them.
May he reach his hand into our past,
to the ultimate beginning of our being.
The Holy Spirit can change all things.
We believe this.
For this, Jesus experienced godforsakenness
on the Cross.
I’ve just finished reading the medieval Christian book “The Cloud of Unknowing”, which is a classic of Christian mysticism. I always take such books with a pinch of salt, because I think you’ve got to approach mysticism carefully and use the Bible as your boundary. But I did find a lot of great wisdom in this little book. Here are some examples, with quotes:
1) Seek God for God alone, and not what He can give you
Peace, love and the Spirit are wonderful benefits of contemplative prayer – but not always. And one of the blocks to knowing God that I’ve found is if I’m only doing the prayer to feel good. Instead, it’s important to just seek God and God alone – love requires that we are not seeking for only what we can get.
Lift up your heart to God with humble love: and mean God himself, and not what you get out of him… Try to forget all created things that he ever made, and the purpose behind them, so that your thought and longing do not turn or reach out to them either in general or in particular.
There’s encouragement to wait in prayer, even when it seems difficult:
When you first begin, you find only darkness, and as it were a cloud of unknowing. You don’t know what this means except that in your will you feel a simple steadfast intention reaching out towards God. Do what you will, and this darkness and this cloud remain between you and God… Reconcile yourself to wait in this darkness as long as is necessary, but still go on longing after him whom you love.
2) Christian meditation / contemplative prayer is very different to Eastern, Buddhist styles of meditation
It’s not a game of trying to seek knowledge, and pride is a danger.
Whoever hears or reads about all this, and thinks that it is fundamentally an activity of the mind, and proceeds then to work it all out along these lines, is on quite the wrong track. He manufactures an experience that is neither spiritual or physical. He is dangerously missed and in real peril.
Indeed he points out that you need a foundation of knowing your own sinfulness, meditating on the Cross and the kindness of God.
See to it that there is nothing at work in your mind or will but only God. Try to suppress all knowledge and feeling of anything less than God, and trample it down deep under the cloud of forgetting.
Although the Christian meditator is seeking to lose ‘self’ it is ONLY to give it to God in love – to surrender all we have to our Creator.
3) As you reach towards God, run away from all that is bad
By its very definition, if you are seeking God you must turn away from all wrongdoing – all sin.
In itself prayer is nothing else than a devout setting of our will in the direction of God in order to get good, and remove evil… all evil is summed up in sin… if we pray with intention for the acquiring of goodness, let us pray, in word or thought or desire, no other word than ‘God’. For in God is all good, for he is its beginning and its being.
Being aware of this great separation can be a help if we’re struggling with sin, or with hiding from God:
Feel sin in its totality – as a lump – without specifying any particular part, and that all of it is you. And then cry ceaselessly in your spirit this one thing: ‘Sin! Sin! Sin! Help! Help! Help!
4) The fruit of contemplative prayer is love, and intimacy with Christ
This kind of prayer is done to know God more, and to love him more.
The nature of love is that it shares everything. Love Jesus, and everything he has is yours.
…He may, perhaps, send out a shaft of spiritual light, which pierces this cloud of unknowing beteween you, and show you some of his secrets… then will you feel your affection flame with the fire of his love, far more than I can possibly say now…
I’m a bit late with reposting some of the stuff I’ve written for Christian Today lately… so will try to put it up slowly over the next few weeks. Here are some suggestions for NY resolutions – what do you think? How are your resolutions going?
Right now, innocent people are being killed by ISIS in Iraq: including Christians and other ethnic minorities if they don’t convert. I wrote about this for the Christian Today website, and link it here, in the hope that I’ll raise the profile of the issue and help people think through a response. Please, please, pray, and urge your politicians to act.
We look back at other atrocities such as the Rwandan genocide, and even the Holocaust, and we wring our hands and kick ourselves for what we could have done. We should have bombed the railway lines that were carrying Jews to their death, for example. We should have done more, we think. We could have, we should have.
So here’s our chance to fight such evil.