Prayer is One Part of a Larger Life

As I’ve thought over what I wrote over the weekend about prayer, I’ve returned to the idea that prayer needs a context to make sense in our life with God. Prayer is not only about getting answers, or fixing problems, or changing the course of history, though God is certainly free to give us answers, or address our issues, or change our present reality. Prayer is a part of something bigger. It is not an isolated activity, but is part of a larger whole.

What is that larger whole?

Our life.

Dallas Willard explains:

Hearing God’s word will never make sense except when it is set within a larger life of a certain kind.

To try to locate divine communication within human existence alienated from God is to return to idolatry, where God is there for our use. To try to solve life’s problems by getting a word from the Lord is to hide from life and from the dignity of the role God intended us to have in creation. As John Boykin remarks, “God does not exist to solve our problems.” We exist to stand up with God and count for something in this world.

We must ultimately move beyond the question of hearing God and into a life greater than our own–that of the kingdom of God. Our concern for discerning God’s voice must be overwhelmed by and lost in our worship and adoration of him and in our delight with his creation and his provision for our whole life. Our aim in such a life is to identify all that we are and all that we do with God’s purposes in creating us and our world. Thus, we learn how to do all things to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31; Col. 3:17). That is, we come in all things to think and act so that his goodness, greatness and beauty will be as obvious as possible–not just to ourselves, but to those around us.

Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God, Updated & Expanded, 274-275

That’s the greater context. We pray, not so that we can fulfill a religious duty (one that can be undertaken either happily or unhappily), nor to get God to do what we want, but instead to be in relationship to God and to live according to God’s greater purposes, to learn how best to fulfill the purposes for which we have been made and the vocation to which we have been called.

The Practice of the Shepherd

In our examples of Christian leadership, we too often emphasize getting others merely to do as they are told. In this way the church largely conforms to the leadership structures of the world. Indeed, leadership is normally an empty euphemism when applied to our standard communal efforts, whether in a church or outside it.

To manipulate, drive or manage people is not the same thing as to lead them. The sheepdog forcibly maneuvers the sheep, whereas the biblical shepherd simply calls as he calmly walks ahead of the sheep. This distinction between sheepdog and the shepherd is profoundly significant for how leaders of Christ’s people think of their work. We must ask ourselves frequently which role we are fulfilling and constantly return ourselves, if necessary, to the practice of the shepherd.

– Dallas Willard, Hearing God, 107

This passage from Willard has long been one of my favorites because he captures the essential nature of the pastoral task, which is to lead others in the “manner and spirit” demonstrated by Jesus, described here as the practice of the shepherd.

Too often, pastors think they are responsible for enforcing behavioral conformity, minimizing conflict by correctly navigating congregational power dynamics, or for successfully executing a strategic plan or vision. And while faithful shepherding may involve correcting and rebuking those who err, protecting the flock from danger, creating an environment where all brothers and sisters in the fellowship relate peaceably with one another, and discerning God’s leading for the congregation and leading all to walk according to God’s prescribed path, the manner and spirit in which these things are done, when they are done in the way of Jesus, differs markedly from the ways of leadership we commonly find in the world.

Jesus claimed he was the Good Shepherd (John 10:11). In doing so, Christ pulled together threads found across the Old Testament that speak of God as the true and loving shepherd of a people God has claimed as his own. Christ remains our Good Shepherd. Those who serve him, both men and women, are called to lead in a way that reflects his person and character. Willard writes, “When we lead as shepherds, our confidence is in only one thing: the word of the Great Shepherd, coming through us or, otherwise, to his sheep.”

How is this possible? We are reminded that Jesus knows his sheep, and they know him, and they know and listen to his voice (John 10:1-16). This is the way we should want it. Willard says, “We do not want them to follow another, even if we ourselves are that ‘other.'” We trust that God has called the congregation together, that the Spirit has been given to them, that we have limited responsibilities as servants and shepherds, and that Christ is the head of the church.

This understanding of the pastoral task, of course, is congregational. That is another reason I think it is so helpful, and so needed. It is a way of leading not only for pastors, but for the body, who respond together to the leading of Christ. Willard states, “Following the practice of the shepherd, we would never stoop to drive, manipulate or manage, relying only on the powers inherent in unassisted human nature (see 1 Peter 4:11). Not only that but the undershepherds (pastors of God) count on their flock to minister the word of God…to them. Ministry of the word is never a one-way street when it is functioning rightly in any group.”

Leading in this manner requires a quiet confidence in the power of God, a steady commitment to teaching the congregation the Scriptures, and demonstration of holiness in heart and life.

This also requires the rejection of all other ways of leadership and a form of servitude that can only be learned by putting aside oneself and putting on Jesus Christ. Paradoxically, that is both the hardest part, and, in the end, the easiest way, for while trusting in Jesus requires the abandonment of all that we are and all that we have, it brings to us the return of eternal and abundant life.