Never forget that in this situation the disciples were trying to do a very good thing. They were trying to heal a young boy of epilepsy. They had watched Jesus perform similar healings many times. They knew exactly what words he had said, knew exactly what actions he had taken. They mimicked these words and actions as best they could, but despite their best efforts, they could not heal the child. Jesus comes down from the mountain to witness something of a riot, takes charge of the moment and heals the young boy. As soon as they are together privately, the disciples ask the natural question, “Why couldn’t we heal the child?” Now Jesus, who has spent several days on the mountaintop, communing with his heavenly Father, and who has experienced the Transfiguration, conversing with Moses and Elijah, who has been full of the Spirit of his Father, says to them candidly, “This kind of healing can only be accomplished through prayer.” Jesus instructs his disciples, ‘You were trying to do a good thing, but you were trying to manifest the power of God before you had disciplined yourselves to receive the power of God. You had not previously practiced the power of passivity before the Divine.’
When I come to this passage I think of a conversation that happened early in my ministry, an exchange with an older attorney who asked me, “Dr. Kremer, why should I pray? Should I ask God to help me win my cases? Should I request that God tip the scales of justice in my client’s favor? That attempt to manipulate God doesn’t seem very spiritual. So why should I pray? Or how should I pray?” I confess, I thought at one level this man was playing the role of the Devil’s advocate. But I also knew this man well enough to know that he was highly intelligent and always very well intentioned. He had a profound faith. But he also had an irascible temper, was very high-strung and excitable, and he often undermined the good that he was trying to accomplish because his personality was so unbalanced. I was thinking to myself, ‘Oh, sir, your faith could be so improved, so nourished, if you exercised the humility to be passive before God. If you would take time to incorporate into your schedule the opportunity to quieten your spirit and receive the counsel of God, your spiritual life would be so much more fruitful. Your good intentions would be realized far more often if you connected to the guidance of Christ’s Spirit.’ But since he was an older man and I a young one, I only mildly observed that our Lord, who was more attuned to God’s will than any human who ever walked the earth, patterned for us the discipline of prayer. Christ found the exercise of passive receptivity before God to be a nourishing discipline, and if our Lord found strength and encouragement through the discipline of prayer, we might profit from following His example.
I recognize there is some danger preaching about the power of passivity. You may be thinking, ‘Great, I am being encouraged to do nothing.’ But passivity before the Divine is not ‘doing nothing.’ Prayer’s passivity involves active receptivity produced by productive patience that results in fruitful service on God’s behalf. Prayer’s passivity involves intentionally opening our spirit to God’s Presence so as to appropriate God’s energy and power, which will evince itself in our creating acts of positive spiritual fruit.
If I had asked my attorney friend, ‘Do you think thinking about God’s will helps advance the Kingdom of God?’ he would have said, ‘Sure.’ If I had asked, ‘Do you think doing God’s will helps advance the Kingdom of God?’ he would have said, ‘Of course.’ But how can we think about the will of God and implement the will of God without first pausing to receive the will of God? Often as Christians we endeavor to speak God’s will without first allowing the original Speaker to articulate it!
Some people, like my friend, fear that their prayers are attempts to manipulate God. But I remind you, God has a lot of experience with prayer. God knows when our prayers contradict the divine will. God knows when our prayers would prove injurious to our health and well-being. God has no problem saying No to our prayers when God deems our requests misguided. But our personalities can be enhanced, our tolerance broadened, our spiritual understanding expanded, our graciousness improved, when we engage in the humility of being passive before the Divine and allowing the Spirit to nurture us. The disciples wanted to do something really good! But they hadn’t engaged in the passivity necessary to prepare themselves for their task, which is why Jesus reminded them that what they were trying to accomplish could only be effectively done through prayer.
Some people think of prayer as a mere act of spiritual positive thinking, an act of auto-suggestion. There is some truth to that view. If we begin our day asking God to commune with us and be active in our lives, then we are going to be more attentive to the possibility that God can use us each day. If we engage in the act of being passive before God, then we live with the expectation that an influx of God’s energy will empower us and can anticipate doing positive actions for God’s Kingdom. But the spiritual exercise of prayer only has merit when it connects us to a real Power and a real Presence. When Isaiah says, “Those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint,” he is speaking about connecting to a real Presence and experiencing a real Power. When our Lord falls to his knees in the Garden of Gethsemane and prays, “Lord, let this cup pass from me, nevertheless, not my will, but Thine be done,” he is connecting to a real Presence who conveys to him a real Power that enables him to carry a real cross. When Ralph Waldo Emerson describes prayer as a “river that flows out of a region I do not see, pouring for a season its stream into me,” he references a real living Water of God flowing into the dry channel of our lives, nurturing and encouraging our souls. Our Lord bids us, Ask! Seek! Knock! He is beckoning us to turn our soul into a bay into which the tide of God’s presence flows into our being through the discipline of prayer.
Gentlemen, let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you’ve decided to treat your honey to a holiday treat. Let’s say you’ve opted for a “highbrow” evening of taking her to hear the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra play Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. You pay the outrageous ticket prices. You clean (or rent) your tux. You clear your schedule and move heaven and earth to pick her up on time, fight the horrendous Atlanta traffic and make it to the concert hall on time. Finally, you are there. You have hustled, hustled, hustled to make this experience happen. But here’s the thing: once you are there you cannot hustle your way into appreciating the experience. You cannot hustle your way to enjoy the music. To enjoy the music you must exercise passivity and receptivity. You must relax and relent and open your being to allow the power of the music to flow into you. You have to passively let the symphony flow into your soul. So, too, you cannot hustle your way into understanding God’s will. There are times when we have to relax and relent and exercise the passivity necessary to allow the Spirit of God to flow into you.
Now you might say, ’Dr. Kremer, why talk about this? Anyone can make themselves passive and receptive to God’s Spirit.’ Yes! Anyone can! But it is not easy. Effective passivity before God requires practice. I challenge you this week, on at least a couple occasions, to set aside fifteen minutes a day to engage in the discipline of quietening your spirit before God to pray and meditate. Try to spend a mere fifteen minutes being passive before the Presence of God. You may find the act of passivity to be a little more challenging than you think. You may find your efforts mirroring the testimony of an old Archbishop of Canterbury who was asked by a reporter if he had talked to God that day. “Yes,” the Archbishop replied. “For how long?” “About two minutes.” “That’s not very long,” said the journalist. “No,” said the Archbishop, “but it took me twenty-eight minutes to make the connection.” Making connection to the Divine is not as automatic as we might think. Try it this week and see if you find it so easy!
You might protest, “I don’t have fifteen minutes a day to devote to quiet time before God.” My answer is, “You don’t have time not to do it.” If a plane flies into the Atlanta airport after a long trans-Atlantic flight, we expect that plane to be taken into the hangar and be refurbished, refueled, and retooled. We wouldn’t want to fly in it otherwise. However, how often we go, go, go, go, yet seldom pause to exercise the passivity necessary to be retooled, refreshed and refueled. So our souls become dry, our faith becomes superficial and our witness ineffective, because we, like the disciples, try to do the right thing without exercising the passivity necessary to make our good intentions come true.
My mind turns to a Christmas Eve from several years ago. Our family had enjoyed our “Candles, Carols and Communion” service at our Charlotte church, then we made our usual late-night, four hundred mile drive to Birmingham to be with my folks. Georgia suffered a drought at the time, but as we drove through Atlanta it seemed that God was determined to end the drought in one night. A fierce squall fell upon us, rendering visibility virtually nil, creating one of those memorable white-knuckled drives. Finally, we made our way through the storm and pulled into Birmingham. Despite the late hour, I unpacked the car, unloading all the presents. The night had cleared and turned strangely warm. By the time I had finished unpacking I was too overheated to sleep, so I turned on a ceiling fan and stretched on the floor under it, allowing the breeze to waft over me. I found myself lapsing into an impromptu prayer, thanking God for the divine watchcare to guide us through the storm, thanking God for providing us the energy to survive yet another arduous Advent season, thanking God for all of the rich blessings and positive connections we had enjoyed during the hectic last few weeks. As I prayed, enjoying the wind of the fan, but also the wind of the Spirit within my inner being, I felt nurtured by the “heavenly peace” that I had been singing about just a few hours earlier. I felt that heavenly peace suffusing my being, refreshing me, renewing me, and I emerged from that prayer thinking, ‘This is what prayer is supposed to do: it is meant to restore our soul.’ How often do we truly engage in prayer in such a way that we allow God to restore our soul?
Jesus taught by means of parables, and I confess that I have often learned through real-life parables, so I share with you the parable of the pot roast. When I was a kid, every Sunday morning I watched my mother prepare a big pot roast. I watched her take that pot roast, rub it with spices, and place it in a big black kettle with beef bouillon, onions, carrots, potatoes, and celery. Every Sunday I watched my mom put that kettle on the stove, turn the temperature on high, then we would head to church. When we returned, the aroma of that pot roast could be smelled from the driveway. One weekend, when I was an older teen, my parents were leaving for an extended trip, and I declared, “I am going to cook pot roast anyway.” My mom asked, “Do you want instructions?” and I replied, “Mom, I’ve seen you cook that pot roast every Sunday all my life. I don’t have time to hear instructions. I’m late to go play ball.” That next Sunday morning I got out the pot roast, rubbed on the spices, poured in the bouillon, cut up the carrots, onions, potatoes, and celery, turned the stove on high, put the kettle atop it and took off for church. When I returned, there was indeed an aroma wafting out into the driveway — a stench that could be smelled up the block. I reached the kettle to find that my beautiful pot roast was now a big smoldering piece of charcoal. My mom returned home a week later, stepped into the kitchen, sniffed once and said, “You burned the pot roast, didn’t you?” She explained that she only turned the stove on high for a few minutes, then turned the temperature low to let the meat simmer while we were away. It was a vital detail that she had been all too willing to share with me. But I had not exercised the passivity to receive it.
The disciples learned from their mistake. In Mark, we find them trying to do God’s will before they had received the power to accomplish God’s will. But in Acts 1, before our Lord ascended into heaven, he instructed the disciples, “Don’t depart from Jerusalem, but wait for the promise of the Father. Wait to receive the Holy Spirit.” Though they were full of good intentions, were spoiling to go out and do great things for God, they listened. They waited. They waited until the Spirit fell upon them at Pentecost – then, having received God’s power, they went out to do God’s work and transform the world. They had learned the power of passivity. We would do well to learn from their example, and mirror their behavior.