By Terry Teykl
“Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them” (John 7:37).
For many years, I have taught about the parallels between rivers and aspects of prayer. For example, rivers bond us geographically and historically to other people, giving us a place in the bigger picture of life. Year after year they pour out of the headwaters and flow across vast regions of land eventually pouring into the vastness of the ocean. Rivers are rich in history and are speckled with events that have shaped nations. Likewise, the river of prayer is connected. The life of God has flowed from its headwaters through time and history. All prayer empties into the vastness of God. He is like an ocean compared to the volume of rivers in the world.
Rivers are in many ways exciting and playful, meant to be enjoyed minute by minute. Their past and future are important, but what really matters now is the pleasure they provide us. They offer us an unlimited supply of recreation and refreshment up and down their banks. Similarly, the river of prayer is now. God is able and willing to help us if only we ask. Prayer is effective when “on sight with insight,” reaching out to immediate and felt needs of the moment. We must be ready to pray at any time and place so that God can pour out his love and meet needs on a day-to-day basis.
Rivers are life giving. They infuse everything they touch with energy and vitality. They provide essential nutrients and water for plants and animals in and along their banks. There are over 3,000 species of fish in the Amazon River. Civilization seems to prosper in relation to rivers, which provide many things like transportation for people and their products. Likewise, the river of prayer is life giving. It is the source through which the love and mercy of God has flowed. Deeply relational, prayer touches the hearts of those who are hurting with the salve of God’s grace and unconditional acceptance. Centuries bear witness to this through the acts of intercession when people pray and stand in the gap for those who are lost and plead their cases before the Father until his purposes are fulfilled in their lives. The sheer volume of this river is the rich and never-ending love of God.
Rivers are mysterious – sometimes hidden beneath the earth’s surface, and sometimes flowing on top – they are incomprehensible and esoteric. What lies beneath them is unknown. We never completely understand what makes a river flow fast and slow, wide and then narrow. We can never grasp how a river can cut and form the Grand Canyon with immense size and beauty. As you look at the history of prayer, we realize how mysterious it is. During the monastic years prayer seemed to flow less visible as in the practice of solitude. Yet, it flowed all the same to merge in public expressions of prayer. Prayer is so simple yet opens us to the experience of his presence and exalts him in his majesty.
Rivers are cleansing. Always flowing downstream, rivers are nature’s own waste removal system. They eliminate contaminants from the earth and carry them to the ocean. The rushing waters of a mountain stream can be abrasive, smoothing and refining stones as it continually rubs against their jagged surfaces. Rivers have no discretion; they confront everything in their path, carrying away anything which is not secured. Prayer is also cleansing. The river of prayer is vital in spiritual warfare. Satan is a dangerous foe and prayer in the name of Jesus is our main weapon. Through prayer we have the power and authority to enforce the rule and reign of Jesus on the earth, setting captives free and establishing holiness. It is our mighty weapon of war against the principalities of darkness.
Rivers are unpredictable. Twisting and turning at will, they cut a path across land that is distinct at every point. Rivers are dynamic, never static, changing constantly as the water flows. Even the same spot along a river’s edge is made new moment by moment as the water continually runs through it. Rivers have the potential to be destructive without warning when they spill over their banks and run wild. In the same way, the life and deeds of God are new every morning, and in prayer we must seek God for his direction to stay on course. Prayer has proven time and time again to be a holy rebellion to the status quo. Bold new ideas come into play when we pray.
Rivers are manageable. They have great power that can be harnessed to create energy as in the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River in China. The dam is the largest hydroelectric producer in the world. It produces 22,000 megawatts of electricity, enough to run over 4 million homes. Rivers can be very productive if the right strategy is applied and implemented. They are one of nature’s finest resources. The river of prayer has been manageable over the centuries. Implementing proven methods and organizing resources yields maximum fruitfulness because it promotes longevity in personal and corporate prayer.
Learning from Jesus. The headwaters of Christian prayer begin with Jesus. He set the example and practice for us by the prayer in his own life. He would go off to lonely places and pray. Sometimes he would draw apart to a mountain and spend the night praying alone. He prayed in public and he prayed with his disciples in John 17. He taught the importance of praying, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:7-11).
Tommy Tyson, a famous Methodist evangelist (1922-2002), summed up the Master’s prayer life by observing: (1) Jesus prayed to know God, (2) he prayed to know God’s will, (3) he prayed to receive power to do the will of God, and (4) he prayed to persevere in doing God’s will.
“Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed” (Mark 1:35). I call this form of prayer seeking God’s face, not just his hand. Scripture admonishes us to do this, “My heart says of you, ‘Seek his face!’ Your face, Lord, I will seek” (Psalm 27:8).
Most praying is asking God for something. In seeking his face, we pray with an open heart to know him more intimately. We want to know his ways and not just his acts (Psalm 103:7). We seek his face to know his identity, his beauty, his holiness, his good pleasure, his perspective, and his voice in all matters. We want his favor on our children, home, church, and nation. Plus, the essence of this kind of praying is a process whereby we are being conformed into the image of God. The ultimate purpose of prayer is to become like Jesus (Romans 8:29).
Jesus prayed to receive the power of the Holy Spirit to accomplish the will of God. We read in Luke 3:21-22, “When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’” Note the phrase, as he was praying the Spirit descended on him. Again, on the Mount of Transfiguration it says that “as he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning” (Luke 9:29). In Luke 5:16, “But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed … and the power of the Lord was present for him to heal the sick.” Prayer is a welcome mat to the Holy Spirit. Often, we can know the will of God but without power to accomplish it we come up short.
Sometimes rivers – like the Niagara, which is only 36 miles long – have a great waterfall. So as with this river called prayer, we pray, and the Spirit brings a waterfall of grace over a city or an area. History bears witness to this in Acts 2, and the outpouring of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. Other revivals in history bear witness to this spiritual phenomenon because they happened after prolonged periods of prayer.
We pray to persevere. In this world there is resistance to the kingdom of light. Prayer is our weapon in spiritual conflict. Jesus modeled this for us and taught us to pray and prevail. In the Garden of Gethsemane he travailed in prayer facing the cross. As he prayed angels came and strengthened him (Luke 22:43). Then he told us, “Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man” (Luke 21:36).
In John 17, Jesus prayed for a number of important things: that the Son would glorify the Father, that his disciples would be protected by his Name, that we might have the full measure of joy, that we be protected from the evil one, that we would be sanctified in truth. He prayed for them and those who were to believe in him, that we would be brought to complete unity in order that we may be one, that we would be like him now and forever, that the Father’s love for Jesus might be in us.
The Amazon River is the largest river in the world. It stretches 4,200 miles across a basin the size of five states of Texas. On any given day it has a volume of 20 percent of the world’s fresh water supply. And when it empties into the ocean it dilutes the salt water for 100 miles. The sustenance and volume of the river of prayer over the past 21 centuries has been in the name of Jesus. This is the unique and distinctive factor of the Christian tradition. It is the one common utterance that we have that other religions do not have. It sets our praying apart in so many ways. From St. Augustine to Martin Luther to John Wesley and Bill Bright this has been the common thread their praying.
Jesus said, “And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it” (John 14:13-14) Praying in Jesus’ name is based on his righteousness. We pray according to his track record and not our own.
God’s reputation is at stake by the way his followers pray and live. We are his hands and feet in the world. We are his ambassadors. We represent God to a watching world.
Terry Teykl is a United Methodist clergyperson who has devoted his life and ministry to prayer. He is also the author of numerous books, including Pray the Price, Blueprint for the House of Prayer, and Making Room to Pray. This essay is adapted from his new book Chronicles of Prayer: Praying in Jesus Name for 21 Centuries. Photo: Shutterstock.