Praying like Daniel?
I recently participated in an encouraging and delightful bible study where we studied the famous story of Daniel in the lion’s den (Daniel 6). In particular, the fact that Daniel prayed three times a day was very intriguing to most of us. To pray three times a day is not a biblical command or a doctrine. But the New Testament tells me: “Be unceasing in prayer.” Thus, a very straightforward application from Daniel’s story could have been: “Go and do like-wise.”
But I have to admit that something in my heart went against it. It was my past experience. I distinctly remember making the decision several times to be like Daniel and to pray three times a day. But I can probably count on one hand the number of times I actually managed to do so. Failure upon embarrassing failure. Couple years ago, I would have preached to myself: “overcome your past experience and obey.” But I cannot anymore.
Andrew Murray, in one of his books on prayer, points out that prayerlessness is a sin just as stealing or lust is a sin. After all, a person who doesn’t pray is practically expressing his unbelief and distrust in a loving and caring God. And as we cannot simply break with sin, especially habitual sins, we cannot easily break with the sin of prayerlessness. It takes God’s power to change.
What I therefore realized is that change is not just about doing the right thing (i.e. praying three times a day). Rather, I first have to become the person who does the right thing: a person who loves to pray, who loves to spend time with his heavenly father and who has the necessary grace-driven discipline to seek God’s face in times when the desire to do so reaches a low. And this makes a huge difference.
Here is why I personally would refrain from applications such as “Be like Daniel and pray three times!” If this is done mechanically and done for the wrong motives, we have become merely religious people, not Christ-centered people. In addition, if we are able to bring up the discipline to obey (which is a crushingly hard thing to do) and consequently become the people who are able to pray three times by our own effort, we have an identity problem: we are back to defining who we are by what we accomplish and are thus no different from how the world defines people.
As Tim Keller pointed out, the gospel narrative tells us that we stop defining ourselves by what we do. Rather our identity stems from what Christ has done for us. Defining ourselves by our accomplishments leads to self-righteousness and pride if we are successful in achieving our aims by our own efforts. Or we’ll end up with inferiority complexes and deep frustrations if we fail. We either beat up others or we beat up ourselves or we go back and forth. (I thank Tim Keller for the words). Conversely, the gospel narrative is the only way that can make us truly humble because every good thing happening in and through us is by God’s grace. And it can make us truly bold because God’s grace elevates us and gives us a status of worth, which truly is beyond this world: to be called God’s children.
The story of Daniel is that he prayed, that he was put into the lion’s den and miraculously saved by an angel of God. He escaped the lions unharmed. But Daniel’s story points to a much greater and even more marvelous story. Years later, there was another man greatly beloved who prayed three times, with tears, sweating and blood. Like Daniel, he was thrown into a lion’s den as Psalm 22 says: “Roaring lions tearing their prey open their mouths wide against me.” But this time, there was no angel to save. On the cross, Jesus was literally overpowered and his bones were crushed. This, in fact, is how Jesus bore my sin of disinterest in God, my vain confidence in myself, and my lack of spirituality and discipline, all expressed in prayerlessness.
I am back to the question of how I can become the person who loves to pray and who is unceasing in prayer. Only when I look at the Lamb of God and when I realize that the person whose prayer life was faultless went into the lion’s den to pay for my failures. He is the Lord who has always loved me now lives in me through his Holy Spirit. This is the starting point for my sanctification process towards a life of unceasing communion with God.
May God help me.