WHAT JAMES BOND AND JEAN-LUC PICARD TELL US ABOUT INTERCESSORY PRAYER
There are heavy footprints and light footprints of prayer. To overcome opposition, we need to know which to make.
Scripture tells us that we should pray and that God has called us to it; this makes sense to us because the instinct to pray is deeply rooted in the human heart, even among those who deny it. We don’t really know how it works though, and if we try to get too clever about it we may come unstuck. In praying for the needs of the world, we are immersing ourselves in a spiritual realm we know less about than we realise but which scripture says is a place of intense battle between God and all manifestations of evil. It was Donald Rumsfeld who clumsily said ‘there are things we know we don’t know’ and this is true of prayer. He ended by saying ‘there are things we don’t know we don’t know’ and this is also true and calls for humility when we talk about prayer.
It’s rather like a game of Battleships, which you must have played at some point in your life. In this game we have to locate the co-ordinates of hidden ships in order to bomb them. We use our intelligence to guess where our opponent might have hidden their battleships on the board and, when we make a hit, have to work out which other co-ordinates to hit in order to sink the ship. I’ve probably explained that really badly but I’m presuming on readers knowing the game. When we pray, we are led by faith to pray into a spiritual battle. We can’t see the other side of the board, but there are forces there that mean us harm yet which are vulnerable to attack from us. We can pretend they don’t exist easily enough because we can’t see them and plenty sustain that pretence, but we have at our disposal the power of prayer; the means to tackle the intractable evils of our world which oppose Christ and deny our humanity.
In the game of Battleships, we use our minds to make sporadic guesses over the location of the fight; once we latch on to the co-ordinates of a ship, however, we must focus our attention on it until the ship is destroyed. Intercessory prayer should never be half-hearted or assume a battle is won just because there are signs of progress, for these fights are intense and enduring. The political philosopher Edmund Burke once said: ‘all it takes for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing’. I am sure he is right. I am also sure we can alter this: ‘all it takes for evil to flourish is for good people to do no praying’.
In Matthew 12: 22-29, Jesus delivers a demon-possessed man and restores to him the gifts of sight and speech. All conditions which oppress people are an invitation to pray and Jesus demonstrated the truth of his words by the power of his actions. The only way the Pharisees can exempt themselves from accepting Jesus is to speculate that the devil is empowering him, as if Jesus really had made a Faustian pact in the wilderness while he fasted. Jesus’ logical response - that if the devil is casting out demons then he has his strategic aims in a bit of a mess - is significant for us. ‘Every household divided against itself will not stand’ he says. Unity is a key component of effective prayer yet we tolerate discord between one another as an inevitable part of life. While we can muddle through life without harmony, once we sit down to pray together such divisions may prove damaging. There may be many reasons why some prayers do not seem to be answered but sometimes we have to take an honest look at the quality of our relationships. Any footballer preferring to score goals in his own net would become a YouTube figure of fun, but this is what happens when a house of prayer is divided within itself, and it is no laughing matter.
Jesus poses the question ‘how can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can plunder his house’. We should not underestimate the power of the adversary we are dealing with. A gym-toned, steroid-enhanced hulk is not easily overcome; it is suggestive of Samson, whom the Philistines could not shackle despite their plans. To overcome such strength is not subtle and simple; it is a messy and brutal process. It reminds me of the opening minutes of Daniel Craig’s embodiment of James Bond. In previous films, James Bond would usually dispose of his enemies effortlessly and with a clever one-liner. Daniel Craig’s first licensed killing was difficult, prolonged and bloody, declaring straight away a new kind of realism in the script. My analogy isn’t meant to be flippant, for we too readily intercede for victory over evil like Roger Moore, with suave put-downs and not a hair out of place when the spiritual fight is actually as energy-sapping and enduring as a Daniel Craig kill.
The analogy Jesus used of the strong man posits a heavy footprint of prayer, but there may be other avenues to pursue where the footsteps are lighter. A strong man today trying to protect his stuff would not stay up all night armed with a shotgun on a rocking chair, he would simply prime the burglar alarm and go to sleep. This gives the thief a better chance of success ultimately as all he needs to do is to disarm the system and creep in.
Sometimes intercession does not require a monumental tussle, but the deployment of spiritual gifts to unlock a situation with prophetic knowledge or a word of insight. In the science fiction film Star Trek: First Contact, the relentless Borg attacks star ships trying to protect the earth; nothing seems to stop their advance. Arriving on the scene, Jean-Luc Picard, captain of the Enterprise, instructs all ships to co-ordinate their assault on one strategically insignificant part of the Borg ship. To everyone bar Picard, this makes no sense. He, however, has experience of the Borg mind and senses this is the way to defeat them. Spiritual intuition is a wonderful gift which every Christian community should seek. While some intercession is a painful struggle with an implacable problem, it may reward us to step back and assess the scene when early answers are not forthcoming. Sometimes it is an incidental detail in the picture which gives us the clue we need to overcome.
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