Prayer, Obedience, and the Only Power that Really Matters

power line against a sunset

I recently taught a class with Right On Mission called Cultural Maturity. It proved to be a timely experience given our particular cultural moment as we continue to face challenges regarding COVID-19, wrestle with tensions over history, race, and public policy, and look on at the specific activities happening in cities like Portland. In the course, I argued that what it means for Christians to have cultural maturity involves acting and thinking in ways that demonstrate one’s understanding of the limits and potential contributions of one’s own culture and the culture of others while maintaining the primacy of one’s Christian identity. As this description might suggest, no culture is perfect. Instead, cultures help us and hinder us from seeing God, the world, and ourselves faithfully. They help and hinder.

Once we grasp the idea that cultures help and hinder, we are in a better position to recognize the need for discernment, and we have a new theological criteria for thinking about the various cultures in which we exist. We can become more aware of the ways in which our “assumptions, habits, cultural practices, policies, or institutions … threaten to conform us (whether individually or collectively) to the image of something other than Christ” (Spencer, Thinking Christian) Whatever else may be at stake, the deepest threat Christians face is losing sight of God and depending on our own strength or savvy to address the challenges we face. We lose sight of the God who gives us power and begin to depend on the power itself (cf. Deut 8:17-18).

In the midst of power struggles and conversations about power relations, we might find it useful to turn to Dwight L. Moody. Mr. Moody was keenly aware of the need for power in the church, but not political power or individual influence. Moody understood the need for Christians empowered by the Holy Spirit. Such empowerment came through prayer and a willingness to obey. It was the only power that mattered.

In one of his letters to Henry F. Cutler, who was the principal of the Mount Herman School for Boys founded by D.L. Moody, Mr. Moody writes,

“…will you ask them [the students] to pray for me. This state [Texas] is a grand field to work in and I want power from on High to preach as never before. Also will you ask them to pray for Mexico. I am to go there in April and I want the Lord of the Harvest to get the ground ready of the seed of the Kingdom.”

Whatever rhetorical skill Moody had developed in his many evangelistic campaigns, he understood the need to enlist God and His Spirit as he preached the gospel.

Prayer was only part of what Moody saw as necessary to experience the power of the Spirit. “Sowing to the Spirit” also requires a willingness to set aside ourselves. He notes,

“‘Sowing to the Spirit’ implies self-denial, resistance of evil, obedience to the Spirit, walking in the Spirit, living in the Spirit, guidance by the Spirit.”

Surely prayer is involved and necessary, yet our prayers cannot be empty ritual. They must be made intelligible by a life in which we are led by God’s Spirit.

Apart from prayer and obedience, Moody offers us one additional insight concerning power. Commenting on the state of the church in his day, Mr. Moody notes,

“A great many think that we need new measures, new churches, new organs, new choirs, and all these new things. That is not what the Church of God needs today. It is the old power that the apostles had. If we have that in our churches, there will be new life.”

He goes on to conclude,

“… I firmly believe that is what we want today all over America—new ministers in the pulpit and new people in the pews. We want people quickened by the Spirit of God.”

Moody points us to the only power that matters. It is the power that comes as we commit to following God without reserve or regret calling upon and trusting Him as we seek to participate in the work of the Kingdom.

JAMES SPENCER, PHD is President the D.L. Moody Center, an independent non-profit organization based in Northfield, MA, and author of Useful to God: Eight Lessons from the Life of D. L. Moody and Thinking Christian: Essays on Testimony, Accountability, and the Christian Mind

Photo credit: MD Molla