Interview With Bryan Chapell and Christian Book Previewsí managing editor, Stacy Oliver:
CBP: Iíd like you to tell our readers something about you, your background, how you became a Christian...
BRYAN: I have the wonderful privilege of being raised in a Christian home, and I cannot remember a time that I didnít know I was a sinner in need of a Savior and Jesus died for me. Those are my earliest thoughts.
My time of really discerning how I would live with that was late in college. I was career picking, mainly on the basis of how much money and how much fame, and I knew that was wrong. So I actually took a Thanksgiving break and went to St. Louis to Covenant Seminary, and the man who was president at the time Ė I had run track with his son Ė so I just stopped in at Thanksgiving and said Ė his name was Dr. Rayburn Ė I said, ďDr. Rayburn, Iím not sure what I should be doing here. I know I shouldnít be chasing a buck and chasing fame, and yet, here I am at the end of college thatís all Iím really thinking about.Ē So he said, ďWhy donít you come to seminary and think about your priorities.Ē So I did. And at the end of my first year I was pastoring a little country church. And it was just everything I was. It involved public speaking, it involved writing, it involved working with people, it involved working with the Lord Ė just everything I loved was wrapped up in it. And I couldnít imagine better.
So I became a pastor for about ten years, and then went back to teach at the seminary. And after teaching for a couple of years and in administration, been president for quite a while now. But it was just a great leading of the Lord along with things that I loved doing. And it took me off the path of self service, but in a way that really satisfied my desires at the same time.
So Iíve been with the seminary for 25 years now. But coming to know the Lord was just a great privilege of being in a Christian home. And I thank my parents for living and talking before me what they believed.
CBP: Well, why a book on prayer? I mean here you are, youíre the president of Covenant Seminary and you could write on any topic and probably a very high theological academic book, and instead you write something really accessible on prayer. Why would you want to do that?
BRYAN: I have a guiding passion in life, and that passion is to have all believers become very Christ focused in everything they do. That they would be thinking and living out of the goodness of God; that they wouldnít be living under a sense of, ďIf I donít do this Godís going to hurt me.Ē , or, ďIíve just got to do this because Iíve got to make it up to God because he sent Jesus.Ē If they really had the sense that God loved me enough to send his Son, and I can respond out of equal Ė I can respond out of love rather than fear or guilt or intimidation. But the thing I most want to do in life is please God because I love Him. So I wrote a book some years ago called Christ Centered Preaching which was on making Christ the heart of every message, and having people motivated by love for Christ rather than in fear, intimidation, guilt, those things. But if they could really respond in obedience to God out of love, then the Christian life would be joy and strength rather than oppression and guilt and depression and all of that.
And that book is used in a lot of seminaries. But sometimes it has trouble translating down to a lay-person level. So lots of seminaries use Christ Centered Preaching to train preachers, but I want to say how can those same principles of being motivated by the love of God and recognizing the power of Christ in daily life, how could that touch everybody?
So I first called this book Christ Centered Prayer and the publisher kind of thought well, maybe. Then I said, hereís the premise; hereís what I really want to do. Everybody ends their prayer saying in Jesusí name, amen. Why do they do that? Is it just like Roger Wilco, Over and Out, Iím done Lord. What theyíre really saying is, Iím praying to honor Jesus. Thatís what they should be saying, and they often forget that because they just tack on those words at the end since they were children they were just taught to end their prayer that way. So I said, if you just reversed it and said, ďIn Jesusí name, this is what Iím asking.Ē Not only would it change your prayer, it would change your priorities. And ultimately you would find the goodness of God motivating what youíre doing. Thatís really why I wrote it is I wanted to take to a very layperson, common, everybody in the church love in. What would it be to live out the blessing of your love for Christ daily?
CBP: I think youíve written in such a way that anyone can read it and understand it, identify with it.
BRYAN: Yeah, people are looking for a little book. But at the same time, I think people catch it real fast Ė when you say, ďIn Jesusí nameĒ in the Bible it means youíre doing something for Godís glory. In the Old Testament the armies of God went against the enemies in the name of the Lord, prophets came in the name of the Lord, even David went up against Goliath in the name of the Lord. If you do something in the name of the Lord, it means youíre doing it for His glory. So when we pray in Jesusí name, weíre really saying, ďLord, Iím offering this prayer for Christís sake.Ē
Now, thereís another reason we do it too, and thatís because we recognize Ė I donít want to say, ďLord, forgive meĒ in my name. We really recognize the power of Christ interceding for us. So we also pray in Jesusí name because we want His intercession.
Now, if you pray in Jesusí name Ė and Iím not really concerned that we say those words at the beginning, but with those priorities at the beginning Ė that I would say, I want Jesus to take my prayer to the Father, and I want Him to do it for His own nameís sake; that would really change what you were asking for. Almost all of us pray like kids, ďLord, I want a new pony, a new red bicycle, new job, lower taxes.Ē But most of those are prayers in my name. So if we said ďIn Jesusí name, lower my taxes,Ē that doesnít follow. ďIn Jesusí name, make me a better steward.Ē That would follow.
Children pray, ďGive me.Ē Mature believers say make me Lord; make me what You want me to be. And thatís where you begin to feel the power of praying in Jesusí name. Itís changing your priorities, itís going to change you, and ultimately itís going to change the world in which you live. Partially because itís changing you so your filter becomes different. But in ways which are, to me, in writing this book, I think Iím just beginning to fathom prayer in Jesusí name is actually intended to change our world. Iím not just saying that in a hokey, praying to get what you want sort of way. If the Bible is what it says true about the nature of prayer, then that Romans 8:28 verse that we quote so readily, ďAll things work together for goodĒ, means more than I ever thought. It actually concludes a portion of scripture on prayer, Romans 8:26. ďWe donít know how to pray.Ē So the Holy Spirit intercedes for us with - King James says, ďGroanings too deep to utter.Ē Itís actually the language of childbirth.
CBP: I found it really fascinating how you show the aspects of how all three of the figures of God working together in prayer. Iíve never seen much expanded on the Holy Spiritís assistance in prayer.
BRYAN: That is a fascinating and powerful portion of scripture, because what I think of is at times when Iím praying, even though theyíre very serious things, I can pray for the salvation of my brother, and I pray that at nights, and sometimes I fall asleep in my own prayer. And to think the Holy Spirit is before God as in the pains of childbirth saying Lord, hear his prayer, Lord, hear this petitionĒ but not only is the spirit praying with greater fervency than I can utter, but the Spirit is also, that verse continues, that God, who knows the mind of the Spirit, answers in accordance to His will. So not only is the Spirit praying with greater fervency than I can offer, the Spirit is praying with greater design than I can offer. So hereís whatís happening, the Spirit is taking my prayer and is offering greater fervency and design than I could offer, then Christ is at the right hand of God interceding for me saying, ďLord, listen. With the blood that I have shed, I now petition You to answer.Ē And then the Father listens and responds as He knows is best.
So the whole Trinity is involved with my little, bitty prayer. And the way I explained it in the book, just because my needs are an illustration at times, is this: I remember watching my mom decorate cakes with an icing syringe. You know how you just kind of take the icing and you glop it in one end, and then with your left thumb over you kind of press down on it and the design comes out with the decorator tip at the other end. And I think my prayers - because Iím like the apostle, I donít know how to pray - I know what I think, I know what I wish, but Iím not God, I donít know always whatís right. So my prayers are kind of like the icing that gets glopped into the icing funnel, and then the Spirit with fervency, puts pressure on it, and then the Spirit, with infinite wisdom, is like the decorator tip which begins to design my prayer for Godís purposes. And then God says, ďAs a result all things work together for the whole.Ē Itís incredible. All things. The whole universe is being conformed to Godís purpose for my life as a consequence of my prayer.
CBP: Itís a mystery, isnít it? Even though you put an image to it, it really is amazing and something I canít quite grasp completely. How God is sovereign and his plans will not be thwarted and yet He is affected by prayer somehow.
BRYAN: And you think why did God want my prayers to be the fuel of His purpose? I donít know. He certainly doesnít need it, but He chose. Somehow, I think He knows whatís best for our own heart. When we are humbled before Him, and coming to Him like a Father, the relationship He desires with us is cemented and increased and bonded even more. So He doesnít need our prayers, but He chooses to work through our prayers to do what He wants.
CBP: One big thing that I wonder about Ė you talked about how we typically pray as children Ė and I call it a wish list. We just give our wish list to God, and especially intercessory prayer. Iím in Bible study groups where we give each other our prayer requests, and so itís always help and take care of this person, and travel mercies, and so and so is looking for a job. And, of course, my heart goes out to these people, but I feel like all I do in prayer is say, ďOkay, please heal so and so.Ē But Iím, in a sense, reading my list. So how do you advise people to pray intercessory for other people, especially when theyíve said, ďPray that John will find a job,Ē or whatever, those things that you would consider childlike prayers?
BRYAN: I think God intends for us to take matters large and small to Him so I do encourage Ė because I think the Bible commands intercessory prayer. In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving make your requests known to God. What does everything mean? Well, it means everything; matters big and matters small.
I mentioned to you I was saved early in life by the Lordís great mercy, and I can remember in high school one time working on a church renovation project and a man that I was working with dropped a nail, and he stopped work and began to look for it, and I got a little frustrated and I said, ďWhy donít you just get another nail?Ē And he said, ďOh, no Bryan. I prayed that God would help me find the nail so I need to look for it.Ē And I said, ďWell, I think God has other purposes for our prayers; thatís a little bit small.Ē He said, ďOh, no Bryan. God says in everything weíre to pray to Him.Ē And that really hung with me. That was right. God even wants us to pray about a nail; about things big, yes, but little things too.
Itís that notion of what did Paul mean when he said to pray without ceasing? I donít think he means fold your hands and close your eyes every moment, but I do think he means thereís this constant interceding, this constant Ė what I call arrow prayers to God that say, ďLord take care of thatĒ, ďLord help me remember thatĒ, Lord thank you for letting me have thisĒ, ďThank you for letting me see thatĒ; this constant conversation with God. So when we are interceding, I donít think we are sidling up to God and saying, ďGod, Iím this finite human creature, but I know how you ought to run the universe. So you do all these things because I said.Ē I think we are praying like the apostle, I donít know how to pray, but Iím asking this because you tell me to. But Iím also praying as Jesus did, ďLord this is my will, yet not my will be done but your will be done.Ē
Now, people get concerned about that because youíre making all these escape hatches. Youíre asking God to do this but you kind of fudge a little bit by saying yet not my will but your will. And I do know that there can be kind of this escape hatch kind of prayer; not really mean it, not really have faith. But Jesus prayed that way. Itís not wrong for me to pray that way.
So when I intercede for other people, help Aunt Julieís leg get well, thatís not wrong. What I think Iím to be doing is always humbling before God saying how the Lord Ė this is my humanity talking, this is the way I understand the world Ė so I ask for it, but still by your Spirit you make my prayer what it ought to be. I think 95, 98, 99% of the time, God does exactly what we ask Ė that may sound strange Ė but if you were talking to God all the time every day, and you were saying, ďLord, help me get to the meeting on time. Lord, help my daughter do well on this test.Ē Now, sometimes it doesnít go right, but most of the time it does. We remember the times that thereís a struggle. Sometimes thatís because weíre only praying about the hardest things.
Most of the time my corpuscles overcome the infections, my colds donít become pneumonia, most of the time I do get well, and if I were to pray and actually see how often God does answer, then I think Iíd be more ready to offer those intercessory prayers. I simply am not directing God by them, I am petitioning God in them. Iím asking, ďLord, hear this prayer, these are the desires of my heart; yet, not my will, but your will be done.Ē
CBP: When Paul talks about how he prayed that God remove the thorn for him and we donít know what it was, probably something else. So he did take his health to God, but then it says he prayed three times and then it seems almost like he let it go. Right?
BRYAN: And there because God says he answered him. Paul says -- Thatís II Corinthians 12, my grace is sufficient, my strength made perfect in weakness. I donít in any way want to say that God might not talk to us that way; but I donít think itís the way he normally does business at this time. I think that the way God normally does business is He says watch what happens. I recognize that we may wonder, do I keep praying, do I keep praying? Christ tells us to.
CBP: Right. There is that parable that has just confounded me...
BRYAN: The parable youíre talking about is the widow and the unjust judge. She keeps going and pleading with him Ė
CBP: She harps on him until he says, ďFine, have whatever you want.Ē And thatís how you should talk to God in prayer! What? Iím paraphrasing but Ė
BRYAN: Thatís a good paraphrase. I mean itís really a ďgreater thanĒ argument that Jesus is making, so even if the unjust judge would hear somebody who keeps persisting in prayer, would not God who loves you listen to you if you persist in prayer? And the answer is well, yes He would. But remember where that parable ends Ė itís remarkable Ė because it ends saying, ďwill not God also provide the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?Ē And you say, ďThatís great, Lord, but thatís not exactly what I wanted. I really wanted a new bicycle or the renewed health or something.Ē Why does he say the Holy Spirit there? Well, weíre back to where we were before, because the Holy Spirit is going to bring whatís best. He doesnít say, ďIf you keep petitioning your Father that Heíll give you exactly what you want. Heíll say He will provide the Holy SpiritĒ which for the heart in which the Spirit dwells what we want is what most glorifies the Savior through the Spirit.
CBP: Well, like you say, you keep praying for your brother every day, and I do for mine. And I believe that His will is that none should perish. So I understand that Iím praying in His will, and Iím persistent and yet there isnít a change. So then you say, well, Heís going to do what Heís going to do and it doesnít really matter what I pray in that respect.
BRYAN: If you look at a biblical notion of prayer, you could easily become very fatalistic and just say, ďGodís going to do what Godís going do.Ē As you just did.
What I think God is pushing us to is not fatalism, but the faith that our prayers really are that fuel of His own divine purposes. So that Heís saying, ďWill you believe me that your prayers are actually a means by which I am changing the world for good for you.Ē God is not going to impose your will on somebody else, or me on my brother. So when I am praying, ďLord, bring his heart to you.Ē Iím to recognize that all time and space is like a map spread out before God and He knows what is best, necessary, and when it should occur, and I donít. I donít know the events that have to coordinate in my brotherís life so that his will is broken, changed, brought about by Godís purposes to be what God intends. I donít know how God will do that, when God will do that. I donít know those answers, but God says, ďPray to me, trusting that I am a good shepherd. I am the good shepherd.Ē Itís an amazing, wonderful thought.
Why would I put my diseased body into Godís hands? Because Heís the good shepherd; because Heíll carry His lamb where he needs to go. And on those issues of health, to say, so often as Christians weíre only putting God in the box of this world saying, ďLord, heal him right now in this world.Ē And we forget that the next world is as real to God as this world. And Heís got alternatives, He can heal someone in this world in which theyíre still going to get sick and die prior to His coming. Or He can say, ďIíll just take them to Myself and Iíll perfectly heal them forever.Ē Now, in our humanity we say one is not as good as the other, or one is not as miraculous as the other. You see, weíre not looking on Godís level. In Godís economy, in Godís space and Godís time, both worlds are equally real, and to pray for someone to be healed here is not more miraculous than Godís healing them perfectly forever with Himself.
CBP: You do a really good job of illustrating that in the book, when you bring up a family who had prayed over a sick loved one and that person died. They essentially turned away from their faith because God didnít hear their prayer or answer it the way they expected. I think thatís very powerful, and itís a big problem for a lot of people.
BRYAN: If they would not put God in the box of this world. Just with a childlike faith if they would say, ďIím simply going to believe what God says. He says thereís this world and He says thereís that world, and He says theyíre both equally real, and that one is better.Ē
CBP: Itís hard to comfort someone whoís lost an unsaved relative or someone they care for.
BRYAN: And there we have to say we donít ultimately know the heart of any other person. But, Stacy, I donít want to dodge your hard question, I mean, why doesnít God respond to our prayer to save everyone that we think He should? Somewhere we have to say salvation is in Godís hands, and He Ė this is more theological than you may intend -- there is a sense in which, I think, God ultimately gives everyone the desires of their heart. Though it may be very strange, but even those who are in hell have the desires of their heart. They do not want God. And hell is not only just the notion of things apart, ultimately hell is alienation from God, separation from Him. And the Scriptures tell us there are those who love darkness rather than life. Itís amazing if you think of the infinite love of God that He actually lets people have what they want even eternally. It is not right to think that those in hell actually long to be with God. They actually donít. They love darkness rather than light, and God in a certain dimension of intimate love lets people have what they want. And his heart toward us has given us a heart that longs for Him. And you say, ďWhy doesnít He give that to everyone?Ē Well, now youíre beyond the council that I know.
CBP: Nobody can really say for certain.
BRYAN: I donít think so. Paul in Romans 9 does not answer that question. He says, hereís the situation Ė but he doesnít attempt to answer the question. So I pray that the Lord will save my brother, and I pray regularly for my brother, and yet at the same time I have to say, ďGod is not going to impose my will on my brother. Ultimately the Lord and my brother will have to deal with each other.Ē But I will keep praying believing that it is Godís intention to save my brother and to break his will, but He will use my prayers as part of that process.
CBP: You talked about how prayer is also worship. How do those work together?
BRYAN: Itís one of my favorite things to talk about because I hadnít really thought about it much until this book. And the more I wrote about the more I thought thatís rather amazing. Itís almost clichť in church circles to talk about the notion that when we worship, weíre not just singing and praising to one another, but God is really the audience. Biblically, Godís not just the audience, Heís actually the speaker. Isnít that an amazing thought? When we preach Ė when the preacher speaks the word of God, he is actually still proclaiming that word that is from God. So the preacher is proclaiming the word of God and God is not just then the listener, Heís actually the speaker working through the preacher to do His work through His word in the hearts of His people.
So God is the speaker as well as the listener.
What happens when we sing songs? Well, we are told, remember in Ephesians, that we are to sing and make melody in our heart that weíre to be filled with the Spirit. How are we to be filled with the Spirit? We sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to one another; not just to God, to one another. But thatís being filled with the Spirit. So the Spirit is in my praise, the Spirit is singing out, as it were, to other people. So itís my voice, I know it as my song, but itís still the Spirit ministering through me in praise to other people. So just as preaching is not only God listening as well as people listening, itís also God speaking, so in our hymns is God listening but Heís also speaking.
Now, what about in prayer? Well, weíve already said the Holy Spirit is groaning; itís the Son whoís interceding, so Iím speaking but Iím really a vessel of that work of the Spirit. So if God who is actually Ė now this is where it get weird Ė but it is God who is praying through me as an instrument so that He will actually hear what I am praying that He has initiated in my heart. So He is still doing that work of creation; He is still speaking His work into the creatures Ė that is me Ė to bring about a new creation which is the world being worked for good to them that love Him are being called according to His purpose. So even now through our prayers, we are co-creators of the new universe. Thatís an amazing thought.
Did your brain just explode?
BRYAN: Whatís happening is, God is using my prayer by His Ė not because of my humanity, my finiteness, and my righteousness Ė but because He has chosen by His Spirit to work through me and my prayers to bring about the changes in the world that He impacts. So that I, for no reason that is my own goodness, for no reason that is my own righteousness, I become that instrument of His changing the world for the glory that He intends for His own Son. So that He is moving the world forward by His power yes, but His power poured through me for His divine glory and ultimate purpose. So that prayer becomes the worship of God that is ultimately the expression of His glory for all good things.
There are times from the Apostle Paul when he could raise somebody from the dead. Cloven claws that touched his body would heal other people. And yet, there were other times when he would say, ďI left Trophemus sick at my ÖĒ Or, you already said, ďI prayed three times that the thorn in my flesh would be removed and God said, ďNo.ĒĒ What made one time different than another? God knew what was appropriate for Godís purposes and Godís glory, and even the apostle didnít know all the time. So God could do amazing things through him; humanly speaking, on this earth at times. And other times God said, ďNo. My eternal purposes require that that not be done at this point.Ē And still it was God working an eternal purpose.
CBP: Well, it seems when I look at the prayers of Paul Ė itís not recorded prayers as much as it is him reporting on his prayers Ė it seems like heís prayed praise for the character of people, of the churches that he writes to rather than a specific need.
BRYAN: I think thatís right. There would be times that he prayed for specific needs, but more often he is praying that peopleís hearts would be reconciled to God in the way that they should, and that God would bring about whatever was necessary for that.
You only remind me, itís not directly your question, but itís kind of something I want to say through this book and itís this: People sometimes evaluate the goodness of God or the effectiveness of their prayer by their circumstances. So theyíll say, ďHow could God be good if this is happening in my life or to a loved one?Ē And theyíre evaluating who God is by their circumstances. What I see Paul doing and the scriptures doing is theyíre always saying, ďDonít evaluate God by your circumstances.Ē Paul says, ďIíve been shipwrecked, Iíve been flogged, Iíve been starving.Ē And you donít say, ďWell, Paul, if you just had a little more faith ÖĒ
Paul says in all those things that he has faith. That his faith is in God, and what he keeps doing to people is he is saying, ďDonít look at your circumstances; look at Godís character.Ē If youíre wanting to trust God, take your eyes off your circumstances and put your eyes on the cross, because if you look at your circumstances you canít make sense of God. The world is too complex, itís too fallen, itís too messed up until Christ returns. But heíll say this, ďI will trust God because He sent His Son. And I donít have to doubt that He is going to work out as good because I know His character. So if I look at my circumstances theyíre pretty rough at times, but Iíll look at Godís character and Iíll always trust Him, because I know that a God who would send His Son to die for me will work out as good.
CBP: Thank you for that. I was going to ask you are you working on a new thing or is it going to be another ten years for the next installment?
BRYAN: After Christ Centered Preaching, Christ Centered Prayer?
BRYAN: Itís not the next thing Iím doing. The next thing Iím doing which fed into this is Iím doing a commentary on Ephesians. A lot of what Ephesians talks about is this notion of God is using the church to fill up the whole world with His glory. Thatís an amazing thought that the church is the fullness of Him who fills up everything in every way. So that the church is the instrument of Godís changing the world; itís not politics, itís not economics, itís not military, itís ultimately the church and the people in it in prayer and with one another corporately is the way that God is changing the world eternally. So Iím doing a lot more exploring of how is God transforming creation through His people individually and corporately? And in Ephesians Iíll do a whole lot more looking at the corporate aspect of that. So thatís to come.
CBP: We'll be looking for it. Thank you, Bryan!