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A Prayer and Fasting Devotional

In his Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life (Eerdmans, 2007), Paul F. M. Zahl writes, “The more dire the circumstance or checkmate is, the more heartfelt and spontaneous the prayer for help is.”  I love the image of a checkmate because it describes well the human condition: defeated and helpless apart from God’s grace.  Due to the invasion of evil we find in ourselves and our world, we are utterly impotent to change, improve, or save ourselves. We are surrounded by reckless rooks and cruel queens that render our personal kingships hopelessly conquered.  

Checkmate.

While this may sound pessimistic, it’s the only thing that makes sense of “heartfelt and spontaneous” prayer, isn’t it?  To the degree we are optimistic about our ability to save ourselves and change the world, our fervency in prayer will disappear.  But to the degree that we see ourselves accurately, as helpless, we will pray to God for help.  And perhaps this is why energetic and sincere prayer is so rarely found today: we don’t know that we’re in checkmate.

The Apostle Paul understood checkmate prayer.  He writes this to the Corinthians:

“For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again. You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.” - 2 Corinthians 1:8-11

Notice how Paul sets up his ‘prayer request.’  On the one hand, he describes himself and his friends as ‘as good as dead.’ On the other hand, he describes God as the One “who raises the dead.”  Paul was completely pessimistic with respect to his circumstances and his own strength, but that was, he writes, “to make us rely not on ourselves, but on the God who raises the dead.”  Paul Zahl also writes this: “You pray deeply when you pray with a death-resurrection model of life.”  This is the perspective Paul wants the Corinthians to have: completely helpless on their own, yet hopeful in God.  As good as dead, if not for the grace of the God who raises the dead.  Most of us possess a right theology (what God can do) but fall short of a right anthropology (what we can do).  No matter how much we know about God, without an appropriate ‘checkmate’ anthropology, we will never truly rely on God and, as a result, we will never truly pray to God.

Prayer is the only response to checkmate.  After emphasizing that only God can deliver those who feel the sentence of death, Paul writes this: “You also must help us by prayer.”  Since the helpless can only be helped by God, they can only be helped by prayer.  Since the ones who face death can only receive life from God, they can only live by prayer.  Checkmate… your turn.

Jim Thomforde
Ministry Director at Cornell
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