The Power and Use of Prayer

A Sermon by Rev. James P. Cooper

Watch therefore, and pray always that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man. (Luke 21:36)

There are literally hundreds of references to prayer in Scripture and in the Heavenly Doctrines. In the Old Testament, the Patriarchs, the Kings, and the Prophets all prayed to the Lord for inspiration, for help in time of trouble, and for the destruction of their enemies. The New Testament records many times when the Lord Himself prayed for help, when He told others to pray, and when He gave specific instructions on when and how to pray. The Heavenly Doctrines of the New Church confirm these teachings and elaborate on the need to pray, teaching that after self-examination and the discovery of some evil within, the next step is to pray to the Lord for forgiveness and help in shunning that evil.

Looking at the evidence in the Word supporting the use and power of prayer, and the number of times the Lord commanded us to pray as an essential part of the process of regeneration, praying should be as natural to us as breathing is — and yet there is not a topic that causes more questions and embarrassment in the New Church as the question of how and when to pray, and for what. Our purpose for today is to see what the Word teaches on the subject so that our personal and private decisions about prayer can be made on the basis of the clear teachings of the Word.

All genuine worship of the Lord is founded on the proper use of prayer, for in speaking about the Temple in Jerusalem, the Lord said, “My house shall be called the house of prayer” (Matt. 21:22). But at the time He was actually on earth, the concept of prayer had been totally perverted, had become something purely selfish and material. He then taught us by comparison what proper prayer was, prayer suited for genuine worship to the Lord. He said, And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. … But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly (Matt. 6:5-7 Cf. Mark 12:40).

Praying to God in secret means that you must speak your heart honestly to your Heavenly Father. We are to speak with God from God, that is, to reach within ourselves to the point where we are speaking from our own true faith, our genuine principles, the things of good and truth, charity and faith, that are God’s with us. Prayer is an attempt to bring ourselves into harmony with God’s plans for our salvation, an opportunity for us to focus on the progress of our life from His perspective, rather than from our own, at least for a time.

When we turn to the Lord in prayer, when we focus on the celestial and spiritual things of His eternal kingdom, then something very much like an influx comes into our perceptions and thoughts that opens the interiors towards God. This happens differently with each person and from time to time because it is affected by the spiritual state at the time of the prayer, and it also varies according to the subject of the prayer. If we are praying from love and faith for heavenly things, then there may be something like a revelation which will be felt in the affections, a feeling of hope, a sense of comfort, a certain internal joy and confidence that all things are in the Lord’s hands and they will turn out well from the eternal perspective. These are the Lord’s gifts to those who pray sincerely from the heart for things that are of the Lord’s eternal, spiritual kingdom. (See AC 2535)

We must also remember that we are creatures of two worlds — the natural and the spiritual. Everything we do in this world has an effect on our spiritual state, and thus on the kinds of spirits who associate with us. One of the reasons for this is that the Lord uses the angelic heavens to modify and clothe His influx so that it will be softened enough to be received by men in the world, much as the earth’s atmosphere softens the power of the sun’s rays so that we are not harmed by them. As we change our spiritual states, we change our spiritual associations, and thus receive different kinds of influx. For example, we are told that saying the Lord’s Prayer from the heart creates a spiritual association with especially good, innocent spirits. Genuine, heartfelt prayers about heavenly things do have their effect on our spiritual states, bringing perceptions of comfort and hope, and bringing the association of like-minded spirits who support and encourage, and serve to bring the Lord’s inflowing life and love into our lives.

Perhaps the most difficult thing to think about when considering prayers, is the question why some prayers seem to be answered while others are not, for the Lord teaches in Matthew, And all things, whatever you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive (Matt. 21:22). And in Mark, He says, Whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them (Mark 11:24). God promises to answer our prayers, but it appears that He almost never does. What is wrong? Is it a function of the strength of our faith? Is it some kind of test? If we pray for something and we don’t get it, does that mean we don’t have sufficient strength of faith? No, it means that we are asking for the wrong things, and the Lord is answering our prayers by saying “no.”

The Lord will not answer prayers for things which He knows will serve to act against our own salvation. (See AC 8179:2,3) That means He will act in favor of prayers that are for, or agree with, the end of salvation. For example, the prayers of Zacharias for a son: The angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son” (Luke 1:13). There is evidence also that prayer is helpful in certain kinds of illness, for when speaking about a demon that the disciples could not cast out, the Lord said, This kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting (Matt. 17:21).

The Apocalypse Revealed says, It is a general thing in all Divine worship that a man should first will, desire and pray, and that the Lord should then answer, inform, and do; otherwise the man does not receive anything Divine. … Moreover in the Word very often it is read that the Lord answers when they call and cry, also, that He gives when they ask. Nevertheless the Lord gives them to ask, and what to ask, and the Lord therefore knows this beforehand, but still the Lord wills that a man should ask first, to the end that it may be as from himself, and thus be appropriated to him (AR 376).

We need to pray to the Lord for help in healing us of our spiritual diseases, for although we often use the phrase “as-of-self” in the church, it really has no meaning without prayer. The concept of as-of-self reformation has to do with the process of bringing our lives into the Lord’s order with His help. We do it as if we were doing it ourselves, as if we actually had the power to fight and conquer evil, but we must at the same time acknowledge that it is the Lord’s power that fights for us. How else can we ask for the Lord’s help in temptation except through prayer? Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak (Matt. 26:41, Cf. Mark 14:38). Who can doubt that if we sincerely ask for His help to conquer evils that He will not answer our prayers? Then He said to them, ‘Why do you sleep? Rise and pray, lest you enter into temptation’ (Luke 22:46). But we cannot actually reform and regenerate without the Lord’s power, and we cannot use His power without asking Him. When we do, we are speaking to Him about the things of His kingdom, with the end of our own salvation in mind. The Lord always hears and responds to such prayers. It is only through prayer that we can ask for His forgiveness for our sins. Therefore, without humble prayer to God, we cannot be regenerated.

There are many prayers that He does not answer, specifically, those that are impossible because they are contrary to the Divine order. We read from the Brief Exposition, Suppose you should pray a thousand times at home and in temples, that God the Father, for the sake of His Son, would preserve you from the devil, and should not at the same time, from the freedom in which you are perpetually held by the Lord, keep yourself from evil, and so from the devil; you could not in this case be preserved even by legions of angels sent from the Lord; for the Lord cannot act contrary to His own Divine order, and His order is that man should examine himself, see his evils, resist them, and this as of himself, yet from the Lord.

We also find that He will not listen to prayers that seek gain for self, or harm to enemies. The prayers of those who seek evil to others cannot be heard, for their selfish thought and will close Heaven to them, and in heaven, prayers are listened to solely according to the end or purpose of the prayer. If the end is contrary to eternal salvation, it is not heard. (See AC 4227:4, 8179:2,3 SD 1820)

It’s clear that we must pray for the Lord’s help in times of temptation, we must pray for His strength to conquer evils for us, but that we must not pray for selfish or worldly things. But what about praying for the sake of others whom we love, and for whom we have genuine, loving concern? Do our prayers help others who are troubled?

The Lord prayed for others. Then little children were brought to Him that He might put His hands on them and pray (Matt. 19:13), and He taught that we, too, should pray for those in spiritual difficulty: But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you (Matt. 5:43, Cf. Luke 6:28).

Perhaps the problem comes when we feel presumptuous in praying for others, for we feel we are somehow intruding into God’s territory, telling Him His business. We know that the Lord, in His Infinite Wisdom already knows about it, for He cares for the sparrow and the Lily of the Field. Of course He was already doing everything that was possible in the sight of the Divine Providence and for the sake of that person’s eternal salvation. What more could we possibly add with our insignificant prayers?

Once again, we must remind ourselves that the Lord governs and rules the whole universe by means of influx through the angelic heaven. When a person is in trouble in this world, the Lord’s help flows down to him through the Celestial Heaven, the Spiritual Heaven, the Natural Heaven, and the World of Spirits and in this way is prepared to be received by an unregenerate human in the world of nature. Who can count how many individual spirits are involved in carrying the Lord’s love to that troubled person?

Let’s think of an illustration from this world. If we pass by and see 20 men pulling on a rope to pull another person up out of a pit, would we not stop to lend a hand? Our assistance may make up only a tiny proportion of the overall effort, but it has reduced the effort required of the others, we have made some tangible contribution to helping the one in the pit. Also, our help has not changed anyone’s mind, it has not deprived anyone of their freedom. We have simply added our own small contribution to an already established and organized rescue effort.

I believe this is analogous to what happens when we pray for someone who is in spiritual need. The Lord already knows of their need. The angelic heavens are already there, helping. By our prayer, we lend a hand, we add our sphere to those already gathered so that love and wisdom can flow in through us (imperceptibly, and just a little bit) to the one in need. And we help them by our prayers as surely as we helped the person out of the pit by pulling on the rope — and we are not interfering with God’s plans in any way.

Prayer for others has the additional benefit of turning our minds away from the selfishness and worldliness of our own lives and turning us towards the needs and concerns of others, that is, to true charity. Prayer for others also puts us in the habit of thinking of the needs of others, if not before our own needs, at least as our own. Prayer puts us in tune with the spiritual world, it brings us into the flow of the Divine Providence, if we pray for spiritual and eternal things, and if we believe what the Lord Himself says: Therefore I say to you, whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them. AMEN.

Lessons: Matthew 6:1-8, Luke 21:29-38, BE 52:1-2

Brief Exposition 52: This is testified by experience. How many are there at this day, who live according to the commandments of the Decalogue, and other precepts of the Lord, from religion? And how many are there at this day, who desire to look their own evils in the face, and to perform actual repentance, and thus enter upon the worship of the life? And who among those that cultivate piety, perform any other repentance than oral and oratorical, confessing themselves to be sinners, and praying, according to the doctrine of the church, that God the Father, for the sake of His Son, who suffered upon the cross for their sins, took away their damnation, and atoned for them with His blood, would mercifully forgive their transgressions, that so they might be presented without spot or blemish before the throne of His judgment? Who does not see, that this worship is of the lungs only, and not of the heart, consequently that it is external worship, and not internal? for he prays for the remission of sins, when yet he does not know one sin with himself; and if be did know of any, he would cover it over with favor and indulgence, or with a faith that is to purify and absolve him, without any works of his But this is comparatively like a servant going to his master with his face and clothes defiled with soot and filth, and saying, Sir, wash me. Would not his master say to him, Thou foolish servant, what is it thou sayest? See! there is water, soap, and a towel, hast thou not hands, and ability to use them? wash thyself. Thus also the Lord God will say, The means of purification are from Me, and from Me also thou hast will and power, wherefore use these My gifts and talents, as thy own, and thou shalt be purified.

Take another example by way of illustration. Suppose you should pray a thousand times at home and in temples, that God the Father, for the sake of His Son, would preserve you from the devil, and should not at the same time, from the freedom in which you are perpetually held by the Lord, keep yourself from evil, and so from the devil; you could not in this case be preserved even by legions of angels sent from the Lord; for the Lord cannot act contrary to His own Divine order, and His order is that man should examine himself, see his evils, resist them, and this as of himself, yet from the Lord. This does not indeed at this day appear to be the Gospel, nevertheless it is the Gospel, for the Gospel is salvation.

Cleansing the Temple


A Sermon by the Rev. James P. Cooper

Then Jesus went into the temple of God and drove out all those who bought and sold in the temple, and overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the seats of those who sold doves. And He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a ‘den of thieves.'” (Matthew 21:12, 13)

At the time of the Lord’s coming, the Jews were selective in their use of the Word. While the scribes and Pharisees had changed the laws of Moses so much as to make them unrecognizable (and in so doing had brought tremendous power into their own hands), at the same time the Jewish people remembered and held literally true the Covenant that had first been made to Abraham, that if they would follow God’s commandments, they would be the chosen people and would inherit a land flowing with milk and honey. They were looking for the Messiah to come to lead them to their heavenly paradise, to throw off the hated yoke of Rome, to lead them to the position of eminence that they knew they deserved. They wanted power. They wanted a land of their own. They wanted revenge upon the Romans. This is what they expected and demanded of their Messiah.

Jesus Christ seemed to them to be the one who was an answer to their prayers. He had miraculous powers. He challenged the authority of the scribes and the Pharisees. He had new ideas about everything. His life fulfilled the prophecies of scripture, and then He entered Jerusalem on the traditional mount of a king! The time for rebellion was near! They finally had a king who could lead them against Rome and free them from their years of oppression! They were about to have heaven on earth!

But what happened next was not at all what they expected. The very first thing the Lord did upon entering Jerusalem as the Messiah and king of the Jewish nation was to enter the temple and drive out the moneychangers. Because it was the first thing He did, it showed the people just what they could expect from their Messiah, their king. It showed them clearly and dramatically that He was going to re-establish a religion based on genuine spiritual values. And, having made this point quite clear, He waited for the people to respond to Him in freedom. Within a week, they crucified Him. They did not want a spiritual kingdom, He was not the kind of king they expected or wanted.

What we need to reflect on this morning is what we expect from God. Are our expectations realistic? In our heart of hearts are we expecting gifts from Him that we do not deserve? Is our concept of heaven material and natural? Do we become angry and resentful with God when life does not go as we planned? Before we attempt to answer these questions, let us study the message carried in the internal sense of this story.

Jerusalem was the centre of the Jewish Church. A city represents doctrine. When the Lord entered Jerusalem and was welcomed as the Messiah, it was because they thought He would be a Messiah on their terms, according to their own understanding, and while they believed that He was to be an earthly king, they were willing to acknowledge His kingship. And so, they welcomed Him with palm branches, and called him “Jesus, the prophet of Nazareth.”

On the external level, the Jewish Church was still able to acknowledge simple truths when pointed out to them. The problem was that there was rottenness within that had to be exposed. The Lord sought to expose that internal corruption by His teachings and actions during that last week. He was completely successful in drawing out the internal corruption and exposing it to the light of truth, and in so doing, caused the Jewish Church to judge itself by crucifying their own Messiah.

In order to save the human race (that is, to be Jesus the Saviour), he had to bear the temptations, that is, He had to allow the Jews to treat Him as they had treated the Word. The Jewish Church at that time did not acknowledge the Word, since they had perverted it so that no truth remained in the Mosaic Laws. Therefore they did not acknowledge the Lord when He came to fulfil the prophecies of the Word.

The Lord is identified as the Word when He is called by the multitude, “The prophet of Nazareth.”1 For the Word was given to men through the prophets, and everywhere in the Word, prophets represent the Word. The Lord is the essential prophet, and when people call Him a prophet, it identifies the quality that is to be emphasized in that particular passage.2

Jewish ritual and Mosaic law required that every Jew come to Jerusalem to make a sacrifice in the temple at some point in their life. This meant that every day many people would arrive at the temple with the need to perform certain rituals. Those that had travelled a long distance could not always bring an animal of their own for the sacrifice, so the church leaders allowed merchants to sell animals in the temple for the convenience of the pilgrims. Because they came from many different countries with different currencies, the leaders also allowed moneychangers to set up their stalls, again for the convenience of the pilgrims (and their own profit). We can imagine that after a while, the interior of the temple was more like a street market than a house of prayer with the noise of the animals and the haggling of the merchants. The Lord entered the temple and drove out those that bought and sold, the moneychangers, and those who sold doves.

“Those that sold and bought” signify those who make gain for themselves out of holy things. “Moneychangers” are those who do this by using the truths of the church, “those who sold doves” are those who do it from the goods of the church. A “den of Thieves” signifies those who steal the goods and truths of the church for their own gain.

For example: Think of someone who says he belongs to a religious denomination because he knows an acquaintance does, and he wishes to sell him goods or services based upon their common church membership, rather than superior value. Such a person is using a deliberate, knowing lie to make a profit. A person could abuse the good of the church by deliberately living according to the laws of the church solely for the sake of impressing another that they were worthy of a position of trust, yet with the full intention of using that position of trust to commit a fraud, or theft. All those who pretend to have the faith and charity of the church for the sake of deceiving others into giving them some advantage, are spiritual moneychangers and sellers of doves.

So, the Lord went into the temple because it was a “den of thieves,” because the Jewish Church was full of those who used the laws and traditions of the Church to obtain power and money for themselves. He drove out “those who sold and bought”, that is, all those who wished to use the church for their own purposes. Specifically he drove out the “moneychangers,” those who abused the truths of the church, and “those who sold doves,” or those who abused the goods of the church. His intention was to return the temple into its former state of being a “house of prayers,” that is, a church where there was genuine worship from the good of love and charity. However, since the Jewish church was unwilling to be cleansed, it was necessary that a new church be established, the Christian Church, where there could be genuine worship from a life according to the new doctrines revealed to the world by Jesus3.

Immediately after cleansing the temple, the blind and lame came to him in the temple, and He healed them there. The “blind” are those who wished to know truth but could not get it from the fallen church, while the “lame” are those who wished to do what was good, but were taught evil by the self-seeking scribes and Pharisees.

This tells us that the Lord must first be in a church, and then those who wish to know the truth from the Word can find it, and those who wish to do the goods of the church for the sake of their neighbours will be able to do so. When the Lord is the centre of the church, when He is in the temple, then the church is in order, and wonderful things can happen.

When the Lord is the centre of the church, those who would seek to enslave and cause misery, those who would like to turn the goods and truths of the church to their own personal advantage, are enraged, and they begin to think how they can remove the Lord from His temple.

Earlier in this sermon, it was suggested that each of us reflect on what we expect from the Lord. Even though we have never intended to bring material things into the centre of our lives, upon self-examination, we find that they are indeed there. In our spiritual lives, we have certain expectations. We believe that we deserve a good job, a loving partner, delightful, obedient children, a nice home, and if we do not get these things we blame God. Do we feel that He has not lived up to our expectations, has not given us the promised rewards for our good life? Do we then feel justified in turning away from Him, removing Him from our lives, crucifying Him?

The key to the answer lies in the phrase, “good life.” and what we mean by our “good life.” The Doctrines tell us that anyone can live a civil and moral life, in fact, most people do because they are afraid of the loss of reputation, honour, and gain. Further, most people expect that once they get to the world of spirits, they will go to heaven because they have basically followed the rules in the world.

But what is a “good” life? It is not just following the civil laws of one’s country, for anyone, even a totally evil person, can do that. It is not even following the moral and spiritual laws of the church. The “good” life is to follow the civil, moral, and spiritual codes from conscience, which can only be done when the things of self and the world are consciously and deliberately rejected because they are against what the Lord wants. These things, like the merchants’ stalls in the temple, clutter up the spirit, prevent spiritual growth, and must be removed before the Lord can become the centre of our lives.

If we expect the Lord to simply take us as we are, we are mistaken. If we expect material rewards in this life in return for an externally good life, we will be disappointed. He came on earth to form a spiritual kingdom which shall endure forever. He will be our king, He will enter our spiritual lives and give us spiritual rewards beyond our imagination, but first the moneychangers must be driven out. The seats of those who sell doves must be overturned. Only when we first shun evil can the Lord then enter our minds with good. If we shun evils and turn to the Lord as the centre of our lives, if He is in our temple, then our blindness can be healed, and lameness will be no more. And He said to them, It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a ‘den of thieves.‘” Then the blind and the lame came to Him in the temple, and He healed them. (MAT 21:13, 14) AMEN.

Lessons: JER 7:1-11, Matthew 21:1-17, TCR 129

First Lesson: JER 7:1-11

The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD, saying, {2} “Stand in the gate of the Lord’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, ‘Hear the word of the LORD, all you of Judah who enter in at these gates to worship the LORD!'” {3} Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: “Amend your ways and your doings, and I will cause you to dwell in this place. {4} “Do not trust in these lying words, saying, ‘The temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD are these.’ {5} “For if you thoroughly amend your ways and your doings, if you thoroughly execute judgement between a man and his neighbour, {6} “if you do not oppress the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place, or walk after other gods to your hurt, {7} “then I will cause you to dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers forever and ever. {8} “Behold, you trust in lying words that cannot profit. {9} “Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, burn incense to Baal, and walk after other gods whom you do not know, {10} “and then come and stand before Me in this house which is called by My name, and say, ‘We are delivered to do all these abominations’ ?{11} “Has this house, which is called by My name, become a den of thieves in your eyes? Behold, I, even I, have seen it,” says the LORD. Amen.

Second Lesson: MAT 21:1-17

Now when they drew near Jerusalem, and came to Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, {2} saying to them, “Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Loose them and bring them to Me. {3} “And if anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord has need of them,’ and immediately he will send them.” {4} All this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying: {5} “Tell the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your King is coming to you, Lowly, and sitting on a donkey, A colt, the foal of a donkey.'” {6} So the disciples went and did as Jesus commanded them. {7} They brought the donkey and the colt, laid their clothes on them, and set Him on them. {8} And a very great multitude spread their clothes on the road; others cut down branches from the trees and spread them on the road. {9} Then the multitudes who went before and those who followed cried out, saying: “Hosanna to the Son of David! ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!’ Hosanna in the highest!” {10} And when He had come into Jerusalem, all the city was moved, saying, “Who is this?” {11} So the multitudes said, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth of Galilee.” {12} Then Jesus went into the temple of God and drove out all those who bought and sold in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. {13} And He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a ‘den of thieves.'” {14} Then the blind and the lame came to Him in the temple, and He healed them. {15} But when the chief priests and scribes saw the wonderful things that He did, and the children crying out in the temple and saying, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” they were indignant {16} and said to Him, “Do You hear what these are saying?” And Jesus said to them, “Yes .Have you never read, ‘Out of the mouth of babes and nursing infants You have perfected praise’?” {17} Then He left them and went out of the city to Bethany, and He lodged there. Amen.

Third Lesson: TCR 129

129. The reason why the Lord was willing to undergo temptations even to the point of suffering upon the cross, was that He was the Prophet, and prophets in ancient times meant the church’s doctrine from the Word; consequently they represented the church in its state at that time by the various unfair, harsh and even criminal acts imposed on them by God. However, since the Lord was the Word itself, by His passion on the cross as the Prophet He represented the way in which the Jewish church profaned the Word. Another reason was that He should thus be acknowledged in the heavens as the Saviour of both worlds. For all the details of His passion stand for details of the profanation of the Word; and the angels understand them spiritually, while men in the church do so naturally. Amen.

1 MAT 21:11

2 See Lord 15

3 See AE 840:4, 325:10, 410:8