John Coe | Where Prayer Becomes Real
11:18PM Aug 4, 2021
Jonathan J. Armstrong
Today it is our delight and honor to be speaking with dr. john Co. dr. john CO is director of Talbots Institute for spiritual formation, and co author of the text that we'll be discussing today where prayer becomes real how honesty with God transforms your soul. Dr. Koh we're really grateful to be speaking with you today. Yeah, it's great to be here. Working with us, Dr. Koh, just as we begin, would you be willing to share a little bit about this unique program at Talbot, the Institute for spiritual formation?
Yeah, this is it's we're in our 20th year now. And, you know, my my training was not in spiritual formation. So I'm a philosopher theologian. So I had done work in theology at seminaries, and then ultimately philosophy, the PhD in philosophy. But over time, the Lord took me on a journey. And so my interest became just to understand what was going on in the spiritual life. So the summit and so there was a whole number of things that took place in my life that brought myself and some other faculty to say, what would it be to create a kind of a new kind of experience in seminary, where the tell us with a goal of it is really growth, and really understanding the process of growth? So we're, we're a program in what we what the ancients would call spiritual theology, and spiritual theology is, it's it's not just trying to understand the content of faith. But here's, here's what spiritual theology is, it's, it's God in heart and scripture in hand. And then with that, now, that would be what we would do in systematic theology, God in hearts, scripture and and understanding the Scripture. But now the unique task of the spiritual theologian is then to go into the world of the church and people and ask this question, and how do we grow? The Bible says, Be filled with the Spirit. Well, the spiritual theologian has to answer the question, well, what is it to be filled with the Spirit? How do you get filled with the Spirit? What does that even mean? Or if the Bible says put off anger? The spiritual theologians task is to ask the question, okay, now, how do we actually put off anger? So spiritual theology is, it's it's really pastoral theology. And it's, it's trying to understand not just the content of faith, but the process of growth, how do we actually grow, and then let's actually grow together. So they gave us the option at the seminary, the opportunity really, to take a major part of our units like of our amaze, that's 4040 of the 49 units, and our m div 40 of the 70 units, and create it all around this understanding of spiritual theology, and how do we grow, entering into the life of prayer and growth? So that's, that's what we're about. And it's been an amazing ride. We were amazed how many students were interested in this.
This is an amazing journey. And my first question is, why haven't we all been doing this all along? theology for the service of the church theology for spiritual growth? So this is this is a beautiful program you're working in? Tell me if you would, what are some of the challenges maybe that you've experienced in helping grow and develop this program? In the context of an academic institution?
Yeah, well, you know, I think there's always there's a number of issues there. But one of them was, um, I think, is there were some individuals in the seminary or in the university who thought, Well, what why do we need to do this? What? Haven't we always been doing it? And I said, Why? Yes, we've always been doing it. But it was, it was more like, will teach about prayer, but then not talk about, well, what are the dynamics of what actually happens to people when they pray? what goes on in prayer? And then how to help them understand the process of prayer, so that we can help them actually in prayer. And so there was just a little bit of concern of, well, are we doing something wrong? So anytime anybody does a new thing? It might feel like an implied criticism, as well. Haven't we always been doing it? And I think what we weren't doing is we weren't as intentional about really understanding the process we were, we were talking about prayer, but not understanding the process of how this works. And then not not talking about and then when things break down in a person's life, what what's going on? How do we understand it? And then, especially how to help them enter into prayer. So I had a course on prayer in the Bible college, but we never prayed. And so in the Institute for spiritual formation, we're no we're going to we're going to give our self to the life of prayer to into this life of growth together, and, and begin to deal with kind of the reality. And I remember one professor had told me said, you know, john, you this is not going to work because I hear that you are going to require students to pray. And so we do we have many, we have what is called the one quarter rule where one quarter of almost all the work we do is its assignments in prayer and exploring our life in relation to God. And I remember one prosit, john, requiring somebody to pray, that's going to be legalism, that will be terrible. If you'd like, well, then that will be true of everything we do. Because everything we do is we require people to do things. But we hope that they're going to learn and we're going to now process this together. And so we're going to, we're going to enter into Yes, of course, when you require someone to study, they may hate it. But studying is still a good. And so how can we help someone out process this. And it turns out the ancients, the ancient spiritual writers from the early church on, they had said so much about the nature of the process of the spiritual life and the process of prayer, what goes on in our prayer lives. So we just wanted to bring back this wealth historically and biblically, and theologically, and it's been really the greatest 20 years of my education. Amazing,
amazing. Dr. Koh, just as we get some foundation set here, how would you? How would you define spiritual formation? And maybe some of us have heard this phrase, spiritual direction? Is there any relation? What spiritual formation what spiritual direction?
Yeah, and again, I, you know, a lecture comes about in my mind, so I'll, I'll try to edit the lecture down. But here's how I would define spiritual formation, it's, and I'll give you the kind of thing, it's the divinely sanctioned process by which we are conformed to the image of Christ, on the basis of the work of Christ on the cross, by the agency of the Spirit, but in union with the human spirit, which begins in this life and continues into the next hour, that's there's a lot going on there. But let me just make a couple of comments. It's a divinely sanctioned process, because it turns out, there are many ways of forming human spirits. There's Buddhist ways. There's Hindu ways, there's secular ways, there's atheist ways, there's just whatever you want to do ways, there's so many ways that there's 1000s, of ways of forming a human spirit. So we're looking at the divinely sanctioned process that it turns out in the Scriptures, God is going to give us his his sanctioned way of here's how we're going to form spirits, Christian Lee. And, and so there's a process that one's going to go through. And the goal is to be conformed to the image of Christ, the goal is to become like Jesus. But we now want to just make a little caveat there. It's, it's going to be on the basis of Christ's death on the cross, it's going to be on the basis of his work, because the concern in spiritual formation, there's a number of concerns, but one of them is that, that I'm doing these things to, to deal with my shame and guilt, I'm going to work at the Christian life. Because, you know, I'm, I'm not that acceptable. Look at me, I'm a mess, ah, spiritual formation, oh, this will give me a way to deal with my shame and guilt in the Christian life, and I can become good. And we want to make clear, no, no, Jesus alone, can deal with issues of shame and guilt. And, and the, the deep issues of spiritual formation are not just first to start doing spiritual disciplines. But it's first to enter deeply into the cross, to come out of hiding actually in prayer. So that in the cross, it's Jesus who can deal with our shame and guilt. And the next issue is, it's by the agency of the Spirit. And, and again, another major concern in spiritual formation is people who feel very ashamed of their Christian life. They'll read a book on spiritual formation, they'll say, Oh, my gosh, this is it. This book is the answer to everything. If I just do this out, I can grow myself, I can please God, and I can deal with shame and guilt. No, no, it's the Spirit who grows us. And so we want to talk quite a bit about how the scriptures and how the history of the church has said that no, no, we are, we are rather joining with this new life within and and it's this new life that I'm going to cooperate with enjoying because only he only God conformed Jesus in me. And so when I left seminary, I'll have to say I had a whole course on the Holy Spirit. But I only had about a week on growth in the Spirit. And when I left seminary, I if someone asked me, Well, how do we grow by the Spirit? Because the spirits the agent of growth, right? He formed Jesus in His, I am sure, because I was in seminary, you know, I was becoming a prop. I'm sure I would start talking. But I think in my own head, I would have heard myself going, I do have availability. But I like john, you don't know what you're talking about? Because I left seminary. And that was a major question, how does the spirit really grow as this feels like me working. And so this is a major issue in spiritual formation. And, and yet there is our cooperation. So. So again, that's kind of the brief version of spiritual formation. But spiritual direction, we actually train spiritual directors at the Institute for spiritual formation. And the directors task is to help people cooperate with what the Spirit is doing. So if a person comes to spiritual direction, and they share problems, even in their marriage, problems in their prayer life, whatever the task of the duress director is to, not not like a pastoral counseling, it's not to solve their problem or their presenting problems. In spiritual direction. It's, it's now helping them and together, begin to listen to what is the spirit doing in that? What is the spirit doing in your marriage? What is the spirit doing in your prayer life? You're saying that God feels this and I wonder what the Spirit is doing? Let's kind of open to the spirit in this. So the process there is to discern what God is doing, because he's always working. He's always working on our life. And is to discern that and then cooperate with him. So that's what we try to train people to do actually. Sounds like
an absolutely amazing program. And I'd like to go back to school. That sounds really, really attractive. Um, Dr. Koh, one of the major themes in this text is achieving honesty with God, we're walking honestly, with God in prayer. And why is it that that honesty is something that's that we need to focus on? Why isn't that just part of the natural process?
Yeah, you know, and I think we have to do is we have to kind of go back to the Garden of Eden and see how that plays into play here. Because, you know, after, when God had put Adam and Eve in the garden, he said, you know, the day that you eat of the tree, you're going to die. When they ate of the tree, they didn't die physically, but we theologically say they died spiritually, that is they, they actually lost the presence of this kind of indwelling, or salvific, presence of God. And they're in a state of now spiritual death. They're in this state of loneliness, Paul would say they're in the state of the flesh. They're there by themselves. They were they were made for union with God. But now the relational presence of God has left them. And in that state, now, the state of flesh, the general tendency is, right away, you see with Adam and Eve with shame and guilt, is they turn to themselves. And, and when as soon as they as they fall, they, the first thing they do is they don't say, Oh, god, what happened to me remember, it says, when the eight of the tree, it says their eyes were open, and they knew they were naked, this is the first experience of shame, they became aware, something's wrong with me. And what was wrong with them, is they now lost this relational presence of God, the kind of psychic glue that held them together is now it's now evacuated them. And they know something is wrong, and they don't like being naked, they feel ashamed. But notice their first response in shame is to turn to themselves, they cover themselves. And then when God actually comes in, their second response is guilt. And rather than say, Oh, god, what happened to us, they immediately hide the human condition, after the fall is going to be covering and hiding that those are going to be probably the most fundamental human since covering and hiding I, I don't want you to see me I don't even want to see me. I know something's wrong with me. That's shame. So I want to put something else out there. And guilt is I know I have violated God, I there's fear of him. I'm hiding from him to everything I do. It's covering hiding defensiveness. And now, when when we come to the faith, unfortunately, those sin habits still creep back into our life. And so what what the believer finds over a period of time is hiding and covering comes right back into prayer. And so prayer becomes unfortunately a place to be good. Player big prayer becomes a place where individuals are trying to deal with their shame and guilt. See So I hear I hear I'm feeling bad about my prayer life. guy should pray more. I don't pray as I odd. I'm really a failure. Notice I i'm not i'm not talking to God about it, I'm talking to myself about it. Because I'm ashamed. See in shame, we tend to turn to ourselves and have these inner dialogues. And then when we feel Okay, enough, okay, I really need to come to God and I really need to, and then it's almost like we unpause the pause button. And then we Oh, god, I'm sorry. I should be praying more, and then we launch off. No, no, no, we should have started the conversation back here, when we were feeling shame. It should have we should have come out of hiding. This is see, being good and trying to deal with your shame on your own will kill your prayer life. Because that's the place of your reality. And that's actually the place where God's trying to love you. And so what I have to do is I have to come out of hiding with that. I have to say, God, I don't know what is wrong with me. I don't even want to prayed lately. God, I am such a mess. See, it's coming to God. And it's letting Christ clean you up. I look back at my prayer life. I think I often cleaned myself up. And then when I when I gave myself enough pep talks, then I would engage in prayer. But But notice, I it's almost like I'm always talking to my my earthly parents, I'm trying to be good at hiding what's really going on inside, rather than totally coming out of hiding. So there's many issues here to talk about regarding this this honesty and why honesty is so important to bring us out of hiding. Yeah,
this is amazing material, Dr. Koh, and Dr. Koh, what do you say to the person who's not aware of concealing themselves before God? I'm not sure whether I'm being honest or not with God.
Yeah. Yeah, you know, there's many ways to kind of go, but I might, I might ask them. First. Are you editing your prayers? In other words, is, do you ever find yourself while you're praying, because this is what I found. This is about it. By the time I went to Bible Institute, Bible College, seminary, and I was a convert. So initially, I experienced, you know, the, the ancients talk a lot about this, but I experienced a lot of early child baby constellation as a young believer. But as I was moving through seminary, I was gonna say, cemetery, but it was seminary, as I was moving through seminary, and then beyond that, I noticed my prayer life was flattening out. I wasn't as excited and ancients have a lot to say about what the Spirit was doing. But I began to experience it more as Wow, I'm failing at Paramount. I'm not as excited about prayer. And here's what I began doing. I began while I would be praying, if I would go into a funk, like my mind would wander, it would go all over the place, you know, I would come to pray. But my mind would wander By the way, that's something that you know, your your listener can think about. Because I used to feel shame and guilt, when my mind would wander in prayer. And I used to say, God, john, stop it, and come back and pray, right? I didn't know that the Lord was actually doing some work. That in Matthew says, where your treasure is that where your heart, that's where your heart will go, I didn't know that the Spirit was actually in here, beginning to show me where my treasures were. And so I would come to pray. And then I'd also think about my finances, or I come to pray. I think about, you know, papers I had to do, or things I had to write or whatever. And I didn't know the spirit was saying, john, I'm glad you came to pray. But I know these are your treasures. These, this is where your heart is. And so why don't we maybe talk about some of those. And so I want to and so a lot of times people feel guilty when they do this, I want them to begin to say no, no. Those are maybe some things God wants you to talk about. And I would say to that person, and notice some time when you're praying, do you kind of press the pause button on your prayer life and go into self talk? Because self talk in prayer is usually an issue of you feel confused about something you feel ashamed about something? You don't feel you're praying as you ought, you don't know what's going on. And you're not accustomed to bringing that confuted confusing material to God. That confusing material is for you. There you know that you have a split going on inside when it comes to the bad and confusing material. Ah, and this is what I used to do. I suppress the pause button. I'd go catch on what is wrong. Where is God right now? Your prayers, they feel like they're bouncing off the ceiling.
I would talk myself up you know, I Right now in praying, I'm bored in my quiet time with Tom, what's wrong? And then I give myself a little pep talk. I want you to love the Lord more. And then it was like as unposted, the prayer, the prayer, but, of course, the Lord was saying, john, I heard all that. And so what I should have done, and this is why I say, watch what you do in prayer, do you go into these edited moments of self talk? Because that usually is the moralist inside who's trying to clean yourself up who feels bad? No, no, no, I wish I had a spiritual director who would have watched me in prayer and and talked to me about my prayer life. He just said, john, no, throw away the pause button. tell God, unfiltered. God, what is wrong? Where are you? God, this is the Psalms. Lord, why don't you hear me I feel like I'm talking to myself. And God, I'm Lord, I'm bored. I don't know what's going on. I, I don't know what's happening in my See, now my actual self is praying. And I just came alive in prayer. And it turns out, the ancients would say, God only loves the actual self. He doesn't love that false good little self we're trying to create. And so it's my actual self is what Jesus died for. And that's all I needed to come out of hiding. And it wasn't going to be until years later, where the I was, I went on a retreat in the Lord brought me out of hiding. And during that time, it was a three week retreat, that I had no idea what was going to happen, and about 27 years ago, and the Lord so brought me out of hiding, and I shared in an unfiltered way, just the anger, the rage, things that I had that that now I came back to see in the Psalms. Ah, that's what the songs were about. And then I encountered God by the Spirit and ways I'd never had. And so that took me on a whole new journey about prayer. And john, God loves the actual self, stop, stop editing your prayer. Let him have you. And, and again, I just discovered now love that I had not known even even in the bottom of my mind, my kind of garbage barrel. That's where he was loving me. And so anyways, that's what we want to help students, we want to help students trust that, that that there is nothing that are going to discover down here that Jesus hasn't died for, and that that Jesus will actually love them in that and take them on a journey, if they will come out of hiding. So that's, that's what we want to do with the book and at the Institute. Yeah.
Dr. Koh, that is a remarkably attractive vision that that you're embodying and portraying there. Dr. Koh? What do you say to the person who says I can't experience the presence of God, I want to experience the presence of God, but he doesn't feel there
to me. Yeah. And I know exactly that experience, because that it's when, by the time that I had finished, you know, 18 years of, you know, like, like, two bachelor's degree, three masters and a doctorate coming back to teach apologetics at the seminary. My prayer life was so dry. And I was wondering, and I had no idea what God was doing. I I just I thought something is wrong with me. What is wrong with me? God seems distant. I used to be excited about prayer here. Now I'm a professor teaching apologetics. God and I'm trying to defend God's existence. And God, I pray I don't even know where you are. I had no idea I was asking the wrong question. The question I was asking, is, john, what's wrong with you? And and that took me into my guilt and my shame and I. And so I would try to work harder at prayer, I would try to drum up affection. And then because I just felt God wasn't responding. My prayer life, it shrunk and shrunk and shrunk. This is what I find at seminary is students when they come to seminary, the tendency is their intellectual life increases. And their prayer life decreases almost at an inverse proportion. Because the the intellectual life is light, but their prayer life is getting darker and darker. And and they don't know what is going on. And they wonder what, what's taking place in my prayer life. And so here is that the question I want them to begin to ask is, this is God, what are you doing? And I want them now to come out of hiding and I want them to begin to pray the Psalms like Psalm 88, where it's God, where are you? What are you doing, and I want them to share in the most unfiltered way. These are what one theologian Walter Brueggemann calls the the the prayers of disorientation. And so I want to really help them enter into that, that kind of praying and honesty. Because there's so much heightened going on.
These are absolutely amazing insights, Dr. Koh agricole, if I can ask you a few practical questions just in rapid fire succession. So what's your view? Should Christians use prayer books? And do you have a particularly favorite prayer book that you use?
Yeah, I think prayer books in the history of the church, you know, this is what we call, you know, liturgy, in the history of the church, that there were theologians, who wrote these verbal, what they used to call verbal prayers, where you would verbalize them and speak them out, because you're reading them. Well, a theologian put those together. Those are, those are wonderful prayers, versus this non vocal kind of silent prayer. That's more the spontaneous prayer. Spontaneous prayers are wonderful because they, they generate from within us what's really going on. But it's wonderful to have these theological prayers, because they give us kind of a goal and tell us of odd that's where the heart should go. Now, let me just say this, as we think of the, these theological prayers that are written out, and we vocalize them, they become a little bit the goal of our prayer life. And so as you're praying them, you might want to be honest with yourself and say, you know, Lord, wow, that, that that prayer there, and it might have come right out of the Psalms. Lord, you know, I love you, Lord, I praise you with my whole heart, I praise you. You always want to be honest. And say the prayer, say the vocal prayer and then say, you know, Lord, was that really true of my heart? You know, because you may discover, you know, Lord, there's part of me that doesn't really want to praise you, I said those words. But Lord, that's not in my heart. And now you can spontaneously talk to him about what's in your heart. But these, these theological set prayers are wonderful, because they point the horizon of our growth and tell us of where we might go. So anyways, I would, I would just encourage believers to do this, but you know, where I would really start, I would kind of start with something like the Psalms. Because, you know, when I was in seminary, I studied the songs. But I was supposed to pray the Psalms. And that's why the Psalms are confusing. Because the Psalms, the Psalms sometimes have a false theological claims in them. But they're the claims of a heart. And even accusations given at God, God, why have you forgotten me? Well, God didn't forget him. And so the songs are always confusing to me as I was trying to study them. But that's because I didn't pray until later. And so, so I would start with the songs. But then, you know, places like the Book of Common Prayer, I mean, this is a incredible place in the reformation, where they, but you can almost take any liturgy, you know, the Lutheran liturgy, and these are incredible prayers of that particular traditions, theologians, and they're, they're just rich.
Thank you Your call, what's your view? Does it matter what posture we take when praying?
You know, I, I kind of find that it there's two ways to look at that one. I think is that this is what CS Lewis had said, once that, you know, it even told atheists go to church, kneel, say the written prayers. And, and see if in the kneeling, and the speaking those prayers, if it doesn't mirror back something that's true. That's right. And so so postures are, on the one hand, there to help teach you this. And so I think sometimes it's good to kneel. Sometimes it's good to hold the hand, sometimes it's good to lift up hands, because all those postures they reflect back to me a reality the kneeling is that in humility, I come before you, the the lifting up my hands is that it's posturing to me that it's within my capability of lifting up my heart to the Lord. Now, what I might discover in the posture is that my heart doesn't want to do that. But now then I can spontaneously tell him that Lord, I kneeling here and I don't even care. Isn't that amazing? So So posturing is good because it can, it can speak back to the soul. Here's the other way that posturing is good. It's a way to express the soul. So sometimes when you go to pray, you might try to find the posture that expresses your prayer, like what is in your heart. So this morning, I was very, I had a lot of anxiety I wanted to share with the Lord and I remember it was about a certain person and My prayer life. And so while I prayed, I noticed my hands wanted to come out. And it wanted to, like, Express. God, would you and that's and so that posture was to let my soul express through my body something. But sometimes you let the body keeps back your soul something so it can go either either way here on this. Yeah.
Dr. Koh one last of these rapid fire questions. So our churches are mostly meeting online these days because of COVID. What is your advice on how to conduct prayer online?
Wow, you know, I, you know, we do this in our class, and we have we actually do spiritual direction online. And I I think this is a fine thing I really want to encourage students to, to just pray and share themselves. But you know, here's the instruction. I, we talked about these things beforehand, that when you're going to pray with one another, but this would be online, or even if it wasn't online, is the need to discern what kind of company am I with? What is it they can hear? What is it I want them to hear? And, and I don't necessarily want to hide from them. But I want to learn to bring out from my soul what's appropriate. So that it will, it will help to encourage one another in this so I'm, so I'm going to talk to them about Look, there may be some things only for you in your soul in relation to God or a spiritual director or a therapist. And there may be something that you want to share with more intimates. And then there's something you want to share with larger crowds. And so. So I think there's a certain kind of education of how we can pray. That's that's edifying. But then I really want to even online, help people look, just just share, let's just go at it now sometimes, like we will pray, we pray every two weeks with our faculty online now, because we meet online. And so we have a certain order where they just know when to share. And so that's sometimes good, because online, you know, with, it's hard to kind of sync people when they're talking at the same time. So sometimes we do kind of find an order. That's helpful. But that's kind of my only thought about that. And maybe you have some other thoughts about that.
Dr. Koh, this has been an amazingly insightful interview, if I can close our conversation with a question that we've been asking all of our interviewees and that is, what would it mean for the church to be united or reunited today? How would we recognize the unity of the church? And what is it that we can do to pursue the Unity for which Jesus prayed and john 17?
Yeah, you know, I tell you what, the thing that's come to my mind is, as I'm getting to 65 years old, now, my wife and I, it has really become, I don't know, it's just, it's been a little bit of change in our prayer life, were praying for the last praying for souls to be saved. Has because because, you know, I focus a lot on growth and sanctification. But the idea of the last and just the heart of God, as it's reached out to the last minute, my heart has just opened up and in to make disciples of all nations so that all people would be able to experience the joy of this growth. I think what I think is open to me is, is as high as prayed about the last, um, I think that has opened up a little bit of kind of ecumenical heart, in my mind of, you know, what is what is a little bit of that Mere Christianity that we can join together because my gosh, I, I long for individuals to come to the faith. And, and, and there is a there's a there's a Mere Christianity, I think Lewis was right about this, that that kind of is the core that people can come to, and then then we're going to spend all eternity, discovering the details. And and we're in the Lord will, will purge us, you know, in time he'll, he'll train us and teach us in heaven, he'll take us on a new journey of growth. And but here, I'm gathering together to win souls and to love the last and to find that core of our faith that individuals can come together on and then to really learn to pray together and grow together. So but once we do that, then then these details come in and but again, I think we need to find some core that motivates us as a tell us so that's kind of my thought about that.
We're overjoyed today to be speaking with dr. john cook Director of Talbots Institute for spiritual formation and co author of the text that we've been discussing today. Your prayer becomes real honesty with God transforms your soul available for Baker books in 2020. Dr. Cole, thank you so much for sharing your insights and some of your stories.