January 11, 2015
My grandfather’s study was very interesting. As a young boy I spent a few weeks one summer visiting my grandparents. My grandfather was a pastor and he had his study in the parsonage. Because I was his grandson, I had the privilege of being able to go into his study anytime I wanted to.
I loved looking at all the books and knickknacks on his desk. I went into his study often and he always welcomed me regardless of what he was doing at the time. But as I grew older and would visit my grandfather, even though the privilege was still extended to me, somehow it didn’t intrigue me as it once did. I didn’t go into his study as often.
A similar thing can happen in our relationship with God. When a person first comes to Christ there is often fresh vibrancy and newness that fills one’s life. We were lost but now are found. Life seemed empty, but with Christ life is filled with joy in the knowledge of sins forgiven and life in Christ.
We are challenged to read the Bible like never before and we seek the Lord in prayer. But as time goes by, it is not uncommon for believers to experience dryness and stagnation. The privileges we receive in Christ do not seem to interest us as much. This morning I want to speak with you about the privilege of prayer. Heartfelt prayer is one of the believer’s greatest privileges.
I. WHY DO WE PRAY?
There are any number of reasons why people pray. Believers pray for three basic reasons. We pray when we want to thank God for his goodness. Many believers begin every prayer with a word of thanksgiving. We have so much to be thankful for. Having a thankful heart is one of the qualities cultivated in the life of a Christian. It is impossible to be a committed follower of Christ and not have a thankful heart. After all, Paul tells us to give thanks in all things. In Phil.4 we are told to present our requests to God with thanksgiving.
Another reason for prayer is to praise God for who he is. Our God is so wonderful that he is far beyond our ability to comprehend the fullness of his glory and majesty. We are grateful for those passages in Scripture that describe the greatness of God. We are grateful for Jesus who is the image of the invisible God; “...in these last days God has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.”
Now it is important that we give time to praise God. I say this because in our culture, at least, we are very pragmatic people. We are very busy minded, even though we are not often as busy as we feel that we are. I find that busyness is more a state of mind than a reality. Being busy minded will keep us from praising God in prayer. And this leads us to the third general reason for prayer.
The third general reason for prayer is need. The stresses and challenges of life create many needs in our lives. It is true that as we grow up we learn how to deal with the everyday needs of life. Most of us are not wondering where our next meal is coming from, although some of us may be in that situation. But most of us have learned to look out for our own interests, and that is good. In Gal.6:5 Paul says that each of us is to bear his own load. But that said, there are many times in life when the load becomes difficult to bear and we realize that we are not the captain of our souls. We are not the master of our own fate. And we cry out to God in prayer.
The Scripture gives a whole variety of examples of things to pray about. In Mt.26:41, Jesus said to his disciples, “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” When we find ourselves being tempted to sin, we pray for strength to resist the devil. In Jms.1:5 we read, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” How often do we need wisdom in making life decisions. We can ask God for wisdom. Can anyone ask God for wisdom? Why not? But unbelievers might not be so inclined to do so. Even believers forget the great privilege of being able to ask God for wisdom. Whatever the need we are encouraged by Paul to bring those needs, those requests to the Lord
But there is another dimension to this that is very important. Listen to what Paul says in Rm.15:30-31. “I appeal to you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf, that I may be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea, and that my service for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints.” Or listen to Col.4:12. Paul writes, “Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you, always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God.” The word used for “strive together” and “struggling” is the word agonidzomai. You can hear our English word, “agonize.” Then in 2Cor.1:11 Paul says, “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."
I am pointing these verses out to show that in prayer we join together to help each other. We join in with one another to pray for each other’s needs. In these cases, Paul asked for prayer that he might be delivered from prison. Epaphras was praying that the believers in Colossae would mature as Christians and would have assurance of their salvation in Christ.
You see, there are broader concerns for us to pray about than just praying about our own needs. If you are a Christian you will be concerned about the needs pressing in on the church, both our own church and the larger church around the world. This is why Jesus says in Mt.9:38, “therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” In Col.4:3 Paul writes, “pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word.” James tells us in Jms.5:14, “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.” And in 3Jn.1:2 we find what has to be one of the most general prayers in the bible. John writes, “Beloved, I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health, as it goes well with your soul.”
Brothers and sisters, I don’t know anything about your prayer life. And it is not my intention to pass judgment on your prayer life. I assume that prayer is just as challenging for you as it is for me. If you are a Christian, I assume that you pray about your personal needs, those things that concern you and your family in particular. God surely encourages us to pray about our needs. But I am wondering how far afield your prayers might go. Do we pray that the Lord will send out laborers into the harvest? Do we pray for open doors for the gospel in our community and our world? Do we pray for Christian maturity and assurance for our brothers and sisters in Christ? Do we pray for our missionaries and for the believers experiencing persecution? In other words do we have God’s concerns in our hearts and minds? Or do we pray mostly for our own concerns? Jesus said to his disciples, “lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest.” Yes, lift up your eyes. The needs of the church in the world are great. The needs of our brothers and sisters are great. The needs of our local church are great. And there is opportunity for us to join together in praying for these needs, especially on Wednesday evenings when we have prayer meeting. (But there is a second question)
II. HOW DO WE PRAY?
As I discuss this question, I am not so concerned about posture and things like that. In the Bible we find people standing and kneeling in prayer. We see people praying silently and out loud. We see people praying with their eyes open. In fact, when I did a search in the ESV on the words “eye” and “close,” those words are never found together in reference to prayer. They do appear together in a reference to death and dullness of heart. We never hear Jesus saying, “Let’s bow our heads and close our eyes as we pray.” In fact, what Jesus does say is, “Watch and pray.” If anyone knows of an instance in the Bible where people close their eyes in prayer please tell me. I may have missed it. Of course, there is nothing wrong with closing one’s eyes in prayer.
But I do want to focus on two important principles that inform the way in which we pray. It is important that we pray with confidence. In Mt.6:7-8, just before teaching his disciples how to pray, Jesus says, “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” When we pray we pray with confidence that God already knows our situation far better than we do. In Mt.7:7-11 Jesus says, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” As believers, God is our heavenly Father. In Christ, we are sons of God. We have Jesus’ word that God is more than willing to give good things to those who ask him.
When James encourages believers to freely ask for wisdom, he mentions that we must ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind.” We pray with confidence.
Now how confident are you when you pray? How confident are you that God really hears your prayers? How confident are you that your prayers can make any difference? Many believers know the verses about prayer, but in their heart they have doubts. They have prayed for things and their prayers didn’t seem to make a difference at all. Unanswered prayer does not engender a spirit of confidence and faith. Others have a sort of, “what will be, will be” attitude. Whatever happens is God’s will. And so when it comes to prayer we may pray like we believe it makes a difference, but in fact we resign ourselves to fate.
Listen to Heb.5:7. It says, “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence.” Wait, does it say, “He was heard?” God did hear his prayer and in Lk.22:41-43 we read, “And he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him.”
Clearly Jesus believed in the importance and need for prayer. For Jesus, it wasn’t just a doctrine that he gave mental assent to. He prayed with confidence and God heard him. Did God answer his prayer? Yes. He did not remove the cup, but He did send an angel to give strength. Jesus did not doubt that God heard his prayer.
I guarantee you that the way of the world which surrounds us every day will undermine your ability to pray with confidence that God will hear and answer your prayer. If you tell people in the world that God answered your prayer, they will most likely chalk it up to coincidence. And if we are not careful we will do the same. I believe we must regularly preach this truth to ourselves. We must regularly remind ourselves that God hears and answers prayer. Satan does not want us to believe that prayer is effective. And it is important that we allow God to answer as he sees fit. God loves us and he has only good in his heart for his children. If we do not believe this then we really do not have confidence in God.
But there is something else that I believe is important. And I’m talking about fervency, earnestness in prayer. When we pray we seek to pray purposefully, thoughtfully, and fervently. Now the New Testament conveys this idea using a few different greek words. But each word has the idea of earnestness or fervency.
For example, in Mt.9:38, Jesus says, “Pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” Or in Lk.22:44 about Jesus it says, “And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly.” In 1Thess.3:10 Paul writes, “...as we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith.” In the ESV translation there is only one verse that uses our English word for “fervent” but the greek word for “fervent is not in the verse. In Jms.5:17. James writes, “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth.” The Greek word for “fervent” is not found in this verse. Literally, the phrase reads, “and in prayer he prayed.” The double use of the word, “prayer” emphasizes that Elijah prayed fervently, or earnestly.
Now obviously, we cannot drum up fervency. Today young people use the expression, “I’m not feeling it.” Well when it comes to prayer sometimes we’re just not feeling it. How do we enter into fervent prayer? How do we strive together, struggle together in prayer? Most of our prayer meetings are quiet as we listen to someone pray. How do we express fervency?
I believe that fervency in prayer is cultivated as we enter into the gravity of the need and together we allow the need to fill our hearts and minds. I also believe that if we join together in praying for a need, a number of those in the prayer group will lead out in prayer for that need instead of just one person praying about it and then we move on to something else.
Epaphras struggled in prayer for the believers in Colossae because he was from Colossae and he deeply yearned to see those believers mature in Christ. He was feeling it. When we pray, can we allow ourselves to feel it and put those feelings into prayer? I believe it requires time and focus to pray fervently together. We must embrace and own the need together. I think we learn to pray fervently by doing it. It will not feel comfortable because we are not used to it. I’m not talking about becoming charismatic or pentecostal. I’m talking about praying fervently with confidence and faith that God hears and answers prayer.
Now this week is our annual week of prayer. We will be gathering together each night in the library at 7:00 for prayer. This will be the 30th year that we have held our annual week of prayer. Over that past 29 years I have come to appreciate the challenge of doing this. We are busy and after a day of working we are tired. I don’t expect anyone, except for myself, to come out every night this week. I would like to encourage you to come for as many nights as you are able. It is a special time as we commit our church to the Lord and his worship and service for 2015. Heartfelt prayer is one of the believer’s greatest privileges. Amen.