Demystifying Prayer

NewChurch-Podcast-Art2People say they believe in the power of prayer, they ask for prayer when they are facing tough situations. I hear people all the time saying “Our prayers are with you,” “Our thoughts are with you,” “I could definitely use some prayer. Please pray for this or pray for that. You would think people are praying all the time.

I don’t have faith in prayer. I know it’s a bit of a Jesus Juke but prayer is the part we do. I believe in God and His ability to hear us when we pray and do something about what we are requesting of Him. I don’t have faith in faith or faith in prayer, I have faith in God.

That’s called a Jesus Juke. A Jesus Juke is when you kick the legs out from under a person by saying something that shows you are more spiritual than them. Like when you tell someone about your new favorite TV show and they say, “Oh, I gave away my TV, I just didn’t have time to watch it any more because I spend so much time praying.”

A recent survey found that 48% of Americans say they pray every day but when asked if that extends beyond “God is great, God is Good, and we thank Him for our food,” or “Now I lay me down to sleep…” 36% tried to change the subject. Even so, if 48% of the people are praying every day that means more people will pray than have sex, that’s more people than will go to work every day. More people pray every day than exercise daily. Of course this counts all kinds of prayer, even prayers that might not seem very spiritual. Like if they’re praying to win the lottery so they don’t have to go back to work. I wonder if it counts people who are blurting out prayers like “Oh God, please let us get a touchdown” or various other highly emotional uses of the phrases “Oh God! and Oh Jesus!” Do you suppose prayers by shoppers driving in endless circles on the verge of parking lot road rage are included?

What about “mad prayers?” Angry prayers. Praying for some jerk to get fired or for a pox to come upon them—is that part of the 48%?

I just wonder what the 48% consider daily prayer.

People say they believe God answers prayers but what does that mean? Does it mean that He always says “Yes?” Like a Genie that grants our wishes in Jesus Name Amen? Because I’m pretty sure “no” is an answer, too. Genie’s don’t get to say no.

And who are we praying to? Who do we think is listening? Let me be specific about what I am talking about here, I’m talking about praying to the One True God, the Creator the Universe, The Father who revealed Himself through the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit. He is Holy and we can only speak to Him because of Jesus.

I’m not talking about the kind of prayers that are synonymous with “Our thoughts and positive vibes are with you.” More and more people believe in prayer but don’t necessarily believe in God. To me that’s weird.

Screen Shot 2015-07-28 at 4.38.08 PMIt’s not the subject of my talk tonight but either everything happened by chance over billions of years and there is no God—in which case prayer is just delusional self hypnosis where mankind is talking to our imaginary friend in the sky that we dreamed up in our own image, or it’s the opposite. God created all that exists and then made all of us in His image. Which if that’s the case then prayer is the most amazing thing imaginable, mankind communicating with our Creator. Almighty God, Creator of heaven and earth is listening to us—to our cries, our requests, our thanksgivings and our incoherent babbles. When I speak of prayer, I’m talking about Jesus.

A lot of times I pray when I go to bed or when I wake up in the morning.

Sometimes I feel sorry for God. I feel sorry for the lame sleepy prayers that start off as a list of things on our heart and end up as a list a things we need to pick up at the grocery store, just before we fall back asleep and dream about forgetting to wear pants when we show up for church. I think there might be a special room in heaven where we are forced to listen to our most nonsensical prayers. It’s right next to the All You Can Eat Buffet featuring the grossest things we ever ate because we didn’t know what was hiding in our food. In my imagination heaven has a few strange attractions.

I want to talk about prayer tonight, demystify it a little bit and challenge all of us to grow in our prayer life. I’m going to touch on a bunch of scriptures that reveal to us some of what prayer is all about. This is not meant to be the final word on prayer. I am not world’s greatest expert, and I’m by no means the world’s shiniest example. The things I am sharing tonight are as challenging for me as they are for you or anyone else.

Here’s the thing, I don’t think most of us pray much at all. When our friends ask for prayer we click “like” because we like the idea of praying for them, we don’t want to lie and pretend that we will actually do the praying. If we do say we’ll pray then what do we mean? What does that prayer look like? Are we are going to stop everything we are doing, drop to our knees and plead before the LORD with tears? Ripping our clothes and pouring ashes on our head? Lock ourselves in a room and not eat for days because we are praying? I don’t think so. I think we quickly pray for them, get it out of the way by just thinking words like “Lord, please be with so and so and help them to such and such.” It’s okay, that counts, I do that sometimes, too. Our part is just to pray, it’s God’s job to make the miracles happen. But, it seems kinda lame, that’s why I’m more likely to type out a prayer as a response to the request or as a reply with an actual prayer to a text message. That way at least I have to think about the specific words that I am praying and it might be encouraging or comforting to the person who asked for prayer—maybe as they read it, they will pray with me. Like I said, it’s our job to pray, it’s His job to make it mean something.

But, I don’t want this message to be a big guilt trip, making us all feel bad for how much we don’t pray. So let me start with the most comforting good news I know about prayer. God desires for us to pray. He is always more willing to listen than we are to speak. He is always more willing to speak to us than we are to listen. I know this still seem like a guilt trip but it’s not. God loves us and wants to talk so He made it possible—because of Jesus we are able to enter the throne room of God and pray. Listen to this from Hebrews 4:14:

So then, since we have a great High Priest who has entered heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to what we believe. This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin. So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most.

Boldly. We are to approach God boldly. Then He will show us grace and offer us help where we need it most. Maybe what we need the most is to start at the beginning—having faith to pray at all. Maybe as soon as you start to pray you are confronted with doubt. Maybe as soon as you bow your head and close your eyes your next thought is “what if there’s not really a God and I’m just talking to myself?” Then boldly start there.

In Mark chapter 9 a man came to Jesus and asked Him to help his son. He said,

“Have mercy on us and help us, if you can.”
“What do you mean, ‘If I can’?” Jesus asked. “Anything is possible if a person believes.”
The father instantly cried out, “Lord, I do believe, but help me overcome my unbelief!”

If you go before God and your first thought is “hear my prayer if you can,” “hear my prayer if there is anyone really there who listens to prayers,” then make your first prayer “Lord, I do believe but help me overcome my unbelief!”

Doubt is natural but doubt is a jerk. It’s just looking to pick a fight. The only answer to “what if there is not a God” is “What if there is!” That will be enough. We don’t have to have perfect faith to pray, we just have to have faith. And with that tiny little bit of faithful prayer Jesus says in John 14:13-14

You can ask for anything in my name, and I will do it, so that the Son can bring glory to the Father. Yes, ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it!

Philippians 4:6 says

Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done.

And it couldn’t be said any more clear than when Jesus said in Matthew 21:22

“And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.”

Even if it’s the tiniest little bit of faith, like a mustard seed. So, if that’s the case, why don’t we always get what we want? TV evangelists seem to think it’s because we don’t have enough faith, and apparently the best way to show we have more faith is to give them more money. Other believers walk around like the Church Lady, judging everyone for their lack of faith. Jesus juking every unanswered prayer with an accusing raised eyebrow. “Hmm I wonder why your prayer wasn’t answered—could it be Satan?”

Like I said earlier maybe the prayer was answered—maybe you just didn’t like the answer. No is an answer.

In Matthew 7:11 Jesus was teaching on prayer and He said:

“Keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives. Everyone who seeks, finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.
“You parents—if your children ask for a loaf of bread, do you give them a stone instead? Or if they ask for a fish, do you give them a snake? Of course not! So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him.

Screen Shot 2015-07-28 at 4.39.53 PMThe concept works the other way, too. If my son asks for a bucket of candy covered in ice cream I tell him “no.” It’s good that he’s coming to me and asking. He is letting me know he is hungry and wants to eat something—that’s good, too. I might let him have a small piece of candy that won’t ruin his dinner or I might just say, “No, we are going to eat in a little while.” But he’s asking for something that wouldn’t be good for him so I’m not going to let him have it.

It’s the same with prayer. We ask for something and it may not be what we actually need. God hears our prayer and might tell us “no” so that He can keep us from something bad for us and instead give us what we actually need.

In James 4:3 the half-brother of Jesus tells us:

And even when you ask, you don’t get it because your motives are all wrong—you want only what will give you pleasure.

You might be thinking, “Okay, but if that’s the case what’s the point in praying at all?” If God knows what we need and is going to give us what is good for us no matter what we ask then why bother asking? The simple answer to that is that He wants us to.

If you, as a good parent, are only going to give your kids what you think is good for them, then why should your kids bother asking you for anything? Why should they bother speaking to you at all? If parents and children don’t talk to each other, then obviously something is wrong. God loves us and wants a relationship with us, we love Him and are thankful—that’s why we pray.

There are other reasons why God doesn’t give us what we want or do what we ask of Him in prayer. Sometimes it’s because we don’t believe. Sometimes it’s because we have unrepentant sin in our lives or unforgiveness in our hearts. I know it’s uncool to talk about how our sin is repulsive to God but you are not reading the same Bible I am if you haven’t noticed that God has a negative view of mankind’s inclination toward evil. At the risk of sounding intolerant and uncool, sometimes God doesn’t answer our prayers because of doubt and sin.

For example in Mark 11:24 Jesus is explaining how miracles happen:

Then Jesus said to the disciples, “Have faith in God. I tell you the truth, you can say to this mountain, ‘May you be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ and it will happen. But you must really believe it will happen and have no doubt in your heart. I tell you, you can pray for anything, and if you believe that you’ve received it, it will be yours. But when you are praying, first forgive anyone you are holding a grudge against, so that your Father in heaven will forgive your sins, too.”

I know it’s kind of a drag that God doesn’t want to move the mountains that we’re praying for if we refuse to forgive people or ask God to forgive us but the beautiful thing is that He wants to forgive us. He sent Jesus to the cross so we can be forgiven, and Jesus obediently humbled Himself and went there for us. While He was hanging there He even said “Father forgive them.”

We all have miracles we want to see, mountains we want to be moved, prayers we really hope God will answer, so how can we make sure there is nothing in heart that is in the way of Him hearing and answering our prayers? In 1 John 1:9 we are given an amazing promise:

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

Then we are clean. Pure. Free to boldly ask for our heart’s desires. Like that bucket of ice cream, so the LORD can tell us that it’s almost dinner time and He doesn’t want us to spoil our appetites—now go wash your hands, get ready for dinner and stop asking for ice cream.

When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray He gave them 66 words. Six petitions. We call it the Lord’s Prayer. It was very different from the flowery, long prayers of the religious leaders at the Temple and in the synagogues where they went on and on with vain repetition and impressive liturgical pomp. Jesus taught them a simple prayer any four year old can memorize.

Martin Luther said “The fewer the words the better the prayer.”

Screen Shot 2015-07-28 at 4.41.19 PMOne of the most dangerous things we will ever do, from a spiritual perspective, is public prayer. There are so many ways to sin while praying out loud in front of other people. Like, there’s the person who wants to look super spiritual to the people they are praying with so they use big theological words and put on a radio evangelist voice, “Holy Omnipotent LORD who in Thy most gracious mercy hath granted us to commune with Thee by bespeaking in the most impressive manner that we are able.” Trying to impress people with our less than humble prayers is not cool.

There’s the nervous prayer of someone who feels insecure and doesn’t really know what to say so they use a bunch of Christiany sounding phrases that seem like they were thrown in a prayer blender, “Lord we just thank You for the grace and mercy that You just show us through Jesus, Father we just come before You now and just ask for a hedge of protection, Lord, for traveling mercies, Father, we just ask that You would just be with us, Lord, that You would just pour Yourself on us, Father, Jesus, that You just, we just, Father, Lord, mercy, we just grace, Lord Jesus in Jesus’ Name, AMEN.” I’ll start counting the “Fathers” or “justs” in those prayers, which has to be pure evil on my part. By the way that was ten “justs” five “Lords” and four “Fathers.”

Can I just say that I’m thankful to Jesus that I’m not going to hell?

Another highly annoying public prayer transgression is the “I’m gonna preach a little sermon while I’m praying” prayer. You ask them to say grace and they’re like: “Lord, You told us in the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Mark that A large herd of pigs was browsing and rooting on a nearby hill. The demons begged him, “Send us to the pigs so we can live in them.” Jesus gave the order. But it was even worse for the pigs than for the man who had been filled with Legion. Crazed, they stampeded over a cliff into the sea and drowned. In this way, Lord we ask that You would bless these pork chops and mashed potatoes to the nourishment of our bodies, which are the temple of the Holy Spirit. AMEN”

There are just so many ways to sin in prayer time.Whenever I’m at a church and they make us hold hands I’m just thinking about how weird it is to hold someone’s hand, like we’re going for a romantic walk or something. If they tell us to hold hands and don’t start praying right away, it’s especially awkward, and if they pray so long that I start noticing their sweaty palm I want to scream. When the prayer is over I secretly hate the little squeeze some people give right after “amen.” Am I the only one?

While I’m confessing how dark my heart is, you know what else I can’t stand? Prayer requests. You know like when we make lists of prayer requests before we start praying, it’s even worse if after the listing of the prayer requests we divvy up the list and take turns praying for the things we were just talking about. We spend five minutes listening to someone tell us about their sad situation then we spend another five minutes explaining the same sad situation to God in the form of a prayer. Which pretty much becomes an exercise in short term memory.

Let’s see, how else can I ruin prayer for you…

I’m sorry, look there’s nothing wrong with any of those things—hold hands, make lists, pray using King James English, knock yourself out—but I’m talking about how easy it is to sin during group prayer. For me, it can be one of the main soul killing ways that I rack up the need for repentance and God’s grace. I have to start with confession so God can hear my prayers then I have to end with repentance for how much of an evil jerk I have been during the prayer.

“This is the strangest sermon I’ve ever heard on prayer, this guy is weird.”
“Be quiet I think he can hear us.”

You might think, well I know how to avoid all of that, I just won’t pray out loud—but that’s just another way the devil gets what he wants! We have to pray. God told us to pray. He wants us to talk with Him when we come together as a church. Listen, in 1 Timothy 2:8 it says

When believers come together, I want men to pray with holy hands lifted up to God, free from anger and controversy.

and in James 5:16 we are told to:

Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results.

When we gather together we are supposed to pray together, and like most things that we do with other people, if we are not careful we can hurt each other.

When it comes to public prayer it is wise to remember Martin Luther’s words: “The fewer the words the better the prayer.”

We also need to spend time praying when we are alone. It might be a surprise to you but we are encouraged to spend a lot of time praying alone. Jesus is our example in this. The busier His ministry became, the more people who wanted to hear Him teach, the more people crowded around Him, the more He got away to be alone and pray. This is just one of many, many examples we are told about but in Luke 6:12 it says:

And it came to pass in those days, that he went out into a mountain to pray, and continued all night in prayer to God.

He got alone and prayed all night.

Have you ever prayed all night? Have you ever prayed for more than an hour? I think there is something important that happens when we pray for a long time, something very different than what happens in quick prayers.

It’s not exactly the same thing but I think it’s kinda like charging your phone. Like when you notice the battery is getting low so you plug in the charger—Okay, the phone is on the charger, I need my phone to keep working so I plugged it into the source of power and restored battery life, I don’t want to stand here watching it charge so I hope that’s enough, AMEN. If that’s all you did then you unplug it and go about your day what would happen? It would die. It takes time to recharge. You didn’t actually recharge at all. I think prayer is like that in some way.

Sometimes we have to stop everything, get away from all the distractions and plug in to the true source of life and spiritual power. Prayer doesn’t just mean talking to God—it’s not supposed to be a monologue. God doesn’t need us to corner Him and talk His ear off. Sometimes we need to be still. To wait on the Lord. To quiet our mind. We need to listen. Meditate on His Word while in a state of prayer, asking Him to speak to us through His Word, through His Spirit.

When we are weary and in trouble we don’t always have words for what we have to say anyway, that’s why in Romans 8:26 it says:

Likewise the Spirit also helps our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.

Stay plugged in a bit longer, don’t be in such a hurry. Think through your life and surrender everything to God. Give Him your worries, think about the people who are on your heart, your hopes and dreams. Be thankful for everything in your life. Sometimes we need to practice slow deliberate lengthy time of prayer. Maybe that’s a new idea to you, give it a try.

There is also a sense in which we should always be aware of God and in a state of prayer. It says in Ephesians 6:18

Pray in the Spirit at all times and on every occasion. Stay alert and be persistent in your prayers for all believers everywhere.

God is with us everywhere we go and and is always more willing to listen that we are to pray. He expects us to always have our heart inclined toward Him. He always has. In 1 Chronicles 16:11 He said:

Seek the LORD and his strength, seek his face continually.

In 1 Thessalonians 5:17 we are told to:

Pray without ceasing.

Without ceasing. What does that even mean?

Brother Lawrence was a monk who in the 1600s wrote a book called “Practicing the Presence of God.” He talked about how he communed with God all the time no matter what he was doing. He felt especially close to the Father when he was working in the kitchen or doing other menial tasks. He said,

““There is not in the world a kind of life more sweet and delightful, than that of a continual conversation with God; those only can comprehend it who practice and experience it.”

You’ll never know unless you try it. So how about it? What if we put down our distractions? Turn off the television when we are doing the laundry or washing dishes, silence the radio when we are driving to and from work, quiet our mind instead of keeping it in a constant state of stimulation and turn our eyes to the Father. “Our Father who art in heaven, I am listening. Speak to me.”

People say to me all the time, “I’ve never heard God talk to me.” Maybe it’s because they’re never listening. I think God speaks to us all the time. Through His Word, through His people, through situations in our lives and I believe He whispers to our spirit in a quiet gentle voice, one that you might not hear over the drivetime barrage of news radio or your Spotify playlists or audio books. Those things are fine but sometimes we need to pray, God is listening.

Psalm 145:18

The LORD is near to all them that call on him,
to all that call on him in truth.

Prayer isn’t easy. It’s simple, it’s not complicated, but it isn’t easy. We live in a world that is bent and broken in just the perfect way so that we can’t quite see exactly who we are praying to. It can take a tremendous amount of willpower to get our stubborn hearts to pray. The good news is that God is always drawing us to Himself, once we lift our eyes and lift our heart our voice will be carried all the way to throne room of the Father, with Jesus sitting at His right hand hearing our prayers by the power of the Spirit. Perfect reception no matter where we are.

We shouldn’t only pray when we feel like it, or when things get so bad we see can’t see anything else to do except pray. Prayer is not a last resort. Prayer should be part of our daily rhythm. The first thought in our mind as we open our eyes in the morning should be to God, “Thank You for rest and another day to serve You.” We should schedule times to pray, put it on our Google calendars, appointments to seek the Lord, lay our troubles before Him, confess our sin, and listen to His voice, listen to His Word. We should pray at meals, pray when people ask you to pray—stop and type out a little prayer on Facebook or send a prayer as a text message.

Here’s a bold challenge: If you are talking with someone and you feel the Spirit leading you, pray with them right then and there—it might feel awkward the first few times you do it and it might blow their mind, but it also might mean the world to someone. It’s our job to do little things like this, it’s God’s job to make the miracles happen.

There’s so much more to be said about prayer. So many questions, so much we will never understand but it is clear that we are to pray—there’s no question about that.

May we be people who pray. May we be a church that prays. Hear these words from Philippians 4:6-7 Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. AMEN

Here are ten simple ideas about prayer:

1. Pray Everywhere. Wherever you are, God is always present and ready to listen. Do this always.
2. Pray Alone. Find a quiet place where you can fix your mind deliberately on God, apart from confusing distractions. Do this often.
3. Pray simply and naturally, like a conversation with a friend. Tell Him whatever is on your mind.
4. Be Thankful. Remember the things God has done for you.
5. Repent of sin and God will forgive you. He is near to a humble and contrite heart.
6. Ask for whatever you need or want.
7. Pray for others. Lift up the people who are on your heart.
8. Pray for the big needs of the world. Nothing is too big for God.
9. Pray that God’s will may be done in you and that you will walk in faithfulness.
10. Listen for Your assignments. What does God want you to do? Maybe you are the answer to someone else’s prayer.