Spiritual Disciplines: PRAYER

Leonard Ravenhill said, "No man is greater than his prayer life. The pastor who is not praying is playing; the people who are not praying are straying. We have many organizers, but few agonizers; many players and payers, few pray-ers; many singers, few clingers; lots of pastors, few wrestlers; many fears, few tears; much fashion, little passion; many interferers, few intercessors; many writers, but few fighters. Failing here, we fail everywhere.”

A Survey on Prayer

In a recent survey, people were asked some specific questions about their prayer life. This was fascinating:

  • Of those who say God exists, 70% pray daily, as do 10% of those who don't believe in God. 
  • 42% ask for material things when they pray
  • 45% of 18 to 24 year olds pray meditatively
  • 91% of women pray, as do 85% of men. 
  • 32% regularly feel a deep sense of peace: 12% never experience this. 
  • 26% regularly sense the strong presence of God: 21% never do. 
  • 15% regularly receive a definite answer to a specific prayer, 27% never have, 25% have once or twice. 

Ask the average Christian, and most of them would say they are praying daily. They may pray in one spot at a repeated time, or "reflexively" throughout the day as situations arise. Certainly Scripture exhorts us in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 to "Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you." How does one 'pray without ceasing'? By living in a constant communion with the Lord--from the opening of the eyes each morning to the close at the end of day--you are relying on God for your daily bread and are perpetually crying out to Him in adoration, confession, and thanksgiving.

The Sermon on the Mount

The spiritual discipline of prayer is something Jesus specifically instructs us about in His sermon on the mount, In Matthew 6:5-18, Jesus says, "And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full."

The Pharisees (to whom Jesus is referring to here as hypocrites) loved to pray in front of others.  They were expert actors in the art of religiosity.  I wonder how many Christians today are the same way--expert actors--fooling everyone that they really love God, but behind closed doors, they take off the mask and are just like the world. Jesus says they have received their reward in full.  That means the reward they get is just some guy walking by saying, “Oh, wow, he’s praying.  Cool. Man, what a guy”. But Jesus says we are to be different than the religious hypocrites who are fakes:

"But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you."

The Prayer Closet

Not "if" you pray. But 'when'. Jesus encourages us to go to a private place, and spend time speaking with our Father in heaven. This is what we call ‘the prayer closet’.  This is not the location where your wife's dozens of shoes are tucked away, but where you go away and get alone with God.  Do you have that place? Maybe it’s your room, or maybe a place under a tree or on the beach. For many, their prayer "closet" is simply that same chair where they sit down and seek the Lord. For others, it is the driver's seat of an empty car during a morning commute. Wherever it is, it is a place where only God sees you, and you aren’t praying simply to impress others. Notice verse 7:

"And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him."

Short and Simple

For many years, I thought that the longer and more 'spiritual' a prayer, the more spiritual the person.  But this is simply not true. Sometimes people start their prayers with, “Oh God, Ruler and Master of the Universe…”  They use formal titles of respect for a God they are completely unfamiliar with.  I love prayers that are short and simple and direct.  I think that is the picture here also that Jesus is striking in our dependent, reflexive prayer life of communion with the Father.  When you read through the Psalms, you see short, simple and direct prayers that are true to David’s heart:

“Oh God, save me!”

“Help me Lord!”

“My heart is thirsty for you God!”

We often think that we need to pray long, drawn out prayers so God will stop running the universe and say, “Wow!  THAT is a prayer!  Gabriel, Michael, come here!  Listen to this!  This woman is using such eloquent speech when she prays!  I’ll definitely answer her prayers from now on!”

The pagans would pray to their false gods by babbling phrases over and over, in a sort of incantation that would invoke empathy or mercy. But Jesus says that our Father knows what we need before we even ask.  So if He knows, why do we bother asking?

Why Pray?

I believe it is to commune with Him. Jesus was equal with the Father, and yet completely dependent upon Him (John 5:30). Why did Jesus bother to pray constantly throughout His public ministry? Because it afforded time to speak with and fellowship with His heavenly Father.

A.W. Tozer said, “Sometimes I go to God and say, "God, if Thou dost never answer another prayer while I live on this earth, I will still worship Thee as long as I live and in the ages to come for what Thou hast done already. God’s already put me so far in debt that if I were to live one million millenniums I couldn’t pay Him for what He’s done for me.” 

Often God will not answer our prayers--not because He is unable or is too busy--but because we are praying with wrong intention. James said in his letter, “You do not have, because you do not ask God. 3 When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures" (James 4:2-3).

God simply wants us to ask.  But when we do ask, sometimes we don’t receive what we are asking for because we are asking with the wrong motives.

Have you ever prayed for something that you never got? Did you end up grateful that you didn’tget it when things turned out later?

“Lord, please let this guy propose to me and marry me!”

“Lord, please let this business deal go through!"

“God, I beseech you, by your authority in heaven and earth, please give me a new Camaro."

We ask with the wrong motives, so often God is gracious to not answer our prayers in the affirmative. We are to pray "in Jesus' name", which simply means to ask as if Jesus Himself were interceding. Ask yourself this question: Is this a prayer that is in line with what Jesus would pray? Is this a Biblical prayer? Will the answer to this prayer conform me into the image of Christ? Will it help glorify God through my life?

Keep Asking

In Matthew chapter 7, Jesus nears the conclusion of the sermon on the mount with these words:

"Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened."

Asking is very general.  You askthe store clerk to help you find vegan pancake mix (which sounds like a mistake).  But seekingis a little more intense.  You’ve asked, but now you are vigorously seeking after it, pacing up and down the aisles at Whole Foods desperate for your breakfast. Knocking is even more persistent still: now you are pounding on the manager’s office door, saying, “I need my V-cakes!"

That's a silly example, but I wonder how many of us view prayer the way Jesus describes it in Matthew 7. Asking, seeking, knocking. The Greek tense implies a continual asking, a continual seeking, a persistent, unending knock on the door of Heaven.

We aren't to give up on God because he hasn’t answered one of your prayers.

Often I'll ask someone how many times they have prayed for this? They answer, “once.” No! We should be constantly praying, submitting our prayer requests to the Lord. Often we don't pray but talk to others about the problem rather than the One who can resolve it in an instant.

The Lord's Prayer

On one occasion, Jesus' disciples wanted to know HOW to pray.  They asked Jesus to teach them how to pray, and Jesus did.  In Matthew 6 verse 9, Jesus gives them what we call "The Lord's Prayer". It is actually more accurately known as 'the disciples' prayer": 

9 "This, then, is how you should pray: 
"'Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, 
10 your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. 
11 Give us today our daily bread. 
12 Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 
13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.' 
14 For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. 

Does it get more simple than that? Jesus says prayer is this:

  1. Submit your life to your heavenly Father.
  2. Give Him the honor and glory He is due.
  3. Trust His will and invite Him to do His work in His way.
  4. Ask for Him to provide for your needs today.
  5. Confess your sins and in prayer forgive others who have sinned against you.
  6. Beseech Him to protect you and direct you away from the path of evil.

And notice that Jesus tells us to ask for 'daily' bread? That means we need to go to Him today. And tomorrow. And every new day until we are with Him in glory. We have the privilege of seeking the Father in prayer and trusting Him to answer. No man is greater than his prayer life. So rise up, and be greater today!

Pastor Pilgrim