Part 5: Prayer

Spiritual Growth 101 – Prayer

When I was a child I did something really immature and very foolish.  It was a practical joke that was supposed to be funny but somebody got hurt in the process.  It escalated and my family was being sued over it.  I had to give a statement to an investigator and I lied.  Now, I am terrible at lying.  I always have been.  It’s obvious when I do it and I always get caught so early in life I learned that I probably just shouldn’t do it.  Well, here I am lying about this thing.  And one of my biggest fears in life was having to go to court.  

Now I would have to go to court and swear an oath to tell the truth and either tell the truth and my family gets sued or lie under oath, which I wasn’t good at.

So I prayed every night that God would make this go away.  I apologized to God profusely.  I did that whole, God if you fix this I’ll never do another bad thing in my life and I’ll never look at another dirty magazine again, you know.  And I did this for months and months and months and months.  Now I wasn’t exactly a Christian at this point.  I believed in God but I didn’t know Him like I know Him now.  It was kinda like I know you’re up there and I need your help because I screwed up.

Finally just months before the trial we received a letter from insurance that it was settled out of court.  That was my first experience that convinced me that prayer works.

I learned important lesson at an early age that prayer works because I got my way, because I got what I wanted from God.  My mentality was, if I want something in life, just ask the most powerful being in the universe, and if you have to do a little bargaining, so be it.  I will never again, fill in the blank.

But there has to be more to it, right?  Like a Biblical formula to ensure that our prayer will work.  Once I began following Jesus, I started reading the Bible and found that there was much more to prayer.  Almost like a right way and a wrong way to do it.  I think mine just happened to work, but that was probably just beginner’s luck like Daniel LaRusso with the fly in the chopsticks.  What is the Biblical formula?

THE BIBLICAL FORMULA:

1 YOU HAVE TO BE RIGHTEOUS

James 5:16 Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.

1 Pet 3:12 For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their prayer, but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.”

2 FAITH/BELIEF

Matt 21:22 If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.

Mark 11:24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.

3 IN YOUR CLOSET IN SECRET

Matt 6:6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.

4 IN JESUS’ NAME

John 14: 13-14 And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father.  You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.

John 16:23-24 In that day you will no longer ask me anything.  I tell you the truth, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name.  Until now you have not asked for anything in my name.  Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.

So now we have the fool-proof formula, the Biblical formula that will guarantee that our prayers will work: 

Be righteous

Believe and don’t doubt

Go into your closet

Ask in Jesus’ name

So my challenge to you this week is to memorize this formula and begin to pray by it so your prayers work.

Let’s close in prayer…just kidding.

No, you know this breaks down.  You know that we can’t just string some verses together out of context and call it a formula by which we can twist God’s arm, coerce Him and get Him to do whatever we want.

Let’s look at some problems with the formula as a means of getting what we want from God.

1 RIGHTEOUS 

What constitutes righteous?  How many evil deeds negate your prayers?  How do we know when we are being righteous enough for God to hear us?

2 FAITH/BELIEF You have prayed in faith and God didn’t answer your prayers, haven’t you?  Was it because you didn’t have enough faith?  You just needed more faith.  No.  You believed.  In fact, you may have had the bible open to these very passages about the necessity of faith and prayed through those very texts.

Not only do we find exceptions with this in real life, we find exceptions in the Bible.

Paul had an issue.  He called it a thorn in the flesh.  2 Cor 12:8-9Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” He prayed 3 times and the Lord didn’t take it away. Because Paul lacked faith?

3 IN JESUS’ NAME

You have prayed in Jesus’ name.  You have asked.  But you didn’t receive.  Why not?  Well, we also find in the Scriptures that people prayed, but I don’t see any prayers that end, “In Jesus’ name.”  Did these guys not get the memo?  They aren’t doing the formula right.

4 IN THE CLOSET BY SELF

We never do this.  We pray together all the time.  We do it every week.  Aren’t we violating the text?  And look at these cases in Acts-

Acts 1:14 They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.

Acts 4:24 When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God. “Sovereign Lord,” they said, “you made the heavens and the earth and the sea, and everything in them.

This is not a fool-proof formula to get your way and get exactly what you want in prayer.  

This breaks down.  So really, prayer doesn’t “work.” Not to get more from God.  

But it works.

The purpose of prayer is not to get more from God but to see more of Him.

Bottom line is prayer works. But God may not answer prayer the way that we expect Him to, which is really for our good.  Think of some of your own prayers that God didn’t answer the way you wanted Him to and in retrospect you said, “thanks God.  Your way was much better than mine.” Prayer works. Prayer works not because we change God’s mind through it but because God changes our mind through it.

The purpose of prayer is not to impose our will upon God, but to surrender our will to Him.  

The goal is to get to the place that Jesus got when he prayed in the garden.  The night of Jesus’ death, just hours before his crucifixion, he prayed.  Mark 14:35-3635 Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. 36 “Abba,Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”

Jesus didn’t get what he wanted from God there.  He came to the place where He got what God wanted.  He didn’t change God’s mind about the cross.  He came to a place where his mind was changed about the cross through his prayer.  He grew through it.  

Prayer reminds us that God is the King in whose Kingdom we serve, not that God serves us to advance our kingdom.

Now, my prayer formula earlier was a bit of satire to prove a point.  But Jesus did teach his disciples to pray and we are all familiar with that prayer, the “Our Father” prayer.  We could even call that the model prayer.  In that prayer, Jesus says, “Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  That is a radical reorientation from the way that popular Christianity teaches us to pray and the way that our human nature calls us to pray.  Because our natural inclination is to ignore God until someone or something threatens our kingdom.  Then we go to God and ask him to remove the threat…as if we were king and God serves us.  But when we approach God properly we are reminded that He is King and we serve Him, not the other way around.  That radical reorientation happens as a part of the process as we grow and mature spiritually through the act of prayer.

This series has been all about maturing spiritually.  We already discussed that mature believers ask better questions.  They don’t ask, “what can I get away with? Or is this okay, technically?” And “where exactly is the line and how close can I get to it without calling it sin?”  Those who are spiritually mature ask is this wise?  Is this beneficial?  Is this loving?  Is this for the advancement of the Kingdom and God’s glory?  When it comes to prayer, the same concept is true.  There is the elementary version, the spiritually immature prayer.  And those prayers are almost entirely me-centric, self-centered.  

As we grow in the Lord, as we make progress in the faith, our prayers become less and less self-centered and more and more God-centered and others oriented.

Even as mature believers we can still slip into self-centered prayer life.  In fact, we see a pattern in some of the Psalms.  Some of the Psalms start out immediately praising God.  Some Psalms, however, start focused on self, and stay there for a while and then by the end, they have moved toward a focus on God.  That should be the end goal.  

Psalm 13

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?

Look on me and answer, Lord my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
and my foes will rejoice when I fall.

But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the Lord’s praise,
for he has been good to me.

Many of the prayers in the Psalms share this pattern.  They start off kind of selfish, like God why aren’t you doing this and why aren’t you doing that?  And why is this happening and then they end up coming to a place where they say nevertheless I will praise you.  

Prayer should lead us to praise.

The more time you spend with a BIG GOD, our seemingly larger than life problems will begin to shrink in comparison to the magnificence of this truly larger than life God.

As I said earlier prayer works not because we change God’s mind through it but because God changes our mind through it.

I have had several occasions in which I found myself frustrated with someone because of how they are, what they did, or what they said.  So I talk to that person, try to work it out, let them know what I’m seeing.  And let’s face it, as long as we think in terms of being the king, we think that if people would just do what we want them to do, wouldn’t life just be so much easier and better, wouldn’t the world just be a much better place if they would just do what we say?  

But you know like I know, changing people is hard to do because they are just so stubborn, right?  So one of the things that I learned is when it comes to changing people, talking to God about it is FAR more effective than talking to people about it.  Take it to God in prayer.  So I began to do that.  If I was frustrated with someone because of how they are, what they did, or what they said, I would talk to God and let him know because while I don’t have the power to change their minds and their hearts, God does.  

Now, this is where the twist comes in.  Almost without exception, I go to God to present my case against another person so that God would change them.  But during my prayer time, during my time with a Holy, perfect, all powerful God and King, with every statement of complaint against the inadequacy or failure of others, I was reminded of my own inadequacies and failures.

God I’m frustrated because I asked him to do this and he hasn’t done it.  And within a flash, I am reminded of the things that have been requested of me that I haven’t yet done.

God I’m frustrated because he hasn’t called me back.  And within a flash, I am reminded of the person that I haven’t called back.

God I’m frustrated because at times it feels like my kids are more interested in what they can get from me than they are in me.  And within a flash, I am painfully aware of my own tendency to be more interested in what my heavenly father can give me than I am in my heavenly father, more interested in his hands than his face, more interested in his presents than his presence.  

Prayer works.  In moving others to change, talking to God about it is far more effective than talking to the person.  While prayer is effective in moving others to change, it is equally effective in moving us to change.

Prayer works not because we change God’s mind through it but because God changes our mind through it.

Prayer is simply talking to God.  It is vital to know this God to whom you speak.

We want to make sure that our prayer life is informed by the Scriptures because we want to know the One we are talking to.  That makes a big difference.  

One time my phone rang and I didn’t recognize the number.  Now I’m one of those people who answers anyway (rarely do I ignore).  I’ve seen people who go – nope.  For the most part I go, “This is David” and in this instance the person at the other end totally disregarded that statement because they started going on and on and on about some kind of insurance thing, thinking that they were talking to some insurance company.  Next day I get another call from a different person who did the exact same thing.  Now, I figured what happened was that these people were calling from a landline in Austin.  They started dialing a number that began with area code 217 and they paused too long after dialing the first 7 digits and it called me.  My point?  These people didn’t have a clue who they were talking to so the way they were talking to me didn’t really make much sense.  If they knew who they were talking to the conversation would have been way different.  The same is true for our conversations with God.  We need to know the God to whom we are speaking. 

Prayer is talking to God.  It is vital to know this God to whom we speak.  Our source for getting to know Him is the Bible.  What is he like?   

If you think God is a created being you will approach him differently than you would approach a self-existent Creator.  

If you think God is one god among and equal to many other gods you will approach him differently than you would the Supreme Being, Most High.  

If you think that prayer is one of 5 duties that you must perform in order to procure your salvation, you will approach God differently than you would if prayer is simply talking with the God who gave you salvation as a gift given by grace through your faith in Jesus.

So knowing this God is important and he reveals himself to us through the Bible, the written account of his interaction with his people in history, his deeds, acts, and wonders, his words declared by his mouthpiece the prophets, and ultimately in the record of his Son Jesus, who was the image of the invisible God, the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being.

So the spiritual discipline of prayer, must be accompanied by all of the other spiritual disciplines, especially devotional reading and study of the Scriptures.

PRAYER IS IMPORTANT. In my opinion it is the MOST important factor in spiritual growth.   

As we bring this series spiritual growth 101 to a close, we do so with prayer, the apex of spiritual disciplines, the one that is the most effective and most important for our spiritual growth.

Let’s look at a few verses that stress the importance of prayer.  

1 Thess 5:17 Pray continually

Col 4:2 Devote yourselves to prayer

Now, I want to talk to the men for a moment.  In case you’re not convinced that prayer is important, let me share a little tidbit with you that will change your perspective.

1 Cor 7:5 Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.

Men, not in the mood doesn’t cut it.  Tired doesn’t cut it.  This is profound.  According to the Bible prayer is the ONLY reason given for depriving your spouse.  Okay.  Clearly prayer is important.  It’s the only thing more important than the thing that he’s talking about.  Get that men?  You know how important that is, so I hope you’re convinced now.  Prayer is important.

Prayer is important, the most important spiritual discipline for our spiritual growth.

Prayer works!  Not because by it we can coerce God, twist His arm to do something that he otherwise wouldn’t do.  Not because by our prayers we can get God to do our bidding and make the master of the universe the servant of a measly human.

Prayer works!  Not to get us more from God but to help us see more of God.  

Prayer works!  Not to impose our will upon God but to surrender our will to God, to bring us to the place where we say I am a servant in Your Kingdom, you are my king and I am here to do YOUR bidding, so not my will but yours be done. 

As we grow in the Lord, as we make progress in the faith, our prayers become less and less self-centered and more and more God-centered and others oriented.  That doesn’t mean we can’t or don’t ask for things, but that isn’t the primary purpose and certainly isn’t the sole purpose.  

Prayer works!  The longer we stay there, the more it leads us to praise and worship.  

Prayer works!  Not to change God’s mind, but to change our minds.

And while prayer is effective to change others, it is equally effective to change us in the midst of those prayers, to conform us more to the image of Christ and make us more like our good, gracious, and merciful God.

Prayer works!  Prayer works alongside other spiritual disciplines to grow us closer to God, make us more like Jesus.  Just as:

scripture memory

devotional reading

bible study

being filled with the spirit

purifying our hearts

fellowship

worship

sacrificial giving

serving 

loving 

…all work to grow us spiritually and help us to make progress in the faith, prayer works.  

Prayer helps bring us closer to God, cultivate spiritual growth and maturity, and enriches our lives.

It is the key ingredient to a vibrant spiritual life and a relationship with God, which is what the Christian life is all about.