Well our topic tonight is prayer – speaking to God. I once heard a talk on prayer which began with the story of a great missionary who used to get up at 6am every day to pray for two hours. And it quoted an entry from his diary which said: ‘Had so much extra work today that I rose at 5am, instead, to cover it all in prayer.’ Which was meant to be inspiring, but I just found it depressing because it’s as if I was being challenged not just to run before I could walk, but to jump to the moon. And it left me feeling stuck and guilty in my lack of prayer. Which is the last thing I’d want this sermon to do. So I’ve assumed that all of us feel some degree of failure in this department. And my prayer has been that this would help us to start or re-start praying – or to keep praying if we already are. So let me ask you a question and give you a moment to answer it to yourself: what stops you praying?
Well, maybe practical things stop you. Maybe you don’t have a time to pray planned in your day – so you don’t. Or you’ve planned first thing in the morning but you’re always up too late the night before. But it’s often deeper things than practicalities. Maybe it’s intellectual questions like, ‘If God knows what we need and is going to do his will anyway, what’s the point of praying?’ Maybe it’s feeling too guilty – too ‘spiritually rubbish’ as someone said to me recently. Or maybe it’s being disillusioned by apparently unanswered prayer.
Well, let’s look to God’s Word for help past those obstacles. And I make no apology for turning us to what’s known as the Lord’s Prayer. It may be familiar to you, but the Lord meant us to go back to it again and again, to revitalise our praying. So would you turn in the Bible to Matthew 6.5. I’ve got three questions,
First, WHY PRAY? (vv5-6)
And I guess many believers would say, ‘Because you should – it’s one of those things Christians ought to do.’ But the Lord Jesus says here that we don’t just pray because we should, but for the reward. Look at what he says in Matthew 6, v5.
“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.” (v5)
So Jesus is tackling the problem of people who pray in public for the reward of impressing others. Now the Newcastle climate makes the temptation to do that on street corners mercifully low. But we can still do it in our CYFA small groups, or Focus or Home Groups or whatever we’re in – praying in order to impress others. And we can hold back from praying for the same reason – for fear that we wouldn’t impress others, for fear of what they’d think about our faltering prayers. So can I say: in those contexts, please don’t pray to impress, and please don’t hold back from praying for fear of not impressing. (Matthew 6.6):
“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.” (v6)
Now the Lord Jesus is not saying that all our praying should be done on our own. This bit of the Bible is about individual prayer; other bits tell us to pray with others. And the end of v6 says: we should pray not just because we should, but for the reward. And in my experience, there are two big rewards of prayer.
One is the peace of mind it can bring. I wonder if you know these verses from Philippians 4.6-7?
‘Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.’ (Philippians 4.6-7)
Eg, in the run-up to the last university mission I spoke on, preparation was going badly, and I was going down with a cold, and getting increasingly anxious and wishing I’d never said ‘Yes’. And the day before it began, with only one of five talks finished, I pushed aside my preparation and just prayed in desperation (which is always the most honest kind of prayer – where we’re thoroughly aware that we’re not in control). And that was the turning point, where the battle was won, so that I could then go out and enjoy the battle. And the following week was the most pressured, and yet most peaceful, time of that year. Because prayer draws us near to God and restores our perspective and gives us a fresh sense that he’s in control, that he does care about us, and that he is with us in all the things going on in our lives. Like the old hymn says:
What a friend we have in Jesus,
All our sins and griefs to bear;
What a privilege to carry
Everything to God in prayer.
O what peace we often forfeit
O what needless pain we bear
All because we do not carry
Everything to God in prayer.
And Joseph Scriven, who wrote that, was twice engaged to be married and both times his fiancée died tragically before their wedding day. So he knew what he was talking about.
But then the other big reward is seeing answers to prayer. An early one in my Christian life was when I was raising money for a Gap year with a mission in Kenya. I needed £1,500. So I applied to all sorts of trusts and prayed that, if it was God’s will for me to go, I’d get the money. Well, I got £1,400 – which was enough to go. But on the very day I left, a letter came from a family friend whom I hardly knew. And it had a cheque for £100 in it.
Now don’t run away with a rosy picture. I still forfeit peace by not praying; and I don’t see answers like that every day. And apparently unanswered prayer puzzles me, too. But I do know those rewards of praying. And they make me want to pray; and I pray that they make you want to start, or re-start, or keep praying – whatever it is for you.
So that’s ‘Why pray?’ For the reward.
Secondly, HOW TO PRAY? (vv7-8)
Let me mention some practicalities. Look back to v6, where the Lord Jesus says:
“But when you pray, go into your room…” (v6)
Ie, there needs to be something planned about prayer. However much we want to, if we don’t plan to, we probably won’t. And we need a regular ‘when’ in our day. And an undisturbed ‘where’ – somewhere quiet and free of people – like the university library.
Now as I said at the start, I don’t want to lay burdens on us. So on the one hand I want to say: it is possible for all of us to find a ‘when’ and a ‘where’ to pray; but on the other hand, that will look very different for different people – eg, you students are time-rich in a way that a young Mum or pressurised businessman can only dream or reminisce about. But as one wise old Christian I know says, ‘Pray as you can, not as you can’t.’ So without laying it on us as a ‘must’ I do want to say that the habit of starting the day with some time to read the Bible and pray has proved its worth for many Christians, and you can find resources to help with that at the Bible notes area at the back. And I pray then not because I’m a great morning person, but because it’s uninterrupted and gets me focussed on the Lord before I head out into the day. I’m not going to say anything about length of time to pray, because the Bible doesn’t. The most helpful comment I’ve heard is Martin Luther’s: ‘I never pray for long; but I never go long without praying.’ And to CYFA and students, can I say you’ll never have more time on your hands than now. I know you don’t believe that any more than I did when people said it to me. But it’s true. You think you lack time, when what you really lack is time management (as we all do, to some extent). And now is the time to establish good habits, because life will only get busier and test those habits to the limit.
So, when and where do we plan to pray? But as I said at the start, it is often deeper things that need addressing. So look down to v7:
“And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans [ie, people in non-Christian religion], for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (vv7-8)
Ie, pray with a true view of God. The false view is in v7. It’s that we manipulate God into giving us what we want. I once visited a Hindu temple, and saw a married couple pour a carton of milk over a phallic symbol and then pray to the god-statue behind it. And they used the same words over and over again, ringing a bell each time – presumably to keep the god’s attention. Well, that’s ‘babbling like pagans’ – they think they can manipulate their gods into giving them what they want – in this case, a child: it was a crude fertility ritual. But God isn’t like that, so the Lord Jesus, his Son, tells us not to pray like that. V8 again:
“Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (v8)
Now not everyone here can yet call God their Father. Earlier in the service we said to those three getting baptised, ‘We welcome you into the Lord’s family... We are children of the same heavenly father.’ But according to the Bible, you can only say that if you’ve come into relationship with God by trusting in the forgiveness that Jesus paid for on the cross. And if you’re unsure whether that’s you, please do pick up a copy of this booklet Why Jesus? which explains how we can have that relationship with God that these three have just spoken about (it’s on the Welcome Desk and at student supper). But if you have come into relationship with God like that, then you can call him your Father: he’s not some distant, uncaring god – and, v8, he knows what you need before you ask him.
Which begs the question, ‘So what’s the point of asking?’ As if the logic was, ‘God knows what you need, and therefore there’s no need to ask.’ But that’s not the logic. The logic is this: God is a loving Father who’s proved his commitment to your good by giving his own Son to die for you on the cross; and God is a wise Father who knows far better than you do what is truly good for you – and therefore we shouldn’t ask him for things in that pagan way. We shouldn’t doubt his care or think he needs his arm twisting to be good to us. If something is good for us now, he’ll give it to us now. If something is good for us later, he’ll give it to us later. If delay or disappointment or difficulty is good for us, he’ll give us those things. And if something is not good for us, he won’t give it.
And that goes some way to explaining the delays and apparent non-answers to some of our prayers, although it doesn’t remove all the mysteries about God’s answers and his timing. And often it’s only looking back that we can see at least something of God’s wisdom. Eg, a friend and I prayed about a possible job for him, which on the surface looked great, and he quite strongly wanted. He didn’t get it. But he knew the person who did, and it turned out to be a nightmare for them. And my friend realised, looking back, that the Lord had been very good to keep him out of it.
So that’s ‘How to pray?’ We need to plan to; but at a deeper level, we need a true view of God as our loving and wise heavenly Father.
Thirdly, WHAT TO PRAY? (vv9-14)
Well, look down to v9:
“This, then, is how you should pray...” (v9)
Ie, these are the kind of things to pray – use this as a template or guideline. And one way I try to pray is to open my Bible at this prayer, with a piece of paper and a pen. I read over the Lord’s prayer to remind me of the kind of things to pray. And then I think about my life, the day ahead, the people and things on my mind – and I jot down ideas of what to pray about those things, along the lines of this prayer – eg, there may be a particular temptation I face that day, like being impatient in a hard situation. And then I pray from what I’ve jotted down, to keep my mind from wandering. And you might find trying that helpful. But remember: pray as you can, not as you can’t. So let’s look briefly through the Lord’s Prayer v9:
“ ‘Our Father [which means he’s willing to give us anything that’s good for us] in heaven [which means he’s also able to. And then the next three lines really ask the same thing three ways. First,]
hallowed be your name.’
(v9)If you went on a tour round St James’ Park and stepped on the pitch, you might be pulled up by the guide saying, ‘Excuse me, sir (or madam), please come off there. It’s hallowed turf.’ Ie, treat it with the respect and honour it deserves. And v9 is saying to God, ‘May you be treated with the respect and honour you deserve – starting with me.’ Then v10 is the same thing put differently:
‘your kingdom come,
your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’ (v10)
Now the kingdom of God is the situation where everyone willingly submits to God as King – so there’s no sin and none of sin’s consequences. And that will only perfectly happen when Jesus comes again to wrap up history as Judge, to welcome into his kingdom all who’ve accepted him as King in this life, and to turn away from it all who haven’t (which is why sorting out where you stand with Christ is the most urgent issue in your life). So when we pray, ‘Your kingdom come,’ we’re ultimately praying for Jesus to come again. But by implication, we’re also praying that his will would be done now. After all, you’d be a fool to pray for Jesus to come again while you were still on the wrong side of him. So as I pray, ‘Your kingdom come,’ I’m also praying, ‘May your kingdom (or rule) come more in my life, in my obedience, today.’ And I’m also praying, ‘May your kingdom come in the lives of others. Please help me to make you known to them and please work in their hearts, to turn them to you.’ Ie, I’m basically praying for Christians (starting with me) to become more godly, and for non-Christians to turn to Jesus – so that we’re all ready for his coming again.
I worked in Kenya for that year I mentioned and if you went round to someone’s house to ask for something, culturally it was not the done thing to come straight out with it like we do here – you know, ‘Knock, knock. Have you got some sugar I could borrow?’ The cultural thing was to ask them how they were and to wait for them to ask you how you were, at which point you could raise the sugar. Which took forever and drove me mad as a Westerner and a sinner – because it meant making the other person the centre of concern, first. And in vv9 and 10, Jesus is saying, ‘Make God’s concerns the centre of prayer, first.’
So, eg, as a friend of mine was going through medical school, I prayed with him before most of his exams. And before his finals we talked about what we should pray. Now that might sound like a no-brainer: you pray to pass, don’t you? But let’s think about making God’s concerns the centre, first. Did we know it definitely was God’s will for Fred (I’ll conceal his identity) to pass those exams? No – because there’s no verse in the Bible which said so. Now because the Lord had got him that far through the course, we did trust that it was his will to see Fred qualify. But he’d had to do re-sits before and we knew that might be God’s will, again. So we asked ourselves, ‘What can we be sure, from the Bible, is God’s will that we can pray for in this situation?’ And Fred said, ‘Well, that I honour God by not being anxious and not getting self-absorbed during exams so I don’t look out for anyone else. And that if I pass, I give God the glory; and that if I don’t, I keep trusting him.’ So we prayed all that. As well as that he’d pass, if it was God’s will. Which, it turned out, it was.
That’s praying according to the template of vv9-10. But then of course the Lord wants to hear all our concerns as well – look on to v11:
‘Give us today our daily bread.’ (v11)
Ie, ‘Give us what we need to live today, to get through today.’ So he does want us to pray for exams that open doors to courses and then jobs; and for keeping our jobs if things are insecure, or for getting new jobs – so that we have money to meet our needs; and he wants us to pray for physical safety and health. And of course the flip-side of v11 is that we should thank him when we do have those things. Now notice we’re asking for bread not caviar – ie, needs, not luxuries. In the Bible, God promises to meet our needs not our wish-list – which also sheds light on some apparently unanswered prayer. And notice the repetition of ‘today’ and ‘daily.’ Which is because the Lord wants us to live in the present, and trust the future to him, rather than worrying about it. Eg, look over at 6.34:
“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (v34)
What a word in season that is for the current financial crisis. You may have seen that spoof report on the Japanese banks, recently: ‘Following last week’s news that Origami Bank had folded, we hear that Sumo Bank has gone belly up and that Bonsai Bank is planning to cut back many of its branches. Karaoke Bank is up for sale and going for a song, while shares in Kamikaze Bank have nose-dived. Staff at Karate Bank have been given the chop, and analysts suspect something very fishy at Sushi Bank, where workers are likely to get a very raw deal.’ The financial news is all fuel for anxiety. But we’re to live in the present and not take on the mental anxiety of possible futures that may never happen. And the way to avoid that anxiety is to pray about our needs and futures, and leave them with God, who is the only person really in control of them.
So v11 is about our physical needs as creatures; the rest is about our spiritual needs as sinners. Look at v12:
‘Forgive us our debts [ie, spiritual debts, sins],
as we also have forgiven our debtors.’ (v12)
And that’s a prayer we never grow out of because, this side of heaven, we’ll never be sinless. We’ll need forgiveness daily as surely as we’ll need bread daily. Now the Lord Jesus died to pay for the forgiveness of all our sins – past and future. So if you’re trusting in him, your whole life is covered with forgiveness. But this is saying that, as and when we become conscious of particular sins, we need to confess them and ask forgiveness. It’s not that sin splits our relationship with God so that we have to ‘confess our way back in’; but sin does spoil, or cloud, the relationship – so that the ‘air needs clearing’ in prayer. And can I say: if you’re that Christian who feels too guilty, too ‘spiritually rubbish’ to pray, don’t let that keep you away from the Lord. Satan is the only person who wants us to stay away from God and believe we can’t be forgiven. But the truth is that our Father always wants us to come to him, and that there’s no sin you can confess that will take him by surprise or that he’s unable or unwilling to forgive. Then v13:
‘And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.’ (v13)
Ie, ‘Please don’t just forgive me for past sins, but keep me from future sins; strengthen me in the face of all the testing experiences and tempting situations coming up today.’
And then, v14, is like a footnote, picking up on v12:
“For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (vv14-15)
Now that’s not saying: if I forgive others, I thereby earn God’s forgiveness as a reward, but if I don’t, I don’t. It’s saying: if I forgive others, my forgiving spirit is evidence that I’m a forgiven spirit – and that I don’t refuse to forgive others because I know I’d be up the creek without a paddle if God ever refused to forgive any of my sins. On the other hand, v15, if I don’t forgive others, that unforgiving spirit is evidence of an unforgiven spirit – evidence that I’ve not yet experienced God’s forgiveness. Now I know that for some of us the issue of forgiving others raises big hurts. And all I’ve time to say – gently – is that when it seems too costly to forgive others, we need to remember that God’s forgiveness of us cost him his Son on a cross.
I’m done. I hope that one thing, at least, from all we’ve looked at tonight will help you to start or restart, or keep on praying. And one final thing you’d find a big help is this new book on prayer – Prayer and the Voice of God, by Phillip Jensen & Tony Payne (Matthias Media). I read it this week on your behalf; and I think it’s the most helpful and readable thing you’ll find on prayer.
PLAN: When to pray regularly; who/what to pray for (eg, start with 1 or 2 people a day); pray along the lines of the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ – for your day, for people/things on your mind.
PRAY: in your small group (join one!); at our Central Prayer Meeting (8pm, Wednesdays, fortnightly, Church Hall); with a Christian friend once a week; use the JPC Prayer Diary (part of the monthly ‘Newsletter’).
READ: Bold I Approach – interactive Bible studies on prayer – ‘Quiet Time’ material; Prayer & the Voice of God, Jensen & Payne, Matthias Media – an excellent ‘first read’ on prayer; A Call To Spiritual Reformation, Don Carson, IVP an excellent ‘next read’.