Books that are entitled “How to do this…” and “How to do that…” are legion now days. And we all need, when it comes to prayer, some down to earth common sensical suggestions. More than one person has said to me, “I want to, I know I should, I’d like to, how do I go about it?” And it made me think of what characterizes me and every Christian, “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.”
In light of that lets motivate ourselves by seeing the power of prayer. It changes things and changes us. You don’t have to take your choice, you can have both. It isn’t either/or, it’s both/and. You can have your cake and eat it too. But before we go any further it must be said that we should not think of prayer primarily as getting things, although that is its basic meaning. It is a petition. It is an important part of prayer but not the exclusive part. I believe that we Calvinists have the biggest problem with this notion or question, “Does prayer change things?” Maybe that is why we are not necessarily noted for prayer. We tend to think that it has all been predetermined long ago, so what is the sense of praying about it? And yet I think that even as Calvinists in our heart-of-hearts we think it must or why would we spontaneously in times of trouble, sickness or death, unemployment, national emergencies, and so on just leap to prayer? We have all heard the expression, “there are no atheists in foxholes,” and it is all because of the belief that prayer changes things.
Well how does it? How can it? Doesn’t God run the show? In Philippians we see that God uses those prayers. A sovereign, independent God is pleased to use those prayers. For example, God doesn’t need the sun to make the world go round. He doesn’t need the sun to make the world light. There seems that there was some sort of light before the 4th day when God made the sun appear. But He is pleased to give us ultraviolet light, to give us energy, to make plants grow. To use another illustration, God didn’t have to arrange it to have man himself populate the world. He could have periodically created children, much like people bring foster kids into their home. He made the angels after all separately. So, in short, God doesn’t do anything in this world that He isn’t asked to. Take, for example, this matter of weather. It is one of if not the primary aspect of our existence. It regulates our health, our activity, our well being, our clothing, what we eat and where we eat, whether indoors or outdoors. Every newspaper carries a weather prediction, we listen to it on the news, our lives sort of revolve around the weather. And God says in James that Elijah was a man like us and he prayed and it didn’t rain and then he prayed again and it did rain. “The prayer of the righteous man is powerful and effective.” Prayer changes things. And that applies to forgiveness too. The Bible says that “whatsoever you shall bind in earth [by your prayers or failure to pray] shall be bound in heaven (or loosed).” And this applies not only to weather and to sin, but to everything. “More things are wrought by prayer,” says Tennyson, “then the world has ever dreamed of.” He was putting it mildly.
But more important, prayer changes us. I’m sure that we would all agree that that is more important than weather. Who cares if you die of exposure if in the process of life you become more and more like the Lord Jesus Christ, which is our whole reason for existence, our purpose in being Christians. Prayer changes us, and it works. Think of the most pious, devout people you know, the kind of a Christian you’d like to be and could be, and should be. I’m not thinking of monk-type people here, but people that are down to earth, practical. Almost invariably you will find that they are people of prayer. Not exclusively, I said they were practical. They put their money where their mouth is, they roll up their sleeves and implement what they asked God to do. Prayer is not a cop-out for work. The same James that says [sic] “You got faith? I’ll show you I got faith by my works.” Prayer is work. Faith without works is dead, and works without prayer is deader yet. One of the greatest evidences of spiritual growth, as a pastor of a congregation, is in this very area. I keep a list of things that we have prayed about that have come to pass, not only locally but around the world.
Now to the practice of prayer. First there is what the Bible refers to as “praying without ceasing.” Jesus said people ought to pray and not stop. This characterized Nehemiah, Ezra and many others. It marked them, and marked Jesus. It marks every outstanding Christian. “Prayer is the Christian’s very breath, the believers native air, his watchword at the gates of death.” He enters heaven with prayer. He is praying all the time, not just on his deathbed. That’s his lifestyle. One of its finest forms is to pray, in those situations when you can do it, is to pray aloud. It isn’t necessary but it is good self discipline. It makes the angels sing and it scares satan. Ask God to make you His instrument, His secretary, to give you things to pray about on the basis of which He can work. At the end of Job, after this tremendous ordeal, God has compassion for his friends, who meant well but missed the point. God said to Job, “Pray for your friends and I’ll bless them.” You first pray for them so I can bless them.
So that is private or personal prayer, but one is not going to pray without ceasing unless he has stated seasons. Again, all the men and women of God who accomplished great things had a quiet time. I’m not saying how long or how often, but it was systematic, it was regular. Now I know that we are all busy, but isn’t that funny, when you think about it, because everybody that has ever walked the earth has had a 24 hour day, no more or less. And yet we holler about being so busy, but ironically, there is no generation, at least theoretically, that should have more leisure. But the trouble is that given enough time you are going to fill it. Schedule a meeting for 2 hours and it is likely that you are going to fill it even if the agenda could have been done in half that time. That’s the law of life. So it is not a matter of finding time, it’s simply taking time. It is there if you want to have it. It all depends upon your priorities.
Just a thought about combined or joint prayer: What place does that play in the Christian’s prayer life? People say “I can pray at home,” and that is true and the same excuse is given for not going to church. So what is the value of gathering together to pray? It is not a caucus where we gather together to pressure God. And it isn’t to psych ourselves up, but it is the way in which we enrich one another’s prayers, where we learn from each other how to pray and what to pray for. That’s the great virtue of prayers with the family at home, whether at meal times or before bed. “Unless you become like a child, you will not enter the kingdom.” Unless you pray like them. This is a place where every member of the family is equally tall. This prayer enriches. And it also purifies our prayers. We all make mistakes, such as our content (praying for the wrong things), our manner (irreverence), our formulation or wrong words (trying to impress God with big theological terms); these can all be corrected when we pray with someone else. When we pray with others we tend to be more sincere. That’s likely what Jesus had in mind when he said if two of you should agree, touching anything, it should be touching my Father who is in heaven. It is pretty hard for two people to pray improperly.
Well, it still isn’t easy which makes me convinced that it is important. Don’t you find that is the way of most things in secular life that the most important things are the hardest to do? And the way to learn it is just to do it. It doesn’t come easy to anybody, but by doing you become skilled. That’s what prayer is, not talking about it, thinking about it, reading about it. Much like the way if one uses the word “doctor” they typically think about a medical doctor, someone who is “practicing”. Someone who is doing something. And that is how you learn to pray, by the doing.
And so, “Praying as one who long has prayed and yet no answer heard, Have you been sometimes half afraid God would not keep his word? Seems prayer to fall on deafened ears, does heaven seem blind and dumb? Believe, believe prayer is heard, the answer in time will come. God does not mock believing prayer. You shall not go unfed. He gives no serpent for a fish, nor gives He stones for bread. Say not ‘The promise is not mine, God did not hear me pray. I prayed, I trusted full but bars of brass have blocked the way.’ God heard thee, he hath not forgot. Faith will at length prevail. Yea, know it. Not the smallest word all his truth shall fail. For if you truly have believed, not vain has been thy prayer, as God is true, thy hope shall come, sometime, some way, some where.”