We talk about prayer all the time. We say we’ll pray for sick family members. Some of us pray to God every morning during our devotions. Even if you’re not a Christian, you’ve probably prayed for those involved in a major national crisis before. Shortly after the tragic Boston marathon bombing, the hashtag “#PrayForBoston” went viral on social media. Thousands of people—Christians and non-Christians alike—were calling on their friends and followers to do one simple thing: pray. But what does it really mean when we tell others to “pray?”
It’s All About The Heart
Monks clad in long robes kneel in rows on the ground to pray. Practicing Muslims pray five times a day facing in the direction of Mecca. Catholics pray to Mary and the saints. There are so many different methods we use to pray, and there are so many different viewpoints on how we should pray. But in the midst of all this, have we forgotten what prayer really is?
Do not be misled into thinking prayer is about presentation, obligation, or vague hopeful feelings. Prayer is not a cold, works-based act of duty, nor is it something we do when we want to feel more hopeful about something bad in the world.
“And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words.” Matthew 6:7
“For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.” Psalm 51:16
David understood that it’s not the physical acts and routines we perform that please God. It’s our heart towards Him that matters, and that’s really all that matters.
Abiding in Christ
“If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” John 15:7
Usually when we read this verse in John, we skip to the, “ask whatever you wish” part. But notice the first section of the verse: “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you.” That’s the catch. We must abide in Christ, thereby causing His words to abide in us. So when that happens, will we be able to ask for any expensive car or successful career and have our request granted? Well, no… That’s not how it works.
“You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” James 4:3
If we truly have the very life of God abiding within us, we’ll understand that material possessions have no ultimate value at all. We’ll realize that Jesus Christ is so much more than anything we see in this world.
“Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.” 1 John 2:15-17
So why does the verse from John say, “ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you”? Because God is promising us Christ and His will for our lives and the world. That’s what our hearts and minds will be filled with when we abide in Him. Now that’s a big subject. But it’s not too hard to see how this applies to our everyday lives.
I’m sure you pray for nice temporal things to happen to you and others. But do you pray for God to work in your heart and use you for His purposes in this world? Do you pray for your unsaved friend’s salvation consistently? Do you pray for God’s help and strength in overcoming habitual sin in your life? These are the kinds of things God promises that He will accomplish for us in this world as long as we are abiding in Him continually.
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:6-7
I would advise you to step back for a second and just analyze this passage. It’s a beautiful example in Scripture of what true prayer is supposed to be. Prayer is not a mundane task we must perform everyday, nor is it a convenient way of acquiring worldly blessings from God. It is simply a desperate cry to our Lord to help us be more like Him; a cry He promises to always answer.
Far too often, we pray as if we are trying to impress those around us with our intelligent phrasing, vast vocabulary, and humble attitude. Ever since I became a Christian, I’ve hated these kinds of prayers. And yet as I grew in my faith I realized how easy they are to fall into. Something isn’t right when we talk in such a formal and closed-off way to God, not allowing our true selves to stand naked before His presence. It simply isn’t honest to talk to God with our typical dry, repetitive style. Why do we pray like this? Why don’t we let ourselves be true and honest in our speech toward God?
I know how hard it is to not let our minds go on autopilot and just use whatever cliche phrases come to mind. I find myself doing it in my private prayer life a lot, not to mention public prayers. But let’s make an effort together to put a stop to this irreverence and disrespect toward our Creator. It’s lazy to shut off our brains and spew a bunch of Christian phrases when we’re called on to pray. Instead, we should purpose to give God our undivided, honest attention, tell Him what’s really going on in our hearts, and let our words reflect our need for His grace and our love for Him.
When your mom calls you on the phone, how do you typically handle it? Many of us think, “Oh, it’s my mom. Better get this conversation out of the way.” So we anticipate her questions and give rushed, monotone answers. Then we quickly end the call and get back to whatever we were doing.
Many of us deal with God in the same way. We’re bored with prayer, so we get on with it and get it over with. We tire of the mention of our Savior’s throne room, so instead of really entering it, we pretend to be there while we stand outside God’s door, refusing to commit to the vulnerability His true presence demands. We need to stop avoiding such spectacular glory.
If, in our formality, we are cold to the Spirit and blind to the glories of Christ while we rattle off our wish lists to God, He will turn His eyes and ears away from us and refuse to listen to such nonsense. If, however, we are awakened to the true nature of our God and what He really did for us, all becomes clear and we experience unfathomable joy before His throne.
It’s like merely satisfying someone as opposed to actually listening to them and engaging with them. If we want only the bare minimum of communication, we will have just that. Nothing will really happen. But if we are genuinely interested in someone, we’ll show our understanding and appreciation for their words without even trying to. We’ll be voluntarily captivated by them and what they have to say, and we’ll lovingly give our honest opinion, encouraging the person with truth and advice instead of ignoring or disregarding them.
If we are able to so respect those we care about in this life, ought we not to respect our God?
“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Matthew 6:5-6
Don’t worry about what others think. Don’t worry about saying the right words. Don’t worry about appearing spiritually skilled. Just pray. Pray to God. I would advise you to set aside time to pray alone and as uninterrupted as possible. When we remove distractions like noise, busyness, and other people in the room, we are able to more fully realize what we are doing and to Whom we are doing it. It is in these moments of realization that we come to grips with the harsh reality of our brokenness and the marvelous nature of Christ and His gift of salvation. Seeing and truthfully reacting to these realities as they relate to our lives is what gives prayer its life and power.
I’ll bet you’ve seen this verse about prayer and scratched your head before. I know I have.
“Pray without ceasing” 1 Thessalonians 5:17
Say what? Without ceasing? Really now, come on… He doesn’t really mean that, does He?
He does. But not in the way you’re probably thinking. No, God doesn’t expect us to be vocally “praying” to Him all the time, though I believe there is most certainly a place for long periods of constant, fervent prayer (and I think that is part of what this verse refers to). He does, however, command that we be in the Spirit and living a prayer of a life.
What do I mean when I say a “prayer of a life?” Listen to these lyrics from the song, “Make My Life A Prayer To You” by Keith Green.
“Make my life a prayer to you
I wanna do what you want me to
No empty words and no white lies
No token prayers, no compromise
I wanna shine the light you gave
Through your son you sent to save us
From ourselves and our despair
It comforts me to know you’re really there”
That’s what a “prayer of a life” is. It’s a life that screams “Jesus” in a thousand tiny ways. It’s a life constantly in tune with what God desires of us. It’s a life that wants what Christ wants in every situation above all else. That isn’t to say we won’t sin. In fact, the one who has a prayer of a life realizes just how sinful and in need of a Savior we are and how glorious it is that Jesus is our Savior; they’ll want to share that glorious reality with everyone!
If you’ve ever encountered true prayer, you know the joy of heaven that floods your soul as you enter God’s very presence. That’s the radiance we are to have throughout the day and into the night that I think Paul is talking about. And as we delve into the context of verse 17, it becomes clear how God more practically expects that we “pray without ceasing.”
“See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.” 1 Thessalonians 5:15-22
Again, this is a “prayer of a life” at work; a life so wrapped up in Jesus that praying to Him is as natural as turning and talking to your friend when you’re on a road trip together. You might even say that you and your friend were talking “constantly” on that road trip. That’s what God desires of us.
But I Don’t Want To
The hardest thing about prayer seems to be actually doing it. It can be difficult to pray daily, much less “without ceasing.” Why do we always seem to miss our most important appointment of the day? Why is prayer so hard to commit to consistently?
Many times, prayer is hard because we are in sin and don’t want to approach our God. We fear that He will reject us or that He’ll ruin all the fun we’re having. Whenever we think of prayer, we squirm in our seats, feeling sick at the thought of such vulnerability and nakedness before the God of the universe. So we either avoid prayer altogether and inevitably fall farther away from God, or we put on a prayer performance (like I mentioned before) when we have to pray and never truly allow ourselves to come into God’s presence. We are cowards and fools, running from the Light that offers life.
“For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” John 3:20-21
Realize, Christian, that the longer you avoid God’s throne room, the longer you avoid true life, true joy, and the removal of all that is wretched and evil within you. Don’t wait any longer. You cannot afford to.
“If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” 1 John 1:6-7
Only Christ can give the satisfaction you endlessly seek in this world. But it won’t come easy and painless. It will be the glorious fire of conviction and truth, permeating the soul and permanently changing the heart. This is the same work that is done when we read God’s Word with an open heart.
“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” Hebrews 4:12-13
Don’t kill yourself by shrinking away from God any longer. Kill yourself in letting your selfishness die at the feet of Christ Jesus. Yes, it will hurt. Yes, He will ask everything of you. Yes, you will have to change all your greatests to leasts and all your leasts to greatests. But nothing compares to the glories of having the God of the universe as your true friend and Savior, guiding you every day into further holiness.
It all starts with simple, honest, true prayer and study of the Bible. That’s all there is to it. Nothing else leads to salvation. Nothing else leads to sanctification. Don’t wait for God to happen in your life. Pursue Him. Pursue Him because He is the only thing worth pursuing, and you simply must have Him. There is no other way but death.
“Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us.” 1 John 3:21-24