If we host a gospel concert, it is not unusual for the church to be full. If we host a prayer meeting, we can fit into our little prayer room. Why is that?
When Jesus was at the most agonizing moment of His life He went and prayed in the garden of Gethsemane. We read that He invited the disciples to join him in prayer and we also read that instead of praying with him they were asleep. How like the disciples we sometimes are.
I know that we do pray and that at certain times prayer is very urgent. But when we read Scripture and see how often it talks about prayer and compare that with the amount of attention it gets in our church programs, I wonder if we really believe in prayer. Is it possible that either we don’t believe in God or that we don’t believe that his invitation to pray is important?
This morning I would like to address the second of these questions, “Why don’t we believe that His invitation to pray is important?” Or to put it another way, “Why pray?”
I. Does God Need Our Prayer?
What sometimes happens to me when think I about prayer is that I wonder whether it is really needed?
A. God Is Sovereign
The Bible is very clear about the sovereignty of God.
We read in I Samuel 2:6-8 - “The Lord brings death and makes alive; he brings down to the grave and raises up. The Lord sends poverty and wealth; he humbles and he exalts. He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; he seats them with princes and has them inherit a throne of honor. For the foundations of the earth are the Lord’s; upon them he has set the world.”
Psalm 115:3 - Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him.”
Jeremiah 18:6 - “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.”
Daniel 2:21 - He changes times and seasons; he sets up kings and deposes them. He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the discerning.”
If that is what God is like, what can my prayers possibly add to what happens? One large hindrance to our involvement in prayer is our belief that God does what He will do without our involvement. When Jesus tells us in Matthew 6:8, “your Father knows what you need before you ask him” we wonder why we need to ask Him.
That is a common impression, and yet we also know that we have not only been invited, but commanded to pray. Why pray?
B. What Power Do We Have?
Recognizing this command to pray, there are other thoughts which may come up in our minds to motivate us to pray. Perhaps there are reasons why God needs us to pray.
1. God Doesn’t Need to Know
Perhaps we need to pray because God is in heaven and we are on earth and so God needs us to tell Him what is happening on earth and what is needed on earth. Perhaps God doesn’t know about the details and our prayers supply Him with those details so that He knows how to respond.
Yet we know that that cannot be the case. God is aware of all things that are happening in heaven and on earth. Hebrews 4:13 says, “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”
2. God Doesn’t Need to Be Persuaded
Another explanation is that God is reluctant and needs to be persuaded. There are times when it seems that this is what is happening. In II Kings 20:1-6 we read the story of King Hezekiah. He was ill and the word of the prophet was that Hezekiah was going to die. But he prayed and it seems that his prayer persuaded God. In II Kings 20:5, 6 we read, “This is what the Lord, the God of your father David, says: I have heard your prayer and seen your tears; I will heal you.”
But this would mean that God is not fundamentally compassionate. It would imply that we have a reluctant sovereign and there is just too much Scripture which says otherwise. One such passage is Matthew 10:29-31 which tells us, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”
3. God Doesn’t Need to Be Moved
Sometimes it seems that people believe that if they say the right words, pray often enough or eloquently enough then God will hear and act. This is actually a very dangerous way of thinking, for it is a pagan way of thinking. It too assumes that God is not good but if we use the right words, like magic incantations, then He has to answer.
The Bible does tell us that it is good to pray diligently. James 5:16-18 encourages diligence in prayer from the example of Elijah when it says, “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain...” It is also good to have many people pray. Paul encourages the Corinthians in II Corinthians 1:10, 11, “…On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers...”
But we need to be very careful that we don’t take diligence and having many people pray to the extent that we think that God is more likely to answer if we use certain words, many words or have many people pray. Jesus warned in Matthew 6:7, 8, “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, 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.”
4. God Doesn’t Need to Have Permission
There is a book titled, “Intercessory Prayer” which presents the theory that God has authority in heaven, but has given authority on earth to human beings. The author points to Psalm 115:16 which says, “The highest heavens belong to the Lord, but the earth he has given to man.”
The writer goes on to say that prayer is important because our prayers give God permission to work on the earth, over which we have authority. In fact he goes so far as to say that God is not able to do anything without our prayer. He needs our permission.
I don’t believe that this is a Biblical concept either. God is still sovereign and in Isaiah 65:24 we read, “…before they call I will answer, while they are still speaking I will hear.” When you look at how God has worked in human history, there are just too many times when God worked when we have no indication that something happened because people prayed. How was it that God called Abraham? There is no indication that prayer was involved. God has a plan and He is bringing about His plan even if we don’t pray.
II. God Invites Us to Join Him
We know that God is sovereign and really doesn’t need our prayer. So if that is how we think, what motivation do we have to pray? Why pray?
A. Prayer Is Relationship.
Myron Augsburger says, “Prayer is relationship, not entreaty. Prayer is fellowship, not impression.”
One of the reasons why we must pray is because prayer is relationship. It is the communication which happens between a loving Father and His children.
This aspect of prayer is so beautifully exemplified by Jesus. So many times He spent time alone with the Father in prayer. Mark 1:35 says, “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.” This wonderful intimacy is seen in many of Jesus’ prayers. In His prayer in John 17 we read in verse 20, “Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” That phrase expresses what the whole prayer and indeed the whole of Jesus life tells us about His intimacy with the Father.
As we pray, we also enter into and grow in that same kind of intimacy with the Father and that in itself is an important reason to pray.
Not only do we grow in intimacy, but other things also happen in us through prayer. As we pray, we are kept humble. When we pray it reminds us that God is Lord and that we are creatures. One of the primary postures in prayer, kneeling, communicates the importance of humility.
In prayer we also express our dependence. As we pray, we are reminded that the one who is Lord is the one who has provided and continues to provide all our needs. In Psalm 5:3 we read, “In the morning, O Lord, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait in expectation.” What a wonderful expression of dependence on God. We seek Him in relationship and in doing so we express our dependence on God.
II Chronicles 7:14 is a key verse on prayer. It was given to the people by God when Solomon completed the temple in Jerusalem and dedicated it to God. God promised the people, “if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”
This is a significant and important reason to pray. It keeps us in a relationship with God in which we recognize who He is and who we are in relationship to Him. It keeps us humble and dependent.
B. God Invites Us to Pray
But some people are tempted to end the discussion on prayer at this point. It is important that we pray in order to keep a relationship with God, but some are tempted to suggest that that is all that prayer does. Prayer changes us, it has an impact on us, but it doesn’t change anything else. But the Bible does not support that kind of thinking. Prayer is important as a way of keeping relationship, but it is also important because it is effective. James 5:16 tells us, “…The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.”
1. The Call to Prayer
This is where the crunch comes. I wonder if we are truly convinced of this. If we were, wouldn’t we pray more? Why pray? Because God has invited us to pray and commands us to pray!
I Thessalonians 5:17 commands, “pray continually.”
Ephesians 6:18 gives a detailed and significant call to prayer when it says, “And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.” There is much in these verses on prayer. The call is extensive in that we are called to pray “on all occasions” with “all kinds of prayers” and “for all the saints.” We are to pray “in the Spirit.” But we must note above all that we are commanded to pray!
Jesus Himself calls us to pray in Luke 18:1 where He says, “Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.” This call to prayer comes directly from Jesus and therefore is a strong encouragement to keep on praying.
We see a great example of prayer in the life of Abraham. He had been told by the angel of the Lord that Sodom was going to be destroyed because of the wickedness of that city. This touched Abraham because his nephew Lot lived in Sodom, so Abraham began to pray. He asked God, with humility and yet urgency if the city would be destroyed if there were righteous people in it. He persisted in prayer and was able to gain the release of Lot from the wicked city before it was destroyed.
Hebrews 4:16 urges us, “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”
2. Follow Jesus’ Example
I mentioned earlier that Jesus had a great intimacy with the Father. He knew the Father well. We also know that Jesus had great power. Yet we see in Jesus life that he not only prayed in relationship with the Father, but also asked for specific things.
In Matthew 19:13 He prayed for the children. He prayed when Lazarus was raised from the dead in John 11:41. In Luke 22:32 he prayed for Peter when he knew he would be tempted. He asked God to forgive those who crucified him in Luke 23:34. The whole of John 17 is the prayer of Jesus for his disciples. He prayed about his impending death on the cross in Matthew 26:36ff in the garden of Gethsemane.
These were more than prayers of relationship. They were prayers of petition for specific situations. Now if Jesus prayed and asked God for things and if prayer was such an important part of His life, even though He was God and was in such a close relationship with God, doesn’t that show us how important it is for us to pray as well?
3. Call to Prayer for…
The Bible invites us to pray for many things and we have numerous examples of the kinds of things we should pray for.
James 5:14-16 is an invitation to pray for healing. Probably the most common request for prayer we hear expressed in the church is prayer for healing. Most of us have been affected by illness and often we desperately need God to act in order to help us during times of illness. The pattern in James 5:14-16 is very clear. If a person is sick, they should call for the elders who will come and pray and anoint with oil. We have done this numerous times in this congregation and I would encourage you to continue to make these requests. We as church leaders are glad to come and serve in this way. Of course, it is not the only way to pray for healing.
Earlier we looked at Ephesians 6:18 where Pauls instructs the Ephesians to pray. He also makes a request for them to pray regarding his ministry. He asks, “Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.” Prayer is a significant part of the work of proclaiming the gospel. Paul invites prayer for open doors, for courage and for words to speak. I think that the request made by missionaries most often is a request for prayer for their work. When I went to visit our missionaries in Paraguay, it became clearer to me that the work of prayer for missions is very important. Let us keep on praying diligently for those who are serving God.
There is also a call to pray for those who have sinned in I John 5:16 where we read, “If anyone sees his brother commit a sin that does not lead to death, he should pray and God will give him life.” This is a command to pray for all those who are believers, who are living in sin. Let us keep praying for them that they will come to repentance and restoration.
Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians in Ephesians 3:16-19 is a great example of a prayer which seeks God for the spiritual wellbeing of other believers. It says, “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”
These are battle prayers and an important part of the victory of God’s kingdom on earth and we need to be diligent in this battle in prayer.
4. Closet Prayer and Community Prayer
We know all of these things and we do pray for them, but often our prayer is on our own and I know that there are some people who believe that prayer should be a very private thing. We pray at home, but we are reluctant to join others in prayer or to come to a prayer meeting. The Bible affirms that we must pray on our own, but also in community.
Jesus encourages “closet” prayer as an expression of humility. In Matthew 6:5, 6, Jesus warns about making prayer a show when he 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. 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.”
But as we read this warning, we need to understand that Jesus is not telling us not to pray in community. What He is saying is that our prayers are not to be for show, but he is not saying that we are only to pray alone.
When you examine the book of Acts, you see how many times the early church prayed in community. Following Peter and John’s release from prison, we read in Acts 4:24, “When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God.” Jesus himself encourages us in Matthew 18:19, 20, “Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” William Barclay writes, “…we are meant to pray as members of a fellowship.”
Why pray? I admit that it is a little hard to come up with a clear answer. If God is sovereign and knows what we need, why do we have to ask Him? If it is not necessary to persuade God or give Him permission, what power do we have in prayer? The answer which satisfies me most is that there is mystery but there must be obedience. The reasons why we must pray are a mystery to me but I can live with this mystery because the call to prayer is very clear.
There are two things which will motivate us to engage deeply in prayer. One is if we are desperate. Not long ago someone asked a few people to pray about a desperate situation. Very quickly the situation was significantly improved and the person who asked for prayer commented, “Why didn’t I ask for prayer sooner?” Many have discovered in their desperation the wonderful blessing of how God answers prayer.
The other thing which will motivate us in prayer is when we recognize that it is important. We can think of many earthly examples of things we do because we know they are important - we change the oil in our vehicles, we remember to shut off the stove, we lock our doors when we park somewhere in the city. When we know that prayer is important, we will pray. I hope that the verses we have looked at this morning will persuade us of the importance of prayer.
But we can’t say we believe in prayer if we don’t pray. So let us make prayer more of a priority in our life. Let us pray diligently in our closet. Let us gather to pray in community. I would invite many to make use of the prayer room, either on Sunday morning or even during the week. We have a prayer team which receives a prayer letter of current prayer items every week. I would invite others to make use of this opportunity. Just ask me and you also will receive the letter.
Prayer is work and I would encourage all of us to be diligent and faithful in the work of prayer to which God has called us.