Teach Us to Pray (2): It's Hard, But It's Not Complicated
January 18, 2015
Intro – A family had some guests for dinner one night and Dad asked his 6-year-old daughter if she would pray. She replied, “But Daddy, I don’t know what to say.” He replied, “Just say what you hear Mommy say.” So the girl bowed her head and prayed, “Lord, why on earth did I invite all these people to dinner?” I’m guessing Dad wished she’d copied Jesus rather than Mommy! Jesus has been asked: “Lord, teach us to pray.” But before we look at the detail, we are gleaning a lot about prayer from some general observations we started last week.
I. Prayer is entre to God, not Self – Prayer takes us into the very presence of God. Look around. We don’t belong there, could never deserve to be there, but in Christ, we are invited and wanted!
II. Prayer is essential, not optional – Then we saw that prayer was at the heart of Jesus’ ministry indicating to us that it is not optional in living a Christian life, but essential. If He needed it, how much more do we need it?
III. Prayer is Hard, Not Easy
Praying isn’t so hard, but taking time to pray is. Those hard-boiled fishermen and activist businessmen were not prone to stop long to pray to a God they could not see, touch or feel. R. C. Sproul wisely says, “Prayer is not something that comes naturally. No-one is born a good prayer, for there is nothing more repugnant to fallen man, to natural man, than to spend time alone with God.” If you find it hard to take time to pray, join the club. Right up until the moment of His crucifixion, the disciples found it very difficult.
Remember what Peter, James and John were doing on the Mount of Transfiguration? Sleeping! Almost missed one of history’s great moments by sleeping through it. Lu 5:15 tells us, “But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray.” Jesus is constantly praying, but we don’t see the disciples there. Interesting. And when they are invited at Gethsemane you know the story. Sleeping again. All 3 times Jesus sought them. Prayer is hard for everyone – including guys whose names are written into the foundation stones of heaven! Because they finally learned to do the hard work.
Some years ago a young man applied for a job with a logging crew. After successfully cutting down a tree he was told: “Start Monday.” So he started on Monday and worked hard through Thursday. But that afternoon the boss approached him and said, “Pick up your paycheck on your way out today.” Startled, the man said, “I thought you paid on Friday.” The foreman replied, “We do, but we’re letting you go today. You’ve fallen behind. You dropped from first on Monday to last on Wednesday and today hasn’t been any better.” The young man replied, “But I’m a hard worker. I arrive first, leave last and work through breaks.” Sensing his integrity the boss thought for a minute and then asked, “Have you been sharpening your axe?” The reply: “I’ve been working too hard to take the time.” Taking time to pray is hard, Beloved, but it must be done. Remember Bunyan’s wisdom: "You can do more than pray after you have prayed, but you cannot do more than pray until you have prayed." That needs to become our life motto.
IV. Prayer is simple, not complicated
This should encourage us. While prayer is hard; it is not complicated. This is kind of amazing really. The disciple says, “Lord, teach us to pray,” and Jesus responds with 3 simple verses containing 5 simple requests. Matthew’s extended version has 2 additional ones. Now I’m not suggesting that Jesus means us to say these 5 things over and over. That’s not the point. But His answer does indicate that prayer is not complicated. It doesn’t have to be involved; it doesn’t have to be long; it doesn’t have to be per some formula. Prayer is mostly opening our heart to God. Anyone can do it.
Some people say, “Pray Scripture.” Is it good to pray Scripture. To repeat God’s thoughts back to Him in form of a request? Great idea. Do you have to do that? Absolutely not. Some people begin with a lot of theological jargon. It’s almost like buttering God up or something. Is it good to address God with all His character traits? Sure. Is it necessary? Absolutely not. Is it good to go through ACTS – Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication? Yes. Is it necessary? No. Don’t overcomplicate it to the point that you don’t do it, Beloved. Prayer at its core is my heart connecting with God’s heart.
Dick Foth, a pastor at Timberline, presented at the CBMC prayer breakfast last year. He is past president of Bethany College in Santa Cruz and spent several years in DC establishing prayer breakfasts and counseling for government officials. He told of one foul-mouthed, womanizing lobbyist who always had a story about his latest conquest. But he began attending the breakfasts (for contacts), pulled Dick aside one day and said, “Dick, I may be in trouble. I’m seeing this woman who is a follower of Christ and I don’t think she’ll go on seeing me unless I give up these other women.” Dick said, “Who’d have guessed!?” The guy asked for prayer to know what to do. But he said, “I don’t hold hands with guys and I don’t shut my eyes.” Dick said, “No problem,” and prayed eyes open, no hand-holding. A few weeks later the guy was back. He had really fallen for this girl, but she was indeed insisting that there not be other women involved with him. What should he do? He asked for prayer: “You know that open-eye prayer? Do you think maybe I could do that?” Dick said, “Sure.” And so the guy began, “Lord, I know you’re trying like hell to get me!” And went on to ask for help with his decision. Of course, it was too late. God was hot on his tail. He ended up committing his life to Christ, marrying the girl and cleaning his life up. “But,” Dick said, “he did continue to like open-eyed prayers.” I love that story. Shows prayer isn’t complicated. Just one heart connecting with God’s.
V. Prayer is heartfelt, not Ritual
Many of us grew up on the Lord’s Prayer, right? We used to say it in church a lot. Said it in school, too. But did Jesus mean for us to repeat this prayer verbatim? After all, He says in v. 2, “When you pray, say.” It could be taken to mean that He expects the prayer to be repeated. But, that is not the intent. The disciple is asking the question because he’s noticed when Jesus prays, things happen. Specific answers to specific requests. Furthermore, Jesus here gives a shortened version of the prayer He had given early in the Sermon on the Mount in Mt 5. He did not repeat it verbatim, nor did He mean to. Jesus is giving a model for prayer, not a fixed formula. It is the themes we must see – the patterns, not the exact wording. It’s a skeleton outline for prayer.
Does this mean that we should never repeat the Lord’s Prayer together? No. The question is whether we really mean it and are not just going thru the motions because it takes us back to our childhood and makes us feel good. Do you see? Generally, it was not meant for liturgical use. Did Jesus ever repeat this prayer with His disciples? I can tell you He never did. Why? Because there is a clause that Jesus never could have prayed: “forgive us our sins.” It’s a pattern, Beloved, not a liturgy.
Prayer is useless if it does not come from the heart. Form prayers may be helpful, especially those in the Bible that express the cry of a wounded heart at some particular event. Sometimes they give us words we cannot come up with on our own, and that is when they are invaluable. But any prayer, whether already written down, or free form, is useless if it does not express our heart reaching out to God. Pray is not and cannot be a ritual. It begins with the heart. And it must be specific. Thus Jesus’ model prayer gives us a skeleton outline of the subject matter that is appropriate to make specific requests against. The real thing wells up from within.
This was exactly the problem with the Pharisees. They prayed long, impressive, theological prayers. Jesus says of them in Mt 6:5, “For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others.” But their prayer is not getting above their own heads.
Dick Lucas is pastor emeritus of an Anglican Church in England. He commented on a church he pastored at one time where a lot of respectable people came, but not many of them had a personal faith in Christ. He noted that during Communion they would recite the confession: “By thoughts, words, and deed, we have sinned most grievously against thy Divine Majesty provoking most justly thy wrath and condemnation against us.” Then he said you would mention the wrath of God against sin to them in private conversation afterward and they would reply, “Oh, I don’t believe in the wrath of God. You can’t believe in that nowadays. God loves everybody.” And yet 5 minutes before they were saying we justly deserved God’s wrath and condemnation. So much for formal prayers. God is listening when we get serious, not when we are going through the motions.
VI. Prayer is an act, not a frame of mind
Paul says, “Pray without ceasing” (I Thess 5:17). Some have suggested this means we should have this kind of mindset of prayer. But I don’t think that is what Paul is saying. I think he is saying, “Keep on praying all the time. Don’t let days go by without talking to the Father.” Daniel’s a great example – prayer 3 times a day in good times and bad. Never missed.Can life be a running conversation with God? Yes, I think it can – and should. But what Paul is urging is the same hard work of commitment to prayer that Jesus is urging. Prayer is an act, not a frame of mind. Jesus says, “When you pray, say.” “Say” infers an act. Note v. 1: “Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished.” Jesus was praying in a certain place, and the disciple could see when He began and when He finished. Prayer is an act, not a kind of ethereal, vague mindset. The prayers in the Bible always have a beginning, and end and content in between. There is no way around this. A commitment to prayer is a commitment of time. Prayer is an act that requires time.
D. L. Moody said: “We ought to see the face of God every morning before we see the face of man.” And, “If you have so much business to attend to that you have no time to pray, depend upon it, you have more business on hand than God ever intended you should have.” The disciples were starting to get this message. Eventually it changed their lives. It will change ours too when we get serious about regular times to invite God in. You will see many delays, but you will also see amazing answers as you begin to take seriously this breathtaking opportunity that our Creator gives to us.
VII. Prayer is personal more than public
Now I am not suggesting that public prayer is not necessary. We encourage each other greatly through praying together. We find public prayers often. Solomon prayer a wonderful prayer at the dedication of the temple in II Chron 6. We find the disciples gather for prayer together in almost every chapter in Acts. Public prayer fueled the growth of the early church. These guys learned the value of public prayer. In the primary description of the early church in Acts 2:42 we find: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” There is nothing more encouraging than to hear someone praying for a need you’ve expressed or to join hearts together over a common challenge. Public prayer was at the heart of the success and power of the early church. And it must be for us as well.
But even more important is private prayer. Jesus’ comments in Luke 11 clearly encourage private prayer. Often the gospel writers mention Jesus going off alone to pray. I find it interesting that seldom does He invite His disciples. The power of His ministry came from time alone with God. Lu 5:16: “But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray.” That was His example – private prayer first, then public. Sometimes in public prayer we are praying more to the audience than to the Lord. That won’t be an issue when we are alone with Him in private. That was Jesus’ example.
It was also His instruction. Mt 6:5, “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. 6 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.” Jesus didn’t say that to discourage public prayer in general. He did say it to discourage hypocritical prayers. But He clearly put a premium on being alone with God in a quiet, private place – your room or closet, He suggests. God will see you there.
VIII. Prayer is Petition as Much as Praise
Different prayers for different occasions will have differing content. Praise, thanksgiving, worship can all be part of prayer. David’s psalms are great examples. But Jesus’ answer here indicates that petition is at the heart of prayer. There is praise here; and there is confession, but it is all in the form of petition. When Jesus is asked, “Teach us to pray” His instruction consists of 5 petitions. That tells us prayer is about asking God for something. We must ask humbly; and we must ask in keeping with His will; but we are squandering our audience if we do not ask. James 4:2 says, “You do not have, because you do not ask.”
Praise should always accompany our asking to remind us who we are with. But I think it’s John Piper who said that in our affluence we have turned prayer into a kind of a nice telephone conversation. When we ought to be using it like a military walky-talky – calling for help, for resources, for reinforcement. It is our failure to recognize the spiritual battle that we are in that make us fail to utilize prayer as Jesus envisioned it, calling for daily needs and reinforcements.
Conc -- We don’t have because we don’t ask. In October, 1932, a group of 29 farmers and businessmen met to pray for revival in a field outside of Charlotte, NC. During that time one man became burdened to pray for a man to preach the gospel around the world. The next year, two more such days of prayer were held, one on a particular farmer’s property. That farmer’s son came home about 3:00 from school that day and began pitching hay. A friend asked, “Who are those men over there in the woods?” “Oh, I guess they are some fanatics who talked Dad into letting them use his place for a prayer meeting.” That skeptic was also God’s answer to the prayer. He was Billy Graham who had no idea that those men over there in the woods were praying him right into one of the great preaching ministries of all time. Never sell God short. Let’s quit talking about prayer and begin doing it. You can do more than pray after you pray; but you can’t do more than pray until you pray. Let’s pray.