Teach Us to Pray (3): Sighting In on God's Will
January 25, 2015
Intro –Jas 4:2-3 reminds us of 2 main reasons prayers seem unanswered: “You do not have, because you do not ask. (Problem #1, we don’t ask) 3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” (Prob #2, we ask selfishly). Either kills the spirit of prayer and it is the second we want to examine today.
Lu 11:1-4 contains Jesus’ response to a request, “Lord, teach us to pray.” So far we’ve studied 8 general principles we learn here. Today we look at 3 more before getting into detail next week. A bird’s eye perspective.
IX. It focuses on Needs, Not Wants
This is readily apparent from a review of the 5 requests the Lord suggests form a framework for prayer. There is not a luxury item in the list. Even food – not a month’s worth or a week’s worth, but just what is needed today. The requests are about God and His glory. The emphasis is all on needs as defined by God, not on wants as defined by me. Do you see that?
Prayer is asking – but in the pursuit of His will and His glory, not my will, and my glory. That misses the entire spirit of prayer. “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (Jas 4:3). God is far more interested in making us holy than He is in making us happy, The idea that He is some kind of divine genie who can be tapped to make me happy misses the point – badly! But that’s how most treat prayer!
Christian Smith is a sociologist who wrote Soul Searching, documenting an extensive study of American youth. Many interesting insights, but he concludes that the religion of America is moralistic, therapeutic deism. What does he mean by that? Let’s take the deism first. This is the premise that God created, then left. Most Americans believe God created the world – but He mostly stays out of it. Classical deism says He created, wound it up like a clock and never intervenes. In the modern version you can call on God occasionally. But He’s uninvolved unless you call Him to solve a problem. Like a divine butler. You whistle and He comes. Otherwise He’s uninvolved.
How about moralistic? Moralistic means God rewards nice people. He’s the eternal Mr. Rogers. Who defines the morals? In our relativistic society, that’s largely up to the individual. The Bible’s definitions are too strict, certainly in the area of sexuality. So, we can define morals in whatever way works for us, just so we mean well. Well-intentioned people go to heaven and most are. Hitler wouldn’t make it. Putin, maybe not, but most people you meet are fine.
Therapeutic? This element means that the central goal of life is to be happy; to feel good about yourself. I’ll never forget one famous NFL quarterback explaining his infidelity to his wife by saying, “God wants Joe [blank] to be happy.” Guess God didn’t care about the wife. That’s the therapeutic part of moralistic, therapeutic deism. My happiness is what is most important. It's all about what God can do for me. How can He make me happy? How can He contribute to this movie that is my life? There was a great book title a few years ago: Life, the movie by Everyone. It’s premise was we live like we’re in a movie. "Here, God, let me grab you as a bit player. You'll be a walk-on. We’re not gonna be a close, but you can help keep me happy.” God's nice, we are nice, so let's all be nice. This is America’s spiritual creed. Happiness is the ultimate good! But with that creed being taught in churches and lived out in lives, is it any wonder our prayers are sloppy, self-centered exercises focused on us? Wants instead of needs. Luxury instead of necessity. Happiness instead of holiness. We pray for what makes us happy; when did we last pray for what makes us holy?
A pastor bought a parrot with a colorful vocabulary from its previous owner. A woman in the congregation suggested he put him with her well-behaved bird who said nothing except, “Let’s pray.” So they were caged together. The pastor’s parrot took one look at his new companion and chirped, “Hey, Toots, how about a kiss?” The other responded, “My prayers have been answered.” That’s our prayer life, isn’t it? It’s all about me and my wants.
We hardly know the difference between needs and wants anymore. We pray, “Give me a new car. Give me a boyfriend. Give me better job. Give me a better husband.” Can we pray about those things? Yes. God cares about our needs. But we pray those things for our own passions. We’re not looking for God’s interests; we are looking out for our own. We are not looking for holiness; we are looking for happiness. We have acquired more of the decadence of our society. We must retrain to look for the mind of God.
X. It focuses on God First, Then Self
Jesus model prayer consists of 5 petitions here (7 in Matt). But the starting point is God. Note the beginning. V. 2, “Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Most of our prayers are self-centered. Jesus’ example is very God-centered. Listen, does Jesus care about us? He loves us more than we love ourselves. But He knows our best good and greatest happiness will be found in putting God first. Otherwise, everything gets all messed up.
There is so much misunderstanding about prayer. We take promises like “If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it” (John 14:14) to mean God is at our disposal for any whim that takes our fancy. We interpret that God is at our beck and call like some kind of Cosmic Santa. But we ignore the qualifiers, “in my name” – that is according to my will.
The pattern of Jesus’ prayer puts this all in perspective. It puts God’s name, God’s will and God’s kingdom at the top. So, anything I may be asking for myself or others must fit within that framework. Without the framework, we are all over the map with our selfish desires. Within the framework, we are protected. Know what prayer is at its heart? It is aligning as closely as possible with the heart of God and then asking for what you believe He would ask for. Then when He answers Yes, No or Wait, you are that much closer to knowing the mind of God. Prayer is an adventure in finding and doing God’s will, not mine. Bending me to Him, not Him to me!
Idols = things more important to us than God. Prayer is about removing idols from our lives, not building new ones. It always amazes me how God arranges for teachers to live the things they are teaching. Just last week, God smashed a potential idol in my life and Patty’s. It was painful even tho God did it in the most gracious manner possible. Amazingly gracious. I can’t give you the details today – another time, perhaps. But the point is prayer is about smashing idols, not creating them. Building His empire, not mine.
Our lives, even as a Xn, are littered with idols, lurking in every corner. Idols can be evil – areas where we are in direct disobedience. BUT more often they are good things that we love more than Him. When we treasure the gift more than the Giver = IDOL. It can be anything – a relationship, possession, a passion, a hobby – a good thing placed one notch too high. Know how you can tell an idol? The acid test? Ask, what would make me angry with God if he took it away? Get really honest. Those are your idols. A huz, wife, kids, job, career, position, prestige, reputation, car, house, boat, second home, recreation, sport, Big screen, books, shopping, grades. What would make you angry at God if He took it? It’s an idol. It can be anything – a ministry, a friend, health, wealth, a talent, a carefully honed identity.
2nd test. What has God not given you that makes you angry with Him? If it makes you angry, you love it more than Him and it’s an idol. Perhaps you’re single and want to be married – married and want to be single. Perhaps you want a better job, a new friend, a new car, a promotion. Perhaps you’ve been praying for kids’ spiritual well-being and God is not answering. If you are mad at God for not delivering, you’ve got an idol and it’s time to embrace His answer, lay the idol at His feet and seek forgiveness. Whatever else is going on, God is not doing you wrong! The problem is us. Calvin said our hearts are idol-making factories! They are in every nook and corner of our existence and prayer is about getting them out, not making new ones.
The only good prayer is the prayer that is centered on God’s will even if it differs from mine at the moment. Jesus Himself showed us that when tempted to idolatry in Gethsemane, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” That ought to put any iota of anger we have against God in the background. God’s will cost Jesus way more than it will ever cost us. God doesn’t always give us what we want; but He always gives what we need.
Remember Jonah after he had preached in Nineveh and everyone repented. You’d have thought he’d have been ecstatic, but instead he is in a snit – mad at God for forgiving Israel’s mortal enemies. So he sits down to pout. Jonah 4:6, “Now the LORD God appointed a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be a shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort. So Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant. 7 But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered. 8 When the sun rose, God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint.” So what in the world is God doing? He’s pulling one of His own lovely gifts out of Jonah’s life. Showing him his idol of nationalism and that he was just as idolatrous as the Assyrians – on difference being they were repentant; he was not.
So does God delight in our pain? No. He delights in the safety He’s moving us to. But He’s like the lumberjacks who noticed 2 birds taking nest in a tree that was coming down. So they began to beat on the tree, rattling the birds’ until they flew to the next tree to nest. But that tree was coming down, too. So they pained the birds more finally the birds nested in the rocks where they would be safe.
Beloved, we may have been pretty angry with God. But what He’s saying to us is, “This tree is coming down, this thing you built your life on, this thing you say you must have to be happy. Don’t you realize you will never have lasting, unassailable certainty and joy until you build your nest in a tree that’s not coming down? That’s Me. I’m that tree!” That’s why prayer focuses on God first. That puts our lives in perspective, keeps us from asking things we can consume on our own lusts. Idols that will destroy us.
XI. It Focuses on Spiritual More Than Physical
One of the things I love about Christianity is that it cares for the whole person. It promises a future for both body and soul. Most religions have as a goal to discard the body. Xns look forward with great anticipation to the day when we will have a body “like His glorious body” (Phil 3:20). But as much as physical things mean to us, they must take a backseat to spiritual things. They do so in this prayer. In Luke’s version 4 of 5 petitions relate to spiritual things. In Matt’s version 5 of 6 do so. The priority is spiritual.
Most of our prayers are topsy-turvy in this regard. We spend much more time praying for physical issues than spiritual. The reason is obvious. The physical is so immediate and present. I can perceive physical needs; I cannot perceive spiritual needs. So I tend to be more concerned about my or other’s health issues than our spiritual transformation. Paul urged otherwise when he wrote in II Cor 4:17-18, “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” He is urging us to see beyond; so is this prayer of Jesus where the only physical petition is for daily bread. So are the prayers of the apostles in the NT. Check them out. You don’t find Sister Grace’s gout mentioned very often, but you’ll find a lot about spiritual insight and understanding.
Does that mean we should not pray for immediate physical needs? Of course not. II Pet 5:7 says, “casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.” That’s a generous invitation from a loving Father. But in our concern for the immediate, we must not neglect the spiritual.
Evangelicalism was guilty for much of the 20th century of ignoring the physical needs of people. But now the pendulum has swung far in the other direction. It has been well said that you cannot preach Christ to someone with an empty stomach. But neither is it possible to let our light shine by our good deeds and have people glorify our Father in heaven rather than us if we do not speak of Him and make the spiritual needs a priority. In the end, what is most important -- that someone find healing or shelter or food only to die without Christ OR that they find Christ, even if they die today of neglect? That question really demands a bothand answer rather than eitheror. But the priority must be spiritual need.
NBC’s “Dateline” followed Boston oncologist Dr. Jerome Groopman for 2 years as he tried to save the lives of Gene, an AIDS victim and Elizabeth, who suffered from breast cancer. He became quite close to both patients, yet both eventually lost their lives to their diseases. Dr. Groopman concluded, "If you care for someone without addressing his or her soul, you’re not really caring for them." His point is to cure physical issues that are temporal without addressing spiritual issues that are eternal, is to fail of our calling. This ought to inform and change our prayer life, Beloved. Pray for the physical needs, yes. But pray with even greater urgency for the spiritual needs or yourself and others. That’s the priority for eternal reasons.
Conc – Now all the principles we’ve looked at the last 3 weeks really boil down to one thing. Prayer is not about aligning God with me; Prayer is about aligning me with the will of an omniscient God. This will always be what is best for us and for His glory. Charles Spurgeon in Lectures to My Students tells of a Pastor Gilpin being called to pray for a boy who was gravely ill. The pastor prayed, asking that God would, if it were His will, restore the boy to life and health. But the mother interrupted him at that point. She said, “No, I cannot agree to such a prayer as that; I cannot put it in that shape, it must be God’s will to restore him. I cannot bear that my child should die; pray that he may live whether it be God’s will or not.” Pastor Gilpin responded, “I cannot pray that prayer, but if it is answered; your child will recover, but you will rue the day that you made such a request.” Spurgeon went on: Twenty years later she was removed after she fainted away at the gallows at Tyburn where her son’s crimes had brought him. “You ask and do not receive because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your own passions.” Beloved, prayer is not about telling God, it’s about trusting God. We won’t get it perfect today or tomorrow or next year or in this lifetime. But let us start. Let’s pray.