PRAYER: LESSON ONE
We pray for many reasons, one being a need for God to undertake something on our behalf. Without being conscious of it, there is another deeper reason at times. We’re on a search for meaning in life. Unless pointed in the right direction, one can spend a lifetime without finding fulfillment. I became sensitive to a search for identity by others during my years of prison ministry, and it was true in my own life for many years. I didn’t realize for a time that only what God does in and through my life has lasting value (Ecclesiastes 3:14). I did what seemed right in my own eyes or what others expected of me to find acceptance and identity. It was as Solomon wrote about himself….chasing after the wind. And it’s like that for many today who regularly attend a church and profess Jesus Christ. But only in an intimate relationship with our Creator can deep fulfillment be experienced. And it is where intimacy exists that eternity will be spent, i.e. either in the presence of God or else without His presence in a lake of fire together with the devil and his angels.
What hinders many is not having had a father reflecting the characteristics of God who is the source of perfect love. Such makes it very difficult to appreciate a heavenly Father who exists outside of our natural senses. Another obstacle, the subject of these lessons, is our failing to practice the means by which a relationship with the heavenly Father takes place, namely prayer. Prayer has no purpose unless we believe God exists and rewards those who diligently seek Him. And prayer is related to faith, i.e. being certain of Him with whom we communicate through prayer. Nor is faith something we generate on our own. It’s a gift of God which must be nourished and cultivated in a heart once received. And when such is done, a remarkable thing takes place. Nothing becomes impossible. Jesus repeatedly says, according to your faith be it unto you. “Whatsoever things you desire when you pray, believe you receive them and you shall have them.” James speaks of prayer in the same perspective of not doubting when you intercede or petition the Father in heaven:
“Let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavers is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed. Let not that man think that he shall receive any thing of the Lord.” James 1:6,7
In a sense, faith is the starting point when it comes to prayer. One reason faith is critical is that, at times, prayers are answered after some delay. In other words, prayers are so often answered in God’s time rather than ours. Frequently I’ve learned God had changes to work in my life before answering prayer as my motives were amiss. We must be willing to let our patience be tried, even sorely tried, trusting that God desires more than we do for things to be worked out in the best way for our eternal good. For the faith of which we speak is not a general belief about God existing or merely acknowledging certain facts.
The faith of which the scripture speaks is an operation of God, an illumination by the Holy Spirit in the human soul that is absent in many who call themselves ‘saved.’ Multitudes are being led to repeat a ‘sinner’s prayer’ which did not depend on the convicting work of the Spirit to bring godly sorrow and repentance which leads to salvation (2 Corinthians 7:10). Lacking true repentance and God’s influence on the heart called grace, such persons are deceived as to receiving the gift of faith and being truly reborn. Manipulating people to say a ‘sinner’s prayer’ before Holy Spirit has worked to bring godly sorrow and repentance is an abomination that tragically infects much of the present day church. It ignores the cost of discipleship and is appropriately given the title of ‘cheap grace.’
The story of Jacob going to meet his embittered brother Esau is an example for our lives (Genesis 32:22-30). Before Jacob’s prayer could be answered for deliverance from one he’d tricked out of his birthright, there was need for a change in Jacob. It resulted in an all-night struggle with God, leaving Jacob with a limp. We too must accept our need to walk with a limp, symbolic of brokenness and humility, if we expect prayer to find favor in the eyes of a holy God. Only after Jacob submitted to God was his brother’s heart changed so he was no longer bitter over the past and genuine reconciliation became possible.
One of my personal difficulties with prayer has admittedly been keeping to the present. Jesus taught us to simply pray for bread daily, shutting out tomorrow in great part. The best pledge of bread for tomorrow is when bread is provided today. My prayers have often lacked the willingness to leave tomorrow in the hands of God and to be satisfied in asking for today’s needs. Leaving tomorrow with its cares and worries in the hands of the Lord will test one’s faith, but we cannot expect to be given tomorrow’s grace or bread today. In fact, scripture bluntly reminds us that each day has sufficient evil of its own.
It’s not the intellectually elite or those having social influence or wealth that these times desperately require. Above all, the church is in need of men mighty in prayer. Prayer is to be first in the business of the church. It is the example seen in the life of Jesus of Nazareth as “the firstborn among many brethren” (Romans 8:29). Never were steps taken by Jesus in the absence of prayer to the Father, and even all night prayer at times as in the choosing of the Twelve. While faith is a gift, it can increase. Let us pray, “Lord, increase our faith.” And remember faith needs cultivation once received, and increases when exercised.
So it is that we’re tested with trials. We’re to be confident that a throne of grace exists and of having a high priest who mediates on our behalf. Let us be assured God is concerned about our needs and is hearing our prayers. His answers may be delayed at times, but faith always sees God as acting in the present. To “trust in the Lord” is to reach out with open hand to receive what is prayed for, believing not only in the One to whom we pray, but in His willingness to grant our requests if they are according to His will for our lives and we ourselves are living in obedience to His revealed will.
Without true earnestness, prayer is but the mumbling of words. At times, we need to pray for desire to pray as a lack of desire should grieve us. When a longing to pray is absent, we must storm the throne of grace with supplications. It has even been suggested that lack of desire to pray might indicate spiritual rebirth has never taken place. Certainly urgency to pray is markedly tempered in the church today. We do well to remember the lukewarm condition of the Laodicean church about whom the following words are spoken by Jesus, words which certainly apply to us:
“Because you say, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing, know that you wretched, miserable, poor, blind and naked.” Revelation 3:17
This rebuke was not just against the church corporately, but was against those making up the visible church on earth:
“I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot: I would you were cold or hot. So because you are lukewarm, I will spew you out of My mouth” (3:15,16).
This should lead us to examine the temperature of our spiritual zeal. If a desire is to be like Jesus, it is to be at white heat. Lack of desire to pray is a sign such is not the case. Nothing less than being on fire for righteousness and for the kingdom of God suffices, and Satan does everything he can to distract us from sincere zeal. Prayer is not only preparation for spiritual warfare. It’s spiritual warfare itself at the deepest level. I can say with candor that Satan appears to work harder to distract me from the prayer closet than in any other way. It appears the devil fears one might develop a mindset like that of the psalmist:
“One thing have I desired of the LORD, that I will seek after, that I may dwell n the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in His temple.” Psalm 27:4
David did not hunger for prosperity or popularity. His desire was for fellowship with God. In a fundamental way, that is what prayer is about…a relationship about which life centers and which puts all else into second place. David says his heart yearns for the LORD like a deer pants for a water brook (Psalm 42:1). Such an attitude will challenge us to question whether one without such yearning is ready to be part of Christ’s bride. We live in a time when nearly anything is said to guarantee heaven, but Jesus has no tolerance for those lukewarm. Scripture tells it is fervent, passionate prayer of a righteous person that avails much. Jesus warns against feeble prayer, saying, “Men ought always to pray, and not to faint” (Luke 18:1). The Greek translated as “faint” literally is to be weak or faint in heart. To exhort us, Jesus uses the parable of the widow who was able to prevail against a judge because of persistance, lest she weary him. Then He adds, “‘Shall not God avenge His own elect, which cry day and night to Him” (Luke 18:7).
Jesus concludes the parable by saying God will answer persistent and fervent prayer. And He asks, “When the Son of Man comes, shall He find faith on the earth?” (18:8). This is a question concerning how we approach prayer. Scripture says without faith, it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6). I fear many are bewitched by having intellectual faith….but Jesus is not talking of such being acceptable. He speaks of a faith that only God can give, a faith which must be implanted by Holy Spirit and then nourished with fervent and continual prayer. We find this illustrated in the life of king Asa.
The young king began rule over Judah as a man of prayer, doing right in the eyes of God (2 Chronicles 14). Removing false altars and smashing idols, he commanded people to obey the laws of God. And God showed favor by defeating all who came against Judah, thereby giving them rest for years. But when the king of Israel came against Judah in the 36th year of Asa’s reign, instead of calling upon God, he sent silver and gold to the king of Aram in Damascas to gain help. Help did come, but a prophet told Asa that he really should have relied upon the LORD:
“You have done foolishly: therefore from hereafter you shall have wars. Then Asa was angry with the seer, and put him in a prison house.” 2 Chronicles 16:9,10
Shortly thereafter, Asa became diseased in his feet. “Yet in his disease, he sought not to the LORD, but to the physicians” (16:12). Two years later he died, a sad ending for a king who began to reign in communion with God through a life of prayer, only to turn and do what seemed right in his own eyes. This pattern repeats itself throughout OT history and is also observed today just as Solomon wrote: “The thing that has been done, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun” (Ecclessiastes 1:9).
There is need for a wrestling side of prayer, a force implanted by Holy Spirit that leads us to effectual fervent prayer. Once this is received, the impulse to remain a fervent pray-er is to be practiced lest it be fruit allowed to die on the vine. Our wrestling with God in prayer can be quiet, yet it must be urgent and persevering. Victories in the life of Jesus were won after hours of prayer at times. No servant is greater than his master, and we must follow a pattern shown us by Jesus if we expect our prayers to be effective and avail much.
We must accept the mysterious fact that at times there may be delays and seeming denials in spite of fervent prayer. But like soldiers who continue to fight even as battle intensifies, we must face these delays with perseverance. As a young believer, I can recall godly folks speaking about ‘praying through.’ What they shared didn’t register with me until I found myself facing serious difficulties. God did far above all that I asked according to His power, but it was only as I ‘prayed through’ that overcoming and victory took place. What earthly parent would be so unjust as to require a child to do the impossible? How much less does a loving Father require us to be obedient, yet do what is impossible? To claim obedience is not possible is to not understaned the nature of the New Covenant as foretold by prophets.
Yet a failure to understand is rampant in the church. Lest we think God’s commandments are no longer relevant or can’t be obeyed, let us give attention to God’s words through the prophet: “I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not according to a covenant I made with their fathers….. which they broke, although I was a husband to them…I will put My law in their inward parts; and write it on their hearts; and will be their God and they shall be My people.” Jeremiah 31:31-33
God isn’t saying His commandments are to be set aside. They’re to be written on hearts by the Holy Spirit instead of stone tablets. God doesn’t change His mind like men. Under the New Covenant, God makes it possible to obey, although not in our own strength. The Holy Spirit is sent not only to indwell us, but empower us to move out of unrighteousness into righteousness, keeping the commandments of God. “A new heart also will I give you, and a new Spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh …and I will put My Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you shall keep My judgments and do them” (Ezekiel 36:26,27).
Under the New Covenant, God makes obedience possible by placing His Spirit in believers to empower unto obedience. God says His Spirit is given in order to “cause you to walk in My statutes, and you shall keep My judgments and do them.” So it is Paul writes, “For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God” (Romans 8:14). One led by the Spirit of God is obedient to keep the commandments) of God. This does not require sinless perfection, but it does make blameless living possible. It also suggests we shouldn’t call ourselves sons and daughters of God if refusing to be led by the Spirit and keep doing as we please. May all of us be convicted in this regard, aa we are all prone to go astray!
“Who can discern his errors? Forgive my hidden faults. Keep your servant also from willful sins; may they not rule over me. Then will I be blameless, innocent of great transgressions.” Psalm 19:12,13 (NIV)
On behalf of Silas and Timothy, Paul wrote to the Thessalonicans, “Walk worthy of God, who has called you to His kingdom and glory” (1 Thessalonians 3:12). Some had been tempted to return to old heathen vices (4:1-18) and others were idle (4:11) and disorderly (5:14). Paul exhorts them to live morally, be watchful, and to show brotherly love. And he adds, “You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and justly and unblamably we behaved ourselves among you that believe” (2:10). To live unblamably is to live free of deliberately doing what we know is contrary to the revealed will of God. To live like this is possible by faith and by power of the Spirit. It is to live by grace, i.e., by God’s divine influence on the heart which becomes reflected in one’s everyday life.
If prayer is to be effectual, our lives must be righteous which is another way of referring to blameless (James 5:16). Saul only partially obeyed a command given him by God because of fear of man, and consequently lost his reign as king (1 Samuel 15). Paul warns that what happened in OT times are written down for today so that we do not make the same kind of mistakes, thinking we are standing firm when in danger of falling (1 Corinthians 10:6-12). God does not command us to do that which is impossible through dependence upon the power of the Holy Spirit who indwells every born again believer.
Jesus tells His yoke is easy and burden light because we are not required to do most of the lifting in what appears difficult. When we pray for help, a great hindrance to prayer being answered is to not cast our burdens on the LORD. Yet it is easier to please God than please men whose minds are ever-changing. Nonetheless our efforts to please man often exceed efforts to please the One to whom we pray. I have too often found myself convicted of this, experiencing rebukes by Holy Spirit as to placing the wishes of man before those of God. To do so is not merely a mistake. It is nothing less than the sin of idolatry.
Delay in answer to prayer can represent God’s desire to further fashion our will into His. Delay can be means by which our spiritual ears become more sensitive to divine influence. Moral character producing Christ-like conduct does not develop at once upon rebirth as some teach. Blameless living is achieved only with help of the Spirit after hours of prayer seeking the kingdom of God and His righteousness. Sin and prayer will not keep company indefinitely. In time, one or the other will prevail. There was no discipleship in a liturgical church I attend at the time of rebirth and relationship between obeying God’s commands and having prayers answered was never discussed. Only after God gave me thirst for His word following baptism in the Holy Spirit did I become aware of conditions for prayers being heard, let alone answered. And the first of these conditions were found in the first of three letters by the apostle John.
“Whatsoever we ask, we receive of Him, because we keep His commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in His sight.” 1 John 3:22
And this is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us.” 1 John 5:14
I fear we often fail to appreciate the virtue of prayer. It’s when we live in obedience to God and are praying according to His revealed will that our pleas, entreaties and supplications are received by our heavenly Father and move Him to act. The inner condition of our lives as well as outer conduct are critical as to whether prayers avail much or little (if anything at all). The psalmist speaks of this repeatedly.
“Who shall ascend into the hill of the LORD? Or who shall stand in His holy place? He that has clean hands, and a pure heart: who has not lifted up his soul to vanity [or idols], nor sworn deceitfully. He shall receive blessing from the LORD….” Psalm 24:3-5
Prayer can’t be separated from obedience, a point God clearly makes: “O that there were such a heart in them, that they would fear Me, and keep all my commandments always, that it might be well with them, and with their children for ever!” (Deuteronomy 5:2:9). The kind of spirit prompting us to break a single command will incline us to break all of them under the right conditions. For prayers to be effectual, our lives must be righteous as well as our prayers fervent (James 5:15). Jesus tells us His yoke is easy and burden light because we are not required to do all the lifting.
Obedience can ask with boldness at the throne of grace. Indeed, scripture indicates it is only the obedient who can ask with assurance. It is he who has clean hands (by doing as God requires) and a pure heart (taking thoughts captive to the obedience of Christ and meditating upon what represents God) who can stand in the holy place to pray with confidence. It’s said obedience follows love, and prayer follows obedience. God will never fail to give an attentive ear to the prayers of an obedient child.
So if one desires to pray well, one is first required to obey well. And learning to obey well requires us to learn the will of God by having minds renewed through washing with the water of God’s Word. It’s an unfortunate truth many believers are virtually illiterate in a biblical sense. Failure to spend time in study of the Word followed by practicing what God says results in many being unable to pray effectively. Jesus had great compassion for the crowds because they were as sheep without shepherds. So little has changed with a lack of strong pulpit exhortation demanding obedience in present day churches of America.
Rebellion is the essence of sin. Yet to proclaim God’s commands as demanding any kind of obedience for prayers to be answered is called legalism by many. It is argued that a God of love would answer prayers even in the absence of obedience. What a pathetic situation when preachers imply God is a heavenly Santa Claus ready to answer the prayers of those choosing to live in rebellion. Not even the Santa of fairy tales is said that permissive. Paul tells the Ephesians that for the soldiers of Christ to prevail, they must be “praying always with all prayer.” War with Satan’s evil forces is a battle where a truce never takes place. Jesus’ admonition to disciples at Gethsemene was, “Watch and pray, that you enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41). All soldiers in the army of the LORD must be vigilant at all times as one cannot fight the fight of faith and not be alert for an enemy always seeking to deceive and entrap.
Putting on the armor of God to stand against the wiles of the devil is only completed by “praying always” (Ephesians 6:18). To pray without ceasing is a mandate, not a suggestion of Paul. The pieces of armor do not link tightly together without a good measure of prayer. The church is to be composed of believers linked together under the banner of Christ and prayer must be made for the whole army, not only for the individual soldiers. Paul was an advocate of prayer for all saints, not just for one’s own circumstances. On the other hand, every soldier in the army of Christ must be on duty at all times, watchful and prepared to repel attack by the enemy. We tend to remember God never sleeps, but forget that neither does the enemy of our souls. As spirit beings, Satan’s hosts have no bodies needing rest and are always looking for a host to influence. Watchfulness is an important principle in the kingdom of heaven, lest carelessness allow one to be complacent and fail to avoid Satan’s snares.
A good fighting man keeps in close communication with his commander while on the battlefield, and the same is true spiritually. But in America, little of the ‘soldier element’ is observed compared to those predominately Hindu, Islamic, or Buddhist nations where Christians recognize their warfare against evil. The warfare in highly industrialized nations like America is more subtle, and is often characterized by the pull of the world and greed for material possessions. One can experience mockery by fellow churchgoers if zeal or passion for Christ exceeds the limits which are accepted as conventional, moderation being stressed in all things. Paul had enemies in Judea as well as elsewhere, and he pleaded for others to “strive together with me in your prayers” (Romans 15:30). I’ve found reluctance on the part of believers to actively engage in spiritual warfare in America. Even mention of extended prayer sessions, let alone together with fasting, is more often than not met with indifference. But the Christian experience is dry in the absence of spiritual disciplines, and the absence of serious prayer and fasting has left today’s church in a weakened state.
If one stops to reflect, the Bible is a record of what God accomplishes through men and women mighty in prayer. In many instances, prayer utilized the Word of God in recalling the promises and conditions of God. There are many such examples in the OT, and yet I’ve heard people say those examples do not apply today. If they would study their Bibles with Holy Spirit as the teacher, they would recognize such things have been written for our admonishment (1 Corinthians 10:11,12). “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you shall ask what you will, and it shall be done to you” (John 15:7). Prayer using scripture in the hands of a humble, God-fearing person is a powerful weapon against Satan and his forces of evil. This is not to say that scripture can be used as a mantra in repetitious manner. But the Word of God can be inspiration for prayer and take us into the very throne room of God. When scripture is inscribed on hearts, prayer warriors have fuel from which prayer can be set ablaze. If one wishes to pray well, he will do well to diligently study the Word of God and allow the Spirit to implant the promises of God as well as warnings in the heart so that such can be brought to remembrance by the Spirit as circumstances find necessary.
It is not that the mere form of words in scripture have power, but let us never forget that scripture is inspired and anointed by the Spirit. Bible-studying, praying people are one and the same. So it is the psalmist writes, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105). I believe it fair to say that only those who know and obey the Word of God have life filled by joy unspeakable and full of glory. Pray-ers not only draw life from scripture but find revelation of God’s will for their lives through the Word and prayer.
And as we ask forgiveness in prayer, the Word of God provides a framework for self-examination. The psalmist says, “Your word have I hidden in my heart that I might not sin against You” (119:11). There’s no substitute for a great love of God’s Word as it concerns prayer. Of a dedicated pray-er, it can be said, “His delight is in the word of the LORD.” No one loving scripture does not love to pray, and no one who loves to pray does not love the scriptures.
Deterioration in the priority of prayer is reflected in the lack of reverance found in houses of worship today. Granted that in OT times, the temple housed the presence of God in the Holy of Holies and deep reverence was expected. But the house of God being a place for united prayer has long escaped reality in the majority of churches. The atmosphere in most sanctuaries prior to services is that of a secular meeting place if not country club. While the prayer closet is the place for individual prayer, sanctuaries are to be places for united worship and prayer. God has said “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all people” (Isaiah 57:7) and this is not changed in the NT. Churches are to be places where prayer is the primary focus. Preaching and teaching has a place, but prayer is to be the distinguishing feature or the bricks and mortar are like any building. But prayer changes a building to a Holy of Holies where the presence of God is manifested to all who enter therein.
Prayer is a godly business, and it takes godly people to pray in a manner that moves God. Prayer is far more than bending a knee and uttering words in a position meant to express humility. True prayer involves the entire person, for no one with divided allegiance can engage fully in prayer. The heart cannot be proud, not can the mind be listless or wandering for prayers to storm heaven. Doubt must be foreign just as the conduct of a person must be undefiled for prayer to have great potency in a life-and-death struggle that characterizes life in probation on earth. So humility plays a prominent role in prayer as Jesus tells in a parable about a tax collector so wrought over his sinful state he would not even lift his eyes to heaven. In contast, a Pharisee exalted himelf with self-righteousness (Luke 18:9-14). The tax collector, seeing need for God’s mercy, cried, “God, be merciful to me a sinner” while a Pharisee spoke of his righteousness. We must not forget Jesus says the one who exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted (18:14).
Devotion is another key of prayer, devotion of time and heart to a sacred purpose. At the root of devotion is worship, having a frame of mind consecrated to God. There’s no room for a casual attitude focused on anything other than God, being meditative in prayer. The spirit of prayer is to be a spirit of worship as one presents himself at the throne of grace. Just as it is said God inhabits praises of His people, it can also be said God dwells where a spirit of devotion exists in prayer by people in worship. Do we recall God charging the Israelites of honoring Him with the lips while having hearts far from Him (Isaiah 29:13)? Acceptable prayer cannot issue from lips where life isn’t devoted to having the will of God taking place outside church and a prayer closet. Everything must be to the glory of God. Monday’s business is to be devoted to the LORD as much as prayer in the closet or offered in church on Sunday.
Until we recognize prayer as a life-style that keeps us in communion with God, life will remain a rollercoaster ride. Up and down, up and down! The peace of God that surpasses every bit of human understanding will remain elusive unless based on a firm foundation of prayer. All that needs be done to come to this conclusion is to read the gospels with instruction by the Spirit. Time after time, Jesus of Nazareth was in communication with His heavenly Father by prayer. Such is to be a pattern for our lives if our desire is to walk in the footsteps of Jesus instead of making our own way through life.
“There is a way which seems right to a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.” Proberbs 14:12