Chapter 12: Essentials of PrayerThe effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much. James 5:16Opening Prayer: Father, I don't understand why my prayers have been so lukewarm and ineffective lately. What am I missing? Please bring me to a fresh understanding of Your design for prayer. Amen.
"After this manner, pray ye."
Most of us don't pray enough, do we? As a result, we are often unprepared for the big and little crises that affect us every day. Many times we get hurt because we're unprotected or defenseless.
God has an answer for this problem. He has designed a sophisticated system of defensive and offensive weapons to help us cope with real life. The apostle Paul calls it the "whole armor of God" in his letter to the Ephesians chapter 6, verses 11-18. We've studied this subject in depth in an earlier chapter, but let's re-read a few verses now:11 Put on the whole armor of God so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12 For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the world's rulers, of the darkness of this age, against spiritual wickedness in high places. 13 Therefore take to yourselves the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand… 18 praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit. (MKJV)
Verse 12 is the key. Our key problems in life have a spiritual cause: invisible creatures who influence visible human beings to irrational and violent behavior. Remember what we have learned about the connection between the Scriptures and praying always in the Spirit:
- Reading Scripture makes us aware of God's will. For an unbeliever, this is purely a mental exercise. However, a believer will observe that God's will is to do mighty works in response to prayer.
- Prayer enables us to have fellowship with God, if we pray in accordance with His Word.
- As prayer brings us into God's presence, the Holy Spirit can illuminate the Scriptures and help us understand God's will. The Holy Spirit will help us understand both the general principles and the specific application of His will in our present circumstances.
- Through prayer, we can cling to God's will and become instruments for accomplishing His will here on earth.
Prayer in accordance with God's Word is a powerful weapon. Unlike an arrow or knife, prayer can be launched anywhere from a mobile platform (you!) and change lives anyplace on earth. Think of prayer as the spiritual equivalent of a ballistic missile - one that can only be employed to accomplish God's will.
Jesus' disciples observed the many miracles that He worked, and realized that Jesus began His mornings by fortifying Himself in prayer and fellowship with His Father. So they came to Him with a very simple request, as described in Luke 11:1, "Lord, teach us to pray."
Doesn't it surprise you that these men were asking such a basic question? After all, they were our Lord's hand-picked disciples. Why did these men - whose greatness has been confirmed by history - feel the need to ask Jesus how to pray?
They asked because they wanted to pray effectively, like Jesus prayed. They knew that Jesus could work miracles through prayer, and they could not. Neither can we, unless we learn to pray like Jesus prayed.
Please don't be intimidated or think prayer involves some elaborate techniques, because it doesn't. Our Lord said we were to come to Him as children, in simplicity of heart. So whatever prayer is, it must be an activity that all believers can participate in, regardless of age or IQ or theological education or physical strength.
Prayer is simple, but most of us underachieve badly in our prayer lives. Much of what the Lord would like to accomplish through our prayers does not get done. We're missing the point somehow. And your teacher has underachieved worse than most.
Let's start our road to recovery by looking at Jesus' answer, in Luke 11:2-4:2 And He said unto them, "When you pray, say, 'Our Father in Heaven, Hallowed be Your Name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven. 3 Give us day by day our daily bread. 4 And forgive us our sins; for we also forgive every one that is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from the evil one.'" (NKJV)
This prayer should look very familiar to you. Many of us grew up reciting this prayer, with slight wording variations. In fact, most of us let its familiarity blind us to its profound truth.
Notice that Jesus has structured this prayer according to the pattern expressed in Matthew chapter 6:33 But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.
This seems really backwards. It doesn't feel right to pay more attention to an invisible God than to our visible problems. Our pressing physical and emotional needs drive us to our knees and we want to immediately start praying for relief. Why should we stop and pray for all this spiritual stuff first?
Because it is not just "spiritual stuff." It's the key element in the prayer itself. We can (and do) talk endlessly about ourselves and our wants and needs, but that's not prayer. Prayer is dialogue with God Himself, to achieve purposes unattainable in our own strength. Since He is God, He has a right to establish the terms. Fortunately for us, He has made the terms fairly simple.
Remember, too, that this model prayer represents God's will for our life. Whatever He asks us to pray for must be something He wants us to have.
So let's take the prayer, phrase by phrase, and see how it forms the outline of all effective prayers.
Our Father in Heaven...
First, prayer must be directed to a specific Recipient. Our Lord makes it clear that we are to pray to God the Father. Yes, we can occasionally say devotional prayers of gratitude and thanksgiving to Jesus and the Holy Spirit. But we are commanded to direct our normal prayer to God the Father.
Please note that Jesus could have called Him "God-the-Boss" or "God-the-Only-One-Whose-Opinion-Matters." Instead, we are to call Him "Father" - the One Who knows and cares about us more than anyone else.
We can only call Him "Father" if we have a personal relationship with Him, as described in the earlier chapters of this book. We must surrender to Jesus as Savior and Lord before receiving the blessings of God, our Father.
Second, the Recipient has a specific address: in Heaven. Wherever Heaven is, it's quite different from here. And God the Father is completely and visibly and wonderfully in charge. There are no theological debates in Heaven. There is only one God, and His presence is real and unmistakable. Our Father in Heaven is all-powerful and capable of doing whatever He wills.
Hallowed be Your Name
Everyone in the Scriptures who encountered God had the same reaction: they were overwhelmed by the majesty and power and holiness of God. The "Name" of God represents all of that.
So after we identify the proper Recipient of prayer, we focus on His character and His Name. We begin with praise for our Father.
Praise is the very foundation of effective prayer. Like the Psalm writers, we praise God for His power, His wisdom, His love, His mercy and His grace. We thank God for the many blessings we receive each day, and for the incredible beauty of His creation.
Hint: Reading the Psalms out loud is a good way to get started. Praising God with your audible voice will help tune your whole body to the truth of God's love for you. It might be helpful to read another lesson on this site: Transformed by Praise.
Your kingdom come, …
If we've done it right so far, we become conscious of the vast difference between God and us. As we remember and praise God for the ways He has provided for us, we see what a good and gracious King He really is.
Now let's remember that a kingdom is an area ruled by a king. Does He rule in my heart? Have I ever submitted to God and surrendered authority over my life to Him? Have I ever made a conscious decision to acknowledge His Son - Jesus, Yeshua - as my Lord and Savior?
Do I take up my cross daily and open my heart in submission to the gentle leading of the Holy Spirit in my life? Or am I governed by my passions, self will, family and friends?
God has a Kingdom and exactly one simple plan for qualifying to participate in that Kingdom. We must trust completely in the redeeming sacrifice of His Son, Jesus, on Calvary. As we saw earlier, we surely can't earn our salvation by our own good works.
…Your will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.
Are you with the program so far? Congratulations. You've acknowledged the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as God of your life, and you've surrendered to the Lordship of His Son and the daily infilling and leading of the Holy Spirit. Now comes the most difficult part: requesting that God's will be done.
Please don't underestimate this part. Some days, it is difficult to believe that God is really in control of our circumstances. Like a television drama, there are horrible problems and obstacles, but the Good Guy will win. And those of us who trust in Jesus will live happily forever after with Him.
Some days, the "happily forever after" part is hard to believe. We're really hurting, right now. Our problems have already arrived, and it feels like they'll never be solved. We mentally understand God's promises, but they seem far away in the distant future.
God's will requires us to take a long-range perspective. Certainly nothing we've experienced on earth can compare to the glory of God, and He wants us to be face-to-face with Him, experiencing that glory. His glory is incomparable, and it's forever. No earthly mansion can compare to where you and I will live for eternity. The question is, will we trust Him and cooperate with His plan until we get there?
His plan includes difficult times. His way involves sacrifice. His will is for you to be purified, strengthened and empowered by His Spirit. His plan calls for changes in your life, to prepare you for participation in His life. This is not a matter of giving up bad stuff. The Holy Spirit calls us to give up our stuff. Two wills cannot exist in the same body. We cannot serve God and self. Self is very deceptive:
- Self can lead us to do great and wonderful things in the name of God - things that God didn't ask us to do.
- Self can teach and preach and build churches that God didn't ask us to build.
- Self can appear to conform to written Word of God, without submitting to the Spirit of God.
- Self can be as subtle and beguiling as the serpent in the Garden, and just as harmful.
- Self is an enemy of God. Don't listen to its pitiful cries; it must go to the cross.
When we pray, "Your will be done..." we acknowledge that God's plan might be different from ours. It might inconvenience us terribly. It might cost us time and money. It might cost us our lives. But we choose to listen to God's plan and to move, in faith, in that direction.
At times, the Lord wants us to be His agents for accomplishing His will. He will bring a particular promise to our hearts and give us a burning passion for it. For example, the prophet Isaiah wrote down many of the Lord's extravagant promises to Israel in chapters 60 through 66 of the book that bears his name.
Some of the promises have already been fulfilled through Israel's return to their homeland, but some remain future. We know they must be God's will, but God commands that we pray these promises into existence down here, on earth. We see this in Isaiah chapter 62:6 I have set watchmen upon thy walls, O Jerusalem, who shall never hold their peace day nor night: ye that make mention of the LORD, keep not silence, 7 And give Him no rest, till He establish, and till he make Jerusalem a praise in the earth.
As you grow in the Lord and dwell longer in prayer, the Holy Spirit will speak to your heart. He will make His promises in Scripture real to your heart. Then He will ask you to labor over these promises, as a mother giving birth to a child. He will ask you to "…give Him no rest, till…" the Father makes good on His promises.
God's will for you is good. He is faithful to His promises. We must open our eyes to read and understand His Word, the sword of the Spirit. Then we must let the Holy Spirit of God work through us, in prayer, to accomplish His will.
Give us day by day our daily bread…
Finally we get to familiar ground. We've never seen Heaven, but we know all about bread.
Now we can pray about what we want. And look at the irony of the situation: we've just asked God for His will to be done. We've given away the store! We've given away all our negotiating leverage!
Now all we can possibly get is what God wants to give us! Is that such a bad thing?
Remember: there is nothing in this model prayer except what God wants us to have. So notice how the first thing the Lord wants us to have is enough. We are commanded to pray for our necessities, with the understanding that we will receive them, day by day.
As we read in Psalm 23:2 He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside still waters. (MKJV)
God promises to give us enough to eat and drink. He promises green pastures, not barns full of hay.
And forgive us our sins; for we also forgive every one that is indebted to us.
Here's another biggie. How many people do you know that harbor unforgiveness? They've been hurt. They have a right to be angry, and they are. And this resentment (often buried deep and disguised as something else) is ruining their lives and health.
Unforgiveness is a dangerous form of heart disease. Undiagnosed and uncorrected, it will cause physical and emotional disability. Worse, it can disqualify us from Heaven.
The apostle Peter wrestled with the issue of forgiveness in Matthew 18, verses 21-22:21 Then Peter came to Him and said, "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Until seven times?" 22 Jesus said to him, "I do not say to you, 'Until seven times;' but, 'Until seventy times seven.'" (MKJV)
Peter surely thought Jesus would be impressed by Peter's willingness to forgive a person seven times. So Peter must have been floored by Jesus' response, that we should forgive a person up to 490 times.
Actually, 490 times makes sense. Let's say that you forgive a person today, and feel at peace about the subject now. But if it was a serious matter, your conscious mind will probably touch on that subject an additional 490 times in the course of your lifetime. You must resolve in your heart now to give up your "right" to be angry about this for the upcoming 489 remembrances.
Some folks wonder whether we should pray "Forgive us our trespasses" or "Forgive us our debts." Why waste time wondering? Both are valid. Confess your sins, confess your unforgiveness, learn of God's grace and forgiveness, and receive peace and forgiveness for yourself.
And lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from evil.
Does God tempt us to sin? Obviously not. He doesn't need to. We have more temptation than we can handle from just our flesh and from the enemy of our souls.
God has a special blessing in view. When we become "born again," the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in our hearts and give us new life. God's Holy Spirit can give us the strength to endure times of trial and testing.
He can give us power and wisdom to be delivered from the crushing desires of our own flesh. He can give us power and wisdom to avoid the traps of the evil one.
The nastiest trap is self pity. You've heard the evil one's lies before: "You're no good. You'll never be good enough. You'll never qualify for Heaven, because you'll never amount to anything. You can't even be successful in this world, so what makes you think any of God's promises apply to you? Why don't you just give up now and be done with it?"
Don't listen to that stuff. It's temptation. If you focus on yourself, you'll become hyper-sensitive to your own failings.
Focus on Jesus instead. He already paid the price for your salvation. He has already redeemed you from what you really deserve. His Word is true, and His Holy Spirit - dwelling in your heart - is His part payment of your eternal inheritance.
Focus on Jesus, and fill your mind and heart with His Word. Lift your hands and voice in praise, and don't make room in your life for temptation.
In Matthew's Gospel, chapter 6 verses 9-13, the model prayer (apparently given on a different occasion) ends with this doxology:For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever.
This illustrates an important point: Prayer should begin and end with praise to God. Not because God is insecure and needs affirmation. We should praise God because we need to do so.
If we can sincerely praise God in the midst of great difficulty, it's an act of faith that can open the gates of Heaven on our behalf. Praising God is acknowledging that we trust Him regardless of our circumstances. It drives away fear and makes the Enemy cover his ears and flee.
In case you have any doubts about the power of praise, try a science experiment: spend an hour alone, praising God with all your heart for everything you can think of. It will change your life.
These words of Jesus are simple enough for a child to remember. But please don't settle for just the words. Open your heart to the Lord, and spend quality time with Him. Seek His presence, and settle for nothing less.
History tells us that James, our Lord's half-brother, was a mighty man of prayer. We can see this in his general epistle, chapter 5:13 Is any among you afflicted? Let him pray. Is any merry? Let him sing psalms. 14 Is any sick among you? Let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he has committed sins, they shall be forgiven him.
In just three verses, James manages to connect prayer to every aspect of human life:
- Affliction. We can seldom go more than a week without being thumped by "life" in some area. James has a simple answer: drop to your knees and pray for God to restore your panoply (the whole armor of God). Spend time in prayer and Bible study, to reestablish your focus on God's character and His promises. As you abide in the Holy Spirit, searching the Scriptures, He will guide you to the way of escape.
- Good Times. Admit it: most of us relax and drop our defenses when the good times arrive. We get comfortable. We forget that our enemy is being temporarily restrained by God's power. We forget to give God the glory for His grace and protection. But we shouldn't. When the happy times arrive, we should spend extra time in prayer, reading the psalms aloud and praising God for His faithfulness. Play your CDs and tapes of praise music in your car on the way to work. Tell your family and friends that God has blessed you in a wonderful way.
- Sickness. Some days our bodies really feel like they're made from the dust of the earth. We feel beaten down physically and emotionally. James recommends that we call on our brothers and sisters in our church fellowship for prayer, and for anointing with oil. Please note that he is not calling for Christians to carry around bottles of olive oil. In those days, various types of anointing oils were used as medication. James is actually telling us to combine sensible medical care with therapeutic prayer.
- Faith. As we study the Scriptures and pray for wisdom, the Holy Spirit will often quicken a particular passage to our attention. Likewise, when we hear prayer requests, the Holy Spirit often gives us insight into the Lord's will for a person or situation. If we have correctly discerned His will, and if we act in faith on it, His own power will bring His will to pass. The sick will be healed. The impossible will be accomplished. The sinner will be converted.
We obtain even more insights from the next three verses of James chapter 5:16 Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much. 17 Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain: and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months. 18 And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth her fruit.
These verses are more difficult and more backwards than the previous ones. They describe activities that are definitely uncomfortable for people who haven't experienced the fullness of the Holy Spirit:
- Forgiveness of sins. We all sin and come short of the glory of God. James exhorts us to confess our faults to God in prayer, as directed in 1 John chapter one, verse 9: "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness." If we have sinned against a particular brother or sister, we are called to confess to that person and ask for forgiveness.
- Fervency in prayer. Nothing in our flesh will help us develop a fervent passion for prayer. We seem to get very excited about athletic contests and entertainment events, but how many of us quickly grasp the concept of burning passion in prayer? Challenge your own heart in this regard. If you would be more excited about meeting a movie star than encountering the Creator of the universe in prayer, then get on your knees right now and ask God for forgiveness.
- Miracles. God doesn't ask very many people to pray for drought or for rain. But if He wanted to bring drought to your community or to your place of employment, would God ask you to do the praying? Would you be willing to pray, in faith, for God to bring judgment there? Do you have the faith to act in faith on His request, despite the risk of personal loss or injury?
Much of what God wants to do in your life might seem impossible today, but you can trust God to fully prepare and equip you. Just remember that the Bible and prayer must travel together as a team. First, pray for the Holy Spirit to quicken your understanding as you read the Bible. Then be receptive to His leading.
Some day, you'll come to the end of your dignified prayer. Some day, you will experience true brokenness in prayer, and discover the sweet love and power that awaits you behind the veil. If you have never experienced this blessed type of prayer, be sure to read the next chapter, "Brokenness." You have a treat coming.Closing Prayer: Our Father in Heaven, we praise You for Your love and grace toward us. Forgive us of our lukewarm prayers. Show us what it means to be Your children, walking in obedience to Your will, living in the peace and joy that can only come from Your hand. May Your will be done in our lives, and may your Holy Spirit guide us into sweet communion with You, we pray. Amen.