This is the first in a 13-part sermon series on prayer that I preached in 2019. I thought I would share them here.
Have you ever noticed that there are things we are supposed to “do” as Christians that we neglect doing because either we find it hard or even don’t think we know how? Take prayer for example. I think most of us can struggle with prayer. We can struggle with knowing how to prayer, with wondering why we should bother praying, with fighting distractions when trying to prayer, with allowing enough space in our lives to be quiet enough to pray. The result? We often just don’t bother. Or we simply never grow in our life of prayer.
Several years ago, well-known pastor and writer Max Lucado found himself frustrated with his prayer life. It seemed to him that prayer was easier for others. He struggled to stay on track when praying and got easily distracted, while others seemed to be able to pray for hours and stay on target. Max wanted a prayer life like that. He began studying Scripture looking for help, knowing there was something more to prayer. Lucado says: “The first followers of Jesus needed prayer guidance. In fact, the only tutorial they every requested was on prayer. When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, he gave them a prayer. Not a lecture on prayer. Not the doctrine of prayer. He gave them a quotable, repeatable, portable prayer.” And of course he means the Lord’s Prayer. So he realized that many of the prayers in the Bible could be distilled into a 6-sentence framework that he calls the “pocket prayer.” It goes like this: “Father, you are good. I need help. Heal me and forgive me. They need help. Thank you. In Jesus’ name, amen.” And in many ways, this reflects much of what we see in the Lord’s Prayer. So what I want to do for the next little while is to talk about various aspects of prayer.
The last verse of Genesis 4 says this: At that time people began to call on the name of the Lord. Or we could say: at that time people began to pray to the Lord. We all need to start somewhere and sometime. Sometimes getting started is the most difficult thing when it comes to prayer. I mean, if we think about what prayer is—talking to God, the Creator of the universe, the One who we believe redeems us, etc.—I think we should expect it to be a challenge. I don’t think we should be surprised if we find ourselves struggling and finding it hard to pray. But there is something that as we begin thinking about it should really help us.
Think back to the story of Adam and Eve after they had disobeyed God and eaten the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In 3:8 it says this: Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze. Doesn’t that sound wonderful and serene? Doesn’t it sound like the basis of the hymn, “In the Garden”? And doesn’t it sound like God intentionally sought out the man and the woman?
I think this certainly shows that God loves to be in relationship with his creatures—with us! Did God appear in human form in some way simply to enjoy fellowship with the man and the woman? And isn’t this the point of all that God has done and made?
In Acts 17 Paul is speaking in Athens with a group of intellectuals and philosophers. He actually gives a speech. And at one point says this: The God who made the world and everything in it . . . did this so that they [that is, all people] might seek God, and perhaps they might reach out and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.
So, again, this shows us that God wants us to know him and have a relationship with him. Indeed, this is why he made us. Written in 1647, the Westminster Shorter Catechism asks, “What is the chief end of man?” The answer it gives is this: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” Enjoy him forever.
Now, what does this have to do with prayer? Let’s think of it this way: If prayer is a conversation with God, it’s never a conversation we start. Any inclination or desire to pray comes from him. The moment we begin to talk to God this is evidence that he is drawing us to himself. Simply put: starting to pray wherever we are means understanding that God seeks us first. God initiates. God is the one who starts the conversation. He is the one who invites us into communion with him.
By the way, this means we don’t ever have to convince God to listen to us. Prayer isn’t manipulation. It’s not our way of cajoling God to act. In Matthew 6:7—8, Jesus says this: When you pray, don’t babble like the Gentiles, since they imagine they’ll be heard for their many words. Don’t be like them, because your Father knows the things you need before you ask him. Jesus’ words also tell us that prayer is not about us informing God of what we need as if he didn’t know or lacked information. Rather, prayer is about trusting, about opening our hearts to what God wants to do in and with us.
I like how R.T. Archibald put it once: “Christian prayer is not begging from God what you want, but rather giving God an opportunity of doing in and through you what He wants. Though we make mistakes in asking, God never makes mistakes in giving.” Isn’t that great?
Gentiles used many words because they thought they had to persuade their gods to act. Prayer was manipulation. But Jesus says, your Father knows the things you need before you ask him. Think of how Max Lucado’s prayer begins: “Father, you are good.”
Our prayers are a response to what he has revealed about himself. Understanding that God seeks us first also means basing our prayers on God’s revealed character. Father, you are good. In Hebrews 11:6 it says: Now without faith it is impossible to please God, since the one who draws near to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. Or: Father, you are good.
So let me ask: How do you feel about the idea that God actually seeks communion with you? What is it like knowing he seeks you?What difference can it make knowing that prayer is never a conversation that we start?Are you able to begin your prayer with those words, “Father, you are good”?
Let’s think about our other close relationships for a moment. How healthy would those relationships be if you were always to insist on your own way? Does genuine conversation ever work if it’s a one way street? How much more is this true of our relationship with God who is holy, good, and almighty?
Think again of Adam and Eve and the verse we read from Genesis 3. We saw that the Lord was walking in the garden in the cool of the day. When God came close to the man and the woman, they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. When God confronts the man, he says: I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid. Afraid because of his sin. Afraid because he broke fellowship with God through his disobedience and distrust. Because he insisted on his own way.
Joshua Ryan Butler, in his book The Pursuing God: A Reckless, Irrational, Obsessed Love That’s Dying to Bring Us Home, writes: “Our problem is not that we’re reaching out for God and he’s refusing to be found. It’s the opposite: God’s reaching out for us, and we’re scattering in other directions. God loves us, but we love darkness. God moves toward us. But sin can’t stand the presence of God.” This makes me think of that saying, “If you feel far from God, guess who moved?”
Here’s the thing. Sometimes we love what we want God to give us more than God himself. Sometimes we’re much more interested in the gift than the Giver. Sometimes we want to have a relationship with God but without really surrendering to the conditions of the relationship. When we pray with this attitude we’re like Adam and Eve hiding from God among the trees of the garden.
So: starting to pray wherever we are also means coming clean before God. It means repentance. It means acknowledging that while God is a gracious, faithful, wonderful heavenly Father, he owes us nothing. And though he wants to give to us abundantly, we have to come to a point where we’re willing to surrender to the Giver. Sometimes it’s our own stubbornness and pride that get in the way of our being able to pray. That brings us to Lucado’s prayer again: “I need help. Heal me and forgive me.”
Genuine prayer is an inherently humble act. It’s an admission of need and weakness. It is a letting go of control. Actually, it’s realizing we weren’t in control to begin with. The wonderful thing is that we can come to God, even if weakly and even if part of us is still trying to cling to control, and ask him to heal and help us.
Have you ever found yourself hiding from God? Why? Is praying to God a means to an end for you or do you enjoy being in the presence of God for its own sake? Where do you need to surrender so that you can receive God’s healing and help?
Notice how Lucado’s prayer ends:“In Jesus’ name, amen.” Now, many of us end our prayers with these words or a variation of them? But what does it really mean to do this? Hebrews 4:15—16 says: For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin. Therefore, let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in time of need.
So because we have a high priest—Jesus—who became like one of us, we can approach the throne of grace with boldness. In other words, the reason we can come to a good Father with our prayers and confidence that he hears us is because of Jesus. Praying in Jesus’ name means praying on the basis of what Jesus has done for us. Our prayers are heard because of Jesus. It’s when we have put our faith in Christ that we can be confident that our Father hears and answers our prayers.
And of course, it is in and through Jesus that God has come seeking us to the utmost. Jesus is God entering his own creation to retrieve what’s been lost and restore what’s been corrupted. It is through Jesus that we can come to know that God is our loving, heavenly Father.
So: The next time you pray, think about what it means to pray in Jesus’ name. How might that change your prayers? Why can praying in Jesus’ name give you greater boldness? What does it mean that God’s throne is one of grace? How does that help us to approach his throne?
My suggestion is that you take a few minutes each day to pray. And specifically use Lucado’s “pocket prayer” or the Lord’s Prayer as our guide and outline. You don’t have to use fancy words or a lot of words. Remember how simple that “pocket prayer” is? “Father, you are good. I need help. Heal me and forgive me. They need help. Thank you. In Jesus’ name, amen.” My next suggestion is to use these as guides for your prayers not only to remember what to pray about but to remind yourself about the God to whom you pray. Remember: God seeks us first. He starts the conversation. We have to come clean before God. We can pray in Jesus’ name.