What We Believe: Prayer

What one believes drives what they do—that is an unavoidable fact of life.  We may not even be aware of all the beliefs that we have, but behind each of our actions there is a motivating belief.  This post is part of a series featuring foundational truths that Christians believe so that we can have those truths in the driver seat of our lives.  To that end, this resource features sections describing What We Believe—each with a corresponding description of What We Do. The topic for this issue is prayer and it is also available as a free digital booklet (PDF).

We Believe: Prayer is Necessary, Commanded, and a Privilege

Definition

You might be so familiar with saying the word that you don’t know exactly what you mean by “prayer.” So, really, what is prayer? “Prayer is personal communication with God. This definition is very broad. What we call ‘prayer’ includes prayers of request for ourselves or for others (sometimes called prayers of petition or intercession), confession of sin, adoration, and praise and thanksgiving.”[1]

Prayer is Necessary

God communicates with man through the Bible and the indwelling Holy Spirit. However, our relationship with God is not to be one-sided; He wants us to have a full and healthy relationship with Him. That means that we are to relate to Him in prayer.

Prayer is Commanded

When you read the Bible, you will find that God expects us to pray to Him (Philippians 4:6-7, 1 Thessalonians 5:17, 1 Timothy 2:1, Ephesians 6:18-19, Matthew 26:41). One might ask—since God already knows everything that we need before we ask him (Matthew 6:8)—why does God want us to pray? “God wants us to pray because prayer expresses our trust in God and is a means whereby our trust in him can increase. In fact, perhaps the primary emphasis of the Bible’s teaching on prayer is that we are to pray with faith, which means trust or dependence on God. God as our Creator delights in being trusted by us as his creatures, for an attitude of dependence is most appropriate to the Creator/creature relationship. Praying in humble dependence also indicates that we are genuinely convinced of God’s wisdom, love, goodness, and power—indeed all of the attributes that make up his excellent character. When we truly pray, we as persons, in the wholeness of our character, are relating to God as a person, in the wholeness of his character. Thus, all we think or feel about God comes to expression in our prayer. It is only natural that God would delight in such activity and place much emphasis on it in his relationship with us.”[2]

Prayer is a Privilege 

“Because we are sinful and God is holy, we have no right on our own to enter into his presence. We need a mediator to come between us and God and to bring us into God’s presence. Scripture clearly teaches, ‘There is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus’ (1 Timothy 2:5).

But if Jesus is the only mediator between God and man, will God hear the prayers of those who do not trust in Jesus? The answer depends on what we mean by ‘hear.’ Since God is omniscient, he always “hears” in the sense that he is aware of the prayers made by unbelievers who do not come to him through Christ. God may even, from time to time, answer their prayers out of his mercy and in a desire to bring them to salvation through Christ. However, God has nowhere promised to respond to the prayers of unbelievers. The only prayers that he has promised to ‘hear’ in the sense of listening with a sympathetic ear and undertaking to answer when they are made according to his will, are the prayers of Christians offered through the one mediator, Jesus Christ (cf. John 14:6).”[3]

“Prayer is duty, but it is also delight, the natural overflow of the Christian’s joy in the Lord. Parents who delight in their children love to spend time with them and speak to them. Wives who delight in their husbands love to spend time with them and to engage them in conversation. Christians who love God find great delight in communing with him in prayer. As you spend time with God in prayer, you necessarily grow in your relationship with him, in your friendship. All relationships are built on the foundation of communication, and your relationship with God is no exception. When you and God converse through prayer, you grow closer to one another. Prayer at its best is a joyful outpouring of delight in a shared relationship.”[4]

What We Do:

  • Christians should pray; do not neglect prayer.
  • Rejoice that, because of Christ, we have the privilege of having our prayers “heard.”
  • Enjoy the full relationship that God calls us into through prayer.

We Believe: Prayer Makes a Difference

“American culture is probably the hardest place in the world to learn to pray. We are so busy that when we slow down to pray, we find it uncomfortable. We prize accomplishments, production. But prayer is nothing but talking to God. It feels useless, as if we are wasting time. Every bone in our bodies screams, ‘Get to work.’ When we aren’t working, we are used to being entertained. Television, the Internet, video games, and cell phones make free time as busy as work. When we do slow down, we slip into a stupor. Exhausted by the pace of life, we veg out in front of a screen or with earplugs…One of the subtlest hindrances to prayer is probably the most pervasive. In the broader culture…we prize intellect, competency, and wealth. Because [we think] we can do life without God, praying seems nice but unnecessary. Money [the thinking goes] can do what prayer does, and it is quicker and less time-consuming.”[5]

Even if we have a tendency to discount the need or power of prayer, the Bible is clear that our prayers make a difference—prayer is effective. “At the most basic but astounding level, prayer works. It works! God is not obligated to anyone and does whatever he wishes, but he chooses to act through prayer and because of prayer, not apart from prayer. This means that prayer brings results. Prayer makes a difference to the world. Matthew 7:7 reads, ‘Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.’ It goes on: ‘For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!’ (verses 8-11).

James 4:2 makes it perfectly clear: ‘You do not have because you do not ask.’ It’s that simple. You do not have the things you want because you do not ask for them. God has blessings stored up for those who will ask. Though God can act in any way he pleases, he chooses to work through prayer.

Prayer builds a relationship between you and your God; it changes and prepares you; and it just plain works. God uses this unique form of relationship to bring you countless blessings.”[6]

God Acts in Response to Prayer

James 4:2 and Matthew 7:7-11 establish the point: we pray and God responds. “He makes a clear connection between seeking things from God and receiving them. When we ask, God responds. We see this happening many times in the Old Testament (e.g. Exodus 32:9-12)…When God threatens to punish his people for their sins he declares, ‘If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land’ (2 Chronicles 7:14). If and when God’s people pray (with humility and repentance), then he will hear and forgive them. The prayers of his people clearly affect how God acts. Similarly, ‘If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness’ (1 John 1:9). We confess and then he forgives.”[7] There are too many instances of God answering prayer in the Bible to exhaustively list; here are some examples: Genesis 18:22-33; 32:26; Daniel 10:12; Amos 7:1-6; Acts 4:29-31; 10:31; 12:5-11.

What We Do:

  • Pray boldly. God works through prayer.
  • Pray that you would escape the cultural tendency to think we are more independent that we truly are; ask god to give you eyes to see your dependence upon him.
  • Beware that if you are not praying, then you are quietly confident that time, money, and talent are all you need in life.

We Believe: How We Approach Prayer Matters

We Should Pray Like a Child

“On more than one occasion, Jesus tells his disciples to become like little children. The most famous is when the young mothers try to get near Jesus so he can bless their infants. When the disciples block them, Jesus rebukes his disciples sharply. ‘Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it’ (Mark 10:14-15)…Another incident occurs when the disciples are traveling and begin arguing with one another as to who is the greatest (see Mark 9:33-37). When they get to Peter’s house in Capernaum, Jesus asks them what they were talking about on the way. The disciples just look at the ground and shuffle their feet. At first Jesus says nothing. He sits down, takes a little boy, and has him stand in their midst. Then Jesus picks him up and, while holding him says, ‘Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 18:3)”[8] What does it look like to come to God like a child in prayer?

Come as You Are

“The difficulty of coming just as we are is that we are messy. And prayer makes it worse. When we slow down to pray, we are immediately confronted with how unspiritual we are, with how difficult it is to concentrate on God. We don’t know how bad we are until we try to be good. Nothing exposes our selfishness and spiritual powerlessness like prayer. In contrast, little children never get frozen by their selfishness. Like the disciples, they come just as they are, totally self-absorbed…We don’t scold them for being self-absorbed or fearful. That is just who they are…This isn’t just a random observation about how parents respond to little children. This is the gospel, the welcoming heart of God. God also cheers when we come to him with our wobbling, unsteady prayers. Jesus does not say, ‘Come to me, all you who have learned how to concentrate in prayer, whose minds no longer wander, and I will give you rest.’ No, Jesus opens his arms to his needy children and says, ‘Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest’ (Matthew 11:28, NASB). The criteria for coming to Jesus is weariness. Come overwhelmed with life. Come with your wandering mind. Come messy.”[9]

Depending on God as a Needy Child

“Let’s do a quick analysis on how little children ask. What do they ask for? Everything and anything. If they hear about Disneyland, they want to go there tomorrow. How often do little children ask? Repeatedly. Over and over again. They wear us out. Sometimes we give in just to shut them up. How do little children ask? Without guile. They just say what is on their minds. They have no awareness of what is appropriate or inappropriate.”[10]

We should not only ask like children, but we should trust God as children. “Children are supremely confident of their parents’ love and power. Instinctively, they trust. They believe their parents want to do them good. If you know your parent loves you and protects you, it fills your world with possibility. You just chatter away with what is on your heart. It works the same in the world of prayer. If you learn to pray, you learn to dream again…As we get older, we get less naïve and more cynical. Disappointment and broken promises are the norm instead of hoping and dreaming. Our childlike faith dies a thousand little deaths. Jesus encourages us to believe like little children by telling stories about adults who acted like children: the parable of the persistent widow, who won’t take no for an answer from an unjust judge (see Luke 18:1-8), and the parable about a man who badgers his neighbor to lend him three loaves for a friend who has come at midnight (see Luke 11:5-8).”[11]

Recognizing our Helplessness

“Little children are good at helpless. It’s what they do best. But as adults, we soon forget how important helplessness is. I, for one, am allergic to helplessness. I don’t like it. I want a plan, and idea, or maybe a friend to listen to my problem. This is how I instinctively approach everything because I am confident in my own abilities…God wants us to come to him empty handed, weary, and heavy-laden. Instinctively, we want to get rid of our helplessness before we come to God.”[12]

“Throughout the book of John, we see people coming to Jesus because of their helplessness…The gospel, God’s free gift of grace in Jesus, only works when we realize we don’t have it all together. The same is true for prayer. The very thing we are allergic to—our helplessness—is what makes prayer work. It works because we are helpless. We can’t do life on our own. Prayer mirrors the gospel. In the gospel, the Father takes us as we are because of Jesus and gives us his gift of salvation. In prayer, the Father receives us as we are because of Jesus and gives us his gift of help. We look at the inadequacy of our praying and give up, thinking something is wrong with us. God looks at the adequacy of his Son and delights in our sloppy, meandering prayers.”[13]

What We Do:

  • Stop trying to control every inch of your life. Allow your anxieties and problems to bring you to God in prayer. Shift from worrying to watching.
  • We let our heart become a prayer factory as we realize that we are truly dependent upon God.
  • Instead of waiting for the perfect spiritual state to lift you above the chaos, we pray in the chaos.
  • As your heart or circumstances generate problems and concerns, keep generating prayer and watch the chaos lessen.
  • Pray continuously. Take traffic jams, hurtful words, or a pressured deadline as invitations to come to God in prayer.
  • When you don’t have the faith of a child—when we don’t feel like praying—commit to expressing thankfulness to God for his provision and care for you; commit to humbly confessing and repenting of sin.
  • Don’t try to get the prayer right; just tell God where you are and what’s on your mind. That’s what little children do. They come as they are and say what is on their minds.
  • Instead of being frozen by your self-preoccupation, talk with God about your worries. Tell him where you are weary. If you don’t begin with where you are, then where you are will sneak in the back door. Your mind will wander to where you are weary.

We Believe: What We Pray For Matters

Have a Real Conversation with God

Is it okay to have “selfish” prayers? Shouldn’t I try to serve others in my prayer? “One spiritual writer said, ‘If a person hears a fire truck coming down the street and prays, ‘God, may it not be my house,’ that person is uttering an immoral prayer because he or she is willing it to be someone else’s house. It would be better to pray, ‘God, may it be my house, but may no one be hurt.’ … This spiritual writer has made prayer into a zero-sum game. The appearance of a fire truck doesn’t necessarily mean a house is on fire. There are other options. Maybe a cat is up in a tree. Maybe someone is hurt. The root problem is that the writer is overspiritualizing prayer. He submits so quickly to God that he as a person can’t emerge. When Jesus prays at Gethsemane, ‘take this cup from me,’ he is being real; Christians rush to ‘not my will, but yours be done’ without first expressing their hearts (Luke 22:42). They submit so quickly that they disappear. Overspiritualizing prayer suppresses our natural desire that our house not be burning. When we stop being ourselves with God, we are no longer in real conversation with God.”[14]

Two Dangerous Kinds of Praying

James Describes two dangers in asking. The first danger is Not Asking. James 4:2 ends with “…you do not have, because you do not ask.” The Not Asking approach comes from viewing God as separate from our life and world—it is assuming that he will do nothing. The second danger is Asking Seflishly. James 4:3 starts by saying, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” The right approach to prayer is like going down a road with a cliff on either side: there is danger of falling off either side.[15]

“Jesus’ prayer at Gethsemane demonstrates perfect balance. he avoids the Not Asking cliff, saying ‘Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me’ (Mark 14:36). Those who err on the Not Asking side surrender to God before they are real with him. Sometimes we try so hard to be good that we aren’t real. The result is functional deism, where we are separated from God. The real you doesn’t encounter the real God.

In the next breath, Jesus avoids the Asking Selfishly cliff by surrendering completely: ‘Yet not what I will, but what you will’ (Mark 14:36).  Jesus is real about his feelings, but they don’t control him, nor does he try to control God with them. He doesn’t use his ability to communicate with his Father as a means of doing his own will. he submits to the story that his Father is weaving in his life.”[16]

Praying “In Jesus’ Name”

“Jesus says, ‘Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it, that the Father may be glorified in the Son; if you ask anything in my name, I will do it.’ (John 14:13-14). He also says that he chose his disciples ‘so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you’ (John 15:16). Similarly, he says, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, if you ask anything of the Father, he will give it to you in my name. Hitherto you have asked nothing in my name; ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full (John 16:23-24; cf. Ephesians 5:20). But what does this mean?

Clearly, it does not simply mean adding the phrase ‘in Jesus’ name’ after every prayer…To come in the name of someone means that another person has authorized us to come on his authority, not on our own…In a broader sense, the ‘name’ of a person in the ancient world represented the person himself and therefore all of his character. To have a ‘good name’ (Proverbs 22:1; Ecclesiastes 7:1) was to have a good reputation. Thus, the name of Jesus represents all that he is, his entire character. This means that praying ‘in Jesus’ name’ is not only praying in his authority, but also praying in a way that is consistent with his character, that truly represents him and reflects his manner of life and his own holy will.”[17]

“Praying in Jesus’ Name” Modeled in the Lord’s Prayer

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. 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.

And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then like this:

Our Father in heaven,

hallowed be your name.

Your kingdom come,

your will be done,

on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread,

and forgive us our debts,

as we also have forgiven our debtors.

And lead us not into temptation,

but deliver us from evil.

(Matthew 6:5-13 ESV)

If you don’t know what to pray for, consider the categories that Jesus brings to light in the model prayer:

Our Father—recognize that we need God. We depend on Him to provide for us and He, like a loving father, is eager to do so.

Hallowed be your name—be eager for the glory of God to be witnessed and recognized by the world.

Your kingdom come—ask Him to bring about the rule and impact of Jesus: change in me, change in others, and change in culture.

Give us this day our daily bread—the things we need: food, material things, wisdom.

Your will be done—don’t try to discern God’s will, but try to discern and then disown your own will

Forgive us our debts—confess and repent of sin.

As we also have forgiven our debtors—ask God to help you be gracious and forgiving.

Lead us not into temptation—ask God to help you be obedient to Him.

What We Do:

  • Pray for yourself. Pray that you would have victory over sin. Pray that God would make you more kind, loving, peaceful, gentle, gracious, faithful, truthful, and so on. Pray that you would have the same outlook on life that Jesus does.
  • Pray for others. Pray for your believing family and friends; pray that they would grow in love for and trust in Christ. Pray for unbelieving family, friends, and neighbors; that they would have ears to hear the gospel and that they would trust in Christ for salvation.
  • See all of life as a gift from God instead of demanding that life matches your preferences.
  • Don’t insist on life being your way; when God doesn’t act on your prayer requests the way you want, realize that He is working it out for your good.

We Believe: We Should Have a Plan to Pray

Let’s imagine that someone asks you the following: “are you available next Saturday afternoon to come to a cookout?” What do you do? If you’re like me, you’re not able to answer that question without looking at the calendar that details all of the household appointments. The vast majority of people use a calendar. If you don’t use a calendar, you probably miss appointments. Life is too complicated and there is simply too much going on to keep up with everything by memory. When you run into someone in the store and they ask you to pray for something and you say, “I’ll pray for you,” is that just a way to end the conversation politely or do you intend to pray for them and continue to do so. Unless you have a plan—a system—it is unlikely that you will pray for them as you have said.

A Recommended Tool for Prayer—Prayer Cards

If we are going to take our prayer requests seriously, we will write them down. In order to keep track of your prayer requests, make a deck of prayer cards. (You could also do this electronically with Microsoft Word or a notes application.) Each person or situation gets a card (or entry) and it functions as a snapshot of the person’s life.

How to make a prayer card: Put the name or title at the top. Write down requests for different areas of that person’s life; if they have requested prayer for something particular, write that down. Date the prayer request as desired.

How to use the cards: Work through the cards. You don’t have to linger on a card for a long time. Just pick out one or two key areas and pray for them. Update the card as the situation changes. You’ll probably remember it anyway, but write down answers to prayer.

Who to make cards for: Here’s a possible breakdown. Do what fits your life.

  • Five to fifteen family cards
  • A friends card
  • A non-Christian card
  • A church’s leadership card
  • A small group/class card
  • A missionary card
  • One to three world/culture cards
  • One to three cards for someone in suffering
  • Three to five repentance cards (things you need to repent of or sin that you want to stop doing)
  • Three to five hope or big-dream cards

The advantage of the cards are numerous: (1) you keep track of the things and people you want to pray for, (2) you don’t get overwhelmed with the things you have to pray for [you can break up your deck over a week, etc.], (3) you can focus on the card in front of you without distractions, (4) you get to reflect on what God has done in response to your prayers, and (5) you can add or remove cards as needed.

“If you can’t find time to write out these cards, then use your prayer time to write them out. One morning a week, instead of praying, write out a card for one of those areas. You can begin with just a partial card. For example, just write out one Scripture and the names of a couple of people in suffering on a card and leave it at that. The hard part of writing out prayer cards isn’t the time. It is our unbelief. We seldom feel unbelief directly—it lurks behind the feelings that will surface if we start to write out prayer cards, feelings like ‘This is so corny’ or ‘I feel straight-jacketed’ or ‘What good will it do?’”[18]

What We Do:

  • Make a plan to pray. Set a time, make a schedule, and use a system.
  • Take requests for prayer seriously.
  • Take baby steps. Don’t set impossible goals and then collapse. Don’t make a marathon prayer session your standard. Start slowly. Take a baby step of five minutes.

Footnotes:

  1. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Zondervan, Grand Rapids,  1994, p. 376
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid., pp. 378-379
  4. Tim Challies and Josh Byers, Visual Theology, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2016, p. 58
  5. Paul E. Miller, A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World, NavPress, Colorado Springs, 2009, pp. 15-16
  6. Tim Challies and Josh Byers, Visual Theology, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2016, p. 63
  7. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Zondervan, Grand Rapids,  1994, p. 377
  8. Paul E. Miller, A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World, NavPress, Colorado Springs, 2009, pp. 29
  9. Ibid., pp. 31-32
  10. Ibid., p. 37, emphasis added
  11. Ibid., pp. 38-39
  12. Ibid., p. 54
  13. Ibid., p. 55, emphasis added
  14. Ibid., pp. 121-122, emphasis added
  15. Ibid., p. 131
  16. Ibid., p. 132
  17. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Zondervan, Grand Rapids,  1994, pp. 379-380, emphasis added
  18. Paul E. Miller, A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World, NavPress, Colorado Springs, 2009, p. 232

 

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