Persevering prayer: Always pray and never give up

[For some of you, this will be a continuation of both our Taking Root study last week and our church adult study on Sunday morning.]

As shocking as it might seem, the idea of prayer as ‘getting God to do something’ is actually a pagan idea, not a biblical one. But when we talk about getting prayer ‘answered,’ this is often what we mean. Whenever we start to focus on how we’re praying—rather than on God to whom we’re praying—we begin to slip into manipulative prayer. If we’re worried about using the right pious phrases or spiritual words, praying for impressive lengths of time, whipping ourselves up into an emotional state so that we can really move God when we pray, etc., and we’re doing all of this so that God will answer our prayer (i.e. do what we ask), then we’ve started attempting to manipulate God. Thankfully God is gentle and patient with us, understanding our need to grow and mature. But this is still an error that we don’t want to fall into.

There are some passages of Scripture that emphasize ‘not giving up’ or ‘persevering’ in our prayer. If we don’t look at these texts carefully, it’s easy to get the wrong idea. Let’s take a look at one that sometimes confuses believers, Luke 18:1-8:

One day Jesus told his disciples a story to show that they should always pray and never give up. “There was a judge in a certain city,” he said, “who neither feared God nor cared about people. A widow of that city came to him repeatedly, saying, ‘Give me justice in this dispute with my enemy.’ The judge ignored her for a while, but finally he said to himself, ‘I don’t fear God or care about people, but this woman is driving me crazy. I’m going to see that she gets justice, because she is wearing me out with her constant requests!'”

I can’t tell you how many people have said to me: “See, the woman had to hound the judge until he did what she asked, and God is teaching us to do the same thing with him!” But is this what Jesus is teaching us in this story?

Those who were with us on Sunday morning will recall a similar story (in Luke 11:5-8). During our discussion, I referred to some of the imagery from Psalm 23. Do we believe that the Lord is really our Shepherd? Of course, we do. Then how often do we get down on all fours and follow him out to some pasture where we munch on grass and then go and stick our face in the water for a cool drink? That’s silly, isn’t it? We don’t do that because we know the Psalm is speaking figuratively about the way God cares for us. We understand there are limitations to the metaphor.

The week before, we studied the story of the “good Samaritan” in Luke 10:30-37. Jesus ends the conversation by telling the expert in religious law to “go and do the same.” Does this mean that the man was supposed to convert and become a Samaritan, hang out on the road to Jericho and search for a man who had been robbed, beaten and left for dead? No, we understand that Jesus was teaching the man to show the same kind of mercy, to love his neighbor as the Samaritan did in the story. We need to see that we don’t just settle for an easy, surface application of a parable; we have to really understand what Jesus is getting across to the people—and to us.

So what’s happening in our story? Right away, we tend to identify with the widow. She’s in need. She’s been a victim of injustice. She desperately needs help. Is she like some of us? Definitely.

But the first character that Jesus mentions isn’t the widow. It’s the judge. What is he like? He didn’t care about anybody else—not the will of God or the needs of the people around him. All he cared about was himself. Is this a picture of God? Not at all! This isn’t anything like God, is it? So if the judge isn’t a picture of God, then the way the woman has to wear down the judge is not a picture of how we are to pray to God. This isn’t a comparison; it’s a contrast.

The reason why we should always pray and never give up is that God isn’t like this judge. After all who is actually able to hound God and pressure him to do something for us? If we had to resort to this level of coercion to convince God to act, then we may as well despair now because if God wants to ignore us, he’ll ignore us! There’s nothing we can do about it. We could never pour on enough pressure to make him do anything!

But God is not hard and uncaring. He’s not unmoved by our pain and trouble. We see this most clearly in Jesus’ love for the people. So we can have confidence that God is not like some pagan deity (that’s who this judge is really like) who we have to beg, bribe or cajole to get him to help us. God isn’t like the judge, he’s like Jesus! God loves us and already knows what we need before we pray about it.

“Then . . . if God already knows what I need, why do I have to keep praying and not give up? Why do I have to pray at all?” Because prayer is not about getting God to respond. It’s about getting me to participate in what he’s doing.

Let’s broaden the question. Scripture makes it clear that God wants us to evangelize, to share the Good News with those around us. Why us? Couldn’t God do a much better job of communicating the Gospel than we can? Doesn’t he have a much better idea of who needs to hear and when they’re ready to listen? Why doesn’t he just bypass us and reach the people directly? You can’t disagree that the job would be accomplished much more quickly and in a much better manner, can you?

When someone is suffering emotional pain, why doesn’t God have us step aside and let the Holy Spirit do all the comforting directly? Why does he insist on also ministering through us? It’s not that he can accomplish more or produce better quality ministry through us. But, for some reason, he wants us to participate in everything he’s doing.

Those of you who are parents, have you ever had your young child “help” you with a project? Let’s say you’re painting the house, and your three-year-old wants to help. Do you finish much faster and more efficiently because of their help? Then why is it such a delight when they’re helping you? Because you’re more concerned with your child than you are some paint job (that will have to be repainted eventually anyway). This is your child working alongside you, sharing in what you’re doing, focused on the same things you are. You’re doing it together.

So you show them where to paint, and you praise their efforts—and then come along behind them and fix where they’ve splattered paint everywhere and somehow make it right. “Look what we did together!” You do this because you love them and want them to be with you. And I’m sure God does the same thing for us all the time.

“But God responds to our prayers.” Yes he does, and I’m so glad of that. But be careful of thinking this is a clear ’cause and effect’ kind of thing. Let’s say your six-year-old son has decided to put together a model airplane, and he gets a model that’s way beyond his ability to put together on his own. You offer him help, but he pushes you away. “I’ll do it myself!” So you say, “Alright, buddy, you can tackle this all on your own.” And—when you can see he’s getting frustrated—you remind everyone: “Bobby wants to put the model together himself without any help.” Until, finally, Bobby comes to you and, in a small voice, tells you that maybe he can’t do it all by himself, and would you help him?

Do you respond? Of course. Are you wanting to help him? You’ve wanted to help him all along. But it was more important that he come to the place where he recognize his need for help and where he’s willing to ask you for help. This illustration is somewhat flawed, because our children can ask for things that we didn’t anticipate. But we can never surprise God.

When we pray, we’re not telling God anything he doesn’t already know. And when he responds, it’s not because we’ve somehow thought of the perfect solution for him to put into motion. “Oh Lord, this is what I think you should do in this situation. Amen.” Sometimes he may delay doing what he desires to do until we get with his program. But when he responds, it’s always according to his will, it’s always what he intended to do all along.

So when we pray for someone’s healing, what we are saying, in essence, is: “Lord, we want to be a part of what you’re doing in this situation—because we know that’s what you want. We don’t know exactly what you intend to do in this circumstance, but we know that you love this person and that you desire to work in their life in a powerful way according to your perfect wisdom and timing. We confidently, but humbly, make our requests. But we’re not asking you to conform to our idea of what should happen here; we’re asking you to help us pray according to what you intend to do. And we know that what you do will be the best outcome for everyone involved. Thank you for choosing to involve us in your work, and even to work through us.”

So always pray and never give up. God is not like the uncaring judge, and we don’t have to hound him to get him to listen. In fact, this is just what Jesus said when he himself commented on this story:

Then the Lord said: “Learn a lesson from the unjust judge. Even he rendered a just decision in the end. So don’t you think God will surely give justice to his chosen people who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will grant them justice quickly!”

God wants us to be with him, not only in relationship with him, but sharing in his mission. He not only makes us part of his family, he makes us part of the family business. And prayer is a key way we participate in God’s mission. This is why Jesus taught his disciples to pray: “May your kingdom come.” Our prayers shouldn’t be mostly about our own petty desires and preferences. They should be about furthering the kingdom of God, in our own lives and the lives of those around us. When we pray according to God’s will, reflecting back to him his concerns, his mission, his heart, then we’re beginning to learn what communing with God through prayer is really all about.

[This is all I have planned for our series on prayer. If you have more prayer-related questions, email me or let me know in the blog comments. If I don’t receive any prayer questions for us to tackle, then we’ll move on to another topic next week. (Feel free to submit any questions or topics that you’d like to study.)]

Prayer series:

Why is prayer sometimes so . . . strange?

Prayer: Learning from the pros

Pray without ceasing?

Prayer: Expecting an answer

Persevering prayer: Always pray and never give up [see above]

Prayer: Expecting an answer

Staying in balance seems difficult for people at times, and that’s true for Christians too. It’s much easier for us to fall into one extreme or another. What are the extremes we should avoid when we pray?

Some teach that God will give us precisely what we ask for in prayer, but we must be absolutely, 100% certain God will do what we’ve asked him to do. If we waver in our rock-solid certainty, then we’re somehow denying God through our doubt and it won’t work. (Of course, this prompts the question in what sense we’re asking God for anything if we’re guaranteed to receive anything we confidently “request.”)

Some even take this further and teach how we need to be specific in our prayers. Don’t just ask for a bike, we’re told. Specify a red, 10-speed bike, if that’s what you want. I guess it’s like placing your order. You want to make sure you get it your way. Others go further and don’t really ask God for anything, they “claim it in the name of Jesus.” Never mind, that the Bible never tells us to claim anything in this way. (FYI: The Bible doesn’t tell us to “bind” or “rebuke” the enemy when we pray either.) This kind of prayer goes from making requests of God to presumptuously declaring what God is going to do for us. This is a dangerous extreme.

But there are problems on the other end of the pendulum swing too. Many of us are leery of Christians who are too loud and demanding in their prayers. So we tend to bend over backwards the other way. “May your will be done” can come to essentially mean: “We’re not really expecting anything at all to happen here. We’re not really sure why we’re praying about this, but here we go anyway.”

What should we expect from God when we pray? Obviously, we need to go to the Bible for our answer. But we need to examine the Scriptures carefully and thoughtfully. There’s an old reminder that ‘Scripture interprets Scripture.’ It’s way too easy to rip one verse out of context and ignore all the other passages that teach about prayer. We need to get a well-rounded, thoroughly biblical concept of prayer.

For instance, we could look only at a passage such as Matthew 21:21-22:

Then Jesus told them, “I tell you the truth, if you have faith and don’t doubt, you can do things like this and much more. You can even say to this mountain, ‘May you be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ and it will happen. You can pray for anything, and if you have faith, you will receive it.”

At first glance, this actually seems to confirm one of our extremes, doesn’t it? Isn’t this giving us an absolute promise that we can pray for anything we want to and—if we really believe—that we’ll get it? Assuming this promise is for us (some scholars feel Jesus is speaking specifically to those who would be his Apostles, with the corresponding power to do signs and wonders), is Jesus giving us carte blanche to throw mountains into the sea at will? Is he giving us a blank check to ask for anything we happen to desire?

Would you give your children such a promise? Would this be responsible parenting? Maybe the Bible has more to say than just this. And maybe we need to take all of what God says about prayer into consideration.

Imagine this scenario. You take your kids to the store and tell them they can buy anything they want up to $20. Your youngest keeps bringing items up and asking, “Can I buy this?” “Can I buy this?” Finally, you insist, “You can have anything you want!” Whereupon—before your very eyes—your innocent 8-year old child morphs into a shrewd lawyer. “Anything I want?” So now you have to add a clarifying legal clause: “anything up to $20, just as I told you before.” Let’s be honest, sometimes we’re like that child, aren’t we?

So what other things has God told us that show us what to expect when we pray? Let’s look at some more passages.

Pray with right motives
James explains why we sometimes don’t get what we pray for:

. . . you don’t have what you want because you don’t ask God for it. And even when you ask, you don’t get it because your motives are all wrong—you want only what will give you pleasure.

James 4:2-3 

Sometimes we pray for something, but we’re praying from entirely wrong motives. Why should we expect God to give us what we ask for when we ask from a wrong heart? This only makes sense, doesn’t it? We may even be praying for something God would be delighted to give us, but he’s more concerned about our long-term well-being than he is our immediate gratification. So we have to pray with right motives.

Pray in Jesus’ name
There are many passages that give promises to us when we pray ‘in Jesus’ name.’ Here’s one classic example:

You can ask for anything in my name, and I will do it, so that the Son can bring glory to the Father. Yes, ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it!

John 14:13-14

This is a wonderful promise. But what exactly does it mean to ask for something in Jesus’ name? Does it just mean tacking on “in the name of Jesus” at the end? “Lord, please provide me with a brand new Porsche—in the name of Jesus.” Is this some kind of magical incantation like ‘abracadabra’ or ‘Simon says?’ Or does it have a deeper meaning?

When I was a kid, I loved swashbuckling movies. Remember the scenes when they would pound on the door and say, “Open this in the name of the King!”? What did that mean? It meant they were acting in the king’s stead. The king had given them the right to do something in his place. They represented the king.

In this passage, Jesus is speaking to his apostles, and we need to keep this in mind. This may color the way we interpret and apply the promise. They were directly commissioned to be his representatives Apostles of Jesus Christ. If anyone was able to act ‘in Jesus’ name’ it was surely these Apostles. But even if we apply this to us today, what does it mean? It means that if we are acting in Jesus’ stead, doing what he would do, asking for what he would ask for—then we can ask for anything and God will do it!

So we have to actually pray and make our requests, we need to pray with right motives, and not only with right motives but with the motives of Christ himself. This may seem like somewhat narrow criteria, but why would God answer prayers that were asked with selfish, un-Christlike motives? And did you notice what Jesus’ motivation is in this verse? “That the Son can bring glory to the Father.”

Pray in strong relationship with Christ
In another place, Jesus says:

If you remain in me and my words remain in you, you may ask for anything you want, and it will be granted!

John 15:7 

We should have expected something like this if we are to pray in Jesus’ stead. To be motived by the same things that motivate Christ, to act in his place and to ask for what he would ask for, we must be in vibrant relationship with him. Everything that we are as the true branches flows from the true Vine. And notice how, in the following words, Jesus connects granting our requests with us bearing fruit:

If you remain in me and my words remain in you, you may ask for anything you want, and it will be granted! When you produce much fruit, you are my true disciples. This brings great glory to my Father.

Apparently what we are asking for—because we are remaining in Christ, praying in his stead, praying with his motives—has to do with us bearing spiritual fruit. And, once again, we see the ultimate emphasis on bringing glory to the Father.

Pray according to God’s will

And we are confident that he hears us whenever we ask for anything that pleases him. And since we know he hears us when we make our requests, we also know that he will give us what we ask for.

1 John 5:14-15

When does God hear our prayers? When we ask for “anything that pleases him.” Older translations read here: “according to his will.” But how can we know what’s according to God’s will? Ah, there’s the rub, isn’t it?

Can we know whether it’s God’s will for Sally to be healed? Can we be certain that God intends for Tom to get the job he applied for? We have to acknowledge that God doesn’t promise us—in this life—to always receive healing, prosperity, success, etc. [If this is a surprise to you, let me know and we can explore this at greater length in a future post.]

So, how can we know what God’s will is? Well, is it God’s will for us to grow spiritually? Is it God’s will for us to become more like Christ? Is it God’s will for us to learn how to love unlovable people? Is it God’s will for us to help those who are hurting? Isn’t this how Jesus prayed for us according to God’s will:

. . . keep them safe from the evil one. . . . Make them holy by your truth; teach them your word . . . I pray that they will be one . . .

John 17:15-21

Does this mean we never pray for anything if we aren’t certain it’s God’s will? No. But we need to remember that, though every prayer is answered, sometimes the answer is ‘yes’ and sometimes it’s ‘no.’ Paul prayed for healing three times, and each time God told him ‘no’ (2 Corinthians 12:8-9). If we don’t know exactly what God’s will is in a situation we don’t presume to declare what will happen. That’s God’s prerogative, not ours.

But we also don’t pray passively, not expecting anything to happen. We can have confidence that God will accomplish his will, that he will act in power, that he will act out of his love and grace and wisdom and perfect timing. We expect him to directly act in the situation; we just don’t presume to tell him how he should do that. We make our requests as best we can with the wisdom he’s given us, and then we do what Moses told the people to do: “Don’t be afraid. Just stand still and watch the Lord rescue you today [Exodus 14:13].”

Why does God sometimes say ‘no?’ Because he’s a wise, loving Father. Sometimes he has to say no because the timing isn’t right yet, like a 10-year old asking for a driver’s license or a child asking for a candy bar when—unbeknownst to them—there’s cake and ice cream waiting at home. Sometimes we’re wrong, like an irresponsible child asking for a puppy or a wasteful teenager asking for a huge sum of money. Sometimes we’re asking for something that can harm us—even if we don’t realize it—like a child asking for a pet alligator or a stick of dynamite.

Some people may be frustrated with these answers and biblical qualifications. ‘Why does God want us to pray at all if we’re only supposed to pray for what he wants anyway?’ But this reveals a faulty understanding of God and prayer. Why are we praying? To convince God to do what we want him to do? That’s not a biblical understanding of prayer, it’s a pagan one. We’re not trying to coerce or cajole God into answering our prayers. Prayer doesn’t bring God’s will down to match ours; it raises up our spiritual eyes until our will conforms to his. As CS Lewis said, “Prayer doesn’t change God; prayer changes me.” If I’m in a boat and I reach out with the boathook and pull, am I pulling the land to me? Or am I pulling myself closer to the shore? This is what prayer does for us.

God wants us to be involved in what he’s doing. He’s made us part of his mission. And our prayers are partly how we share in that. The more we pray, the closer we grow to God. The closer we grow to him, the more we’ll share his concerns, his motives, his desires, the more we’ll pray according to his will—and the more we’ll have absolute, rock-solid assurance that the will of God for which we pray will be accomplished. And that, through this, God will be glorified.

But what about passages that say we shouldn’t give up, but keep on praying? Does this mean we’re supposed to somehow wear God down with our prayers? We’ll look at this next week.

Prayer series:

Why is prayer sometimes so . . . strange?

Prayer: Learning from the pros

Pray without ceasing?

Prayer: Expecting an answer [see above]

Persevering prayer: Always pray and never give up

Pray without ceasing?

How many times have we heard the familiar quote: “Pray without ceasing”? How do you feel when you hear this? A little guilty? After all, you know you don’t pray nearly as much as you probably should. Maybe confused? Even frustrated? I mean, how are we supposed to pray without ceasing anyway? Does this mean we’re somehow supposed to pray 24 hours a day?

I get questions about this every now and then. Some of you have asked about it recently. Actually, when we look at this verse in a clear translation of Scripture, our discussion might seem anticlimactic. We find this instruction in 1 Thessalonians 5:17. Here’s how the verse reads in the New Living Translation:

Never stop praying.

Oh. This gives it a slightly different twist, doesn’t it? This is an example of why I urge people—when they choose a standard reading Bible—to choose one that doesn’t just “literally” translate the individual words, but one that conveys the actual meaning of the phrases and paragraphs (which is how we communicate, but that’s a topic for another post).

“Pray without ceasing” conveys an expectation that the activity is going to be without any breaks, every second of every minute of every day . . . . Some have concluded from this that the Bible routinely asks us to do things that are simply impossible. So they just shrug their shoulders and give up. “Who can do that?” Even if we were to plug some other activity into the phrase—say: “read your Bible without ceasing”—it still suggests the same expectation, this time reading your Bible around the clock. Is this really what the Bible means in 1 Thessalonians 5:17?

What if the apostle Paul had been visiting our church. Now he’s leaving us with some final, encouraging instructions, and he tells us: “Never stop reading your Bible.” How would you understand that? You wouldn’t confuse it with: “Read your Bible 24 hours a day,” would you? The meaning is clear. Don’t stop your practice of reading the Bible. The same would be true if a coach was retiring and he told his team: “Never stop practicing.” He wouldn’t be telling them not to eat or sleep or do their homework, but only practice. Just, ‘don’t stop practicing,’ right? It really makes perfect sense when the meaning is clearly translated.

So, we’re not to stop our practice of praying. Got it. But this isn’t just a warning about what not to do; it’s an encouragement of what we should be doing regularly. It’s like a doctor talking to a recovering patient, telling them to “keep eating healthy foods,” or “keep drinking plenty of fluids,” or “keep getting enough sleep.” Prayer is essential for a healthy Christian life. It should be a regular, ongoing part of our lives.

The Jews at that time, and even some of the Gentiles, were accustomed to praying at certain times of the day. ‘There, I’ve recited my prayer at the set time—I’m all done spending time with God until the next scheduled prayer.’ To them, “never stop praying” may have challenged their perception of spending time with God in prayer.

Many of us today think of prayer like a “SitRep.” SitRep is military jargon for a ‘situation report,’ which is pretty much what it sounds like: a report giving the pertinent details of your situation. Sometimes we approach prayer this way. We tune in at the appropriate time, rattle off all the essential details (using the proper code words), and then sign off until we make our next report tomorrow.

But, as we discussed a couple of weeks ago, prayer is part of the communication process in a relationship with God. If you don’t believe this approach is inadequate for real relationships, you guys try getting by with occasional “SitReps” to your wife for awhile! I’m telling you right now, that is not going to fly! God doesn’t want us to file a daily report or check something off our spiritual checklist. Amen doesn’t mean “over and out.”

We need to regain the idea of communion with God. Have you ever been on a long trip with someone you’re very close to? If you see something interesting, and you want to point it out to them, do you have to reintroduce yourself every time? Formally establish a new conversation? “O Kelley, my wonderful wife, it is so nice to be traveling with you on this trip. I want to thank you for being here with me now. You were here at the beginning of this trip, and you’ll be here at the end of the trip. But now, I’d like to take just a few moments and lift up to you the glorious splendor of the sunse—oops, sorry, it’s gone.” Do you feel the need to pray that way every time you talk with God?

Now, don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. I don’t mean that we shouldn’t regularly invest time in purposeful, intentional, deep prayer. We need to have our “quality time” with God. And I don’t encourage a casual, flippant attitude toward God, as if we could punch him in the arm and say: “Hey buddy, look at that.” But we should feel such an ongoing connection with him that we can spontaneously say, “Wow, Lord, what a gorgeous sunset!” Don’t feel as if each prayer needs to have an opening, three points and a closing. I think “Lord, that is so cool!” may sometimes be the most spiritual thing we can pray.

I need to have regular heart-to-heart conversations with my wife. But every time we talk it doesn’t have to be a super-serious, soul-baring, get-it-all-out-there kind of moment. We also need to laugh together. Spontaneously giggle together over silly things that happen during the day. We need to share the sad times, and the daily frustrations. We should have such a strong connection that we can talk about little, trivial things without feeling that we have to turn it into capital C “Communication.” Actually a big part of real communication is the little things. The more we share the little moments, the more the quality time happens naturally. And the more we spend regular time with God in prayer—the big moments and the little moments—without pressuring ourselves to make every time a “Prayer Session,” the more we’ll begin to really feel as if we’re spending time with someone we know. God will become more real to us, and we’ll come to truly experience our relationship with him.

When should I pray?
Most of us have read books about how real men and women of God get up at 4:00 in the morning and spend three hours in prayer—on their knees—before they do anything else. In some circles, there is some kind of standard that all serious Christians should have their prayer time early in the morning.

Now, there are passages that speak of praying in the morning (Psalm 5:3, 59:16), some speak of praying at night (Psalm 141:2, 22:2, 42:8), some speak of praying both morning and night (Psalm 92:2), some speak of praying morning, noon and night (Psalm 5:14), and some speak of praying all night long (Psalm 77:2)! Are we back to “praying without ceasing”? No, this just shows there’s no wrong time to pray—and no single right time, either.

Actually, if we want to find a biblical principle to follow, it would probably be to give God our best time instead of the leftovers. Some people bounce out of bed in the morning, ready to leap into the day with both feet. If you’re like this, then the morning would be a wonderful time for you to spend with God. But if you’re barely able to drag yourself out of bed, and need a couple of hours before you can communicate in whole sentences, then the morning is probably not the best time for you to try to do much praying. Of course, that doesn’t mean we don’t say anything at all to God until it’s our official “prayer time.” I have friends who aren’t morning people, but they still acknowledge God first thing in the morning. “Today is yours, Lord. Please help me to live it for you.” Short and sweet, and not too painful. Like saying ‘Good morning’ to your spouse when all you want is a cup of coffee.

Be creative with your prayer time. If you like kneeling at your bedside, more power to you. But don’t think this is the only way to pray. There are no scriptural rules about closing your eyes or bowing your head. The Bible actually shows a rich diversity of ways to pray. I love going for a walk and praying. I have some of my best times with God when I’m out walking. Some people use their driving time for prayer. (It’s probably a good idea to not close your eyes while praying if you try this!) Others talk with God while they’re drawing or painting or doing woodwork. Some need to remove all distractions to have a good conversation; others talk better while they’re doing something with their hands. [Maybe some of you could share in the comments your favorite ways to spend time with God in prayer.] God will meet with you any time, any place, so just seek to give him your best.

Next week, we’ll talk more about how we should pray. Should we expect to always receive exactly what we ask God for? Should we just leave it all in God’s hands . . . and not really expect anything to happen? Check back next week as we look for a biblical balance. This week, I want to leave you with some words from a song by Chuck Girard:

Talk to me
Talk to me
I’m waiting in the morning
I wait throughout the day
How sweet it is for me to hear all the things you have to say
How lovely is the music of your heart
Talk to me, my love

Prayer series:

“Why is prayer sometimes so . . . strange?”

Prayer: Learning from the pros

Pray without ceasing? [see above]

Prayer: Expecting an answer

Persevering prayer: Always pray and never give up

Prayer: Learning from the pros

There’s a proverb that tells us, “Walk with the wise and become wise” (Proverbs 13:20). That makes sense. If we want to learn how to bat better, we’re not going to seek help from someone who doesn’t know anything about baseball, are we? If I want to improve my Spanish, I’m going to get assistance from someone who’s fluent in Spanish. And if I want to grow in my ability to pray, I need to find experienced pray-ers who can teach me and help me sharpen my skills.

One of the ways we learn from those who are more experienced is simply by observing them. Teachers can learn a lot just by carefully listening to good teachers. Writers can sharpen their writing skills by reading the works of notable authors. Scrutinizing performances by the greats can not only be educational for musicians, but it can inspire them to reach for greater musical challenges. Actually, much of what we learn to do, we learn by observing others, and this is true of prayer as well.

Thankfully, we have a real advantage when learning to pray. Not only are there mature believers around us who we can learn from, but we have prayers recorded in the Bible from the great leaders of the past. Who better to teach us about prayer than people like David, Daniel and even Jesus himself?

One of the most helpful tools I’ve found for praying is the acronym ACTS. I’m sure some of you are already familiar with this prayer aid. It’s especially useful—and even comforting—for people who aren’t quite sure how to begin praying and who could use some direction. What’s more, it’s biblical. So, let me introduce you to (or remind you of) this handy little tool and, at the same time, show you some of the wonderful examples of prayer that we have in Scripture.

ACTS gives us helpful memory pegs, sort of an ingredient list for healthy prayer. Here are the elements we should include in our prayers: A – adoration, C – confession, T – thanksgiving, and S – supplication (an old-fashioned word for making requests). We don’t have to pray these “ingredients” in order, but these are all essential components of prayer. Here are some biblical examples of ACTS in action:


My heart is confident in you, O God;
no wonder I can sing your praises with all my heart!
Wake up, lyre and harp!
I will wake the dawn with my song.
I will thank you, LORD, among all the people.
I will sing your praises among the nations.
For your unfailing love is higher than the heavens.
Your faithfulness reaches to the clouds.
Be exalted, O God, above the highest heavens.
May your glory shine over all the earth.
Psalm 108:1-5

You are worthy, O Lord our God,
to receive glory and honor and power.
For you created all things,
and they exist because you created what you pleased.
Revelation 4:11


Have mercy on me, O God,
because of your unfailing love.
Because of your great compassion,
blot out the stain of my sins.
Wash me clean from guilt.
Purify me from my sin.
For I recognize my rebellion;
it haunts me day and night.
Against you, and you alone, have I sinned;
I have done what is evil in your sight.
Psalm 51:1-4

But we have sinned and done wrong.
We have rebelled against you
and scorned your commands and regulations.
We have refused to listen to your servants the prophets,
who spoke on your authority to our kings and princes and ancestors
and to all the people of the land.
Lord, you are in the right;
but, as you see, our faces are covered with shame.
Daniel 9:5-7


I come to your altar, O LORD,
singing a song of thanksgiving
and telling of all your wonders.
Psalm 26:6-7

You have turned my mourning into joyful dancing.
You have taken away my clothes of mourning and clothed me with joy,
that I might sing praises to you and not be silent.
O LORD my God, I will give you thanks forever!
Psalm 30:11-12

O Father, Lord of heaven and earth,
thank you for hiding these things
from those who think themselves wise and clever,
and for revealing them to the childlike.
Luke 10:21


There are two kinds of requests we make in prayer. We make requests for ourselves:

Save me, O God,
for the floodwaters are up to my neck.
Deeper and deeper I sink into the mire;
I can’t find a foothold. . . .
Answer my prayers, O LORD,
for your unfailing love is wonderful.
Take care of me,
for your mercy is so plentiful.
Psalm 69:1-2, 16

Give us today the food we need . . .
And don’t let us yield to temptation,
but rescue us from the evil one.
Matthew 6:11-13

And we also make requests on behalf of others. This is what is known as intercessory prayer:

I am praying not only for these disciples
but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message.
I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one
—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you.
And may they be in us
so that the world will believe that you sent me.
John 17:20-21

Lord, don’t charge them with this sin!
Acts 7:60

I pray that God, the source of hope,
will fill you completely with joy and peace
because you trust in him.
Then you will overflow with confident hope
through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Romans 15:13

I pray that your love will overflow more and more,
and that you will keep on growing in knowledge and understanding.
Philippians 1:9

A few brief tips
Please don’t feel as if your prayers have to sound elegant, or that you have to use all the right catchphrases. I find that the most effective, meaningful prayers are usually the most simple. When we’re trying to use all the super-spiritual expressions, we’re often more focused on being impressive than simply communicating. Remember, Jesus warned against praying like the hypocrites who want to get all the attention (Matthew 6:5). God just wants to hear our heart. What means more to you from that special someone: a canned, recited sentiment they may not even completely understand; or simple words that reveal the true feelings in their heart?

And don’t feel as if you have to pray super long prayers, either. Jesus said, “When you pray, don’t babble on and on as people of other religions do. They think their prayers are answered merely by repeating their words again and again” (Matthew 6:7).

We have incredible examples of prayer in Scripture—which is wonderful—but we also have mature, experienced believers right in our midst. If you want to become skillful in your prayers, then spend time praying with people who know what they’re doing. Those of us in the Rincón area have a perfect opportunity in the new Knowing God through Prayer meeting, Tuesday mornings at 10:00. Praying alongside mature Christians such as Nick, Diane and Charlie is sure to help you grow in your prayer life! And, if you don’t already receive it, I would encourage you to sign up for Nick’s weekly Prayer Corner. Every week, he sends out reflections and insights that will strengthen you in your devotional life. Of course, as I mentioned last week, there’s no one more qualified to help us with our prayer life than God himself. We can always ask him to help us!

And here’s one last tip for the week. Years ago, someone suggested this to me and it has added greater depth to my prayer life. Do you ever sing to God in your personal prayer time? We sing to God in worship with the rest of the church. Why not in our own personal devotions? You may protest that you don’t have a good singing voice—but God gave you the voice you have, and it blesses him when we give everything back to him in praise and worship. And, besides, the Holy Spirit is the one who inspired that line about “making a joyful noise!” Look up all the places in Scripture where we’re instructed and encouraged to sing to God. Surely this can’t be just in the church gathering. If you haven’t done this before, it can feel awkward at first. But, if you give it a chance, it will add a new dimension of intimacy to your time with God. I encourage you to try it!

Why not spend some time now with God in Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication?

Next week, we’ll explore what it means to “pray without ceasing.”

Prayer series:

“Why is prayer sometimes so . . . strange?”

Prayer: Learning from the pros [see above]

Pray without ceasing?

Prayer: Expecting an answer

Persevering prayer: Always pray and never give up

“Why is prayer sometimes so . . . strange?”

She said she really needed to talk to me after the meeting. So after the Bible study and some fellowship with the rest of the group, we found a quiet corner of the room away from the others and sat down at a table. She was struggling with her relationship with God, and she wanted help. I could tell there was something she wanted to say, but she seemed embarrassed about expressing her real problem. Finally, after some gentle encouragement, she blurted out, “Why is prayer sometimes so . . . strange?”

That was many years ago, but I still recall the question because I think it’s an important one. There’s a bit of a paradox to the way we experience prayer. In some ways, prayer is instinctual. When we’re suddenly faced with an overwhelming situation in our lives, there’s something within us that cries out to the Someone out there, “God help me!” That seems natural to most of us, and it’s something everyone has done at one time or another. But when we try to pursue prayer much beyond that simple cry for help, it can become surprisingly awkward—even for committed Christians. Why doesn’t rich, meaningful prayer come more naturally to all of us?

For many, if not most, prayer is something we do when we’re dealing with an emergency or urgent need. Other than during these times of crisis, prayer is often superficial—if it’s practiced at all. Even for people who have been believers for years, prayer can become routine, another chore to be crossed off the list. That’s why when people talk to me about struggling with their prayer life, I’m usually encouraged. It shows that the person is beginning to understand what prayer really is. They’re no longer happy with the routine and superficial, they want something that’s real in their experience of prayer—and they’re not going to be satisfied with less.

When you think about it, prayer is one of the most foreign things we do as Christians. We read other things besides the Bible and Christian books. It’s common for us to socialize with others, sing songs together and even occasionally discuss ethics and morality—even in non-religious settings. But prayer is exclusively a spiritual practice. Think about it. We’re talking (sometimes out loud) to someone we don’t see, usually don’t hear, and often don’t even sense or feel. And yet, we know this is supposed to be very important for our Christian lives. No wonder it feels strange to some people! They’re just recognizing how unnatural real prayer can be. It’s the most explicitly spiritual thing we do as Christians. Because of this, it can be the most challenging aspect of our spiritual lives, but also one of the most rewarding. And the good news is that deep, significant prayer can become not only natural to us, but an integral, vital part of our daily lives.

A real relationship

Everything else is worthless when compared
with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.
For his sake I have discarded everything else,
counting it all as garbage,
so that I could gain Christ and become one with him.
. . . I want to know Christ.
Philippians 3:8-10 

One of the first things we have to realize about prayer is that it’s an essential ingredient in our relationship with God. A few years ago, I was with some friends talking about prayer, and one man shared how he usually prayed for an hour a day. (I’m not suggesting this as a standard; this is just what this fellow did.) Another man seemed shocked. “I don’t think I could pray for an hour. I don’t have that much to ask for!” This reveals a common misunderstand about prayer. While it’s perfectly legitimate to petition God in our prayers, prayer is much more than ‘asking God for stuff.’

Imagine if I came in once a day, stood in front of my wife, and said: ‘Dear Kelley, please take care of this, and this, and help me with that, and please help so-and-so with this other thing. Amen.’ And then turned around and walked out, not to speak to her again until the next day when I did the same thing! What kind of relationship would I have with my wife? And yet, this is the very concept that many of us have of prayer. (We even teach our kids to pray this way.) We’d feel pretty good about ourselves if we prayed like this once a day, especially if we made requests for others more than for ourselves. Yet real prayer, real communication, goes so far beyond this.

If you go to any conference or workshop on relationships, what is one of the first things they emphasize? Communication, right? We’re taught that communication is an essential component of any healthy relationship. Absolutely vital! We’re all savvy enough to know this by now. Well, if anything, this need for healthy, deep communication is even more true of our relationship with God. The more we come to understand that God calls us into a relationship with him, the closer we’ll actually grow to him in this relationship.

In the third chapter of Philippians, the apostle Paul wrote that he considered everything else garbage (note: that’s everything, not just the bad stuff), compared to his one, primary passion: “I want to know Christ.” Are we satisfied with just knowing about Christ? Are we okay with just going through the motions and following the routines? Or are we driven to truly know Christ? To be one with him. And if we long to really know Christ, then real communication is vital, isn’t it?

What kind of prayer do we see in Scripture? Do we see the perfunctory prayers of the religious, or the heart-cries of those who desire to truly know God? Consider these words of David from Psalm 63:

O God, you are my God;
I earnestly search for you.
My soul thirsts for you;
my whole body longs for you
. . . Your unfailing love is better than life itself;
. . . I will praise you as long as I live,
lifting up my hands to you in prayer.
You satisfy me more than the richest feast.
I will praise you with songs of joy.
I lie awake thinking of you,
meditating on you through the night.
. . . I sing for joy in the shadow of your wings.
I cling to you.

Do you sense any passion in these words?

So how can our own prayer time grow deeper and more meaningful? We’ll be exploring this in the next few studies. Next week, we’ll take a closer look at some of the wonderful examples for us in the Bible, and what they can teach us about our own prayer lives. But it begins with a hunger and thirst for more. A God-given desire to grow closer to him and to truly know him.

When I was just beginning in church leadership, a pastor friend gave me some wonderful advice on prayer. I was sharing with him that I was dissatisfied with my prayer life. He asked what I was doing about it, and I listed for him all of the books on prayer that I had been reading. He nodded appreciatively, and then he asked, “Have you prayed about it?” Hmm. Praying about my prayer life. I hadn’t thought of that! But it sure made sense. Who better to tell of my desire for more intimacy with God than . . . God. One of the best things we can do when we’re struggling with prayer is to simply talk to God about our struggles and desires. We can even ask God to give us the desire to know him more deeply.

Many years ago, in his classic book The Pursuit of God, AW Tozer compared the church of his day to Elijah on Mt Carmel. If you remember the story (in 1 Kings 18), Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal to a contest. Both sides would offer their sacrifices, and whichever god answered by fire, he was the true God. When his turn came, Elijah built a simple altar out of twelve stones. He drenched it over and over again with water. And when he cried out to God, fire came down and consumed not only the sacrifice, but the water and stones as well. Tozer’s words about his contemporaries ring out to us today too:

[The current church] has laid the altar and divided the sacrifice into parts, but now seems satisfied to count the stones and rearrange the pieces with never a care that there is not a sign of fire upon the top of lofty Carmel. But God be thanked that there are a few who care. They are those who, while they love the altar and delight in the sacrifice, are yet unable to reconcile themselves to the continued absence of fire. They desire God above all. They are athirst to taste for themselves the “piercing sweetness” of the love of Christ about Whom all the holy prophets did write and the psalmists did sing.

Let’s never lose our passion to truly know God.

Prayer series:

“Why is prayer sometimes so . . . strange?” [see above]

Prayer: Learning from the pros

Pray without ceasing?

Prayer: Expecting an answer

Persevering prayer: Always pray and never give up