About 20 years ago, my wife and I decided to take our kids camping. Actually, I took the kids by myself because we’d had a really hard camping trip the year before. I think we had camped on a pile of leaves that were all moldy and we went around with sinus headaches all weekend. So Jill said, “Paul, you take the kids by yourself this year. I’m giving up camping for Lent.”
Anyway, we found a beautiful little state park in Pennsylvania and a beautiful little campsite. We hadn’t been there very long. I was unpacking the car and I came down to where our Dodge minivan was, and there was my 13-year-old daughter, Ashley, in front of the minivan, all tense and upset. As I got closer to Ashley, I said, “Ashley, what’s wrong?” And Ashley said, “I dropped my contact lens.” And there was a forest floor of all these leaves and crevices all over the place. I mean, the thing was gone. And I said, “Ashley freeze, let’s pray.” And as soon as I said that, she burst into tears and said, “What good does it do? God doesn’t answer my prayers for Kim to speak.” Kim is our fourth child. We have six children, and the five I had with me on the camping trip were about ages three to 16 at the time.
Kim had stayed home with Jill, and Kim has multiple disabilities, including autism and developmental delay. She has fine motor problems that keep her from speaking and writing. And of course that makes communication very hard. I think Kim was about eight or nine at the time. So for six or seven years, Ashley had just been quietly praying on her own, and I didn’t even know it, that Kim would speak, and God hadn’t answered her prayer and her heart had just shut down.
Ashley’s little phrase, “What good does it do?” describes the unspoken feeling that many Christians have about prayer. They don’t want to say it because it’s kind of embarrassing, but if you go a little bit underneath the surface, there it is.
Our Struggles with Prayer
Bob Allums is the Director of our Prayer Life ministry, and he and I have done a couple hundred prayer life seminars over the last 200 years with maybe about 7,000 people. During those seminars, we really drill down into people’s lives and really give them space to be honest about their difficulties and challenges with prayer.
I want to just work through a few slides with you. These are quotes from strong Christians in Reformed churches that describe their frustrations with prayer. By the way, there is an outline on page 21 in your notes if you want to follow along. The first slide is about the frustrations on the whole area of how do you concentrate? People say, “My mind floats. Is that praying? Do I need to say things in the right order?” Just the very mechanics of praying is difficult for people.
The next slide kind of gets just a little deeper. What does good praying look like? There’s a tremendous amount of confusion out there regarding what good actually prayer is. I would say the dominant feeling that people have, that they articulate again and again when they think of the word prayer or their prayer life, is guilt.
Number three: how do you interface with God? That kind of goes deeper. People say, “I like to have a conversation, but I don’t hear a voice. It’s like I’m talking to myself. How is he listening? It’s so hard to concentrate.” There’s a lot of confusion there that is sort of unarticulated about what is going on.
Number four: this is, how do you reprogram from our American culture. As we get people to talk, one of the things that almost immediately emerges is how difficult it is to pray in American culture. In fact, I think American culture is the hardest culture in the history of humanity in which to pray. And you can see some of those themes are how activity-oriented we are. We are used to being entertained. It’s hard to be silent. I mean, just in a 20-minute prayer time, you’re sitting there doing nothing. At least that’s how it feels and that’s what it looks like.
Number five: all these negative feelings come up, like guilt, confusion, and frustration.
Number six: this is Ashley’s question again. Many, many people — and Bob and I would estimate that it’s about 90 percent of the people in your congregation — do not have much of a praying life. They give lip service to prayer. Prayer has a strong sentimental value to them, but it just doesn’t interface with their life.
A Doctrinal Disconnect
If I were to take the three broad feelings on prayer — guilt plus confusion and frustration — we can think of it this way. There is guilt because they do it badly, confusion because they don’t know how to do it, and frustration leads to it not working, which leads to a shutting down of the heart.
Now we ask these same people to articulate for us a doctrine of sonship, a doctrine of atonement. And they will give us rich, warm descriptions of a doctrine of atonement. They will say, “I’m intimate with my Father. I am a brother of Jesus Christ. I have complete access to my heavenly Father.” So on the outside, there will be this very clear doctrine of sonship, of adoption, but on the inside as they’re relating differently. We can ask, what’s it like when you relate with your heavenly Father? And for 90 percent of Christians, there is little or no functional conversation or prayer life with their heavenly Father.
Now, this is not a small problem. Thirty or 40 years ago, the culture would sustain your family and you would occasionally have a prodigal son. I would say maybe every third Christian family has a prodigal son. But I’m almost scared to ask people now how their kids are doing walking with the Lord. It is almost like a Black Death is coming over American culture. Almost every family has one prodigal. And it’s not uncommon to have a family with two or three kids that are all not walking with the Lord.
I think part of it is that this kind of Christianity cannot sustain the onslaught of a post-modern, post-Christian world. We have to develop a praying life. And this is a tinderbox for cynicism. You simply have to add — and I’m thinking of our children and the children in our churches — struggles or temptation to this. If your Christianity isn’t working at this kind of heart level, then it can’t sustain the onslaughts of the culture.
Back to Ashley for a second. When she said, “Prayer doesn’t work. What good does it do?” I had two panics. First, we had a contact lens that was missing, but my bigger panic was that I’m losing a daughter. It sounded like the early stages of unbelief with her heart shutting down. So I prayed before I prayed, and I said, “Lord, this would really be a good time to come through.” It wasn’t very sophisticated. And then I prayed with Ashley and we bent down together, and there sitting on a leaf was her little contact lens.
Now on that camping trip, one of the best things my wife did was not to come on that camping trip. One of the first things I discovered was that the hose that connected our propane tank to the stove, I had lent it out to a dear brother in Christ and they had not returned it with the connecting hose. I had spaghetti planned for our first night, and I was cooking spaghetti over an open fire. And I remember three year old Emily, as I was preparing the dinner, looking over to the left, being nervous that she was going to fall into the fire. And in our photographs from the trip afterwards, there’s a photograph with three year old Emily with a hatchet in her hand. When mom doesn’t come, mom can’t complain.
And the kids were whining and they were fighting. I had put the hammock up, they were fighting over the hammock. They complained about the burnt spaghetti. I remember the wind blowing as I was setting the table. I was doing everything by myself. It was just a hassle. The next day we went into town and I tried to find a hose, but couldn’t find it. Someone said, “Sterno works.” It doesn’t. That night we made shish-kebabs, and they said, “Oh daddy, what’s this?” I was getting so frustrated with them.
And that night I discovered that I had pitched the tent in a dry stream bed. It rained and it rained and it rained and the kids were riding on the sides of the tent. This was an old tent that we had bought used from somebody else. At about 1:00 a.m. or 2:00 a.m. I went out with a flashlight in my teeth and dug a trench around, just to sort of move the water around the tent, and the zipper on the tent was busted, so all the rain was coming in.
So I tied it closed with shoelaces, but I was so wet and tired that I didn’t take them off the shoes. So in the morning, when you woke up, there was a whole line of shoes hitting you on the head as you walked out. And it was on a hill, and in the morning we were just sort of a sodden mass of humanity at the bottom of the tent.
I was mean and the kids were mean. I thought, “I have to do something. We at least have to dry out.” So we went on a car ride to another park and the kids were all kind of tired and they fell asleep. It was just a beautiful Pennsylvania morning and the fog was in the valleys and they looked so sweet when they were asleep, and you know what that’s like. I remember looking around and saying, “They are so bad.”
I actually began to panic. I thought there was a level of meanness in them that there was sort of the pressure of the camping trip brought out so that it wasn’t difficult to look forward into the future and see drugs and sex. I actually began to get scared. And then I thought of myself, and I thought what a mess I was. I was barking orders. It was sort of this low level of irritation where I was constantly swamped. There was no sweetness of Christ in me. I didn’t even think of that phrase, but I knew something was wrong with me.
God’s Work in Our Mess
I almost don’t want to use the word prayer, but the thought came to me very clearly: “I need Jesus. This family needs Jesus. And if Jesus doesn’t come into this family, we are headed for disaster.” And guess who God began to work with first? Yeah, yours truly. About five months after that, I burned out at work and missed a few days. It was sort of a moderate burnout. And God used that burnout to create a series of events that did nothing but humble me and humble me and humble me.
He drew me into the life and death of his Son. And that was God’s best gift to me at that time. Now, the reason I tell you this story is that — you probably know where I’m going with it — to teach your congregation to pray, it needs to begin with your own life. Your congregation will learn to pray if you develop a rich life of prayer. It is as simple as that.
Bob Allums and I have done our prayer life seminar with about 500 pastors. As we’ve done those questions in the surveys and that kind of thing, our observation along with what the pastors have told us is that there is virtually no difference between pastors and their people. Roughly 80 percent of pastors do not have a functioning, rich praying life that is a part of their life they look forward to. It’s not something that they can’t do without. They aren’t thinking their life doesn’t work without that.
Where to Begin with Prayer
Now how do you begin? Well, that camping trip actually is a little bit of a hint because I believe, while there are a whole bunch of secrets to prayer, probably the biggest one is helplessness. If I could bottle that — I don’t even want to say feeling because feelings come and go — knowledge that I had in that minivan, that I could not raise my family on my own, that we were a mess without the constant, daily presence of Jesus, if I could put that in a bottle and take a drink of that every day, then I wouldn’t need to hear another sermon on prayer.
That’s what you need to develop a praying life. It’s the sense that I can’t do life on my own. Prayer is not a matter of discipline. There are disciplines to learn in it, but that’s peripheral. You learn to have a praying life when you see that life is too much for you, and the pieces of life simply don’t add up unless God is active in all the details of your life. That is really the heart of the praying life.
Becoming Like Little Children
I think that’s one reason, and maybe the biggest reason, why Jesus tells us to become like little children. I want to run down this survey of eight Scripture passages. I want you to see that to become like a little child is not a minor theme in Jesus’s teaching and his life. The first passage is the most famous from Mark 10, where the mothers are bringing their little children to the disciples and to Jesus, and the disciples block them and Jesus gets irritated with his disciples. And he says, “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Mark 10:15). The very way that little children enter the kingdom of heaven, the way they move into life and into the world of God, is a perfect metaphor for prayer.
The second one is a little lesser known passage in Mark 9, and if you put it together with Matthew 18, it’s a delightful scene where the disciples and Jesus have put up in Syria and they’ve come south. They’re going south, probably the king’s highway on the way to the Capernaum. And on the way they have an argument as to who’s the greatest. When they get into the house in Capernaum, which is probably Peter’s house, Jesus asks them, “What were you talking about on the way?” And as you know, they all kind of shuffle their feet and they don’t say anything because they’re a little embarrassed.
Mark is really specific. It is a vivid little scene. Jesus first takes a child and has the child stand right in the middle of them, and then he takes the child and puts the child on his lap and repeats that they need to become again like little children.
Third, in Matthew 7:7–11, Jesus uses little children in the Sermon of the Mount as a model for our asking. He says:
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? (Matthew 7:9–10).
The fourth one, Luke 10, is a little lesser known and that is the disciples themselves are very childlike. When they come back from their first missionary journey, they are so excited and they tell Jesus, “Even the demons are subject to us!” And Jesus bursts out into prayer and praise to his heavenly Father and says:
I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will (Luke 10:21).
And it is probably, other than being Galileans, the common characteristic of the disciples is how childlike they are. And I think that’s why Jesus picked them. I mean, think of Peter. What happens with what is on his mind? It comes right out his mouth. It’s like a little kid. Peter has no mind to mouth barrier. And we laugh at Peter for how corny he is, but he is actually being real. It’s the opposite of being a hypocrite. It doesn’t make it right what comes out, but it’s real and that is something God can work with. And a little child is real. They are themselves. They are incapable of cynicism.
Out of the Mouth of Infants
The fifth passage, Matthew 21:14–16, is a delightful scene. We’re very familiar with the cleansing of the temple, but we’re less familiar with the second half of the passage. What comes right after that is the filling of the temple. After Jesus cleanses the temple, the blind and the lame come hobbling in, and little children come in too. They’re jumping and dancing, and that’s when they sing, “Hosanna to the Son of David.” The Pharisees rebuke Jesus. And Jesus quotes Psalm 8 and says, “Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings, you’ve ordained praise” (Psalm 8:2).
The sixth scene, John 5:19, is not a scene, but it’s Jesus himself. In John 5:19, Jesus says:
The Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing.
In our “Person of Jesus” study and in our seminar, we’ll write John 5:19 up on the board and not tell people what it is. Imagine if I write, “I do nothing on my own; I do just what I see my dad doing.” I’ll change one word to dad. Now, imagine if you’re in a restaurant and you overhear a 30-year-old guy at the next table saying this, just as a snippet of conversation. I mean, the guy has boundary issues. I mean David Powlison, my good friend, would go nuts with this. I mean, he’s enmeshed.
I’m trying to get people in touch with the heart of Jesus, obviously. And someone will say — assuming that people don’t know it’s Jesus saying this — it’s very childlike. It is incredibly childlike. When Jesus is inviting us to become like a little child, he’s inviting us to become like he is. He’s inviting us into his heart.
And think of Galatians 4:4–7, that great sonship passage where the gift of the Spirit is to bring the “Abba! Father!” cry into our hearts. As you know, this isn’t just John 5, but this is all through John. At the end of John 12, Jesus says, “My Father tells me what to say and how to say it.” And so Jesus is inviting us into his life of dependence. Jesus is the most helpless human being who ever existed. He is incapable of doing life on his own. So he’s constantly crying out to his Father.
Ever Expressing Our Needs
I’ll just give a quick illustration of what this looks like in constant prayer. I’ve been involved in starting Christian organizations and I’m a manager and a little bit of an entrepreneur. I get ideas going. So what’s it like to be with Paul Miller in a meeting?
Well, I’ll interrupt people because I’ve got such great ideas, and they really are good ideas. And because other people don’t necessarily always see them as quickly as I do, I need to sell those ideas. And then, just possibly, I might stop listening. I know this about myself. So what I’ll do — and actually I’ve done it so much — most of the time in a meeting I’ll discover that I’m praying, and I’m just praying, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus,” or, “Father, Father, Father,” or, “Come Spirit,” or a little phrase like, “Help me, Jesus.” That’s what it is to be dependent. I can’t do a meeting without the Spirit of Jesus. And when you get excited about that, then you’ll have a praying life. And you just think of a thousand applications of that. So to enter into a praying life is to enter into this heart of Christ.
Here’s a few others. Number seven: Matthew 6:8–13, the Lord’s prayer, is of course very childlike.
Number eight: in Mark 14:36, Jesus is using “Abba, Father” in Gethsemane. Scholars believed that was usually how Jesus addressed his Father. And the reason they believe that is that you all know the word. Now of course, you know the word, many of you, because your study of languages, but your congregations know the word Abba, and they know the word Abba because when the original 12 Aramaic-speaking disciples talked and discipled and evangelized those who were Greek speaking, they were so impacted by that word “Abba”, that they told their Greek speakers about it. And it so impacted Paul that he used it in both Romans and Galatians to describe how the Spirit prays in our own heart.
Dealing with Wandering Thoughts
Now, let me unpack this a little bit more back into our prayer lives. What does it mean to come like a child?
Okay, let me describe a typical prayer time. You are going to have a prayer time. You’re there, you got out of bed, you had a blanket victory, and you launch into 45 seconds of praying. You have a pretty good steam going, and you don’t know when it happened, but all of a sudden the problem with the teenager, or the kid, or the argument you had with your wife, or an elder who’s driving you nuts, all of a sudden this claw on the brain comes in, and your mind wanders off to that and you didn’t even really notice how. It just happens.
You catch yourself after about 30 seconds and you kind of give yourself a spiritual kick, and you go back to concentrating in prayer again. And maybe this time you make it 30 seconds, and your mind goes off and you start worrying about another problem.
You cycle through this a couple times, and you think, “I am no Robert Murray M’Cheyne,” and you think, “I will never do this.” Now, by the way, it’s wonderful to also look at Robert Murray M’Cheyne and see the end game, which John will do tonight, but you think there’s something wrong with you that other people don’t have because no one else is talking about this. And the answer is, there is something wrong with you, which is wonderful and liberating to show you that you need Jesus.
We’ll get back to that in a minute. Now, what are little children like? They never get this tied up when they come to you, they just come and they come with what’s on their mind. It doesn’t make it right. They might not say it right, they may not articulate right, but they just come. It’s one of the things that they’re best at.
And that Mark 10 passage, if you look at it, three different times it mentions sort of the whole way little children come. It’s not just about becoming like little children, but it’s the way little children come. And that coming is a reflection of the gospel.
Come, All You Weary
I mean, just think about this. Jesus does not say, “Come to me all you have learned how to concentrate in prayer, and I will give you rest.” He says, “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). So what’s a weary and a heavy laden mind like? It means distress. You’re burdened by your problems, your hassles, your fears, your worries, and your lusts. There’s stuff inside of you, and there’s stuff coming at you. And Jesus says, “That’s the you I want to come. I want the muddy you.” And we all know and we would die for it that in salvation you cannot come fixed up. You have to come as a sinner. So why do we forget that when we go to prayer? You come as you are.
In fact, I would say that the only you that can come to God is the muddy you. It’s not like that’s how you should come. That’s the only way it works. It’s just like salvation. And the reason for that is that’s the real you. And what people are actually doing is they’re creating a hypocrite. People try to create a spiritual you that doesn’t exist. At least we know it doesn’t exist. And then you try to get that spiritual you praying — almost like a spiritual avatar — and surprisingly it doesn’t work. But the real you with all your problems, all your hassles, can pray because you can talk to God about whatever is on your heart.
So there’s a perfect match between these three things. The child and the way a child comes is a perfect description of the gospel. It’s that weak openness, and it’s what the gospel is. What I’m doing is just applying the gospel to our prayer life.
Just think of this theme of helplessness in the Gospel of John. How do you come? In John 4, the criteria is that you have no water. In John 5, the man has no helper. In John 6, there’s no bread. In John 9, he has no sight. In John 11, he has no life. That’s what I bring to the table. I bring my helplessness. I mean think how hard that is for us as pastors and spiritual leaders in our congregation, because we have an allergic reaction to helplessness because we are the ones who are supposed to be helping other people. So to actually learn helplessness, which is sort of the innards of the praying life as what a child reflects, is where then spiritual power comes from.
Asking Like a Child
Now regarding asking like a child, I am simply astounded that Jesus uses little children as models for asking. I mean, that’s like going to an alcoholic and asking him to help you stop drinking or something like that. I mean, they’re awful. Think of what they ask for, think of how often they ask, and think of what “no” means to a little kid. I mean, it’s just interesting information if they’ve got something on the brain.
If you have any doubt that Jesus is drilling into this aspect of how children ask, the two parables that he tells on how to ask are parables where adults are acting just like little kids. One is the parable of the persistent widow, and the other parable is the friend at midnight. Both of them are demanding like little kids, and Jesus is inviting us into that. Let me show you just a quick chart on that, that will bring, I think, a little clarity to this.
This is a chart from James 4. James describes the road of good asking. It’s kind of like a bridge. There’s a road of good asking in the middle, and you can fall off on either side of the road. To fall off on one side is to ask selfishly. And the other cliff is to not ask. I call this the Pentecostal cliff and this the Presbyterian cliff. I’ll pick on my own heritage, or at least part of my own heritage. Here is God and me separated on the one side. There’s not much movement between the two. Here is me trying to control God on the other side. The one is kind of a functional paganism, and the other is kind of a functional deism. And here I am, in the middle, in fellowship with my heavenly Father, with God the Father.
A Functional Distance with God
Now it is interesting that Jesus’s teaching on prayer — and he does more teaching on prayer than anybody else — is almost exclusively focused on the left side of not having because you do not ask. And James says, “You have not because you ask not” (James 4:2). That’s the left side. And then he says, “When you ask, you ask selfishly” (James 4:3). James is perfectly balanced and you need to hear both sides of that because we can fall off either way.
But Jesus is very focused on this side. And I think the reason is that deism and a functional distance from God has always been the greatest danger. And I think there is an allergic reaction to grace, to asking. It just is so hard to be simple and to be helpless. And Jesus is inviting us again into his helpless heart on this side here.
Here are two other quick thoughts here on this chart. One is that the antidote for not asking is to ask boldly, and the antidote for asking selfishly is to surrender completely. Jesus’s prayer at Gethsemane is a perfect example of that, where Jesus says, “Abba Father, everything is possible for you, take this cup from me” (Mark 14:36). And then in his next breath, he says, “Yet not my will, but thine be done” (Mark 14:36). But what I often see in Christians is that they move so quickly to “thy will be done” that they never put out their heart with God. They don’t have an asking life. And that is one of my biggest struggles.
How Prayer Works
Here is a story for my life to describe what that looks like in process over time. Our daughter, Kim, one of her things that she has is autism, and autistic people can sometimes perseverate where they’ll keep doing the same thing over and over again. And Kim would get up early in the morning at random times, like 4 a.m. or 4:30 a.m., and she would run out in the hallway and flip the light on and then run back, jump in bed, and stay there five minutes. Then she would run back out into the hallway and flip the light off and run back to bed and jump in.
She would just cycle through this. And she was on the third floor and my wife and I were on the second floor, and Jill would be bothered by this. I wouldn’t hear it. So she would tell Kim to get back in bed, and because we’re separated by a floor and three doors between us, she would have to tell her kind of loudly. So she would yell for Kim to get back in bed, and Kim would usually get back in bed for a little bit. It would sort of semi work.
And then when Jill and I would have devotions separately in the morning, Jill would go down on the first floor and she would be praying and I’d be on the second floor praying, and Kim would be on the third floor. Jill would hear Kim pacing but know that Kim couldn’t hear her yelling. We’re all reading the Bible. So Jill would yell at me to yell at Kim. I was kind of like the assistant yeller.
So I would sometimes tune into this and I would yell. Sometimes all this happened at once. Kim would be pacing, Jill would yell at me, and I would be yelling as a preemptive strike so Jill wouldn’t yell at me. And we’d kind of go back and forth.
About three years ago, I’m not sure what prompted me, but I decided to get up in the morning and pray with Kim. And it might have been the fact that I had done about 50 prayer life seminars by that point, or that I was halfway through writing a book on prayer, but something prompted me to think, “Wait a minute, this is ridiculous.” By the way, if anybody said you’re yelling at your kid every morning, we would say, “No, we’re not.” It’s just sort of one of those things you sort of drift into. So I started to get out of bed. This is three years ago in December. And Jill said, “What are you going to do? Go yell at Kim.”
And I said, “No, I’m going to go pray with her. Yelling hasn’t worked for 10 years.” And she started laughing and I went up and prayed with Kim, and as soon as I prayed with Kim, I knew something. It wasn’t even a thought. I just sat on the bed and put my hands on Kim. And what I knew was that I had underestimated Kim’s ability to own her own behavior and to even develop her own walk with God and pray about these things. It was just there.
And over the next three months, not too much happened. I would go up maybe once a week and pray with Kim at her pacing, and then it completely stopped. I can tell you the exact day her pacing stopped was when we moved to another house, and the new house was further off from the street. There was a meat factory right across from us at our old house. The diesel trucks would come in the morning and wake her up, and we didn’t know that.
Learning to Pray
But this thing sat on my heart, this thing I had known about Kim. And we’re so busy, there’s so many things that we have going on. We have eight grandkids and work is busy, and just getting out of the house in the morning is so hard to add another thing is a lot. But it kind of sat on my heart for maybe six months, and we started having devotions together, Kim and I, in the morning. And once in a while we would pray, and let me just chart it out real quickly here.
This is the years 10, nine, eight, and seven. It was year seven in December when I first prayed with Kim. And here’s the 10 years of yelling. Somewhere in 2008 I began to have devotions with Kim. But what I would do is I would do the dishes during when Kim would have her prayer time, and her prayer time would be really short. Then somewhere in here I stopped doing the dishes. It just kind of bothered me. It must have taken me six months to stop doing the dishes because I would sort of stop and start.
But it was about a year and a half before I was sitting next to Kim, praying with her, and listening to her prayers. And then she started blossoming. I should say, she prays with a speech computer. Remember that prayer of Ashley’s that she would speak. Kim has a speech computer that she is fluent with. She can say almost anything she wants. And actually, she’s now starting to get out some words too. Of course, one of the first words was “shut up”. She can say that really clearly.
And one of the things Jill noticed was that thanksgiving dominates her prayer life. And I love it. One of the highlights of my day is listening to what she’s going to thank God for. It’s usually some Disney movie. I mean, how many of you thanked God for Halloween this year? I love it. She’s just so childlike about stuff.
And then at camp this summer, she hurt her elbow and I took her to the hospital. She’s afraid of hospitals and she had a meltdown in the ER. It got us in really quickly though. But in the middle of the meltdown, you sort of do what you can when you have disabled kids. In the middle of the meltdown, she did something differently that I’d never seen her do in the middle of one of her meltdowns. I mean they’re really grand mal when they hit. She was screening there in the intake, and she was signing, “Jesus, help me. Jesus, help me.”
And we got into the back and she just kind of quieted down, and I didn’t think too much about it. We go through these things. But the next week she said, “God spoke to me during that prayer time.” It was when she was in the emergency room. And my first thought was, “Kim, we’re Presbyterians. God doesn’t speak to us.” That was just a joke, sort of. But what is true is that we don’t use that language in our house. And if someone does, they’ll hear me. They’ll just hear my caution about it because it’s so abused. I’ve seen people hurt.
But something happened. And then I asked Kim, “What did God tell you?” And she just quoted Scripture. She said, “God said, ‘Don’t be afraid. I’ll be with you.’” She tapped it out on her pathfinder. I love these stories of God working.
Story, Surprise, and Repentance
Let me go quickly, I have five minutes to do 11 points. I’m a disciple of John Piper. All right, I’m going to speed through these.
Number one: story. That story was just not an illustration. That’s how prayer works. I love these stories. Do you know what Jesus says about watch and pray? Watch is not a throwaway word, but it means when you pray, begin to watch. Isaiah 64:4 absolutely nails what prayer is:
From of old no one has heard
or perceived by the ear,
no eye has seen a God besides you,
who acts for those who wait for him.
He’s active in my life, and I’m not in control of these stories that emerge from a praying life. And you have your own stories too, but they’re fascinating to watch. And what happens is almost a perfect description of what Calvin says in the first couple pages of The Institutes; that in these stories you get a true knowledge of God that leads to a true knowledge of yourself, and you get a true knowledge of yourself that leads to a knowledge of God.
So you emerge, you discover who you are. God emerges. God is discovered in the story. And it is not by chance that it is a Christian, Augustine, who first writes a story of his life that’s a true autobiography of an internal journey. In these stories, you begin to discover yourself and you discover God.
The second thing is surprise. Look at the number of surprises in that story. That thing that I knew about Kim’s spiritual life that I’d known before, the way God answered prayer, the way Kim came alive.
Number three: repentance. To pray was to repent. I mean, that is the story of my life. Oh man, I could pray about that. I think that happens to me five times a week, where I’m about five minutes or five hours into something, and I think, “Wow, I could pray about that.” “Lord teach us to pray” is a daily prayer. It’s saying, “Lord teach me to see that I cannot do life on my own, and make me dependent like your Son.” And that’s how life is meant to work. That’s what it means to say, “Lord, teach us to pray.” And I mean I think of the number of repentances I have. It wasn’t just one of them. The multitasking was a repentance.
Approaching the Living God
Number four: prayer is not a mountain to climb, but it’s a throne to get off of. It’s a different way of doing things. And people often think of prayer almost like it’s this black box up here. I told Bob a couple months ago, “We ought to try doing one of our prayer seminars where we never even mention the word ‘prayer’. You can say anything but prayer. You can say, ‘Cry to God.’ You can say, ‘Ask,’ or anything. And we can even give people a vocabulary to do it.”
But it’s almost like they’ve made this mystical black box out there. There’s a relationship between Kim and I and God going in these stories. And that happens in every one of these prayer stories.
Number five: God is alive. I mean the activity of praying ignites this story where you begin to see. There’s a kind of an unveiling of God that just really makes it kind of exciting.
Number six: the answer. Kim stopped pacing.
Number seven: it gets bigger. In C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle, when they get into heaven, the further you get in, the bigger it gets. Everything about God is like that. And it’s almost always at these frustrating points of life. Those are the points where God’s Spirit is most active, where the best stories are waiting to happen.
After a while you get excited about praying and watching your prayers. Some of our prayers that Jill and I have, like Kim speaking, is a 25-year-old prayer that we’ve been praying for 20 years. I probably have about 50 prayers that I’ve been watching for 10 years longer than that. They’re just a delight to watch. And your faith begins to build on the power and the presence and the activity of God.
Relationship and the Presence of God
Number eight: it’s a real relationship. When a lot of people talk about prayer as a relationship, they almost talk like they’re sitting with God over candlelight. One of the great sort of idols that is creeping into the evangelical world is prayer as experience with God. And people hunt for an experience with God. Well, that’s idolatry. That’s an idol. You don’t hunt for an experience with God, a warm, fuzzy experience; you hunt for God.
Experience comes out of it, but you don’t hunt for experience with God. You submit to God, you obey God, you believe God, you follow God, and you immerse yourself in his word. You are in a relationship with God on the tough points in your life. You’re dreaming with God and you’re opening your whole life up to the activity of God. You’re bringing your muddy self to God. And that’s a real relationship. That’s a relationship like I have with my wife and my kids. There’s stuff going on. It’s not just sort of warm and fuzzy.
Number ten: God’s presence. This is worthy of a book. God’s presence is pervasive but subtle. He is in the shadows and he’s discovered in our obedience. And if I had still stood at that counter doing the dishes, Kim would not have developed this life of prayer. There was a kind of dance between believing and obeying going along there.
Number eleven: hope. You can begin dreaming again. You start anticipating goodness, and you see that spirit. It’s one of the dominant spirits of Jesus, and it’s a spirit of the church. And it’s the spirit of Western civilization, it’s kind of a spirit of, “Why not?” You see that spirit in Jesus at Gethsemane when, at the hardest moment of his life, he’s dreaming. He’s thinking, “All things are possible for you.” He’s so aware that it’s the God of hope and that God wants to fill our lives with good things, that he wants to bless us.
I mean that’s the spirit behind Paul’s prayer that I think John prayed from Ephesians 3:20, which says, “Now unto him who is able to do far more than all that we ask or think.” As you begin to watch God do these stories, you begin to see him do these wonderful things.
Well, a trap door is going to open under me, so I’ll share these last couple points during the devotional time tomorrow morning if you want to hear them. And also, during our devotional time we’ll show you some more things about how we use our prayer cards. I’m going to show you a bunch of my prayer cards and show you some more stories of how God works over time.