At the beginning of every year, we dedicate a week to extraordinary prayer. We pray every morning and every day at noon (see the prayer guide for times and places). We pray through the night on Friday. And I preach on prayer. The aim of this focus on prayer is to help you see and feel in a fresh way how important prayer is so that you resolve to be a praying person.
My approach this year is not to give a detailed exposition of one text but a broad overview in answer to three questions: (1) What is prayer? (2) Where or with whom we should we pray? (3) Why should we pray? And in the last part of the message, I will try to focus our closing attention on Jesus’s main, overarching concern in prayer that will give unity and depth and a magnificent scope to all your praying.
Lord, come and help us understand and love prayer.
1. What Is Prayer?
By prayer, I mean intentionally conveying a message to God. It’s frustrating — isn’t it? — how unclear language can be if we are not careful. Why do I say “intentionally conveying a message to God? Why don’t I just say that prayer is talking to God? Well, because Romans 8:26 says, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” I take this to mean that there are groans of our hearts that the Spirit inspires that are sometimes wordless. So prayer is usually talking to God, but there are times when you can’t talk and can still pray, that is, convey a message to God.
Or why don’t I just say, then, that prayer is communicating with God? Well, because that sounds like I’m talking to him and he is talking to me. But that is not what prayer is. God talking to me is never called prayer in the Bible. When God communicates something to us, we call it revelation or illumination. It is not prayer. And we get into a big, unbiblical muddle if we use the word prayer for what God speaks to us.
Why then don’t I just say that prayer is conveying a message to God? Well, because people are conveying messages to God all day long, but we don’t call it prayer. People are conveying messages like, God is not important to me. Or, God is irrelevant to this situation. Or, God doesn’t exist. But these messages are not intentionally sent to God. They are clear, and we can sometimes discern them. God always discerns them.
Intentionally Conveying a Message to God
So I chose the words: prayer is intentionally conveying a message to God. And that prayer can be at least five different kinds of messages:
“Prayer is intentionally conveying a message to God.”
You can ask for something — this is the most basic meaning of prayer, and God delights for his children to ask him for help. “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7).
You can praise him or marvel at him or give expression to your adoration of him. “Every day I will bless you and praise your name forever and ever. Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised, and his greatness is unsearchable” (Psalm 145:2–3).
You can thank him for his gifts and his acts (which is not the same as praising him for his nature). “We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty, who is and who was, for you have taken your great power and begun to reign” (Revelation 11:17).
You can confess your sins and tell the Lord that you are sorry. “I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and you forgave the iniquity of my sin” (Psalm 32:5).
And finally, you can complain to the Lord. “With my voice I cry out to the Lord. . . . I pour out my complaint before him; I tell my trouble before him” (Psalm 142:1–2). Now here, again, language frustrates. So are you saying, Pastor John, that it is good to have a complaining heart toward God? No. Philippians 2:14: “Do all things without grumbling or questioning.” It’s not good to have a complaining heart. The heart should trust God in all his sweet and bitter providences. So why then do you say we should complain to the Lord? Because sometimes our hearts do complain about the circumstances God has given us, even though our hearts shouldn’t do this, and it is better to consciously direct it toward the Lord than to think he doesn’t see it. Acting like you are not complaining is hypocrisy and will make you a very phony, shallow, plastic person in the end.
So prayer is intentionally conveying a message to God. And that message may be asking for something, praising God for something about him, thanking him for some gift, confessing your sins to him, or complaining to him.
Continual Communion with God
That is what I want you to do every day, all year long, in 2008. Be a praying people. Convey your heart to God over and over. Let it be the way you begin and end everything. Pray before every email, every TV show, every car ride, every phone call, every conversation, every shower, every night’s rest, every meal, everything you read. Convey your heart’s longings to God before and after everything you do. Let it be the way you breathe. Be in communion with God continually.
My wife complains to me that when I finish a cell phone call, I don’t turn my phone off, and so she can hear me going about my business. I can see why that bothers her. But it is certain that it does not bother God if you never hang up. Just leave it on. And I’ll do my best to help you keep your batteries charged.
2. Where or with Whom Should We Pray?
Now I have already answered in a sweeping way the second question, Where or with whom should we pray? Namely, everywhere. But let me be more specific.
Alone in Your Private Room
Pray alone in your private room. The word in Matthew 6:6 means “inner room” or “storage room for storage or treasures.” Verse 5–6:
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.
Here is Jesus’s call to every one of us at the beginning of 2008 to set aside a place where we convey our hearts to God privately and in a focused way. Do you have a place? (When we bought our first home in 1975, seven years after we were married, one of the first things I did was build a prayer bench to make a special place in my study for prayer.) Do you have a place? Do you use it as regularly as you do other less important things? News? Email? Eating? Sleeping? Primping (male and female)? Find a place to dedicate for prayer, and pray there alone regularly.
With Your Family
If you live with your family, pray with them every day, and not just mealtime prayers, as good as those are. “Husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered” (1 Peter 3:7). Unhindered family prayer is a good barometer of whether you are living together as fellow heirs of the grace of life. And where better for a child to learn to pray than in watching his father and mother pray? If a child does not see his father pray, it is very unlikely that he will think prayer is important.
In Small Gatherings
Pray in small gatherings of Christians — small groups and prayer meetings. Jesus said, “If two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matthew 18:19–20). Just two or three — and the world can be moved. God’s hand is not shortened by the size of a prayer gathering. He has his reasons for calling us to pray in groups. And we should do it. Here’s a great example of what can happen. In Acts 4:29–31, the church is together praying.
Lord, . . . grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness. . . . And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.
God has special blessings for those who meet with each other to pray. Do you have a group of people with whom you regularly pray? I know that hundreds of you do not. There is a power and a blessing that you do not enjoy because of this. For your joy and your wholeness and your fruitfulness, I plead with you, pray in 2008 with other Christians regularly.
In Worship Services
Pray in worship services. Corporate worship is mainly prayer structured around the word of God to us. You will see why that is in a few minutes when I focus on why we pray and how much it has to do with displaying the greatness of God — which is what worship does. Many of our songs and hymns and spiritual songs are prayer. They are addressed to God. Mean them. And even when they are about God, not to God, sing them consciously before God.
There is Scripture reading. Pray that our hearts would receive it, understand it, believe it, and be changed by it. Then there are moments of silence. Fill them with prayer. Speak to God about the longings of your heart. Then there are the public prayers. Pray with them and say Amen to what is said. Engage. Don’t be passive. Then there is the sermon. Pray before it, during it, and after it. Pray that it be true. That it be faithful to the Bible. That it be empowered by the Holy Spirit. Pray that you yourself would see more of Christ and that you would more and more be conformed to Christ.
“God loves to save your skin, but he loves even more be your friend.”
And finally back where we started: pray everywhere. Keep the green button on. Let the most natural breathing of your heart be Help, Lord! and Thank you, Lord! When Peter began to sink on the water, he cried, “Lord, save me” (Matthew 14:30). The father of an epileptic boy cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24)! Anywhere, any time, cry out to him. Live in his presence so that this is not an awkward moment. Speak to him often so that your conscience does not condemn you as a foxhole Christian — only talking to God now and then to save your skin. He loves to save your skin, but he loves even more be your friend.
So what is prayer? Prayer is intentionally conveying a message to God — to ask, or praise, or thank, or confess, or complain. And where should we pray? Privately in our room, with family, in small gatherings of Christians, in worship, and everywhere and anywhere we need help and feel thankful.
3. Why Should We Pray?
Finally, we come to our last, major question on prayer: Why should we pray?
God Tells Us To
First, we pray because we are told to by God over and over again in the Bible.
James 5:16: “Pray for one another, that you may be healed.”
1 Thessalonians 5:17: “Pray without ceasing.”
Luke 22:40: “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.”
Luke 18:1: “He told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.”
Luke 6:28: “Bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”
Matthew 6:9: “Pray then like this: ‘Our Father in heaven. . . .”
To Increase Our Joy
Second, we pray because it is designed to increase the fullness of our joy. Jesus said in John 16:24, “Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.” That your joy may be full. God did not create prayer to make us unhappy. He created it so that when we convey our hearts to God the Father in the name of God the Son, God the Spirit moves with a fullness of joy that we would not otherwise know. If your joy in God is small, this may be part of the reason. Pray . . . that your joy may be full.
Because It’s a Staggeringly Awesome Privilege
Third, we pray because it is simply a staggeringly awesome privilege. Think of it. God runs this world with infinite wisdom. You and I never inform him of anything he doesn’t already know. We never add to his wisdom about what he should do next. He doesn’t need our prayers to know what he should do. This is as basic as it gets. He is God. “‘Who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?’ ‘Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?’ For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:34–36).
Nevertheless, God has ordained to make our prayers real causes of real events. Real causes. The words of James 4:2 “You do not have because you do not ask,” do not mean, “You would have had anyway, even if you didn’t pray, since God had a plan and your prayers don’t matter.” “You do not have because you do not ask” means prayer causes things to happen that do not happen if the prayers don’t happen. This is breathtaking. And if you neglect this privilege — your participation in God’s moving the world — you are acting very foolishly. We pray because it is a staggeringly awesome privilege.
Prayer Glorifies the Father and the Son
Finally, we pray because depending on God the Father in prayer in the name of Jesus makes them both look gloriously strong and wise and loving — in other words, prayer glorifies the Father and the Son. Jesus said it clearly in John 14:13: “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.”
“We tend not to see God’s hand anywhere — when it fact it is everywhere.”
Paul put it like this: “You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many” (2 Corinthians 1:11). We pray because it brings thanks to God when the answers come. Otherwise, we tend not to see God’s hand anywhere — when it fact it is everywhere.
The psalmist put it like this in Psalm 50:15, God says, “Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.” You call. I answer with power. You give me glory. That’s why we pray. We exist to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ. Therefore, we obey this command: call on me; I will act; and people will glorify me.
Hallowed Be Your Name
Let’s close with a brief but all-encompassing observation about why we pray from the Lord’s prayer in Matthew 6:9. Jesus said, “Pray then like this: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.’” If this grips you like it did me in 1968 and 1969, everything in your mind will change. I said to my wife 38 years ago, “You can tell how your theology is changing by the way your prayers are changing.”
The first thing that Jesus tells us to ask God to do — mark this! The first thing. The head of the list. Above all others. Most central. Most supreme. Most overarching. Most all-encompassing — the first thing he tells us to ask God to do is that God would cause his name to be hallowed. The first, and all-pervasive, all-influencing, all-controlling concern in prayer is to plead with God that God would make his name supremely valuable in the minds and hearts of people.
The phrase “hallowed be your name” (hagiastheto to onoma sou) in Matthew 6:9 means “Cause your name to be hallowed.” It is a plea that God would do something about his name. It is a plea that God would cause it to be hallowed in our hearts and in the hearts of all people. And what does hallowed mean? It literally means sanctified. But what does that mean when it refers to the infinitely holy name of God? It means that we are praying that his name be set apart in people’s hearts and minds and lives as the infinitely great and beautiful and valuable reality that it is.
That God Would Display the Greatness of God
The first and overarching thing that we are told by Jesus to ask God to do is that God would exercise his jealousy for his name. That God would display the greatness of God. That God would make much of God. That God would overcome blindness to seeing God. That God would overcome indifference to God. That God would remove obstacles to knowing and admiring and loving and trusting and treasuring and obeying God.
This is at the heart of what it means to be born again. Before we are born again, human beings are central in our mind and in our affections. God is not. The passion of God for the supremacy of God makes no sense and is positively offensive.
But when we are born again, and our mental framework is renewed after the image of Christ, then when we hear Jesus tell us that the first thing we should pray for — and the petition that gives unity and depth and a magnificent scope to all our praying — is that God would make his name supreme in our hearts and in the affections of the world, we love these words. They fill us with a sense that we have a profound and wonderful calling. The calling to pray, and in our praying, to move the mighty hand of God to act for the glory of his great name.