When God Listens

His Ear and Our Access

Eden Baptist Bible Conference | Minneapolis

Here’s our overview for this section, and this is the way I like to talk about it. It’s about hearing God’s voice, having his ear, and belonging to his body, the church. And here, I want to emphasize enjoying the gift. This is a gift that we often do not enjoy like we can. So I hope to remind myself and remind all of us here this evening, what a gift we have in prayer. And perhaps we would enjoy this gift a little bit more, incrementally more because of our focus here this evening.

To take a little half step back and do a little bigger review, and then come into prayer, we’re going to talk about Jesus’s habits first. I love talking about this. I don’t see a lot of people talking about this. I find this really exciting and life-giving. So we’ll talk about Jesus’s habits.

Then, we’ll talk in some more nitty-gritty and practicals about our habits of prayer. We’re going to break those up into prayer in secret (personal prayer), prayer constant (prayer that’s on the go and doesn’t cease), and then prayer together in company. And then finally, we’ll talk about fasting. Several years ago, to talk about fasting people would turn their heads. There was not a lot of interest in fasting. And then all of a sudden in recent years, there’s a lot of talk about fasting, intermittent fasting. We’re going to talk about Christian fasting, fasting for a spiritual purpose. So there’s our overview here for tonight’s session.

As a review, let me go to this J.C. Ryle quote again. I just love it. I wanted to come back to it to make sure that everyone hears it. I’m sure there’s somebody here who hasn’t been to the other sessions, so here’s a chance to hear it. Ryle says:

The means of grace are such as Bible reading, private prayer, and regularly worshiping God in church, wherein one hears the word taught and participates in the Lord’s Supper. I lay it down as a simple matter of fact that no one who is careless about such things must ever expect to make much progress in sanctification. I can find no record of any eminent saint who ever neglected them (the means of grace, including prayer). They are appointed channels through which the Holy Spirit conveys fresh supplies of grace to the soul, and strengthens the work which he has begun in the inward man . . . Our God is a God who works by means, and he will never bless the soul of that man who pretends to be so high and spiritual that he can get on without them.

So may we not pretend to be so high and spiritual as to get on without these glorious means. That is our focus tonight.

The Habits of Jesus

So first, let’s take a look at Jesus’s habits. Here’s a disclaimer: The Gospels are not intended just to teach us Jesus’s spiritual practices so we can imitate them. At the very heart of the Gospels is something Jesus does for us that we cannot imitate precisely. We cannot die for others, and definitely for the sins of the world. However, even in his death on the cross and resurrection at the very climax of the Gospels, there is something to imitate, just as he has washed our feet and died for us, so we are to love and serve each other in a cruciform pattern. There’s so much in the Gospels we can pick up from the life of Jesus, the God-man, and I think his spiritual habits are worth observing. Granted though, they are not the main point of the Gospels; that would be the gospel, Jesus.

But we have far more about Jesus’s personal spiritual rhythms than we do about anyone else in Scripture. Part of the reason for this is that we have four Gospels, and the Gospels are given in half of their space at least to tracking his life, especially his ministry, until he came to that final week. We have a lot about his movements and his patterns, but we don’t have that about Paul or Isaiah or Moses or even David. Many of these figures in the Bible that we have a lot of text about, we don’t get anything like some of these spiritual movements and rhythms like we have in the Gospels with Jesus. Let me show you.

Return and Retreat

First, let me give you the big picture about his rhythms of return and retreat, then we’ll talk about how he handled the word, then we’ll talk about prayer, and that moves us into the prayer topic for tonight. The word piece is a little bit of review, but it’s important because there’s this relationship between God speaking in his word and our response in prayer that we step on that foot again.

Here are some of Jesus’s rhythms of retreat and return. See how he draws back from the crowd and communes with his Father, and then that fills him and feeds him and strengthens him to then move back to the needs of others, back to the crowd to bless others. Mark 1:35 comes after a very busy day in Capernaum. They’re healing all sorts of people and they’re beating down the door outside Peter’s house.

And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed.

That’s going to be key language. We’ll see this “desolate place” again and again. That could be translated as “wilderness place.” He’s getting out of the town. He’s getting alone. He’s getting some solitary space to meet with his Father. So he gets out to a desolate place, and there he prays. This is really an amazing moment. The whole town, Peter’s hometown, is all excited about this guy that Peter has been following. So Peter has to be thrilled, thinking, “My whole town is wanting to hear from this Jesus that I’ve given my life to follow.” And Peter wakes up the next morning and is like, “Uh oh, where’s Jesus? He’s gone.” Peter must’ve been in a panic. They’re looking for him. Where is Jesus? They find that he’s gone out to pray, and when they get there to him, they’re like, “Jesus, where have you been?” He says, “I came out to pray. I need to move on to the next town” (Mark 1:38).

It must have been very difficult for Peter, but he had a mission and he moved out. He was filled up by his Father and he was ready to move on to the next town to spread the word. Next is Matthew 9:36–38. Now you see his approach to the crowds. It’s not that Jesus disdains people, humans, crowds.

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

He’s going to be that, paradigmatically, in being sent out from heaven to die for us. And he prays for the disciples to be sent out and for others to be sent out that there be labor. There is this movement where he goes away to commune and then comes back to the crowds. Luke 5:15–16 says:

But now even more the report about him went abroad, and great crowds gathered to hear him and to be healed of their infirmities. But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray.

This pattern emerges. The crowd swells. They want to know more about him and he doesn’t hate them. He ministers to them, he blesses them, and he finds his time to withdraw and to pray.

The Son of God’s Daily Bread

Now quickly, consider the place of Scripture in Jesus’s life, because I don’t want to give the impression that he’s just a man who prayed and that prayer was not a kind of rhythm or response or relationship with the word from his Father. So here’s the place of Scripture in the life of Christ.

First, consider the wilderness where he faced temptations. Satan says, “If you are the Son of God, command the stone to become loaves of bread” (Matthew 4:3). And Jesus answers, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4:4). So Satan comes back to try to match him. He says, “All right, I hear that. Let me learn from it.” He’s clever. He’s going to try to match it. He says, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written . . .” (Matthew 4:6). In other words, “If you want to quote the Writings, I’ll quote the Writings.” He says, “It is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you and on their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against the stone’” (Matthew 4:6). Jesus is going to fight fire with fire. He says to him, “Again, it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test’” (Matthew 4:7).

Then Satan says, “All these I will give you if you will fall down and worship me” (Matthew 4:9). Then Jesus says, “Be gone, Satan, for it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve’” (Matthew 4:10). So even the Son of God among us, God himself among us, bases his “Be gone, Satan,” not merely on his own authority with respect to his humanity, but he bases it on the revelation of God’s word. He says, “Be gone, Satan, for it is written.”

Continual Appeals to Scripture

Here’s Jesus in his hometown when he comes back from the wilderness. He comes to Nazareth where he was brought up. And it says “as was his custom” (Luke 4:16). This is habit language. He’s making a custom here to gather with the body. That belongs to last night, the habit of gathering. It says:

He came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written . . . (Luke 4:16–17).

He’s handling Scripture, reading it aloud. Then he reads, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me” (Luke 4:17–19), and he reads the quote. Then it says:

And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:20–21).

He begins his ministry in coming back from the wilderness, coming to his hometown (Nazareth), by quoting Scripture. This is the fulfillment of Scripture. This is how he identifies his cousin, John the Baptist. He says:

This is he of whom it is written, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you” (Matthew 11:10).

And when Jesus clears the temple, he uses Scripture:

Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers” (Matthew 21:12–13).

The Word Applied, the Word Fulfilled

This is also how he rebukes the proud. Mark 7:5–9 says:

And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!”

He’s a man who is soaked in Scripture, in what is written. Again and again, he’s referring to Isaiah and to what is written. He’s quoting Scripture. He’s referring to the commandments of God and holding those up against the traditions of men. He is saying, “That tradition is not in the word, that’s not in Scripture. But this is in Scripture.”

In Luke 20:16–18, it says:

When they heard [the parable of the wicked tenant], they said, “Surely not!” But he looked directly at them and said, “What then is this that is written: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’? Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”

Here are some other examples:

  • On the way to Calvary in John’s Gospel, as he turns the corner and heads with intentionality to Jerusalem, it is pronounced, “It is written in the Prophets. . .” (John 6:45).
  • In John 8, he says, “In your Law it is written . . .” (John 8:17)
  • In John 10, he says, “Is it not written in your law?” (John 10:34).
  • In John 12, it says, “Just as it is written . . .” (John 12:14),
  • In John 15, he says, “The word that is written in their Law must be fulfilled” (John 15:25).
  • He says, “The Son of Man goes as it is written of him” (Matthew 26:24).
  • In Luke 18, he says, “We are going up to Jerusalem and everything that is written about the Son of man by the prophets will be accomplished” (Luke 18:31).

Living by What Is Written

So here’s my summary about the function of the written word, Scripture, in the life of Jesus. Jesus didn’t have his own print Bible to page through in private. You get this, right? They didn’t have the printing press until 500 years ago. To produce books was a great cost. People didn’t have personal copies of books. So it’s almost certain Jesus just doesn’t have a personal copy of Scripture. He heard it read at the synagogue, he heard it in his mother’s singing. He could rehearse what he himself had memorized. Even though he didn’t have his own print Bible to page through, let there be no confusion about the central place of God’s written word in his life. God himself in human flesh lived by what was written.

I came across this quote from Sinclair Ferguson recently. This comes from his book, The Holy Spirit, and he’s talking about the role of the Holy Spirit in the earthly life of Jesus. And he makes this comment relative to Scripture:

Jesus’s intimate acquaintance with Scripture did not come [magically from heaven] during the period of his public ministry. It was grounded, no doubt on his early education, but nourished by long years of personal meditation.

“God himself in human flesh lived by what was written.”

This is what it means for God himself to be among us as a human. Hebrews 5:8 talks about him learning obedience through what he suffered. Luke 2:52 talks about him growing in wisdom and knowledge, and this is the wisdom and knowledge he grew in. It was God’s written word in Scripture, which then formed a life of prayer.

The Place of Prayer in the Life of Christ

The place of prayer then. So given that picture of how Scripture functions in the life of Jesus, what’s the place of prayer in the life of Christ? This is really rich. Let’s start with Jesus and his prayer alone. I’ll put the cards on the table. I want you to hear the application here. Hear echoing and imitation as we talk about his prayer alone, his prayer with others, and what he’s teaching his disciples about prayer. This is all very relevant and applicable to us.

Jesus and Private Prayer

We already saw Mark 1:35. This is Matthew 14:23, which says:

And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone . . .

Even though he has these 12 and they were with him essentially all the time. Here it’s said in particular that he went up alone. This time, not even Peter, James, or John are coming with him. He goes alone to commune with his Father in prayer. Mark 6:46–47 says:

And after he had taken leave of them, he went up on the mountain to pray. And when evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land.

And you know there’s a great miracle coming. John 6:15 says:

Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

I’m suspecting he goes there to pray. And as one who is quoting regularly what is written, when he prays to his Father, he prays in light of what he knows to have been revealed in Scripture. Luke 6:12 says:

In these days he went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God.

Now this context here is him choosing the disciples. Jesus didn’t have one night a week where he always missed sleep for prayer. I’m aware of two occasions. It happened at the beginning of his ministry when he was choosing his disciples, and at the end of his ministry the night before he died when the disciples were all ready to sleep and he was praying in the garden of Gethsemane. I don’t know that Jesus had any sleep that night before he died. So Jesus did have a regular pattern of sleep, and yet he was ready to miss sleep if he needed to for communion with his Father. It wasn’t all the time, but it was on some particularly pressing occasions. That was Jesus praying alone.

Jesus and Public Prayer

Now, how about praying with his men, or as his disciples hear him praying? And this occurs regularly in his ministry. Luke 6:21 says:

When Jesus also had been baptized and was praying . . .

This is when he was being baptized. This is being observed by his disciples. They’re hearing that he’s praying. Or consider Matthew 6:5–13 when he taught them how to pray. This is the Lord’s prayer. In Matthew 6, it’s part of the teaching during the Sermon on the Mount, but in Luke 11:1–4 the disciples came to him after hearing his prayers, and they wanted to learn. They asked him to teach them. We’ll get to that.

Matthew 19:13 says that children are brought to him that he may lay his hands on them and pray. So the word is going out and people think, “Hey, this is Jesus!” He was the one who would lay his hands on your children and bless your children and pray for your children. He’s a man of prayer. He’s a man who loves children. He’s a man who will pray for them. So they brought children to him because he was known this way. Mark 9:29 says:

And he said to them, “This kind [demon oppression] cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.”

Luke 9:18 says:

Now it happened that as he was praying alone, the disciples were with him.

That’s how much he was with his men, how much he invested in these guys. Even at times when he was praying alone, the disciples were with him. So how does that work? Is it that he kind of goes off to the side and has a prayer time? Or is he so used to these guys that it feels like being alone compared to the crowd and others?

Lord, Teach Us to Pray

This is a time when his men are observing him or hearing him pray. The disciples were with him, and because they see the kind of man of prayer he is and these rhythms of prayer he has, they ask him, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1). He’s praying in a certain place. And when he finished — somehow they knew he finished, either he raised his head or they heard him praying and he stopped — they said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray.” They’ve heard him pray. It’s winsome, it’s contagious. They want to pray like this man. And they ask him for his instruction. Luke 9:28 says:

Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray.

The night before he died, he said to Peter, “I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail” (Luke 22:32). The God-man prays for his disciples that their faith will not fail. John 17 may be the deepest chapter in all the Bible, and it’s Jesus praying. It says:

He lifted up his eyes to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come . . .” (John 17:1).

All of John 17 is Jesus’s prayer. Lastly, Matthew 26 is in the garden of Gethsemane. It says:

Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I go over there and pray” (Matthew 26:36) . . . And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39) . . . Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak (Matthew 26:41).

And again, for the second time, he went away and prayed. He was leaving them again. And he went away and prayed for a third time. This is how he waits for the events to begin to transpire when he’s taken into custody. These are the last few moments when he could run. This is the moment to feel the weight, to suffer beforehand with the weight of what it will be like to be at the cross, to ponder what he’s doing. This doesn’t catch him off guard. There would be less virtue and power in the cross if it caught him off guard. The cross doesn’t catch him off guard. He knows exactly what’s happening and he wrestles with it. He owns it. He solidifies his will for the joy set before him and he does that through prayer.

Jesus and Fasting

Jesus also talks about fasting and there are two key texts on fasting, both are in Matthew’s Gospel, which will accompany prayer as we’ll talk about. He says:

And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you (Matthew 6:16–18).

This pairs with his talk about praying in secret, as we’ll see in just a minute. And he says “when you fast.” This is not an if to his disciples. He expects there to be occurrences of fasting. Matthew 9:15 says:

Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.

So Jesus says we will fast. When they fast, he assumes we’ll fast and he says we will. The bridegroom, Jesus, will be taken away and then they will fast.

Instructions on Seclusion

So far we have seen Jesus’s pattern of retreat and return, how Jesus shaped his life with the word, how Jesus prayed alone with his disciples, how Jesus taught his disciples to pray, and then Jesus also teaches his disciples the same kind of pattern of withdrawing at appropriate times for communion and rest and then going back to the crowds to minister. Jesus withdrew with his disciples, bringing them with him. He’s teaching them this pattern. Luke 9:10 says:

On their return the apostles told him all that they had done. And he took them and withdrew apart to a town called Bethsaida.

Mark 6:31–32 is more direct. He says:

And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves.

In John 11, it says:

Jesus therefore no longer walked openly among the Jews, but went from there to the region near the wilderness, to a town called Ephraim, and there he stayed with the disciples.

Matthew 6:11 says:

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’s my summary. In receiving his Father’s voice in Scripture, in praying alone and with company, and at times when faced with particularly pressing concerns, adding the tool of fasting, Jesus sought communion with his Father. His habits were not demonstrations of sheer will and discipline. His acts of receiving the word and responding in prayer were not ends in themselves. In these blessed means, he pursued the end of knowing and enjoying his Father, communing with his Father in prayer.

The God Who Speaks and Listens

We’ve been talking implicitly all along, but now let’s talk explicitly about our habits of prayer. There are three foundational truths here before a few concrete specifics and suggestions. First, our God is not only communicative but listens. The speaking God is also the God who listens. “God Who Listens” is a good song by Chris Tomlin. Now, he doesn’t only listen, he first speaks. Sometimes we can get this thing back and forth in our modern day. It’s spoken of in therapeutic, psychological terms. People say, “I just need somebody to listen to me. If God will just listen. If people just listen to me. I need listening.” Yes, and you need teaching and divine revelation along with listening.

There are two things that are happening. He speaks and he listens. Our God is a God who listens and he listens in light of his speech. Prayer is a conversation we didn’t start. God speaks first. We respond in light of his word. We talked yesterday about dialing up. Who’s going to dial up? Well, actually we’re not going to dial up. God has dialed up. So let’s pray to him together in light of his revelation. And the great purpose of prayer is that God would be our joy. We pray for things and we pray for help. We pray for assistance and we pray for blessing. At the end of the day, we pray to God himself. We want more of him. He is the greatest gift he gives. His Son is the greatest gift he gives. And so we pray to know him, enjoy him, and have him even as we want to have and see him through blessings he may give.

We’ll talk in just a minute about how we would work things into our prayer life other than just asking. This is C.S. Lewis on prayer, and it’s about the asking part of prayer, which is where the word “pray” comes from. We think of asking things from God and we should be careful not to only ask stuff from him as if he’s a big gift dispenser in the sky. Lewis says:

Prayer, in the sense of asking for things, is a small part of it; confession and penitence are its threshold, adoration its sanctuary, the presence and vision and enjoyment of God its bread and wine.

Our Habits of Prayer

Let me break these out with various texts and concepts as our prayer in secret (private prayer), as in the Ryle quote. Then, we will talk about the language in the New Testament that you’re probably familiar with, “praying without ceasing.” What is that? And then, we’ll focus on praying with company with a few suggestions on how to pray together with company in ways that might be most effective in the life of the church.

Praying in Secret

Here’s prayer in secret again, as we saw:

And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you (Matthew 6:5–6).

This does not mean never ever pray in public. That’s part of what we do as a church. It would be a blessed thing to pray for someone. It’s very good for others to hear your prayers all the time in our families. People should be hearing our prayers all the time. But don’t let prayer become something that is only heard by others so that there’s never this prayer in secret. And don’t let it just be prayer on the go, but have a particular time set aside where nobody else is listening and you’re not just begging for help on the way as you go through life, but you have time set aside to commune with God, as we saw in this pattern in Jesus’s life.

It’s great to find a space where you can pray out loud. This has been something that’s fresh recently in my life that the kids have gotten old enough now. They’re in school five days a week. I have some work from home days now because on the other side of COVID there are some fresh patterns, and we have a blended office, so some days you’re home. There are times I’m just at home by myself and I can kneel in our living room and I can just pray out loud. For me, it helps me to pray it out loud so I don’t kind of trail off. Sometimes when I’m just in my head praying, I kind of trail off. I don’t finish sentences and thoughts, or my prayers can begin to wander into thoughts because they were thoughts to begin with. I find it very helpful to be able to pray out loud and in secret. We need to find space for that.

My suggestion here, as I mentioned yesterday, is this pattern of beginning with the Bible, moving to meditation, and then polishing with prayer. The thought there being, we want to hear from God first and reading is moving at the typical pace of a written text. So begin by reading his word. And then meditation is about pausing, pondering, and seeking to feel the weight and significance of a particular part of that text on the soul. And then, instead of doing a hard pivot to praying what you want to pray for the day, let what God has been speaking through his word and you’ve been meditating on be the theme, the inspiration, and the catalyst for your prayers.

You could say, “God, I’ve seen your Son is glorious in this text. I pray that you would help me to continue seeing that, help my wife to see it, help my kids to see it, help my coworkers to see it, and help the nations see it.” I typically move in a pattern from self to wife to kids and family, then coworkers in church and the Twin Cities, and then to the nations. I kind of move out in concentric circles. But you find your way and what makes sense to you as you think about circles of prayer. I love to have that prayer time come out of being freshly inspired by time in the word.

Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication

Then there is the ACTS acronym. This is not proprietary or special. You’ve probably heard of this. I think it’s very helpful. I think we tend to forget without reminders like this about the other aspects of prayer other than petition. Lewis is talking about petition being a small part of prayer. So here’s what ACTS refers to: adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. Supplication is there. It’s part of prayer, it’s important.

Come into a prayer time and begin by adoring God. There is something so right, so precious, so enjoyable about adoring God. It’s fitting and he’s worthy of it, for us to pause and adore him and then move from that adoration as we rehearse his glory, his attributes, and his worth to a sense of self and the need for the confession of our sins, and how we are not living up to the standard, and how we have we have sinned against him. Then we move to thanking him. Thank him that he’s drawn near in Christ. Thank him for the many blessings in our lives. And then we ask, if you want to go through this pattern of ACTS.

I get asked this question a lot, but I think the general pattern in Scripture and in the New Testament in particular for Christian prayer is to the Father through the Son — that is, in Jesus’s name — and by the Spirit. So prayer is Trinitarian, but it’s not necessarily symmetrical.

We don’t pray to the Spirit through the Father by the Son. You pray to the Father through the Son by the Spirit. And all three persons of the Godhead are God in their own right. So it is fitting and wonderful to pray to particular members of the Trinity. You don’t have to only address the Father, you can pray Jesus prayers where you pray to him. You can pray to the Spirit. And in particular that can be fitting where there’s certain times where we know of the roles that the persons of the Godhead take in the economy of salvation. So if we’re praying for a particular thing, you may want to pray to that particular person. However, the general pattern is to the Father through the Son, the one person of the Trinity who became human and died for us, and doing that by the power of the Spirit who dwells in us. Don’t be shackled into thinking you need to pray the same number of prayers and spend the same number of minutes praying to each person in the Trinity.

Prayer and Fasting

And then, prayer is to be accompanied on occasion with fasting. We’ll say more about this in a few minutes, but let me just say there are normal daily prayers and there are times in our lives where we feel a particular desperation. Fasting is a tool for the desperate. You cannot fast all the time, you’d die. You can pray every day. Prayer goes with the breath. You have to keep breathing and keep praying. You can go without food for a little bit, not all the time.

So fasting is a special measure. When you have a particular burden, some particular desperation, and you want to say, “Oh Father, I’m so desperate here,” more than just the typical prayer — which is wonderful and blessed and prayed in confidence because of Jesus — then you can add a particular demonstration of desperation in fasting. We’ll say more about fasting here in just a moment.

Praying Without Ceasing

I have four texts that talk about praying without ceasing or being constant or continual in prayer:

  • Rejoice always, pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:16–17).
  • Be constant in prayer (Romans 12:12).
  • Continue steadfastly in prayer (Colossians 4:2).
  • Praying at all times in the Spirit . . . (Ephesians 6:18).

I don’t think this means you stay on your knees all day and you never stop praying. I think it means don’t give up praying. Don’t have trials come into your life where you forget to pray or become so discouraged that you don’t pray. Continuing it, persevere in prayer. And as you go throughout the day, as you live, develop patterns of prayer or anchor points of prayer.

Maybe you think about your car as being a reminder on your commute in the morning, getting in the car in the morning. This is a reminder to pray as you start out on the commute. Or there could be other ways. We do this with meals as we sit down. We take that as an occasion to pray. That’s a good thing. That’s a good habit. There could be other habits of prayer like that so that we would have this sense of ongoing prayer, constant prayer in our life, which doesn’t mean that we don’t ever do our work or don’t ever give any focus somewhere else. Be freed from that burden.

There can be a spirit of dependence, yes, as you go throughout the day, and your attention is limited. You can only really focus on a thing at a time. And God means for you to do your work and your calling and your parenting and interact with your spouse and do what you’re called to do. And we can develop these rhythms that are such that it would be as if we never stop praying. We pray without ceasing. We’re constant in prayer because it marks our life like it did for Jesus.

Praying with Company

Before we finish with fasting let’s focus here on praying with company. I call praying with company the high point of prayer, which is in no way to minimize private prayer or prayer on the go. But again, as we talked about with fellowship, when God’s people come together, there is a power. God loves to brood by his Spirit on the gathering of his people. And when we sync up our schedules and our lives and our habits to pray together, it is significant. There is multiplying blessings to us and through the gathering in praying together.

Jesus does this, and we see it in the life of the early church where they gather to pray. My recommendation is to make it regular with spouse, with family, and with people in a small group or Bible study. There can be prayer gatherings in the rhythms of the church. An idea with a time that’s set aside as a prayer time is to begin with a brief word of Scripture. It might just be a single verse that someone reads. If there’s a prayer leader for the gathering, they could just say, “Let me read this paragraph and let’s pray together.” That could be one way to get into prayer time to remember that we’re not the one dialing up, we’re praying in response to God’s word. Some word of Scripture can be the catalyst for our group gathering in prayer.

I also recommend limiting your share time. I try to do this in our community group. We will gather in our time to pray and people will start sharing. Are there any prayer requests? People start sharing and the clock is ticking and they are sharing so well, and we are just bearing down on the time when they’ve got to go because they have to have kids in bed for school the next day. One strategy, if you’re leading a prayer time, is to start with a little Scripture and then say, “Does anybody have a really pressing request you need to talk to us about, or can we just talk to the Lord in prayer about these things?” And you know what, in all our prayers, God already knows it.

So if you want to give some extra information in your prayer to him so that other people understand what you’re praying for, God is really fine with that. I’m pretty sure about that. So for us to get into prayer time and go ahead and go directly Godward and be able to share as we pray can be a good thing in our praying with company.

Utilize Short Prayers

At times, I love to remind folks you don’t have to pray long. Jesus commends short prayers. When he gave us the model prayer, it’s only 50 words. Feel free to hop around. You can pray for something in a focused way and none of us here are going to think you’re unspiritual if you pray too short. In fact, we may think you’re unspiritual if you pray too long, depending on the setting.

Pray without show and with others in mind. This is the last tension in corporate prayer. We don’t want to pray for show and yet when it’s corporate prayer, you’re praying for other people. So there’s no need to pretend it’s just you and God. It’s not. It’s corporate prayer. The very nature of corporate prayer is that we’re doing this together, so it’s appropriate to both seek to be authentic and real before him, and at the same time, you know others are listening and you’re leading them together with you Godward in prayer.

Inducements to Communal Prayer

I’ll just end with some incentives here about the benefits of praying with company. Why not just make all your prayer, private prayer? In praying with company, I think there are answers to prayer that we get in praying with each other that we may not get otherwise if we didn’t do so in company. I think there’s growth in our prayers. When we hear others pray, we grow in the way that we pray. It’s a wonderful thing to pray in private.

We have to pray in private, but I think there’s more growth that happens as we hear others, as we hear their perspective, as we hear how they’re wording it, the angles of approach to God, what they say to God, their concepts. We get to know those persons well too in the fellowship of the church as we hear their heart in prayer. That draws out something in that person you may not hear otherwise when they come before God’s face in prayer. We get to know them better. And then, most of all, you get to know Jesus better.

I think there are aspects of our Savior that God means for us to know through hearing those in the prayers of others in the corporate gatherings. As we know others, we get to see aspects of Jesus, his grace, how he’s drawn near to them, how he’s blessed them, how he’s shown them grace upon grace.

And then lastly, the great purpose of prayer in secret, prayer on the go, and prayer with company is that God in Christ would be our reward.

Questions and Answers

Are there any questions here on prayer before I finish up with some brief thoughts about fasting? Any burning questions on prayer? If it’s not burning, you don’t have to make one up.

Do you have a favorite resource on prayer?

Yes, my favorite is Tim Keller’s book on prayer. I think it’s Tim Keller’s best book. It’s at a different level from his other stuff. It is so well done. It’s so steeped in John Owen and the Puritans. I love Keller’s book. Years ago, I loved Paul Miller’s book called A Praying Life. It was so good. There’s an old Spurgeon book called The Power of Prayer in a Believer’s Life. It’s really good. I know that people recommend E.M. Bounds. Actually I haven’t heard people talk about E.M. Bounds recently, but go look up E.M. Bounds for a lot of resources on prayer.

The Place of Fasting

The last point is on fasting. At no place in all his 13 letters, does the apostle Paul command Christians to fast. Neither does Peter in his letters, nor John, nor any other book in the New Testament. There are no commands to fast. And yet, for 2,000 years Christians have fasted. One expression among others of healthy, vibrant Christians and churches has been the practice of fasting. However much it may seem to be a lost art today, fasting has endured for two millennia as a means of Christ’s ongoing grace for his church. So why then, if Christians are not commanded to fast, do we still fast?

There’s Jesus’s example as we’ve already seen. He fasted in the wilderness. He said, not if you fast, but when. And Jesus promised, “then they will fast” (Matthew 9:15). So the words of Christ have an effect on the church, though it’s not a direct command to fast because they will, and he says “when you fast.” The early Christians fasted. They fulfilled what Jesus said would happen. Acts 13:1–3 says:

Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.

It’s a pattern in the early church. Acts 14:23 says:

And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting (notice the pairing) they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.

Inward Fasting

Overall, the New Testament may have little to say about fasting, but what it does say is important. And what it doesn’t say, I think it’s leaning heavily on the Old Testament. The Hebrew Scriptures do not speak the final word on fasting, but they’re vital in preparing us to hear the final word from Christ. I have a summary for you of three groups of passages on fasting in the Old Testament. I count about 25 references to fasting, situations of fasting, or narratives about fasting. Let me summarize them for you in three groups.

First, there is inward fasting. There’s an inward focus in fasting to express repentance. God’s people fast to express a heart of repentance before him. They realize their sin, typically not small indiscretions or lapses in judgment, but deep and prolonged rebellion, and they come seeking his forgiveness. This happens in 1 Samuel 7:3, which says:

And Samuel said to all the house of Israel, “If you are returning to the Lord with all your heart, then put away the foreign gods and the Ashtaroth from among you and direct your heart to the Lord and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.” So the people of Israel put away the Baals and the Ashtaroth, and they served the Lord only. Then Samuel said, “Gather all Israel at Mizpah, and I will pray to the Lord for you.” So they gathered at Mizpah and drew water and poured it out before the Lord and fasted on that day and said there, “We have sinned against the Lord” (1 Samuel 7:3–7).

I’m not going to go through all these texts, but this is the first scenario: to express repentance. And you can see fasts expressing repentance in 1 Kings 21, Nehemiah 9, Daniel 9, Jonah 3, Joel 1–2. Old Testament saints often expressed an inward heart of repentance to God, not only in words, but with the exclamation point of fasting. It’s kind of a declaration of particular repentance. Such fasting did not earn God’s forgiveness but demonstrated the genuineness of their contrition. It’s like they’ve reached for some extra help to express the intensity of their repentance.

Outward Fasting

Then there is outward fasting. Then there’s an outward kind of fasting, in order to grieve hard providences. You can see this on several occasions. Fasting can give voice to mourning, grieving, or lamenting difficult providences. This is the end of 1 Samuel when the first anointed king, Saul, dies:

And they took their bones and buried them under the tamarisk tree in Jabesh and fasted seven days (1 Samuel 31:13).

They were mourning for the death of their king. 2 Samuel 1 is the next chapter here:

Then David took hold of his clothes and tore them, and so did all the men who were with him. And they mourned and wept and fasted until evening for Saul and for Jonathan his son and for the people of the Lord and for the house of Israel, because they had fallen by the sword (2 Samuel 1:11–12).

“Fasting expresses to God our pointed need for God.”

Hard providences call for fasting. Esther fasts when the king’s decree goes out. In Psalm 35:13, David talks about wearing sackcloth and afflicting himself with fasting in his grieving. Psalm 69:10 says, “He humbled his soul with fasting.” Fasting gave voice to the pain and sorrow of sudden and severe outward circumstances and represented a heart of faith toward God in the midst of great tragedies.

Forward Fasting

So there is inward fasting (repentance), outward fasting (hard providences), and then the last one here is fasting forward, to seek God’s favor like traveling mercies, or something like that. But it’s with a particularly acute sense. Fasting can have a kind of forward orientation in seeking God’s guidance or future favor. This is like Acts 13:2, when they’re worshiping the Lord and fasting and the Spirit says to set them apart, and they pray and fast to send them out and send them forward.

Ezra is an example of this. He proclaims the fast:

Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our goods . . . So we fasted and implored our God for this, and he listened to our entreaty (Ezra 8:21–23).

It’s similar for Nehemiah. Fasting often served as an intensifier alongside forward prayers for God’s guidance, traveling mercies, and special favors. So let me bring it all to a close here with the thread that comes together in fasting.

A Prayer Amplifier

This is not all the Old Testament has to say about fasting. For instance, there are correctives to fasting in Isaiah 58 and Jeremiah 14 and Zechariah 7–8. But the three general categories hold. Fasting expresses inward repentance, grieves outward tragedies, or seeks God’s forward favor. And a common thread holds all true fasting together. Fasting, like prayer, is always Godward. Faithful fasting, whatever the conditions of its origin, is rooted in human lack and need for God. We need his help, his favor, his guidance. We need his rescue and comfort from trouble. We need his forgiveness and grace because we have sinned.

We need God. He, not human circumstances or activity, is the common denominator of fasting. Fasting expresses to God our pointed need for God. We have daily needs and we have unusual needs. We pray for daily bread, and in times of special need, we reach for the prayer amplifier called fasting.

Christian fasting is also unique. I don’t want to give the wrong impression by going back to the Old Testament for background that we’re going back to the Old Testament for our fasting. Christians have one final and essential piece to add: the depth and clarity and surety we now have in Christ. As we express to God our special needs for him, whether in repentance or in grief or for his favor, we do so with granite under our feet. When our painful sense of lack tempts us to focus on what we do not have, fasting reminds us now of what we do. Already, God has come for us in Christ. Already, Christ has died and risen. Already, we are his by faith. Already, we have his Spirit in us, through us and for us. Already, our future is secure. Already, we have a home.

In fasting, we confess we are not home yet and remember that we are not homeless. In fasting, we cry out for our groom and remember that we have his covenant promises. In fasting, we confess our lack and remember that the one with every resource has pledged his help in his perfect timing. John Piper says:

Christian fasting is unique among all the fasting of the world. It is unique in that it expresses more than longing for Christ or hunger for Christ’s presence. It is a hunger that is rooted in — based on — an already present, experienced reality of Christ in history and in our hearts.

In Christ, fasting is not just a Godward expression of our need. It is not just an admission that we’re not full; fasting is a statement in the very midst of our need that we’re not empty. In both prayer and fasting, God himself in Christ is our reward.

Questions and Answers

Are there any questions about prayer or fasting as we wrap up?

I get the sense from what you’re saying here that fasting is more withdrawn and alone and purposeful. Yet often, I’ve heard from church, if you fast, you’re just going to quit eating and go about your business. I see that as two different perspectives, am I right or wrong?

Well, as you were asking the question, it made me think. What I don’t talk about here is our fasting together. Fasting can be done as a fellowship aspect. We know Jesus’s words about fixing yourself up when you fast and not making it obvious that you’re fasting so that you have your righteousness exercised before others. But there can be communal fast. That’s very biblical as well. A church can call a fast for a particular need, like finishing the building program, or getting another pastor or elder, or meeting the financial gap, or whatever it may be. A church can call a fast together. Elders often do this. We’ve done this as pastors together with our church, feeling some particular needs and saying, “Brothers, we’re going to fast together.” A corporate fast is not something you keep secret from each other. You’re doing it together.

On the question you have about whether it’s withdrawn or you go about your business, I maybe have two things to say to that. On the one hand, I think what I’m advocating here is mostly that you go about your normal life. However, it’s also good to think about what you’re going to do at the time you’re not eating. We spend a lot of time eating. It happens three times a day for many of us and the time adds up. So in wanting your fast to be spiritual and not just going hungry, it is really important.

A lot of times the fasting that is talked about nowadays is trending and it’s a hot topic on Google or whatever, like intermittent fasting. That’s about weight management and it’s about health. It’s not spiritually-intended fasting. So you might do some form of Christian intermittent fasting if there’s Christian purpose in it, if there’s a particular prayer, if there’s desperation to God. But if it’s just weight management, like a diet or exercise, then that’s not really the essence of what we’re talking about here with Christian fasting.

Christian fasting has a Christian purpose. One way you might express that is setting aside some time when you’re not eating to have some reflection over God’s word, to spend that time in prayer. In fasting, being accompaniment to prayer, it would sure be a shame to fast and not pray. And when we’re not eating, hunger should be a reminder for us to pray, to take the ache in the stomach and turn that into a spoken ache Godward. That’s the kind of fittingness between prayer and fasting. We’re cultivating or giving space to a physical ache that corresponds to the kind of ache in the soul, the desperation for God’s help, God’s deliverance, and God himself in the circumstance.

I get how we don’t want to do this for like bodily improvement, but what about those people that maybe have a job that is very physically exerting and it’s very difficult to go without food? Or what about the person who has anemia or other health issues that really wants to fast in light of all of the things you talked about but isn’t able to? Are there times where you have to really look at bodily circumstances? Do you have anything to say to that?

That’s a great question. I should have accounted for that in my slides. There’s a great quote by Martin Lloyd Jones where he talks about how the impulse for fasting can be applied to many other good things. There may be particular health conditions. I’m not a doctor, I don’t know them. There may be particular health conditions that you need to be aware of and you can’t go without food for whatever reason. God knows that. He’s aware of that and you can go without other good things. So some people talk about fasting from social media or fasting from television or fasting from some other good gift, some entertainment or some blessing you normally would have and it’s going to be part of your life, but you’re going without it for spiritual purpose in seeking God’s particular help, or in desperation, or even in putting some good pattern into your life.

Maybe someone says, “I don’t want to be leaning so heavily on my phone all the time, so I’m going to set aside time for a phone fast.” So there are other manifestations of the principle of fasting from something good for the sake of something better, to turn the lack of a good thing into a Godward ache. So it would not have to be going without food. But the reason in Christianity that fasting is going without food and that the principle doesn’t start as picking your good thing and going without your good thing is that food is such a basic part of this life. It’s such an obvious good thing. “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11). It’s such a regular part of our lives and we feel that ache in the stomach when we go without food for a while. So there may be medical conditions where you simply cannot.

Also, it might be worth asking ourselves if the abundance of food that we have has made it so that we have conditioned our system in a way to always get food. There’s potential resilience that humans may have — that I think humans do have in normal circumstances — if we trained ourselves to go a little bit longer without food. So there could be some who feel like, “Oh man, three hours into my fast, I can’t do it any longer.” I would say, “Well, that’s great you did three hours. What if you tried four hours next time and five hours the next time? What if you tried to build up resilience?” Some of us may need to build up metabolic resilience or something like that.

But in Scripture it only talks about fasting from food?

Correct, so far as I am aware.

Can you draw out the difference between the Pharisee praying on the corner and public prayer in our gallery, because both are public. What is the difference between those?

The potential danger is that it could be similar. Our hope is that it’s not. I think the picture there of the Pharisee praying on the corner is that Jesus saying they are praying to be seen by others. That’s the motivation. That’s what is leading to it. That’s the heart and that’s bringing about the prayer on the corner in public. This is a good reminder for all of us who not only pray in gatherings of the church and pray from the front here, but in our prayer times as a family, if it’s with a spouse, if it’s in a community group or a class, that we check our hearts on that.

Are we just praying to be heard by others? Even if it’s a really small circle and it’s not on a public street where there are dozens or hundreds, I really want to impress these few people right here. That’s a good thing to check in our hearts. I know our motivations are rarely digital, that it’s either this or not that, but Jesus’s teaching and his reminder is good for us there. It’s a particularly thorny issue to do public prayer in the sense that our hearts might drift into wanting to impress people. So check that, pray against that, and then focus on God. Pray in the context of other people for their good and blessing and trust that the blood of the Lamb covers a lot of our indiscretions and mistakes and tainted hearts.