Why Pray? (Psalm 131)
I'm both excited and a little scared about these next couple of weeks.
Earlier this year, our church board met to talk about our priorities for the coming year. A funny thing happened when we got to talking about serving our community. We really have all kinds of ideas about what we could be doing to serve our community, but instead of picking one and running with it, the board's taken a different direction. They've suggested that we hold a church-wide time of prayer to ask for God's direction. In other words, we'd like to ask God to direct us as we serve our community. We want to pray before we act.
This isn't a way to avoid having to choose to do something. Prayer isn't an excuse for inaction. I think it's a realization, though, of how much we need God. We don't just need him to direct us to what he wants us to do. We also need him to prepare us for what he wants to do through us.
It's always important to pray before we go out and do something, even though our natural inclination is to skip the prayer and go out there and do something. Jesus prayed before the major events of his life. The early church prayed and waited on God between the Ascension and Pentecost. The church that we encounter in Scripture is a praying church. Throughout church history, major movements of God among his people always seem to be tied to people crying out to God in prayer. Someone has studied all the great revivals and concluded, "Every spiritual awakening of significance from the beginning of Acts to the powerful Welsh revival early in [last] century had its roots in prayer."
So, it's very important that we spend this time in prayer as we ask for God's direction and help as we serve our community.
Two weeks from today, in our morning service on April 29, we're going to devote almost our entire morning service to prayer. This sounds scary, but I'm looking forward to it. You're not going to be put on the spot and be made to pray aloud. We'll do it in such a way that everybody can participate. Somebody's said that prayer is one of the few things that everybody can do, and we're going to practice this in a couple of weeks. So I'm excited. I think this is going to be an important moment for our church.
But let's be honest. It's also a bit scary. If I'm completely honest, I feel like I'm just a beginner when it comes to prayer. I feel like I'm in prayer kindergarten, and I really wish I was in prayer graduate school.
Very few of us feel like we're praying the way we should. A Christian book publisher conducted a website poll and discovered that only 3% of respondents felt satisfied with the time they were spending in prayer. We know that prayer is important, but many of us experience it not as a pleasure, but as a burden. Pastors and non-pastors alike rank prayer as high in importance – and also high in frustration.
For lots of us, prayer is a source of guilt. One of the books I read to prepare for today said, "Rather than being the source of feelings of joy and victory that it is intended to be, for most of us prayer triggers a sense of guilt and defeat!" (Stanley J. Grenz, Prayer: The Cry for the Kingdom)
We don't even really understand prayer. A student at Princeton asked, "What is there left in the world for original dissertation research?" Supposedly, Albert Einstein replied, "Find out about prayer. Somebody must find out about prayer." Whatever we know about prayer, we have all kinds of unanswered questions.
The late British pastor Martyn Lloyd-Jones put it this way: "Of all the activities in which the Christian engages, and which are part of the Christian life, there is surely none which causes so much perplexity, and raises so many problems, as the activity which we call prayer."
So prayer is a great opportunity – but it's also scary for a lot of us. It's something that we're not doing as well as we would like.
I want to ask one simple question today: why pray? Next week, I want to ask a second question: how do we pray? Then, the week after, we're going to actually come together to pray.
But this morning I want to simply ask: why pray?
We need to eliminate the wrong answers first. We don't pray to tell God something he doesn't already know. Jesus taught us, "Your Father knows what you need before you ask him" (Matthew 6:8).
We also don't pray to give God advice. If God took advice from us, we'd all be in a heap of trouble. God already knows everything we're going to tell him, and he certainly doesn't need help from us in taking care of the world.
We do understand that prayer does something. James 5:16 tells us, "The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective." We don't understand how this works, but it is one of the reasons that we pray.
We also pray because of the possibility that prayer changes us, although we're not really clear how that works.
This morning, though, I'd like to suggest one of the most important reasons why we pray. It's probably not something that we think about often, but this is huge. But I'm convinced it's one of the most important reasons why we must pray. It's a huge potential blind spot for all of us, and prayer is exactly what we need if we are going to avoid this danger which will literally wreck our lives if we don't deal with it.
I'd like to look at one of the shortest chapters in the Bible. It's attributed to King David, the king by which all other kings were measured in Israel, and was likely used by pilgrims as they came to Jerusalem to worship. This psalm is only three verses long, but it's packed with meaning. Charles Spurgeon wrote that it's "one of the shortest Psalms to read, but one of the longest to learn."
This psalm puts its fingers on one of our greatest problems, and it also tells us why we need to pray. Please open your Bibles and read it with me. It's Psalm 131.
My heart is not proud, Lord, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me.
But I have calmed myself and quieted my ambitions. I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content.
Israel, put your hope in the Lord both now and forevermore.
I think this psalm is almost like getting a diagnosis from the doctor of what's wrong with us. It identifies one of our greatest problems, but it also tells us how we can move from how we normally operate to a more appropriate way.
Let's look at what this psalm says about the way we normally operate, about how prayer helps to move us to how we should operate, and then what this means for our church.
The way we normally operate
A group of senior corporate executives were picked. The criteria was that they had to have a net worth of $1 million or more not including their primary residence. They were asked what what they credited for their current financial status. Listen to what they said:
Hard Work — 99%
Intelligence and good sense — 97%
Higher-than-average I.Q. — 83%
Being the best in every situation — 62%
Luck — 32%
Do you notice anything about this list? What do the top four have in common? They're about the qualities and accomplishments of the senior executive – what they had accomplished themselves. They only identified one factor that they couldn't attribute to their own personal qualities, and that's blind luck. Success comes from being good and from being lucky. This is the way that we normally operate.
Eugene Peterson writes in every culture, Christians face a stumbling block that's put before them, but it's decorated as a monument and we don't even realize it's there. In other words, he says that we have a huge blind spot, and in our society, this is it: ambition. And, I would add to this, self-reliance. "Our culture encourages and rewards ambition without qualification," he writes. "We are surrounded by a way of life in which…everyone wants to get more. To be on top, no matter what it is the top of, is admired."
What's wrong with this? Peterson writes:
There is nothing recent about the temptation. It is the oldest sin in the book, the one that got Adam thrown out of the garden and Lucifer tossed out of heaven. What is fairly new about it is the general admiration and approval that it receives…
What is described in Scripture as the basic sin, the taking of things into your own hands, being your own god, grabbing what there is while you can get it, is now described as basic wisdom: improve yourself by whatever means you are able; get ahead regardless of the price, take care of me first. For a limited time it works. But at the end the devil has his due.
Don't get him wrong. He's not saying that we should coast through life and settle for mediocrity. But in this psalm, David puts his finger on a very real danger that we face: of becoming self-reliant and proud, forgetting who's God and who's not. We'll try to run our own lives and take on a role that really belongs to God.
David writes in verse 1, "My heart is not proud, Lord, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me." The Message paraphrases this verse, "God, I'm not trying to rule the roost, I don't want to be king of the mountain. I haven't meddled where I have no business or fantasized grandiose plans."
Here is the condition that David diagnoses: our tendency towards self-reliance and pride. We have this tendency to think that we are in control, that we can aspire to great things. Some interpreters think that the "great matters" and "things too wonderful for me" that David talks about are the things that are the mighty works of God. In other words, we start to take on God's role and control our own worlds. The flip side is that we slowly edge God out of our lives and take over his role. We forget how much we need God – that God is God and we're not.
Here's the thing: we don't even realize that this is wrong. The real danger is what somebody's said: "Humility is the obverse side of confidence in God, whereas pride is the obverse side of confidence in self" (John Baillie). In other words, we have a choice. We can be self-confident and self-reliant and in control of our lives – but then we remove ourselves from God's blessing, because "God opposes the proud" (James 4:6). Or we can place our confidence in God and receive the grace that God gives to the humble. We normally live the first way – full of self-confidence and pride. Prayer moves us to the second way of living, in which we trust in God alone.
This could be the greatest reason why we pray. Prayer moves us from self-reliance to prayerful dependence on God. Prayer is, in large part, the struggle to admit that we are not self-sufficient. E.M. Bounds wrote:
Prayer is the language of a [person] burdened with a sense of need. It is the voice of a beggar, conscious of his poverty, asking of another the thing that he needs…Not to pray is not only to declare that there is nothing needed, but to admit a non-realization of that need.
Jim Cymbala puts it this way: "When we don't pray, it's primarily because we don't sense our need for God." The power of God won't get released in our lives until we give up being in control.
Where prayer moves us
Here's where prayer moves us: Prayer moves us from self-reliance to prayerful dependance on God. David gives us a beautiful picture of who we are when we come to God as we ought. In verse 2, he writes, "But I have calmed myself and quieted my ambitions. I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content." Peterson writes:
I will not try to run my own life or the lives of others; that is God's business. I will not pretend to invent the meaning of the universe; I will accept what God has shown its meaning to be. I will not noisily strut about demanding that I be treated as the center of my family or my neighborhood or my work, but seek to discover where I fit and what I am good at. The soul, clamorously crying out for attention and arrogantly parading its importance, is calmed and quieted so it can be itself, truly.
In other words, prayer moves us not to inaction but something far better: childlike trust. "Faith is an area where growing up means we must become more like a child" (Colleen Townsend Evans). The picture that David gives us is of a child who is too old to want to nurse, too young to be completely independent – just that right age when the child loves resting at his mother's side, happy just to be with her. It's a picture of us desiring God for himself, not for what he can give us. We no longer rest in ourselves or try to direct our own paths. Instead, we rest in God and trust him to direct our paths.
What an amazing way to live. Instead of trying to run our own lives, we become willing to be led, to be taught, and also to be blessed. We give up all the pressures of trying to run our own lives and let God run them instead. Prayer moves us to acknowledge our deep need of God, and acknowledging that need is exactly what "taps into and releases God's resources" (Stanley Grenz).
I think I've mentioned to you that last year, I was putting myself under a lot of pressure to make things happen at Richview. It got frustrating, because I have a role to play, but I have no business trying to take on what only God can do. At one point, I realized that my heart was proud, my eyes were haughty, that I was taking on things too wonderful for myself. God began to teach me how to move to quiet, prayerful dependence on him to do what only he can do. In other words, he began to teach me to pray again.
Spurgeon wasn't kidding when he said that this is one of the shortest psalms to read, and one of the longest psalms to learn. We all need to learn – and re-learn – what only prayer can teach us: to stop trying to run things ourselves, and instead trust God to do what only he can do, which leads us into quiet confidence and rest in him.
What this means for all of us
Remember what Jim Cymbala said: "When we don't pray, it's primarily because we don't sense our need for God." This morning, I'm going to invite you to quit being God. There's stuff in your life that you're carrying in your own strength, that you're trying to manage yourself. You haven't prayed about it. Today I'm inviting you to move that over and to come to God as a weaned child. I invite you to turn over the running of your life and the universe to God, who can do it a lot better than you can, and instead to draw into God's presence and enjoy a relationship with him. I'm going to invite you to move from self-reliance to prayerful dependence on God.
But this isn't just a message for us individually. David ends the psalm in verse 3 with this: "Israel, put your hope in the Lord both now and forevermore." David is saying that if this is good enough for us individually, it's good enough for the whole nation. If a person can give up self-reliance and move to prayerful dependence on God, a church can also move from self-reliance to prayerful dependence on God and contentment in him. "If you remain in me and I in you," Jesus said, "you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing" (John 15:5).
Let's commit to being a church that thinks we have to rely on our own strength and strategies, and instead become a church that taps into God's powers and to learn the contentment and joy of resting in him.
So would you stand with me and let me pray for you.
Lord, I pray for these people whom you know and you love.
I pray that you would help them to give up the pride that seems to be our natural default. Give us eyes to see that you are God and that we're not. Help us resign this morning from thinking that we have to have all the answers, that we are responsible for running the universe. This morning we hand in our resignation notice. We're going to stop pretending that we're a god, and instead we're going to let God be God in our lives.
We come to you, individually and as a church, as children, content just to be with you. We need you, not for what you can do for us. More than anything, we just need you.
Teach us the contentment of quieting our souls and relying on your strength, and not our own. May we learn through prayer what it means to move from self-reliance to prayerful dependance on God. Why pray? Because we need to move from self-reliance to prayerful dependence on God. Teach us this, we pray. In Jesus' name, Amen.