Today we’re going to be talking about how to pray. Next Sunday we want to pray together about our community, but before praying we should spend some time asking how to pray.
Here’s what I would love to be able to tell you. I would love to tell you that prayer is easy. I would love to get up here and tell you that anybody can pray, and we don’t need to spend time asking how, but it’s not true. If I told you that I’d be setting you up for failure and discouragement.
In a way, prayer is easy. Somebody’s said that it’s impossible for a Christian to pray poorly, just like it’s impossible for a child to draw a picture that mom or dad won’t like. God always delights when his children come to him. The fact that we don’t know what to say or how to say it doesn’t matter. Prayer is so easy a new Christian can do it without instruction, and children can probably pray better than adults. So, in a way, prayer is easy.
But prayer is also hard, much harder than people think, and if you don’t know this then you’re setting yourself up for failure and discouragement. We all know this by experience. Over a hundred years ago, a man named Samuel Chadwick captured this tension about prayer being both easy and hard at the same time:
Prayer is full of apparent contradictions. It is so simple that a child can pray, and it is so profound that the wisest cannot explain its mystery. It is so easy that those who have no strength can pray, and it is so strenuous that it taxes every resource of energy, intelligence, and power. It is so natural that it need not be taught, and it is so far beyond nature that it cannot be learned in the school of this world’s wisdom. Prayer is a world in itself, and no one aspect of life’s similes can explain it.
I heard one preacher say that it’s much easier to preach for thirty minutes than to pray for thirty minutes. He admitted that he’s preached some bad sermons. He’s rambled, he’s lost his place. But never have they been so bad that he forgot that he was preaching. But he’s been on his knees many times before the king of the universe and he’s forgotten that he’s praying. He said, “Try and focus on the loving king of the universe for thirty minutes and you will find out how weak you are” (Tim Keller). John Newton, the hymn writer who wrote Amazing Grace, said that praying is so hard that sometimes the buzzing of a fly in the room is an overmatch for his strength. Prayer is incredibly hard, and it’s important that we recognize this so we’re not surprised.
If prayer is hard, we need to learn how to pray. One time, the disciples of Jesus once asked him this very question. They came and said, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1). Jesus answered, and we’re going to look at some of what he said. There’s more to learn, but if you only learned what Jesus said here, you’d have enough for a lifetime of prayer.
He teaches us to pray like it matters, to pray relationally, and to pray audaciously. Let’s look together at each of these, beginning at the end of Luke 10 and the first part of Luke 11.
1. Pray like it matters
You wouldn’t expect to learn about prayer at a dinner party, but that’s exactly where we start in learning how to pray. The story is about a dinner party in which Jesus is the guest at the home of Mary and Martha, who are good friends with Jesus. They’re facing the same challenges that we all face when we have guests over for dinner: getting the house clean in time, getting all the dishes ready at the same time, and looking relaxed while this is all going on. It’s not easy. We’ve had dinner parties that have gone well; we’ve actually had one in which we had to extinguish a fire in the oven and stand outside while the smoke cleared while we thought about what else we could have for dinner that didn’t have fire extinguisher chemicals on it. You know the stress of pulling a dinner party together.
In this party, things kind of spilled over because the one sister, Mary, didn’t pull her weight. The other sister, Martha, finally lost it and came out to complain to Jesus, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” She had a point. Dinners don’t cook themselves.
Not only that, but she was breaking social convention by sitting with Jesus. Back then men met in the public room. Women worked in the kitchen, and if the work was done there they retired to the other private quarters. Men and women never mixed together in that day inside; they never sat together in the living room or the public rooms together. They certainly never sat at the feet of a rabbi and learn as a disciple, because this would imply that you were hoping to become a rabbi yourself one day. It wasn’t seen as being sexist or about superiority or inferiority; it was just how people thought it was appropriate for the two sexes to mingle in that day.
So you would expect Jesus to agree with Martha and send Mary to help out and go where she should have been along. But Jesus says instead in verses 41-42:
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
Let’s look at what Jesus wasn’t saying. Jesus wasn’t saying that spending time with him is better than serving. For centuries people have piled on Martha as if she’s the villain, and praised Mary. But Jesus never condemns Martha for her work in the kitchen. Think how much trouble we’d be in if we didn’t have people like Martha. Our church would have to shut down if we all stopped being like Martha.
Right before this incident, Luke records the parable of the Good Samaritan as an example of sacrificial service. At the end of the parable Jesus says, “Go and do likewise!” So obviously Jesus isn’t putting down what he just commanded. The problem isn’t that serving Jesus is bad.
We need Martha, but the problem is if we’re only like Martha and we’re never like Mary. The problem is that we think that what Martha does is important and it’s work, but what Mary does isn’t as important and should only happen when you’re done working. We think that when we’re like Martha we’re doing something, and when we’re like Mary we’re not getting anything done.
One of the reasons that I love this story is because of its layers. At first glance, it’s about valuing our time with Jesus. There’s a whole other layer here though. Mary completely broke conventions by sitting and listening to Jesus. You just don’t do that if you’re a woman in Mary’s day.
I think that we have to break just as many conventions today to slow down and sit at Jesus’ feet. They’re not conventions about gender. They’re conventions about productivity and busyness and getting things done. In a culture that says that you’re not worth anything if you’re accomplishing something, it takes courage to stop and to think that sitting at the feet of Jesus accomplishes something. It accomplishes more than we could ever think, and yet it looks like we’re getting nothing done.
A pastor friend of mine e-mailed me this week. I was telling him about what we’re doing in praying before we act, and he wrote this:
I spend Wednesday mornings in prayer these days, convicted that I am the worst offender for running ahead of God, or maybe not running at all even when He calls. I have a growing sense of desperation that all my busyness is fruitless if God is not the Author of it, and a growing sense of desperation for God to come down and really do something. Maybe we could pray together after our luncheons.
Just a few ideas. It is now 8:45 and I need to get to prayer.
When I read that e-mail, I realized how much of Martha I have in me. I also have to admit that this cartoon came into my mind [a woman interrupts a pastor in prayer – “Oh good…you’re not busy!”]
To spend a morning each week in prayer seems like such a luxury, so passive, that it’s foreign to us – even to pastors. It illustrates how prayer-less we’ve become.
Then I read a commentator, who talked about serving as an elder at his church. The elders made a commitment to be leaders of prayer at that church. They meet every Tuesday morning from 6:30 to 8:00 to pray for the needs of the church. He calculated that they spend three times the amount of time together praying or getting prepared to pray as they do tackling issues directly. They spend most of their time praying, only about a quarter of the time doing. But even then there’s a twist. “Even the way I have put this is misleading, ” he says, “for when we pray, we are doing the work of leadership for the church. Before activity can be meaningful and done with sensitivity, it should be bathed in prayer. I suspect that many of us could use a little more Mary and a little less Martha in our lives.”
Oswald Chambers wrote:
The job of every Christian is to pray. Plain and simple. Yet we want to do more than simply pray. We want to do something important for God; we want to be someone important to Him. We want to build; we want to mobilize; we want to show our strength and exert our influence. Prayer seems like such a small thing to do – next to nothing at all in fact…Most of us would rather spend our time doing something that will get immediate results…
Prayer is our business, our only business. Prayer is our holy occupation. Plain and simple.
The first how-to on how to pray hardly seems like a how-to at all. It’s to pray like it matters, because it does. You are never more effective, never more productive, then when you spend time in prayer. Again, Oswald Chambers wrote, “We use prayer as a last resort; Jesus wants it to be our first line of defense. We pray when there’s nothing else we can do; Jesus wants us to pray before we do anything at all.”
Next week we’re going to pray this way, believing that praying for our community is just as important as serving our community. I’m going to invite Dave Cook to come and pray that God would teach our church the importance of prayer – to go against the grain of culture and pray like it really matters, because it does.
2. Pray relationally
When the disciples asked Jesus how to pray, Jesus gave them a version of what we usually call The Lord’s Prayer. I’m a little intimidated to look at the Lord’s prayer as just part of a sermon, because there’s so much here. We could spend weeks on this. I tried to think of what Luke’s version teaches us. We obviously can’t explore everything, but I think there is something here that we need to focus on.
I don’t think it’s the wording. You’ll notice as you read Luke 11:2-4 that it’s different than the version that you normally pray, which we get from Matthew 6. This was a different occasion, and Jesus gave the same prayer but in not exactly the same words. The content, the framework of this prayer is what we should be praying, but it goes beyond the exact words.
You know what I think we learn most of all from this prayer? That it’s relational.
Jesus begins by teaching us to pray, “Father.” Jesus was the first person to ever address God this way, and he teaches us to do the same. In other words, the whole basis of prayer is our relationship to God as adopted children. We come to him not as King, although he is our King. We come to him not as Creator, even though he is our Creator. Jesus says that we come to him based on the relationship that Christ made possible through the cross. It’s the relationship that matters.
Like all good relationships, we begin focusing on the other. When you have a healthy relationship, it’s because you are focused on the other first. Being self-centered doesn’t work for relationships. This is even more so when the other person in the relationship is God. So Jesus teaches us to pray, “Hallowed be your name, your kingdom come.” When we focus on ourselves, we get disoriented. In the book of Job, Job is complaining – understandably so – because his life is such a mess. God revealed himself, and nothing else changed, but that was enough. Job was transformed because he focused on God, even though his circumstances hadn’t changed. So Jesus teaches us to focus on God first in our relationship.
Then we give him the ordinary details of our lives. We talk to him about our lives. “Give us each day our daily bread. Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation.” This is just talking to him about everything that is part of our lives. The key is relationship.
The disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray. He could have answered by giving them a lecture about proper prayer techniques and approaches. Instead, he tells them to pray relationally. The relationship is the point. How do we pray? We pray by focusing not on techniques or approaches. We pray by reestablishing our relationship with God and talking to him on the basis that we are adopted children, and we can give him every part of our lives.
George MacDonald wrote that prayer gives us what we need most, and the thing we need most isn’t what he think we need. The thing that we need most is God himself. Prayer brings us into communion with God – “a talking with God, a coming-to-one with Him, which is the sole end of prayer.” The relationship is the point.
Next week we’ll be tempted to pray according to techniques or to impress God or others. Jesus says not to do this. Simply come and pray as a child would come to his father and talk about life. Jon McMurray is going to come and pray now that we will learn how to pray with God relationally.
3. Pray audaciously
There’s one more lesson that I want to look at. Jesus teaches us to recognize the importance of prayer and then to pray relationally. But then he invites us to pray in a way that’s going to seem strange to us. It’s going to seem like this is exactly the wrong way to pray, but Jesus tells us to do it.
Do you ever go out and see a couple who look like they’ve been married for years sitting at a restaurant? There’s something about some of them. They don’t talk. They sit there at dinner, and you get the impression that they’ve said everything there is to say to each other. Their relationship is stale. It’s become dull over the years. What Jesus says here helps us avoid ever having this type of relationship with God.
There’s a word that Jesus used in verse 8 that’s hard to translate. Some translate it persistence, audacity, impudence, tenacity, or shamelessness. It’s a word that describes someone who overlooks what’s proper or possible and is almost insolent and reckless. It’s about persisting in the face of all that seems reasonable, and refusing to take a denial. It’s a combination of being bold and shameless. And Jesus says that this is the way that we should pray. Why would he say this?
Jesus tells us a story of someone who acted with shameless persistence in a real life situation. Late at night, a friend arrives at his house. The laws of hospitality dictated that if somebody arrived needing food and shelter, you were under obligation to provide it. But he didn’t have bread, and there’s no 24-hour Sobeys, so he bangs on his neighbor’s door. On the other side of that door is a family that sleeps side by side on the floor, like we do when we go tent camping.
Jesus poses the dilemma. If you were in that spot, would you wake up your neighbor and his whole family? If you do, what if your neighbor refuses? Do you keep on knocking? If so, Jesus says, that neighbor will get up and give you what you need – not out of friendship but to get rid of you. In other words, because you are shamelessly bold, audacious, shameless in what you ask for.
Jesus says that this is exactly how we should pray – boldly banging on the door. God isn’t like the sleepy friend; Jesus actually says that he’s ready to answer prayer. It’s not that God is like the sleepy neighbor; we’re supposed to be like the shamelessly bold guy knocking at the door. N.T. Wright says:
[Jesus] is encouraging a kind of holy boldness, a sharp knocking on the door, an insistent asking, a search that refuses to give up. That’s what our prayer should be like. This isn’t just a routine or formal praying, going through the motions as a daily or weekly task. There is a battle going on, a fight with the powers of darkness, and those who have glimpsed the light are called to struggle in prayer…
God desires prayer that is bold, even shameless, in coming to him. When you read the prayers of the Bible, they’re bold. They argue with God.
Alexander the Great supposedly had a leading general whose daughter was getting married. Alexander the Great said that he’d be happy to contribute to the wedding. He said that he knew it would be expensive, so just ask for something.
The general wrote out out a request for an enormous sum, a ridiculous sum. When Alexander’s treasurer saw it, he brought it to Alexander and said, “I’m sure you’re going to be cutting this man’s head off now for what he’s done. The audacity of asking for something like this! Who does he think you are?”
Alexander said, “Give it to him. By such an outlandish request, he shows that he believes that I am both rich and generous.” He was flattered by it.
John Newton wrote a hymn with these words: “Thou art coming to a king; large petitions with thee bring; for his grace and power are such, none can never ask too much.”
Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote:
I commend to you the reading of biographies of men who have been used by God in the church throughout the centuries, especially in revival. And you will find this same holy boldness, this argumentation, this reasoning, this putting the case to God, pleading his own promises. Oh, that is the whole secret of prayer, I sometimes think. Thomas Goodwin uses a wonderful term. He says, “Sue him for it, sue him for it.” Do not leave him alone. Pester him, as it were, with his own promises. Quote the Scripture to him. And, you know, God delights to hear us doing it, as a father likes to see this element in his own child who has obviously been listening to what his father has been saying.
Samuel Chadwick said, “There are blessings of the kingdom that are only yielded to the violence of the vehement soul.” One of the most prolific writers on prayer (E.M. Bounds) says that “Prayer in its highest form…assumes the attitude of a wrestler with God.” Someone else (William Wink) says, “Biblical prayer is impertinent, persistent, shameless, indecorous. It’s more like haggling in an outdoor bazaar than the polite monologues of the church.”
So let’s pray, and let’s not be polite about it. Let’s sue God for his promises. Let’s grab hold and refuse to let go. I’m going to invite Charlene to come and pray that God would teach us how to pray.
These are the three lessons Jesus teaches us on how to pray. There’s lots more that we could say, but if you just do these three things – recognize the importance of prayer, pray relationally, and pray audaciously – it will be enough to keep you going for years. It’s certainly going to be enough to keep us going next week.
But most of all, pray. Philip Yancey observes that when he travels, he notes that Christians in developing countries spend less time pondering the effectiveness of prayer, and more time actually praying. We rely on talent and resources to solve our immediate problems, and insurance polices and RRSPs to secure the future. They pray.
We need to know a few things to get praying, but most of all we just need to pray. If you know that prayer is hard, that we are to pray relationally and audaciously and like it really matters, then you know enough. So let’s pray individually this week, and in groups. And I’m looking forward to praying with all of you next Sunday morning. “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; those who seek find; and to those who knock, the door will be opened” (Luke 11:9-10).