How Should We Pray? (Ephesians 6:18-20)
Big Idea: Pray always, about everything, without giving up — especially for the spread of the gospel.
It was 2013. Seventy thousand people were crammed in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana. Another 108 million people — almost half of the American population — were watching on TV. Baltimore was ahead of San Francisco by a score of 28-6. And then the power went out. For 34 minutes, the play was stopped and millions of people waited for the power to come back on.
Players stayed on the field during the outage. Some laid on the ground. Others spent time stretching. Fans started doing the wave. Nothing happened. Everyone waited.
I thought of that this week as I prepared this message. We’re in a series on Best News Ever. We’re talking about sharing the best possible news:
God, through the perfect life, atoning death, and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, rescues all his people from the wrath of God into peace with God, with a promise of the full restoration of his created order forever— all to the praise of the glory of his grace. (Ray Ortlund)
But I need to be honest. Sometimes it feels like the power is out. Sometimes it feels like the game is on, but the power’s out, and nothing is really happening even though we know it should be.
So today I want to talk about something that’s absolutely essential if we’re going to share the gospel. I want to talk about prayer. Jack Miller, one of my heroes, says, “Let’s now face a painful but helpful truth: the boldness of grace cannot come from our natural selves.” In other words, if we rely on our own power, we are not going to share much of the good news. And even if we do, it won’t be very effective.
Today, then, I want to talk about the role of prayer in evangelism. I want to begin by saying that prayer is hard. Paul Miller, who’s written my favorite book on prayer, talks about why prayer is so hard:
- We wonder, “What good does it do?”
- We find it frustrating. Our minds wander, and then we feel guilty.
- We don’t know what it makes for a good prayer.
- Prayer exposes our doubts.
- We’re so busy that when we slow down to pray, we feel uncomfortable.
- “We prize intellect, competency, and wealth. Because we can do life without God, praying seems nice but unnecessary.”
With all of these barriers to prayer, it’s a wonder we pray at all. And maybe some of us don’t.
But in today’s passage, we see that prayer is essential to the Christian life. The passage is at the end of an image of life as a battle. If we are going to win the battle, then we need armor. And we can’t take up our armor. We must take up God’s armor. The last thing that’s mentioned is prayer. It’s not a piece of armor; it’s how we put the rest of the armor on. It’s actually given more space than any piece of armor mentioned.
As someone’s said:
Prayer is critical because every piece of Christian armor is useless without it. Prayer is like oil. Just as every part of an engine is useless without oil, so every part of Christian warfare is vain without prayer. Fighting Satan without prayer is like David fighting Goliath in Saul’s armor. The armor doesn’t fit, and it is ineffective against the blows of the enemy. (Joel Beeke)
If we are going to win the battle, we must pray. If we are going to share the best news ever with people, then we must pray. If we are going to fulfill our mission as a church, then prayer will be essential. A life of dependence of God is essential if we’re going to live the Christian life, and share the good news with others. It’s our secret resource.
We’re still stuck, though. How should we pray? What’s interesting about this passage is that there are a few “all” statements in here. They give us some hints about how we should pray. So how should we pray?
Paul writes, “praying at all times in the Spirit…” What does Paul mean by this? He doesn’t mean that we should do nothing but pray all day and night. He’s not saying that when you get asked to go out for dinner or to a movie, you should say, “I can’t. I’ll be praying.”
Here’s what Paul does mean: Weave prayer into your life, so that like breathing, there’s never a time that you’re not praying. Prayer is the expression of all of us — our struggles, our feelings, our desires — before a God who sees all. As someone’s said, the heart of Christianity is to be with the God who is always with us. That means bringing all of us — even the difficult, uncomfortable parts — into God’s presence. Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel write:
Life is found in real, honest, and vulnerable relationship with the God who calls you his beloved. As we embrace this posture of openness before God, the soil of our hearts will indeed be pierced by the living Word and searched by his Spirit. They will till the hard ground of your heart so that the living water can penetrate to the root system of your soul. Embracing a posture of exposure before God is diving deeply into the joy of communion with God, even when, like Adam and Eve, you feel naked and ashamed. This is a call to embrace God in times of abundance and in times of drought. It is a call to be always with the God who is ever present with you.
I was talking to someone in Liberty Village who’s in a long-distance relationship. She would get her fiancé on FaceTime and talk with him. When they were done, though, they didn’t end the call. The call continued throughout the day as she ate and worked and lived. That’s a good picture of what “praying at all times” means. Pray with focus sometimes, but never stop praying. Don’t end the call at the end of your prayer time. Take prayer into your life, so that your whole life is a life of prayer.
There is nothing that can’t be prayed for, and there is no occasion in which prayer is inappropriate. One preacher said, “Paul lets us know by repeating the word “all” four times in this passage, as if to say that there is nothing that cannot be prayed for and that there is no situation in which prayer is unavailing” (James Boice).
Bring prayer into your whole life: when you go to work, when you hang out with friends, when you’re out shopping, and when you’re dead tired and have nothing left. Prayer becomes like the background music of our lives. There is no time that you shouldn’t be in prayer. The key is to realize how much we need God, so there’s no way we’re going to stop praying.
Live your whole life before God and his presence.
Pray About Everything
Paul writes, “with all prayer and supplication.” You notice that it’s a bit repetitive. Paul says, “pray with all kinds of prayers and requests.” This cuts through the formality and predictability of prayer. Pray everywhere. Pray in all kinds of ways. Pray for yourselves. Pray for others. Pray alone. Pray with your significant other. Pray with your family. Pray in a social meeting. Pray in church. Pray at your regular time. Pray when you’re doing other things.
Not only that, but pray differently. Adore God. Confess your sins. Give thanks. Ask him for things. Paul is telling us to pray with variety and ways. There’s hardly a wrong way to pray. It’s varied prayer, and it’s eager, intense prayer. “Paul is calling us to warfare prayer that is not sleepily rambling through a grocery list of requests but is earnest and urgent” (Spiritual Warfare).
Joel Beeke writes:
Bring all your needs to God, great and small. Tell the Lord everything about you, as if He knew nothing about you, yet knowing that He knows all things. Entrust yourself and all of your needs into God’s all-sufficient hands if you would defeat Satan on things small and large.
So pray all day, and pray all kinds of prayers. Live before God, and talk to him about everything.
I read two books last year that really helped me think about prayer. One of them was A Praying Life by Paul Miller. I even love that title: A Praying Life. That speaks to prayer being something we just do sometimes. It’s really our whole lives. Miller writes:
A praying life isn’t simply a morning prayer time; it is about slipping into prayer at odd hours of the day, not because we are disciplined but because we are in touch with our own poverty of spirit, realizing that we can’t even walk through a mall or our neighborhood without the help of the Spirit of Jesus.
I also read another book, Beloved Dust, that says a similar thing. It says that there are times that he hide from God, because we “see our brokenness, our finitude, and our sin as things that keep us from God rather than as opportunities to throw ourselves at the foot of the cross and grasp his grace.” But when we lust again, gossip again, or erupt in anger in the kids, that’s exactly when we need to be in the presence of God. They say to bring your whole life before God and live it in complete honesty.
Are you angry? Be the angry person before the face of God. Are you prideful? Be the person filled with pride before God. Are you selfish? Be the selfish person before God. It does not help to pretend you are otherwise. You are not fooling God….He died for the real you, the messed-up, messed-up, sinful, broken, anxious you. Why are you hiding from him now?
I think that’s pretty close to what this passage is saying. Bring prayer into your life. Bring prayer into not just the neat parts of your lives. Bring prayer into your commute, your struggles, everything. Pray all day, and pray all kinds of prayers. Talk to him about everything. This is more than just a prayer time; this is a praying life.
Pray Without Giving Up
What we’ve talked about so far almost sounds like it’s supposed to be easy, and it’s not. That’s why I’m glad the passage continues: “To that end keep alert with all perseverance…” I’m so glad that the Bible says this. It’s easy in a sermon like this to talk about the praying life as if it’s just something that happens. That’s not the case. It takes alertness, because we’re going to lose focus and drift. Things rarely drift in a positive direction, as you know. It’s also going to take perseverance, because we’re going to feel like giving up. Jesus told us to keep asking, keep seeking, keep knocking.
The 20th century Norwegian pastor Ole Hallesby likens prayer to mining as he knew it in Norway. Demolition to create mine shafts took two basic kinds of actions. There are long periods of time, he writes, “when the deep holes are being bored with great effort into the hard rock.” To bore the holes deeply enough into the most strategic spots for removing the main body of rock was work that took patience, steadiness, and a great deal of skill. Once the holes were finished, however, the “shot” was inserted and connected to a fuse. “To light the fuse and fire the shot is not only easy but also very interesting … . One sees ‘results.’ … Shots resound, and pieces fly in every direction.” He concludes that while the more painstaking work takes both skill and patient strength of character, “anyone can light a fuse.”
Pastor Tim Keller comments:
This helpful illustration warns us against doing only “fuse-lighting” prayers, the kind that we soon drop if we do not get immediate results. If we believe both in the power of prayer and in the wisdom of God, we will have a patient prayer life of “hole-boring.” Mature believers know that handling the tedium is part of what makes for effective prayers. We must avoid extremes—of either not asking God for things or of thinking we can bend God’s will to ours. We must combine tenacious importunity, a “striving with God,” with deep acceptance of God’s wise will, whatever it is.
Paul says to keep alert, to keep praying with all perseverance. Don’t give up. Keep boring those holes with great effort. Don’t give up.
Pray Especially for the Spread of the Gospel
Finally, Paul writes, “making supplication for all the saints…” And he gives one particular area to pray for:
…and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak. (Ephesians 6:19-20)
We’re in this series on sharing the good news with others. And this is really why I wanted to look at this passage today. We could do a whole series on the things that we have to do to share the gospel, but one of the most important things we can do is to pray. Pray that we will do our part. Pray that words will be given to us. Pray that we’ll be bold.
As I mentioned earlier, one of my mentors — a man I’ve never met but who’s mentored me through his books — says this: “Let’s now face a painful but helpful truth: the boldness of grace cannot come from our natural selves.” There is, he says, an important link between evangelism and prayer.
Prayer starts the promises of God on their way to fulfillment. Here is God’s battle plan for our time. In prayer, God allows us to lay hold of his purposes as these are expressed in his promises. Each promise is a hook for pulling our faith into the heavens. There we catch God’s missionary vision of a world filled with his praise (Psalm 67). By claiming God’s promises as we petition him in prayer, we set God’s work in motion (Luke 10:1-3; Acts 4:23-31). Unbelievable as it may seem, the omnipotent God uses our requests to activate the fulfillment of his mighty promises in history (Revelation 8:1-5). As the laborers pray, he begins to ripen the harvest for reaping (Acts 13:1-4). (C. John Miller, Powerful Evangelism for the Powerless)
If we’re going to see evangelism take place, it’s going to take prayer.
Hear this: Pray always, about everything, without giving up — especially for the spread of the gospel.
I want to close today by reminding you that the only reason we can pray is because Jesus has made a way. His life, death, and resurrection have made it possible for our sins to be forgiven and for us to approach God. Even now, Jesus is praying for us. I want to remind you of the access that’s available to you to the King of the universe because of what Jesus has done. Let’s come to Jesus today.
And I want to ask you to join me in praying evangelistically. I want to ask you to do two things: to pray for the evangelism of this church, and then to pray for three people who are important to you. Join me in praying for these three people every day, that they may come to know the love of Jesus.
Pray always, about everything, without giving up — especially for the spread of the gospel.