What a friend we have in Jesus, All our sins and griefs to bear! What a privilege to carry Everything to God in prayer.
O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear - All because we do not carry Everything to God in prayer!
Prayer is talking to God. Prayer is our side of the personal conversation at the heart of a Christian’s relationship with God: he speaks the words of the Bible to us and we respond in words of prayer. To speak with our divine creator knowing he listens and responds wisely is an awesome privilege. In church history and in personal experience, periods of close communion with God are marked by attention to God’s voice in Scripture and responding in passionate prayer. Indeed, prayer is like breathing - if restricted we soon become spiritually ill.
In a classic little book published in 1662, “Praying in the Spirit” John Bunyan (author of “A Pilgrim’s Progress”) brilliantly defines prayer like this: “a sincere, sensible, affectionate pouring out of the heart or soul to God, through Christ, in the strength and assistance of the Spirit, for such things as God has promised, or according to his Word, for the good of the church, with submission in faith to the will of God”. Bunyan’s careful description of prayer helps us understand why God sometimes doesn’t answer as we thought he would. This is important because many Christians become disappointed and cynical and conclude that unanswered prayer means that God doesn’t care.
According to the Bible, says Bunyan, effective prayer is:
SINCERE - with honest motives or else “When you ask, you don’t receive because you ask with wrong motives” (James 4:3)
SENSIBLE - urgent because “you shall seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13)
AFFECTIONATE - confident in God’s kindness for “he who doubts is like a wave of the sea blown and tossed by the wind – that man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord” (James 1:6-7)
THROUGH CHRIST IN THE STRENGTH AND ASSISTANCE OF THE SPIRIT - from a Christian, whose heart-longings the Holy Spirit conveys to our heavenly Father for “the Spirit intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express” (Romans 8:26)
FOR SUCH THINGS AS GOD HAS PROMISED - claiming things God offers us in his Word for “this is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us” (1 John 5:14)
FOR THE GOOD OF THE CHURCH - not just selfishly but praying for others too for we must “keep on praying for all the Lord’s people” (Ephesians 6:18)
WITH SUBMISSION IN FAITH TO THE WILL OF GOD - trusting God to respond wisely in his plan for us to become like Jesus and not like a genie in the lamp compelled to obey our wildest demands for “how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:11)
In other words, our Father won’t answer our requests if we have impure motives, a demanding attitude, if we’re not yet Christians, or if we don’t ask for the good things he has said he wants to give us. Like any Dad faced with a toddler demanding sweets, our heavenly Father only grants requests for things that are healthy for us in fulfilling his chief purpose for us of glorifying God by enjoying him forever! But even though we can pray for the things the Bible says he longs to give us, many of us still struggle to pray. Not everyone does e.g. I recall attending a prayer meeting at Dundonald that our Korean congregation arranged – I arrived to find 400 Koreans on their knees, all praying out loud, most in floods of tears. I asked (with some cynicism), “What are they praying about?” My Korean colleague answered, “They’re praying for this country”. That was humbling!
In his masterly chapter on prayer in his famous book “Institutes of the Christian Religion”, the great Reformer, Calvin clarified 6 reasons for prayer:
DEPENDENCE - so that our hearts become inflamed with “burning desire to seek, love and serve [God]...and become accustomed in every need to flee to him as to a sacred anchor”. In prayer we learn to depend upon him
PURITY - so that our hearts don’t nurture desires and longings of which “we should be ashamed to make him a witness”. In prayer we learn to purify the desires of our hearts
GRATITUDE - so that we learn to “receive his benefits with true gratitude”. In prayer we learn to be contented with whatever our Father provides APPRECIATION - so that we “meditate upon his kindness more ardently”. In prayer we learn to appreciate more deeply God’s generosity and faithfulness to us
ENJOYMENT - so that we may “embrace with greater delight” the things we receive from praying. In prayer we learn to enjoy without inhibition the many good gifts that our Father provides for our happiness;
TRUST - so that we learn to “confirm his providence”. In prayer we learn to trust God to provide our daily needs and never let us down.
Calvin summarised such prayer as “digging up the treasures” that are promised in Scripture. Certainly, it is our experience that God delays giving us the things he plans to grant to us until we ask for them in prayer. Though God had always planned to give them, from our perspective things change when we pray. He encourages us to talk to him by withholding gifts until we pray, just as a loving human parent will withhold gifts from a toddler until they ask properly, to teach them humble dependence. A godly Archbishop of Canterbury was once asked by a sceptical journalist if answers to prayer were simply coincidences. He wisely replied, “I don’t know – but when I stop praying the coincidences seem to stop happening too!”
What if we struggle to pray?
Individuals feeling spiritually dry and far from God usually admit to chronic prayerlessness and our church prayer meetings are too often regarded as optional. The excuses are familiar: we’re too busy, too stressed or too discouraged. And God does understand when mothers have been up all night or medics are coming off night shift too exhausted to pray. But most of us make time for football, Facebook and fitness! In truth, as the missionary, McCheyne said, however impressive we are in public, “What we are on our knees before God is what we are, and no more.” Children of God will want to pray, for his Spirit provokes in us the desire to call upon our heavenly Father. But our sinful natures drag us away from him. Good books can help e.g. Don Carson’s “A Call to Spiritual Reformation” or perhaps my own book, “Our Father”. It also helps to remember that if I don’t pray, I’m a husband failing my wife, a father neglecting my kids, a worker failing my colleagues, or a friend betraying my friends. But when Jesus’ disciples asked Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray”, he didn’t offer books or rebukes but a prayer for them to pray - “The Lord’s Prayer”. So, let’s pray!
Have we trials and temptations? Is there trouble anywhere? We should never be discouraged Take it to the Lord in prayer. Can we find a friend so faithful Who will all our sorrows share? Jesus knows our every weakness Take it to the Lord in prayer.
Richard Coekin is CEO of Co-Mission and Senior Pastor at Dundonald Church.