There’s a story about a man who was out walking, and who lost his footing and fell over the edge of a cliff. As he slipped over the side he managed to grab hold of the root a tree. Filled with panic, he prayed and called out, ‘Help. Is there anyone up there?’ A powerful voice spoke from out the sky, ‘Yes what do you want?’ The man pleaded, ‘I fell over the cliff and am holding on to a branch for dear life. Please can you help me?’ The voice from above said: ‘Do you believe and trust in God?’ And the man replied, ‘Yes, I have faith and believe in God.’ The voice said, ‘Then, let go of the branch and I will catch you!’ There was a tense pause, and then the man yelled out, ‘Is there anyone else up there?’
Prayer is communicating with God; it’s relational. Prayer is not a monologue, it’s a dialogue; a two-way conversation. God hears ours prayers and we can learn to listen to what God may have to say to us in response. Prayer is meant to be a discourse; a communiqué, an exchange of conversation between us and God; it’s not just about us going to God with a shopping list.
Recent research, commissioned by the Church of England and undertaken by ICM, found that four out of five British adults say they believe in the power of prayer – 80% of the UK adult population admits that they would pray in an emergency or when facing a crisis. Citation In the United States, research by Barna Group found that 84% of American adults claim they had prayed in the past week. Citation Before I became a Christian I prayed two types of prayer: Firstly, I regularly prayed the ‘God bless so-and-so’ and the ‘God bless me’ kind of prayers: God bless me with success today.’ There’s absolutely nothing wrong with saying those kinds of prayers but I prayed them habitually, more out of a superstitious fear of what might happen if I didn’t say them. Secondly, the other kind of prayers I prayed were emergency-prayers – like 80% of the UK adult population – when some crisis happened and I’d cry out to God in panic: ‘Help. Is there anyone up there?’ Before I was a Christian I practiced ‘parachute religion’: I’d just dropped in on God when I needed him, and as soon as the crisis was over, I’d be off on my merry way again and leave God alone… until the next time! But, then, after becoming a Christian, I discovered that prayer is right at the heart of the Christian faith because it’s about our relationship with God.
1. What Is Christian Prayer?
Psalm 139v1–4 says: “O LORD, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD.” These verses tell us that God knows our very thoughts and what we are going to say even before we say it. Our thoughts are like words to God (which is why we don’t need to pray aloud to be heard). And Jesus told us: “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:8). Why then do we need to ask? What is the point of prayer? Well, what kind of a relationship would it be if there was no communication? It is through prayer that we get to know God. John Calvin (16th century reformer) summarised why we need to pray like this:
“Believers do not pray with the view of informing God about things unknown to him, or of exciting him to do his duty, or of urging him as though he were reluctant. On the contrary, they pray in order that they may arouse themselves to seek him, that they may exercise their faith in meditating on his promises, that they may relieve themselves from their anxieties by pouring them into his bosom; in a word that they may declare that from him alone they hope and expect, both for themselves and for others, all good things.”
It is through prayer that we get to know God. God wants us to pray and He loves it when we pray because prayer is relational. We are not just ventilating vertically, we are dialoguing with God, praying (out loud or silently) and listening. – “A man prayed, and at first he thought prayer was talking [and it is]. But then he became more and more quiet until in the end he realised that prayer is [also] listening.” – Interesting: The same letters that make the word ‘silent’ also make the word ‘listen’. Immediately, when we pray, we move into the spiritual realm and God’s presence is a reality with us, whether we are physically aware of it or not. God is always there, He is always available and He is always willing to listen.
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The Bible says to those who love God: “They will call upon me, and I will answer them” (Ps. 91v15); it says: “What the righteous desire will be granted” (Pr. 10v24); in the Bible God says: “Call to me and I will answer you” (Jer.33v3); “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given to you” (John 15v7). God hears us when we pray.
Our praying acknowledges our dependence on God to guide, and protect, and provide for us. Our praying initiates communication, fellowship and relationship. And our praying honours God because it shows that we are seeking him; wanting to be in relationship and communion with him. Bishop J.C. Ryle once voiced it like this: [God says,] ‘Abide in me. Cling to me. Stick fast to me. Live the life of close and intimate communion with me. Get nearer and nearer to me. Roll every burden on me. Cast your whole weight on me. Never let go of your hold of me for a moment.’
God desires intimacy with us; closeness. He searches for those who seek Him and in Scripture he promises… ‘Those who seek me find me’ (Proverbs 8:17). Just as our relationships with each other are deepened and strengthened when we regularly communicate and spend time together, so our relationship with God when we read the Bible, meditate and pray. – Praying to a Christian is the beating heart to a living body. – Prayer should be central to everything we do before, during and after we do it. In a nutshell, prayer is essential because God has ordained that our prayers play an important part in His providential answers. Let me put another way: the reason that God answers prayer is because his children ask him to. There is a rhyme that says it well:
Games can’t be won unless they are played,
and prayers can’t be answered unless they are prayed.
Talking of prayer, there’s a funny story told about a family who invited the minister over for dinner, and when he arrived and sat down at the table the mother asked her five-year-old to say grace.
Puzzled, the child asked, ‘What should I say?’
Her mum replied, ‘Just say what you’ve heard me say, dear.’
So, bowing her head reverently, the little girl prayed, ‘Dear God, why on earth did I invite the minister over for dinner?’
2. Why Pray?
‘Prayer is the most important activity of our lives. It is the main way in which we develop a relationship with our Father in Heaven. Jesus said, “When you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done is secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:6). It’s about relationship not ritual. [It is nor reciting liturgy.] It is not a torrent of mechanical and mindless words… It is a conversation with our Father in Heaven.’ Citation And the promise is that there are rewards for those who pray. ‘Your Father… will reward you,’ with answered prayer. The more we pray the more answers to prayer we will receive, providing, of course, that we are praying rightly; appropriately.
Jesus tells us not to be hypocrites when we pray (Matthew 6v5): We are not to try and impress others with our prayers; we are not to try and show off or be seen as super-spiritual. We are speaking to God, not to other people!
A little boy prayed loudly: ‘Please God, bring me a train set for my birthday.’ To which his mother answered, ‘There is no need to shout, dear! God isn’t deaf.’ Back came the reply, ‘No, but Grandpa is, and he is in the next room!’
When we pray, it is not to others, or to ourselves, but to God. Citation
“And when you pray,” Jesus said (Matthew 6v7) “don’t keep on babbling like the pagans.” We are to avoid “vain repetitions” (as the King James Bible puts it), we’re to avoid meaningless, mechanical words; babbling on and on! (A heartfelt prayer request that’s often repeated is not ‘babbling’; it’s only ‘babbling’ if the words are spoken without meaning; when the prayer is of the mouth but the heart and mind are not engaged.) Praying that doesn’t mean much to us doesn’t mean much to God. Most of us can easily recite The Lord’s Prayer without much thought but Jesus warned us that our praying should not be an empty recital of words: rather it should be a meaningful conversation with our heavenly Father.
3. Does God Always Answer Prayer?
The short answer is yes! God always answers prayer – even when our prayers go unanswered God has still answered them. There are three ways that God answers prayer – think of a set of traffic lights: Red means no (no, it’s the wrong request), amber means wait (not yet, the timing is not right), and green means go (yes, your request is granted). There’s a little ditty that hits the nail on the head when it comes to our understanding how God answers prayer:
If the request is wrong, God says, “No.”
If the timing is wrong, God says, “Slow.”
If you are wrong, God says, “Grow.”
But if the request is right, the timing is right and you are right,
then God says, “Go!” (Your prayer is granted.)
When we look at the Scriptures, we can see there are a number of reasons why we may not always get what we ask for in prayer. Unconfessed sin, for example, causes a barrier between us and God. In Isaiah 59v2 we read: “But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear.” And in Psalm 66v18-19 the psalmist wrote: “If I had not confessed the sin in my heart, the LORD would not have listened. But God did listen! He paid attention to my prayer.” Unforgiveness is another barrier. Jesus said (Matthew 6:14-15): “If you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” Even as Christians our friendship with God can sometimes be marred by sin or disobedience. John writes, “Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him” (1 John 3:21-22). If we are conscious of any sin or disobedience towards God, then we need to confess it and turn from it so that our friendship with God can be restored and we can approach him again with confidence. Our wrong motives can also be another hindrance to getting what we ask for. Not every request for a new Porsche or for the winning lottery numbers gets answered! James, the brother of Jesus, writes: “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” (James 4:3.)
Sometimes people say: ‘If God loves me why doesn’t he help me and answer my prayers?’ Do you see, though, that this is a wrong understanding of God’s love? God doesn’t demonstrate his love for us by immediately answering our every prayer. If every prayer we ever prayed were answered, then there’d be no such thing as faith… and God would just be like a genie or our servant at our beck and call whenever we wanted him! Nowhere in the Scriptures are we told that God is committed to our agenda, not until, that is, we are first committed to His.
But other times, it has to be said, we may have prayed with the right motives and there were no barriers in the way, and yet our prayers were not answered the way we’d hoped for – maybe the opposite happened. Why is that? Why would God permit that to happen? The truth is, it’s a divine mystery and we may never get to find out, not in this life. ‘There may be times when we will just have to wait until we meet God face to face to understand what his will was and why our prayer did not get the answer we hoped for.’
4. How Do We Pray?
The general pattern of prayer given to us in the New Testament is to pray to the Father through the Son and in the Spirit: the three persons of the Trinity are all involved. Ephesians 2v18 says: “For through him [Jesus] we… have access to the Father by one Spirit.” (We pray to the Father, through the Son, Jesus, in the power of the Holy Spirit.)
There is no set way to pray, but having said that people sometimes find it helpful to have a pattern for prayer. When you have a business meeting or a church meeting it is good to have an agenda. And sometimes when people pray to God they will use the acronym ACTS:
A – Adoration: praising God for who He is and what He has done
C – Confession: asking God’s forgiveness for anything we have done wrong
T – Thanksgiving: for health, family, friends and so on.
S – Supplication: praying for ourselves, our friends and others.
Another pattern of prayer is The Lord’s Prayer. The Lord’s Prayer isn’t meant to be simply memorised and recited; it was given to us by Jesus as a pattern or a model for prayer. Jesus said, when you pray – not if you pray but when – when you pray, pray like this (Matthew 6:9-13):
- Remember who God is, our loving Father; remember God’s holiness and offer Him praise (v9)
- And seek God’s kingdom to spread and for His purpose and will to be done (v10)
- Ask Him for your daily provisions; for what we have need of (v11)
- Ask Him for forgiveness, and for the power to forgive others (v12)
- Ask for help and for deliverance (v13)
The pattern of prayer that Jesus gave us puts God’s interests first, not ours. The Lord’s Prayer begins with God’s name, God’s kingdom and God’s will, and then we are to ask for God’s provision, pardon and protection for ourselves. The pattern of prayer that Jesus gave us puts God first Thy name, Thy kingdom, Thy will and puts us second – give us, forgive us, lead us, deliver us. That’s the model: God first, us second.
Do you know the Christian name for God? In a Sunday school the teacher asked if anyone knew what the Christian name for God was.
A young lad, Charlie, put up his hand and said, “God’s name is Harold, miss.”
“What makes you think God’s name is Harold?” the teacher asked.
“Because when we say the Lord’s Prayer we say, ‘Our Father in heaven, Harold be your name!’”
The Christian name for God is Father… ‘Our Father in heaven…’ There is a wonderful photograph of President John F Kennedy sitting working at his desk in the Whitehouse; the most powerful seat in the world. Underneath the desk sits his young son. No other boy had such instant access to the President of the United States. No other boy could call this man “Dad”. How amazing to have such a father! When a Christian prays, we enter [the spiritual realm, we enter] heaven’s throne room: we sit at the feet of God Most High, the Almighty, the Ruler and Sustainer of the universe. And we call Him “Father”! Citation
‘In Hebrew the word is ‘Abba’ and the nearest translation in English is daddy or papa or my own dear Father – it’s a name which projects protection, trust and love. Interesting that when babies begin to speak, regardless of whether they are girls or boys, the first word normally spoken is da-da, da-daddy. A little Jewish child speaking Hebrew at the same age would begin to say ab-ab, ab, Abba. Jesus is saying that we are to address the infinite, transcendent, almighty God with the same intimacy, familiarity and unshakeable trust as a child sitting on their father’s lap.’ Citation Abba, Father.
Let’s look briefly, at the ‘God first’ part of the Lord’s Prayer. ‘When Jesus gave us this model for praying, He didn’t begin with ‘O omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient God’ (all-powerful, all-being, all-knowing God). Yes, He is all those things, but when it comes to us, God wants to be recognised and called Abba, dear Father.’
‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name’ (v9): What exactly do we mean when we say, as Jesus taught, ‘hallowed be your name?’ ‘Hallowed be your name’ is an acknowledgement that God’s name is holy and sacred but also the phrase itself is a petition, a prayer, a plea that our Father, Almighty God, will make his name holy and revered throughout the earth. ‘Father, hallowed be your name throughout the earth.’ Citation
Similarly, when we say: your kingdom come… we are petitioning God, pleading for the kingdom of God to come amongst us. We live in the period of time known as ‘now and not yet.’ The kingdom of God has already arrived, it’s here now, in part, but it’s not yet fully here. In one sense the kingdom has already come. It was initiated by the coming of Christ. When Jesus launched himself into public ministry he said: “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near, Repent and believe the good news.” (Mark 1:15) And Jesus performed many miracles and healings, and he said, “The kingdom of God has come” (Luke 11v20). The kingdom of God has already come and is still coming today… Christians are living testimony to that, and the church is still growing… faster today (around the world at least) than at any other time in history. The kingdom of God has come but it’s not yet come in all fullness – we live in the ‘now and not yet period.’
‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven… Jesus taught us to pray asking: ‘Father… your will be done on earth’ – which is tantamount to saying that God’s will is not being done on earth, at least not all the time. Anyone who thinks God’s will is always been done on earth is not looking at the evidence surrounding them: poverty, murder, child trafficking, terrorism, disease, sickness. Jesus knows that God’s will is not being done all the time on earth, that’s why He tells us to pray: ‘Father… your will be done on earth as it is in heaven…
So we’ve looked at the ‘God first’ part of the model prayer Jesus gave us, now let’s look at the ‘us second’ part, where Jesus teaches us to pray for our provision, our pardon and our protection. First…
‘It seems that Jesus wanted his followers to be conscious of a day-to-day dependence on God.’ He told us to pray… Father, give us this day our daily bread [our daily needs]… We are to live a day at a time. ‘Praying for our daily bread reminds us that we cannot ultimately rely on ourselves, on our efforts, or our salaries to give us what we need. Jesus also said we are to pray for God’s…
‘Forgive us our debts; our trespasses…’ Sin is likened to a debt because it deserves to be punished and because when God forgives us he [pays] the penalty and drops the charge against us. [Other translations of the Bible say] ‘Forgive us our sins…’ ‘Such a short word – only four letters – but it’s deeply offensive to human beings because we love to think that we are basically quite good. To know we have “sins” means to admit that we are flawed, less than we were made to be; we’ve missed the target, been less than God demands that we be; we have trespassed on God’s throne, acting as the Ruler we can never be. We are trespassers. So we are in God’s debt, facing His judgment, needing His forgiveness. And, through Jesus, God offers exactly what we need. We are liberated from our need to hide or excuse our sin; liberated to know that God is our Father; liberated to live free of regret and remorse. We are forgiven sinners.’ And so we are to pray…
‘Forgive us… as we forgive those who sin against us…’ If God answered the prayers of a believer who had an unforgiving spirit, he would dishonour His own name. We are to forgive others who sin against us, even when they don’t deserve it. We don’t deserve to be forgiven, do we? ‘A Christian is a forgiven person, and so they are a forgiving person. (…) How can we be those who forgive; who cancel out wrong, treating the wrongdoer as though it hadn’t happened? Only by truly understanding our own debt before God, and His cancellation of that debt at the cross.’ Colossians 3v12-13 (NLT) says: “Since God choses you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tender-hearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Make allowances for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others.” We don’t just forgive others for their sake. We do it for our sake. To be unforgiving or to hold onto a grudge is to be held captive. Forgiveness is a release: it’s like we’re setting the captives free! Are you harbouring resentment or holding a grudge against someone? Has someone hurt you, intentionally or unintentionally? Let go and let God. Bury the hatchet… and not in the other person’s back! Forgive them. Bless them! Yes bless them, and open the way for you to receive blessing yourself… Forgiveness is a release… it also releases blessing!
You wouldn’t throw your car away if the radiator sprung a leak, would you? And you wouldn’t throw your bicycle away if the tyre gets a puncture? – No. You’d fix it! – How much more are people and relationships worth? Fix it. Forgive and let go.
Jesus also said we should pray for God’s…
‘Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one…’ The Bible states that God does not tempt us. (James 1v13 says: When tempted, no-one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone.) So what’s the point in praying that God will do what he’s promised never to do? It’s the devil who tempts us to sin. Everyone is tempted from time to time. Temptation is not a sin – Jesus was tempted – it’s giving in to temptation that leads to sin. When we pray ‘lead us not into temptation’ we are asking God not to allow us to be so led into temptation that we fall into it, but to rescue us from the evil one.
Did you hear about the guy who prayed, ‘Lord, so far today I’ve done all right. I haven’t gossiped, or lost my temper, or been nasty, greedy or grumpy. But in a few minutes I am going to have to get out of bed, and then I am going to need all the help I can get.’
‘Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.’
How does God lead us not into temptation and sin? He may do it by enabling us not to be tempted at all. Or, He may do it by providing us a way out when we are tempted. 1 Corinthians 10v13 says: “God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out.” Sinning, when we are tempted, is never inevitable. There is always a way out.
5. When Should We Pray?
Jesus told his disciples that they should always pray and not give up (Luke 18:1). And Paul reiterated Jesus’ teaching, in 1 Thessalonians 5:17, when he said that we are to ‘pray continually’ (NIV) or ‘pray without ceasing’ (KJV). Our persisting in prayer is not so that we might pester God, as it were, so that He submits to our will, but to demonstrate that we are serious about what we pray for, and to keep active and open the lines of communication so that we will know how and when God is prompting us to act or serve. Prayer should be at the centre of everything we do. The call is to pray continually, without ceasing, and with all kinds of prayers (Ephesians 6:18).
‘You can talk to God not just in church or in set times of prayer, but anywhere and at any time. I was taught very early in my Christian life to ‘talk-as-you-walk’ through the day.’ Citation I often take a walk round the block to pray. I just find it easier sometimes to pray-walk.
Susannah Wesley, mother of John Wesley (the eighteenth century preacher and founder of Methodism), had nineteen children. When she wanted to spend time with God she had a unique way of finding her quiet place. She would sit down in her kitchen and pull her apron up over her head. She would spend time in prayer and her children knew not to disturb her at that moment! Citation
We are also encouraged to pray with others. Jesus said: “If two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven” (Matthew 18:19). If you are not used to praying out loud or with others a great way to start is by saying popcorn prayers – one-sentence prayers that you can pop in any time – and then you can expand in public prayer as you grow in confidence. It’s not the length of prayer that impresses God; it’s the heart behind the prayer. John Bunyan said: ‘In prayer it is better to have a heart without words, than words without a heart.’
I really want to encourage you to develop your prayer life and to grow in your relationship with God because when you do you’ll discover that there is nothing in the world as powerful as prayer, and especially when Christians come together and pray. To close, let me illustrate the power of prayer:
On 27 May 1940, King George VI called for a national day of prayer following the realisation that the British troops in Northern France were at risk of ‘total annihilation’. Three extraordinary events occurred following that day of prayer. First, Hitler overruled his Generals and halted the advance of his troops (something that has never been fully explained). Second, a storm of unprecedented scale grounded the Luftwaffe that was poised to attack the evacuating troops. And third, despite the storm, a serene calm settled over the Channel days later which enabled a vast armada of boats to come and rescue the escaping men. Either this is an extraordinary set of coincidences, or this was the hand of God in response to a nation on its knees praying. Citation
May we pray… Father, thank you that you are a God who answers prayer. Help us to grow in our relationship with you. Amen