Another Study on Prayer?
Words of Life!
Volume 4, Number 1, January-March 1993
A Publication Ministry of Word of Life Baptist Church
Preachers are supposed to talk about prayer, I know. And when we announce it we can often count on a yawn or two from somewhere in the audience. But I'm not sure exactly why that is. Maybe it is simply due to the fact that it has been preached to death in some places. But I rather think that it is due to a tragic misunderstanding of what prayer is and what value it holds for those who know God through Christ. I know--you've heard that before too. But I am convinced it is true, and so at the risk of sounding like a preach-er with nothing better to talk about I ask you to again give some attention to this very important and--yes--exciting subject. It would be difficult to think of a greater resource available to Christians, and it is a subject greatly deserving of our attention.
So then why is prayer so often ignored or presumed uninteresting? I suppose it is partly because prayer is hard work. Well, it really isn't hard work, but with so many pressing distrac-tions it does become difficult to get at it--and still more difficult to stay at it.
But if that is so, then the problem is not at all the level of difficulty involved. The problem is with our sense of values. It all comes down to a simple question of what we want. I have often been accused of being overly simplistic, and here may be more evidence, but I think it is clear that this assessment of things is correct. Face it, if you valued prayer more highly, you would pray more often. If you rightly valued prayer, then those other "distractions" would give way to prayer rather than keeping you from it.
And if all this is true, then it follows that we ignore prayer precisely because we ignore God. It seems difficult to get around that--we ignore God. And if we ignore God, it is again only because we do not value Him as highly as we ought.
Now if this is the problem--that we are not interested enough in God--and if this explains our indifference to prayer, then it is a difficult problem for me (or anyone) to solve for anyone else. The problem is not a lack of information merely, but a poor spiritual appetite!
But somehow I have found that learning more of what prayer is and what God offers through prayer has served to sharpen my own spiritual values and appetites. This is not to say that I am where I should be in all this, but it has played a very significant role in my own spiritual progress. It is in hopes of similar help for you that I want to examine some of what the Bible has to say about the subject.
Prayer & God the Father
We are instructed in the Scriptures to pray to God--why? What is it about God that makes prayer worth while?
God is Able!
The most obvious truth about God that makes prayer so valuable is that He is all-powerful. "Omnipotent" is the word theologians like to use. That is, there is no power or authority above Him. There is no stray element, no foreign compet-itor beyond His reach and absolute control. He is omni- potent, all powerful.
Of the prophets, Isaiah develops this at most length. He often points to God as creator and sustainer of all that is, the originator and preserver and gover-nor of all things. Often this truth is developed in contrast to the false "gods" of the pagan nations surrounding Israel at the time. Unlike those wooden gods, which are but the creation of those who worship them and which require chains and ropes to prevent them from falling over, God is powerful. In fact, Isaiah's contrasts can often be summed up simply--"they can't, but God can." God can what? Finish the statement how you like, He can! He can save, heal, protect, prosper, comfort.... There is nothing too hard for Him, for there is nothing out of His absolute control.
This is, after all, the whole foundation of prayer. Why pray in the first place? Can God do anything about that problem you bring to Him? The question answers itself, doesn't it.
When the apostle Paul prayed that the Ephesian believers would be strengthened to the point that they would be enabled to remain stable through all of life's difficulties, it was to this very truth about God that he appealed.
"Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen" (Ephesians 3:20-21).
This is no small matter. To call the infinite power of God to our own disposal is a privilege indeed!
Clearly, prayer is a valuable privilege because God is powerful. He can!
God is Good!
Jesus emphasized this point in His "sermon on the mount."
Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asks receives; and he that seeks finds; and to him that knocks it shall be opened. Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him? (Matthew 7:7-11)
Many have pointed out here that Jesus is emphasizing the necessity of persistence in prayer. I have no doubt that this is involved, but I don't think it is the point Jesus is emphasizing. It seems He is emphasizing, rather, some-thing about God's character. In other words, Jesus is not saying that we should pray and keep on praying. He is saying that we should pray because God is a good God!
To illustrate this point, Jesus takes a tender scene from everyday life. When a boy asks for something good--like food--a good father does not give him something bad in return.
I don't think I'll ever win a prize for "World's Greatest Dad," but I can still relate to this scene rather easily. When my children come to me and say they are hungry and want some of Mom's home- made bread, I don't give them rocks. Why? Because "I know how to be good."
Now what Jesus points out here is that all of us fathers are "evil"--i.e., sinful. We are all terribly affected by an inward principle of sin. Yet even with that, all acts of goodness have not been lost. We, "being evil, know how to do good."
But what then of God? He is not at all affected by sin. He is only good--infinitely good! Now if sinful men do these good things for their children, could we think or expect any less of God? What Jesus asks us to do, in effect, is to take that tender scene of a human father with his son and multiply it times infinity, and then you will have some idea of what God is like.
You see, what is at stake is God's character! He is no unwilling ogre who has to be flattered or cajoled into doing favors. He is our Heavenly Father who loves us deeply and is concerned for us and who wants what is best for us.
This is why we pray!
Now don't misunderstand. This is not a blanket promise that says God will give anything anytime we ask for it. He is agood father and one who "gives good things." But think how this affects the good things that we need. What difference might this provision make for our marriages? our physical and material needs? our spiritual needs? our evangelistic efforts?
A firm memory of God's goodness would serve to excite us to more prayer.
God is Generous!
But it doesn't stop there. Scripture also emphasizes that God is a generous God. "He gives to all men liberally and does not reproach" (James 1:5).
"Liberally" is simple enough to understand. It speaks of God as giving with no ulterior motives, no hidden agenda but generously and unrestrained. He gives because He loves to give. His giving is not even calculated to get something in return. He is a true giver.
In fact, He already demonstrated that once and for all. On the cross of Calvary He "gave" His only Son to die for us. He gave His very best to endure the very worst. And "He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?" (Romans 8:32).
The point is simple. God gives more generously than anyone else ever has or could.
But James also points out that God "does not reproach" us when He gives. The idea here is that of finding fault, scolding. That is, God does not give and then continue to remind you of it or "use it on you" to make you feel guilty. He does not "throw it back in your face" later on. Nor does He, when you make request, remind you of all the times He has given to you before or of all the previous blessings you have squandered. No, God doesn't give like that. He is a good and generous giver, one who gives with simplicity.
So then, James is telling us, we must not hesitate in going to God with our requests. He does not hesitate to give or insult us for asking--or for taking. And he will not reproach us for asking so much or so often.
Prayer, then, is a matter of how we think about God.
God Knows All About It!
But still there is more. Jesus emphasized something else about God the Father that is relevant to prayer.
But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knows what things ye have need of, before ye ask him. (Matthew 6:7-8).
Our Lord is emphasizing here that God is all-knowing, or, omniscient. There is no datum of knowledge that is beyond Him. There is nothing to know that He doesn't already know. In fact, God never learns! Nothing ever occurs to Him. He is omniscient.
Now this may at first seem puzzling. Jesus says that we should pray because God already knows all about it! Why do we need to ask anything from God if He already knows what we need?
Well, to begin with, we ask simply because this is the means which He has appointed to supply our needs. It is really that simple. If God ordains that we pray in order to receive blessings, then questions about why we should ask Him if He already knows are out of order. We must never presume that God will do apart from prayer what He has promised to do through prayer!
We pray to receive Divine aid because this is in keeping with the Divine plan.
But there is more to this than just that. Our Lord is emphasizing that we should petition God because He already knows the need. Why is that?
Let's put the question this way. What can we tell a God who knows everything? "Nothing," we might say? Jesus' answer: "Anything!" In other words, when we go to God we never have to worry that we might ask for something which He forgot about. It is impossible to ask Him for something for which He is not prepared to help. He will not be caught "off guard." He will never send us a back-order slip or a note with apologies that He wasn't prepared to deal with that particular need just yet. He already has everything He needs to supply all of our needs!
The idea here seems to be that He has blessings to give which await only our request! Does that sound wrong? Listen to James: "You have not because you ask not" (4:2).
God knows what we need and is fully prepared to meet those needs, Jesus says—so pray!