It is proverbial that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. This can especially be true when it comes to doctrine. The doctrine of God’s sovereignty for instance, often comes into conflict within our thinking when it comes to the place of human responsibility or prayer. That’s CHRISTIAN GRIDLOCK.
A few years ago I preached on this one aspect of Christian gridlock in addessing the question – “If God is sovereign, why pray?” It is a topic which reappears over and over. So I thought I might take this opportunity to supply you with a transcript of that sermon.
If you’ve ever wrestled with this problem, I hope this might shed a little light on it for you.
We do hold to the doctrines of grace here, and we do believe in the sovereignty of God. So it is that this question comes to us several different ways, but it does come and ultimately the question is this: if God is sovereign, then really, why do we pray? How does that whole thing seem to work? What’s the rationale behind this?
Let me throw a couple of verses out to you because this is where the quandary comes. We have several different species of verses in the Bible that speak to this. If I read James 5:16, it says: “The effective fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” And yet if I read Acts 15:18, it says: “Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world.” Well, which is it? Is it that my prayers are going to accomplish much, or is it that God already knows what He’s going to do and that’s that? Or if I read Daniel 4:35, that “…He doeth according to His will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth: and none can stay his hand, or say unto Him, What doest thou?” Well if that’s so, what is the dynamic in prayer? What is it that we’re supposed to be looking for? And part of the answer to that is that we only conceive of prayer in one aspect, typically, and that is making petition for something. But I would quickly add that that is only one small aspect of prayer. Yet that has become almost the sum and the total of prayer. And if I might say, that’s the reason why our prayer lives suffer from dullness and inactivity, and why we hate to go to prayer so much: because we get tired of just giving God the grocery list. In fact, that isn’t what prayer is for. Do we make our needs known? Absolutely. We’re going to go through and show you that in just a moment, but if that’s the only thing we’re doing in prayer, prayer is going to be a very unsatisfactory thing. It’s going to be terrible.
So, if we take at face value those texts, then how do we reconcile them together? How do we draw these things together that seem to be contradictions? And in what way is any man’s prayer to be considered effective, actually working, if in fact God already knows all that He will ever do, and all that He will ever do is only according to His own will, and nobody can challenge it? So how do I weave those together? And that’s going to imply a few other questions. When you ask one question, you have to ask the questions that go with the question. And the questions that go with that are: well, then I need to come to some sort of understanding of what the nature of God is in this whole thing; and I need to come to a better understanding of what the true nature of prayer is, so that I can begin to bring these together. Then ultimately that’s going to say what the relationship is between those two things: between God Himself, and between prayer and our supplications. So we couch the questions this way: if God is absolutely sovereign, why pray? if God’s only going to do what God wants to do, if He cannot be coerced or forced to act against His own will, if He can and will only act righteously and in perfect holiness, what are we hoping to accomplish in prayer? That’s the real bottom line.
Like I have said (…I don’t want to oversimplify, but I do want this thought to be in the back of your heads) I always ask the converse which is: well, if God ISN’T sovereign, why pray? If He isn’t the one who controls all things, then I need to find out who is controlling all things and that’s the one I need to be talking to. But the only basis on which prayer makes any sense at all is if God is sovereign. Because if He isn’t, then I have very little hope of anything happening that’s truly effective.
So the real issue isn’t whether or not God is sovereign. We know that. Scripture tells us absolutely. The issue is: how does prayer fit into the economy of a sovereign God administrating His universe? And there’s another question that invariably fits into that (and we’re going to try and answer that as we go through, especially when we end up at Exodus 32), which is: does prayer have the power to change God’s mind?
Now before we even get to that these, I’m going to ask you one other question. I’m just going to throw it out there and put it on the back burner and let you think about it while we’re working through some of these other ideas. That is, if we truly want prayer to have the power to change the mind of God, then we need to ask another question first: What is it, exactly, that’s wrong with God’s thinking that needs to be corrected by our prayer? Now that puts us in a tough spot. Because if we really think prayer changes God’s mind, then we have to come up with how it is we arrive at God’s thinking being awry, and how it is our thinking can somehow straighten His out. He’s perfect and we’re not! So that’s the tension you have. So I understand the question, but the tension you have in the question is what we seldom look at. We don’t look at the question behind the question. And so at first it seems this is a wonderful question to ask: “Does prayer change God’s mind?” “Absolutely!” Okay, if you really think that, then tell me what was wrong with His thinking. Because I do want to know, and I’m sure He’d like to know, what it is you think is wrong with His thinking, and why it is you think you can straighten Him out. Well, that’s going to lead us then to just that root question itself, and hopefully we’ll deal with the rest of the questions as we work through it. Okay?
I’m going to have you turning to a number of Scriptures tonight, but the first I’d like you to turn to is Ephesians chapter 6. This will be the first, out of about eleven reasons I think we’ll hit tonight why… If God is sovereign, why pray?
Here’s another good question: If we think no one’s in control, what do we think prayer is going to do about it? Let me kind of get that one out of the ball park first. If we believe that no one’s in control, then we have to believe that prayer, in order to effect anything, is the equivalent to magic; that there is power in the words or in the activity. That is always one of the key problems with misunderstanding prayer, even as Christians. Now let me tell you why I say that. Because even as Christians, we can fall into the trap of thinking that we have to say things a certain way, we’ve got to use certain words, we’ve got to use a certain formula, and if we do that, then the necessary result will come. That is a pagan concept of prayer. But it is the common concept of prayer within the Christian church. If I pray it loud enough, if I pray it long enough, if I say it in a certain tone of voice, if my voice quivers, that’s what’s going to make it happen. And none of those things are true! Because the power isn’t in the process or in the act of praying, the power is in the One we pray to. And until that’s settled in our minds, we’re still going to wonder how we can jockey it all around to make the prayer “work.” We don’t make prayer work. We pray; God works. And we have to be careful to draw those distinctions. Again, we fall into a very pagan notion of prayer, which is that virtually it’s white magic. We do the right thing, and it’s going to happen. Interestingly enough, that concept is very deeply rooted in a form of Judaism, an offshoot of standard Jewish thought, which is called Kabbalism -where God can actually be manipulated (the forces, if you will, can be manipulated), by the use of certain Psalms, certain incantations, the use of certain numbers. And it’s an occultic approach to the Old Testament. But that’s a whole other study we could do in and of itself.
Ephesians chapter 6: As you come down to the end of this famous passage regarding taking on the armor of God, finishing in verse 17 with “the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God,” he [Paul] then ends: “With all prayer and petition pray at all times in the Spirit, and with this in view, be on the alert with all perseverance and petition for all the saints, and pray on my behalf, that utterance may be given to me in the opening of my mouth, to make known with boldness the mystery of the Gospel…” Let me couple that with two other passages quickly. The first comes out of Matthew chapter 6. Jesus assumes that there are three things that are normative in the Christian life, and He addresses them with the disciples in these words: “When you give alms… When you pray… When you fast…” Not “If you give alms… If you pray… If you fast…” but when you do. The assumption is, in His language, we’re all going to do all three of those. And let me add Colossians 4:2 where Paul simply says, “Continue in prayer and watch in the same with thanksgiving.” Let me couple the three of those, and give you the first major reason why we pray: because it’s commanded in Scripture. I know people don’t like that. That’s okay. It’s part of what we’re called to as God’s children. We are supposed to pray! It is considered a normative part of the Christian life, and we’re told to do this. And in fact we’re told to devote ourselves to prayer; that there ought to be, in some measure, a sense of the need and the reality of prayer that drives us to it on a consistent basis, and that it should be a great struggle when we’re not consistent in our prayer lives. I might just add one other thing before we get into number two: the reason why prayer is so often difficult, is that prayer is the most “otherworldly” thing we do on the earth because it involves no power of our own. It’s completely foreign. It is a wholly spiritual thing. It belongs to the realm of heaven! And in the process we can’t import anything into it by our fervor or by our zeal in that sense, because it isn’t just excitement that makes things happen. If it was, I’d have had a lot of very fancy cars and other great things in my life. But it isn’t zeal that makes those things happen in prayer. Something else has to be going on as well. And so we do need to know that in prayer you’re coming to something that is wholly contrary to the fleshly nature. The human nature is to do, to cause, to produce, to operate, to manipulate, to make… out of our own will and out of our own effort. And prayer completely defies that. So it’s because it occupies that place, it’s an otherworldly thing, and it’s unnatural to the human frame to do that. But the first reason why we pray, pure and simple, (and if there were no other reason, this would be sufficient in itself) is because we do it out of obedience. Because this is what the Scripture calls us to. This is what we ought to be doing.
The second I take out of Matthew chapter 6. (These are not in order of importance, they’re just in order of the way I wrote them down as my brain was functioning, and sometimes you know that functions in odd ways.) I’m going to pick up in the fifth verse… “When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words.” (We do too. Or we suppose we’ll be heard for our volume sometimes.) “So do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.” Prayer (and it’s the second reason why we need to pray) brings us into personal communion with God alone. Out of all the things that Charles Haddon Spurgeon wrote and preached and taught (it’s in his book “Lectures to My Students”), I find one phrase that comes back to me almost on a daily basis, definitely on a weekly basis, and it is this phrase: “Be much alone with God.” You cannot build a relationship, and especially a relationship of trust, unless you spend time with somebody. It’s that simple. And prayer is the only place where we meet God eyeball to eyeball and spend time with Him. The truth is, our Christian lives will never grow dynamically beyond the level of the time we spend alone with God. That is probably the single most important cause of peoples’ spiritual lives continually being emaciated! We don’t spend time alone with Him. And we need to, desperately! Not because He needs it; because we need it. We need to be in His presence. We need to be communing with Him, talking to Him, pouring out our hearts to Him, discussing our needs with Him.
The reason why we as Christians so often act like the world instead of as Christians is because we have such a lousy relationship with the One we’re praying to. Again, that’s why we fall back on formulas. That’s why we like programs. That’s why we like people to write things out for us. That’s why we want them in nice neat little columns and say, “This is how you pray.” We buy billions of books on prayer. We go to seminars on prayer. We listen to tapes on prayer. But the one thing we don’t do (which is the only cure) is: we don’t pray! And prayer is the only way that you cure prayerlessness. It’s the only way you deal with the problem of prayer in your life. And it’s the only way that you truly draw intimately close to God.
When you meet people and you spend time with them, and you sense that these are people who walk with God, the reason they have that sense about them is because they walk with God -because they spend time with Him. Now, listening to preaching and teaching (which we do) is part of that process, certainly. But I’m talking about being alone, and that’s exactly what Jesus treats here in this portion of Matthew 6. It is going away from everybody else and being alone with Him -turning off the radio, turning off the TV, getting away from the telephone, getting away from whatever else it is that disturbs you, or distracts you, or takes away. And you say, “Well, wait a minute. I’ve got this and that and the other thing, and I can only do that so much.” I don’t care how little it is, you start somewhere. But you spend some place, some time, alone with God every day. It is a necessity for us, not for Him. That’s where we draw our life. That’s where we draw our vitality. If you want to constantly live in discouragement, and constantly live in panic, and constantly live going from crisis to crisis without stability in your life, continue to believe you can live without being alone with Him on a daily basis. And enjoy your crisis. The only way you’ll come to the stability is to spend time with Him. Now isn’t that interesting? I would like you to spend more time at church. We could enter more meetings; we could put together more evenings, and none of them will encourage your relationship with Him like the time alone with Him does. So even if it’s a little nugget every day, find that time and do it!
Now you say, “Well wait a minute. What do I say while I’m there?” We’re going to cover some of that in just a minute. But it isn’t so much what you say, as it is being there. You know how it is when you have been away from a loved one for a while. And when you get together, and after you’ve gotten all the conversation out because you haven’t seen each other for a while, it’s just being in the room together that becomes important. They’re there! I just went through this. I go through this terrible panic every time my daughter Sarah jumps in the car and goes back to college. And just the knowledge that she was driving from college to home last night… (Poor kid! How many times did I call you in the car on the way home?) She’s coming home! She’s coming home! Now, I was already in bed when she got home. I didn’t care if I saw her. I just wanted to hear the front door close. I wanted to know she was in the house. See, that’s the way we ought to be with God. Because there is in that intimacy something that cannot be had any other place. Skip the grocery list. Don’t worry about whether or not you pray for all the missionaries, or you make sure you pray about finances, or you make sure you ask about this or ask about the other thing. Don’t put an agenda together. Be with Him! It is in the being with Him that we grow with Him. This was the school of the disciples; three and half years with Christ -eating with Him, sleeping with Him, being around Him, hearing His normal conversation. And when we don’t spend time alone with Him, and you say, “Well, my wife and I do it together.” You can’t! I know this is going to sound strange to you. You have to do it alone! Does that sounds radical? Tough noogies! Get alone with God. Get alone with God!! It changes everything! You will not read the Bible the same, you will not respond to people the same, you will not see life the same, if you’re spending time with Him. But if you are neglecting that time with Him, you are constantly overwrought, you are constantly in knots, you are constantly saying, “How am I going to deal with A and B and C and D,” because you haven’t been alone with Him. I can’t emphasize it enough. And Jesus emphasizes this in chapter 2 and says, “You have to get into that secret place.” What’s interesting in the home, the typical home style of that day [is that] there were only two doors in the house. There was a front door, which was sometimes covered by a wall. But then the only other door in the house, the other door by itself that gave you a completely closed room, was the pantry -the storeroom. And that’s exactly what He’s referring to. He says, “Go into the root cellar where there’s nobody else, where you can actually shut the door, where you can be completely alone, and that’s where you need to be.” And I dare say most of us don’t know what that is on a regular basis -to be really alone with Him. Even for five, ten, fifteen minutes, even if you don’t say anything, have your Bible open on your lap, and sit there. But be alone with Him. It won’t take long, especially with the Scripture in front of you, before you’ll find some dialogue.
Thirdly, an amazing passage to me… (So far we’re not even touching whether or not we make petitions, because that isn’t the chief thing here. Petitions are one tenth, if you will, of the whole scope of things.) Third, and this is extremely important, found in Matthew 26:39. You’ll remember the instance; It’s on the night in which Jesus is betrayed, and He has spent time in prayer. He’s encouraged the disciples to do so, and you know they kept falling asleep. But it says an amazing thing in 26:39. After they stopped at one place, it says that He went a little further. And He fell on His face, and He prayed saying, “Oh my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me. Nevertheless, not as I will, but as Thou wilt.” Now I’ve heard it said that if you tack onto the end of your prayer, “Lord do according to your will,” that that’s a cop-out. I want to tell you that if that’s true, then Jesus copped out the night of His death. That is untrue. As a matter of fact, this is why prayer again becomes so important. It is the submission of our will to His; not the imposition of our will upon His. It is the submission of our will to God’s will, not the imposition of our will upon God’s will. Let me read you something by Thomas Aquinas (of all people). “It is clear that he does not pray who, far from uplifting himself to God, requires that God shall lower Himself to him, and who resorts to prayer, not to stir the man in us to will what God wills, but only to persuade God to will what the man in us wills.” That’s correct. That’s not prayer. Here’s the Son of God in a perfect demonstration of one of the real mysteries, I think, of prayer. And that is: that as He came to that place knowing what was before Him; knowing all of the difficulty that was about to attend that; and how unnatural it is for a man to say, “I’m going to lay my life down,” in the bold fashion in which He did- nonetheless at this moment [He] says, “You know that my natural man has an aversion to the death that’s about to come, but nevertheless, not my will, yours be done.”
Now if you’re spending all your time in prayer convincing God, you’re doing the wrong thing. Because that isn’t what He did. He said, “I will tell you what my natural will is, but the reality is, I’m willing to submit that to you. You do what You know is best.” I’m convinced that the source of much, if not all, of the frustration in our prayer lives, is that we think that God just isn’t coming around to our way of thinking. And that’s precisely what prayer is designed to combat in us. Prayer is designed to get our hands off the driver’s wheel, and to commit the course to His keeping. It’s the humbling and surrendering of our wills, not trying to yank His around. That’s hard. But I’ll tell you, you’ll be able to find out very quickly for yourself where you are in your prayer [life]: just mark out what it is you’re petitioning for. How much time are you spending saying, “God, do this,” more than saying, “God, do this in me, because I’m the one who needs to change. Show me how to meet this situation for your glory. Show me how to bear up under this temptation so that you might be exalted. Teach me how to grow in wisdom during this thing so that I might magnify your name, so that I might be equipped to minister to others.” Instead, we’re constantly saying, “God, make it stop. God, make them stop. God, change them.” Isn’t that a big one? We’re always praying, “God, change them.” Very little of our prayer is, “God, change us.” And yet that’s the key, because it’s the submission of our will, not the twisting of His. But we miss this in prayer! And because we do, we walk around frustrated. “I’ve been praying about this for six months, and God isn’t doing anything.” Oh yes He is! He’s teaching you how to submit. You’ve been walking around for six months saying, “God isn’t doing anything,” because you’re the one who hasn’t submitted yet. What He’s doing is breaking you. That’s so hard to come to. And it’s so contrary to the way we approach prayer, because we want to just lift up hands on high and say the magic words, and have God change the situation to suit us. He says, “No, I’ve crafted the situation to change you. I don’t want to change the situation, I want to change you!”
You know, when you’re a kid especially, you get heroes in the Bible. You get certain people that you really like (at least I know I was this way). You look at people like Samson. “Now that’s a guy!” That’s what you want to be. You want to be that kind of guy that goes out and really takes the situation in hand and does things. And then as you get a little older, you wanted a guy who maybe had that kind of zeal, but maybe was a little “tighter up here” (because Samson had his problems)! You don’t want the evil part, but you would like the good part. And so you switch to somebody like Joseph or Daniel. Moses was the one I finally fixed on. And I used to pray this: (here’s a true confession for you) “God, make me like Moses, because Moses was a man that you used to mold three million peoples’ lives.” Man, I’m reading that, and I’m going back over it – one day I’m kind of in one of those passages (actually Exodus 32 where we’re going to be tonight when we end up) – and I’m reading that portion of Exodus 32, and that thought is going through my head again: “God, make me like Moses, who you can use to mold three and a half million peoples’ lives.” And I know it isn’t in the text, but I swear I read it there that time. It said, “No, I used three and a half million people to mold Moses. You’ve got the wrong perspective. You’re trying to impact them. I want to impact you.” That’s a hard change. But it sure alters the way you pray. And it sure takes away a lot of strange things from your prayer life. Thirdly then, we pray to submit ourselves to Him.
Fourthly, I would just bring up two quick verses in response to this. We won’t spend a long time in it. It’s in James 5:16, “Pray one for another, that you may be healed;” and in Mark 1:41, where it says that “Jesus was moved with compassion. Jesus stretched out His hand and touched him and said to him, ‘I am willing; be cleansed.'” You remember when He did that with the leper. We’re to pray, that we might learn to enter into the compassion that God has for the results of sin in our lives, on one another’s behalf. Now does that mean He’s going to heal every time? No. Let me give you a good case in point. [Does] anybody know anybody in the New Testament who was more saintly, more upright -whose prayer probably should have had some weight- than Mary? She was a good lady. She was the mother of Jesus. I mean, how many women were chosen to be the one who raised the Messiah? Just one! [She] must have been a pretty sharp individual! [There was] something special in this woman. As she stood at Calvary- as she followed, perhaps, the trail from when they started to beat Jesus, and then followed Him through the street, weeping- do you think she was crying out: “God, stop this! God, stop this! This is my son! He’s the one you promised would be the Messiah! Don’t let this happen!” And as they continued to pummel Him, and to beat Him, and to mock Him -and as He falls, and they grab Simon, and they throw the cross on Simon’s back because Jesus can’t bear it any longer- in this bloodied mess of what barely passed for a human being, they finally get Him to the hill, and they start nailing Him to the beams, and isn’t she screaming inside, “Stop this! Please, stop this!” And her prayer isn’t being answered. And as He hangs on that cross in agony, isn’t she saying, “Please… please… please…” She’s a mother, with a mother’s heart. But He was not about to answer that prayer. His “noes” are as important as His “yeses,” because in every denial, He is answering that He might fulfill His eternal plan -even when we don’t see it and think at cross-purposes to it. But was she right to pray out of compassion? Absolutely! And should we -when we see the ravages of the remainder of sin in our lives, when we see our brothers and sisters struck down in illness and in pain and as the result of accidents and other things that happen- should we be praying that God would minister to them? You bet we should! Should we be praying, “God, heal them?” Absolutely! Should we be there, feeling the compassion for them that He feels for the ravages of sin? Absolutely we should! That’s part of what we do. We can grow hard against each other. You know how it is. You hear about somebody who’s in pain or in difficulty, and you go right away to the throne of grace and say, “God, help them!” You hear of somebody else who’s in that situation, and you say, “Well God, it’s about time. Maybe they’ll learn something.” We don’t have that ability. We are not God. We need to be loving the man who’s made in the image of God. And we start to take on God’s attitude toward sin when we get angry at its effects in men’s lives.
Let me give you a fifth aspect of prayer that I think is vitally important. It’s interesting. I’ve had some interesting dialogue on the Internet on this particular concept lately. It’s a fascinating one. But we are to pray in order that we may obtain forgiveness. But what do I mean by that when I say “obtain forgiveness?” We have a theological construct to deal with. We understand that God, when He crucified Christ on our behalf, made an atonement for all of our sin, past, present, and future. Yet we don’t live in a state of the eternal past, present, and future. We live in space and time. We live in the midst of things that unfold sequentially. We live in the dynamic of a regular relationship. 2 Chronicles 7:13 is one of my favorite passages on prayer. It’s the response of God to Solomon at the prayer of dedication of the temple. If you get a chance, go back and spend some time in that passage. It’s a real eye-opener because it tells you how often God is willing to send sickness and disease and pestilence and famine -all those things that we’re always told, “only the devil does that.” Read 2 Chronicles 7. (It’ll be a kick.) But when Solomon was praying at the dedication of the temple, he pours his heart out and says, “Father, if these people turn their backs on you -if they go astray, if they follow idols, if they go off from being faithful to you- and yet wherever they are -wherever it is in your chastening hand you spread them and you send them, in whatever condition they find themselves- if they turn back to you, and cry out to you, will you give me your word that you’ll hear them and that you’ll forgive them?” And that’s when we get that famous response, “If my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray, and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, I will hear from heaven, and I will heal their land. Yes, I will restore them when that’s the case.” That’s not a verse specifically on revival. “If I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or if I command the locusts to devour the land,” (I thought only Satan did that) “or if I send pestilence among my people, and my people who are called by my name humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”
In the dynamic of our ongoing relationship with Him, we can injure our intimacy with Him by virtue of our sins in the present. And those sins need to be dealt with. I don’t remember who the old saint was. I read it in one of the books that I’ve read in the past several years. But, when someone asked him the secret behind what seemed to be his own personal intimacy with God, he said, “Keep short accounts with God.” If you sin today, ask for forgiveness today. You see, every sin is a personal affront. Every sin is something that we do to God, and it needs to be dealt with on that level. I always like this example too, and I think it’s an important one. If tonight I were to get all ticked off about something, and I were to move from this stool and walk over and punch Dave in the nose, and Dave were to collapse in a heap (which wouldn’t happen because I’m a wimp), it would do me no good to return to my prayer closet tonight and say, “God forgive me for punching Dave in the nose.” Now that’s a good thing. I need to do that. But you know what? I need to come to Dave and say, “Dave, forgive me for punching you in the nose.” We don’t do that with God a lot. Mostly because we think so good of ourselves. But we need to be in His presence every day, asking forgiveness. It’s a part of the dynamic of keeping the relationship fresh, and keeping it alive, and keeping our own hearts tender. Otherwise, we grow hard to our own sin. It becomes commonplace to us. And you say, “Well, I get tired of apologizing all the time.” Don’t apologize. Ask for forgiveness. Anybody can apologize. And you know how we usually do it, “Oh, I’m sorry.” That isn’t what we want to do. We want to acknowledge our sin, and ask forgiveness, and draw near to Him again. The nature of sin as a personal offense requires it. In 1 John 1:9 we read, “If we confess our sins He’s faithful and just to forgive us our sins…” But He doesn’t even stop there. He also goes on to “…cleanse us from all unrighteousness” because He knows we can’t even remember all the things we’ve done against Him. The glory is, that if we acknowledge what we do remember, He says, “I’ll cleanse you of all unrighteousness even though you only acknowledge what you know,” when it’s a million things that could be going on. And you say, “Oh, but I hate to come back and say ‘forgive me again for the same thing.'” Can I remind you of what He was telling His disciples once? Peter thought he was a pretty hot shot, and he said, “If a guy comes up to me and says seven times in one day, ‘I repent,’ should I forgive him?” Jesus says, “No, seven times seventy.” What kind of a screwball sins against you seven times in one day and keeps coming back and saying, “I repent, I’m sorry?” You and me. Because every time we say, “I repent, I’m sorry,” you know in ten minutes we’re back in exactly the same spot. You say, “Doesn’t He ever get tired of that?” He demonstrated, in the way that He wanted the disciples to deal with one another, that no, He never tires of that. Because it’s more important to Him for us to be together than it is to bear a grudge. And because He believes that His own atonement is that extraordinary that nothing can exhaust it. You never cease to go back. And you never say, “Oh, I’ve done it so badly this time, I can’t possibly go back and ask forgiveness again.” Oh yes, you must! Absolutely you do! Because that’s how we live in Him -in that constant cleansing that is being in His presence, and learning the joy of Him not begrudging us the constant forgiveness that’s ours in Him. “Whoa! If I was a really good Christian, I wouldn’t sin as much.” Probably. But you’re not that good are you? So that’s why you keep going back. I like that old quip by Alan Redpath. He says, “I know we all like to go to the Psalm that says ‘He remembereth our frame that we are but dust.'” And he says, “But I groan out, ‘Oh, God, but do I have to be so dusty?'” Our constant need of Him is always brought to the forefront in true prayer. We pray that we might obtain forgiveness.
Sixth: (I can’t stress this one enough.) We pray because in prayer is where it’s proper to offer up thanksgiving. Colossians 4:2 says, “Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with an attitude of thanksgiving.” The first reason why we grow dull in prayer is when we lack in bringing thanksgiving to Him for what He’s done. It never fails. One of the reasons why prayer becomes such drudgery, such difficulty -why it’s only a laundry list- is because you’ve stopped giving thanks. You’ve stopped being grateful for what He has done, and you’re only focusing on what you think He hasn’t done in response to some other prayer. Nothing will kill a relationship quicker. It kills it on your side, not His. He’s standing there waiting. But you lose the joy of His presence. It’s in prayer that we express our thanksgiving -our gratitude for all that He’s done, for all that He’s doing, for all that He’s promised He’s going to do. But how often does our prayer, instead, revolve around a series of complaints dressed up as concerns? That’s really the attitude. “I’ve got a concern over this. I’ve got a concern over that.” And what you’re saying is, “God, you haven’t done this yet.” Boy, that’s a problem for us. I know nothing that’s more effective at guarding the soul against bitterness and hardness than cultivating a habit of thanksgiving in prayer. If that’s all you do when you go to prayer, you’ve prayed well. And I’ll tell you why, on the basis of His Word: so when you come and you pray, don’t pray like the heathen do with all these vain repetitions [Matthew 6:7]. Don’t pray with sweat coming off like God isn’t going to answer unless you sweat bullets. Pray with this confidence: that He knows your need better than you know it. And it’s in the “coming” that He delights. He’s already going to meet the need. Oh, that we knew that! If we just knew how tender His heart was toward our needs: that He’s never left a single thing undone for us! It’s only our dissatisfaction with His perfection. He brings us alive when our hearts are thankful. And how rare it is (I mean this is truly rare) to find someone who is truly contented in this life. But true contentment can only happen on our knees. And it can only happen in the posture of a thankful heart filled with gratitude. No other place. If prayer for you is like pulling teeth, I guarantee you’re not a very thankful individual. That’s always a problem.
Seventh: We pray in order to deal with anxiety. Oh, this is a hard one. Philippians 4:6,7- “Be anxious for nothing,” (Well, how do you do that?) “but in everything by prayer and supplication…” (ooo, skip this next word) “… with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God,” (please note the second verse) “which surpasses all comprehension, shall guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” He didn’t say that He would necessarily change the situation. He said that He would guard your heart and mind in the situation. He may not change it at all. But He most certainly delights to change us in it.
Let me postulate a concept to you here, throw an idea out. Imagine yourself in tremendous financial debt with no hope of ever being able to repay as long as you live (kind of like most of us). And you know what it’s like (if you’ve ever been in a financial pinch at all) -that constant weight on your shoulders. It never goes away, even when you sleep at night. You say, “How am I going to get this done? How am I going to get this done?” It never goes away. It wears and it wears and it wears. Alright, so imagine you’re in that situation. And somebody you know who has unlimited money, unlimited funds, comes to you and says, “Here, I’m going to make you a deal. I’ll take responsibility for every penny you owe. And I’ll see to it that every one of your creditors is properly taken care of, on this one condition: that you give me all of your bills, and you promise to trust me implicitly to discharge all of the responsibility of them, and leave it to me without complaint, to take care of as I see fit.” Would you do it? What happens if a notice still comes to the house, and it says that bill hasn’t been paid? But your promise was that you would give him all the bills on that one condition -that you would not complain about how he decided to dispose of them, and he’d take care of them. I submit to you that this is precisely what He approaches us with. I think that’s exactly what He says to us when He says, “You cast all your care upon me for I care for you. You believe that I will meet those things, and you give them to me, and you trust me. Your job is to trust me. My job is to take care of the rest.” We don’t trust Him. And if I might say, that’s why we don’t pray in faith, because that’s what praying in faith is -trusting Him; believing that what He said He’ll do, He’ll do. We don’t really trust Him that well.
Let me give you my own personal definition of anxiety, wrought out of my own personal anxieties. Anxiety is the powerless feeling we get when our pride is confronted with an impossibility. We are anxious because we can’t change the impossible situation. And it wounds our pride. We can’t handle that conflict. The cure then, only comes in one place: humbling yourself before God. That’s what prayer does. It humbles us. Let me read to you 1 Peter 5: 6,7. “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time.” Well, what does it mean to humble myself? “Casting all your anxiety on Him for He cares for you.” It is a humbling thing to give your anxiety to somebody else. We’re happier bearing it ourselves, because we think we can control something. Ever been on an airplane when things start to get a little shaky and you’re looking for the brake pedal? Doesn’t work. Doesn’t work in a roller coaster either. I’ve been in both. And I’ve been “pushing the brake” in both of them. One time we were at Seabreeze and four of us got into a car on a roller coaster, and we were all oversized, and the roller coaster was not well equipped. And we shot right through the brakes and right up the hill the second time. And now we’d really picked up speed. Our faces were like this -looked like a test for NASA. Unbelievable! That’s the way we feel an awful lot of times -that much out of control. And it is so humbling to say, “I’ve got to give this to somebody else,” because we want to maintain control in some fashion. Prayer is designed to humble us by telling us that we need to take our hands off the wheel and let Him drive. That’s what we don’t do in prayer. We’re still using prayer to try and steer. We’re still using prayer to try and step on the brake or step on the gas. And that isn’t prayer. Prayer is casting our anxiety upon Him and humbling ourselves in the process. Why pray if God is sovereign? Because only a sovereign God can exchange all our anxieties for complete trust in His love for us and His power to work out every circumstance. That’s why we pray.
Eighthly: Proverbs 15:8 says, “The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord, but the prayer of the upright is His delight.” We pray because He enjoys it. He delights in it. Now I don’t know how to fathom that. I don’t know how to really make sense out of the fact that God likes to have me come and speak to Him. I have nothing to give Him, nothing to offer Him. I have no wisdom. I have no witty things. I have nothing to bring into His presence and say, “Look, you’ll be pleased with this.” But He delights to hear the voices of His children. It’s that simple. He loves it! And if there were no other reason to pray, that would be number one. Have you ever wondered, “God, what can I do to please you?” Let me tell you what you can do to please Him. Pray! He loves to hear us pray! Not because He loves to hear words beating the air, but He delights so much in us. When you have a newborn baby at home, you don’t care if they can gurgle out a single cogent word. You just want to hear that little voice coo. You’ll wake them up to make them make noises. You’ll blow in their face, you’ll tickle them, you’ll throw them around -because you love to hear them make noise. He loves to hear us like that -the passion of a Father for His little children. And just the sound of their voice delights Him. Did you ever think that God delights that much in you? But He does. And that’s why prayer becomes so important in the relationship -because He loves you so, and delights so much to hear you speak to Him. That is a holy and a mysterious thing to me -that the infinite God of all the universe would take such pleasure in this- but He does. It is something He revels in. If I could say it this way, to quote someone else, “Oh seek Him today because He loves to have it so.” Pray because He delights to meet you there. Call upon Him because He answers not out of duty or cosmic responsibility, but out of sheer love to be with, and fellowship with, His own sons and daughters. Kind of making the grocery list thing look pretty dim, isn’t it? We’ve missed prayer. We’ve just plain missed it!
Ninth (and this is a mystery in and of itself), we pray that we might receive. In Matthew 7 [v.7], Jesus says, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you.” And James [4:2] again repeats, “You have not, because you do not pray.” I don’t understand the dynamic, but this I do know by the teaching of the Scripture: God has ordained to meet our needs, and to answer even our daily things, by virtue of prayer. How He weaves together our petitions with His sovereign will, I don’t know. I don’t think we can explain that, and I know I can’t. Let me jump over to somebody who’s far better than I’ll ever hope to be, that grand genius of another age, Robert Haldane. “This teaches us that God, by His providence, regulates all that takes place. There is nothing with which Christians should be more habitually impressed than that God is the disposer of all events. They should look to His will in the smallest concerns of life, as well as in affairs of the greatest moment. Even a prosperous journey is from the Lord. In this way they glorify God by acknowledging His providence in all things and have the greatest confidence and happiness in walking before Him.
Here we also learn that while the will of God concerning any event is not ascertained, we have liberty to desire and pray for what we wish, provided our prayers and desires are conformed to His holiness. But will our prayers be agreeable to God if they be contrary to His decrees? Yes, provided they be offered in submission to Him and not opposed to any known command. For it is the revealed and not the secret will of God that must be the rule of our prayers. We also learn in this place that since all events depend upon the will of God, we ought to acquiesce in them however contrary they may be to our wishes. And likewise, that in those things in which the will of God is not apparent, we should always accompany our prayers and our desires with this condition: ‘if it be pleasing to God,’ and be ready to renounce our desires as soon as they appear not to be conformed to His will. Oh how sweet a thing, as one has well observed, were it for us to learn to make our burdens light by framing our hearts to the burden, and making our Lord’s will a law.” What a mystery that is! But He designs to answer and to meet our needs, and to fill our requests, by prayer.
We’re over time. Let me run through them very rapidly. We won’t get to Exodus 32. Read it on your own… fascinating story. I’ll tell you the end of the story. Moses says, “Oh God, if you’re not going to forgive them, blot my name out of your book.” Everybody says, “Wow, what a marvel of intercession.” They just didn’t read the answer. God said, “No, I’m sorry, you can’t do that. Those who sinned, I’m going to blot out.” And He punished them. Amazing. Astounding.
Tenth. We pray that we might become co-laborers with Him in the executing of His will and plan, especially as concerns the spread of the gospel. I’ll just read this quickly for you out of Matthew 9 [v.35-38]. “Jesus went about all the cities and the villages, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all manner of disease and all manner of sickness. But when He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were distressed and scattered as sheep not having a shepherd. Then He said unto His disciples, ‘The harvest indeed is plenteous, but the laborers are few; pray ye, therefore, the Lord of the harvest, that He send forth laborers into His harvest.'” He delights to have us enter into His eternal plan -of the gospel going throughout the earth- by virtue of our prayers in concert with His labors. He lets us co-labor with Him.
Ronny Kozel was my older brother’s best friend. Ronny Kozel’s dad (before he passed away) was changing the brakes on the car (his death had nothing to do with changing the brakes on the car). Ronny was a “dimwitted” little kid, but his dad said, “You can help me change the brakes on the car.” Ron said, “Dad, why do we need to change the brakes on the car?” He said, “Well, Ronny, because the brakes are squeaking. That means they need to be changed.” And Ronny said, “Okay.” Dad went in the house to answer a phone call. He came back out and noticed those brakes looked a little strange. He said, “Ron, did you do something to these brakes while I was in the house?” He said, “Yeah, Dad, I was helping you.” “What did you do, Ron?” He said, “I oiled them.” He said, “Why did you oil them Ron?” He said, “Don’t you oil things when they squeak?” Those brand new brake pads were saturated with oil. That’s how we “help” Dad. So often that’s exactly what we do when we’re trying to help Him with the gospel, but He says, “Come along and help me.” “Come along and help me.” Isn’t that amazing -like we could really do anything. But He says, “I’ll tell you what. I’ll let you join in, and here’s how you join in: pray. Pray. Pray that the Father will send workers out into the harvest. You seek Him because this is what I want done, and you join me in this labor, and this is how you can do it.”
Lastly: We pray that we might grow in faith. Hebrews 11:6 says, “Without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those that diligently seek Him.” If you don’t believe that He’s a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him, you’re not praying in faith. He’s a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him. E. M. Bounds writes it this way: “True prayers are born of present trials and present needs. Bread for today is bread enough. Bread given for today is the strongest sort of pledge that there will be bread tomorrow. Victory today is the assurance of victory tomorrow. Our prayers need to be focused upon the present. We must trust God today and leave the morrow entirely with Him. The present is ours; the future belongs to God. Prayer is the task and the duty of each recurring day. Daily prayer for daily needs.” We don’t grow in faith unless we trust Him. And prayer is trusting Him.
Now let me ask: Will God’s will be accomplished whether I pray or not? Absolutely! Will God be short of resources if I don’t lend my voice in prayer? Not on your life! But will we know the joy of doing what we are designed to do? No we won’t! Will we grow? Will we know the incomparable sweetness of divine intimacy with our God? No. Will we grow in grace? No. Will we be honoring to Him? No. Will we be useful in the church? No. Will we be sinning against the Body of Christ? Yes. Will we enter into the supreme privilege of doing God’s work with Him? No. That’s why we pray. That all those things come together.
If God’s sovereign, why pray? We’ve got a lot of reasons. And we need to spend some time understanding the dynamic of a people that the sovereign God calls to join together in concert with Him in the accomplishing of His will throughout the universe.
Let’s pray. Heavenly Father, again we just thank you for this opportunity that you’ve given us. It is so good to be with the Body of believers. It is so good to refresh our hearts again in the truth of your promises and goodness to us, -Father, to be reassured again that you just plain delight to have us call upon you. What a divine mystery is that! Father, we have not yet begun to comprehend, even remotely, how much you love us -because if we did, we wouldn’t have been so dim on that. Lord, give us praying hearts. Give us hearts that cry out to you morning and noon and night. Give us the resolve -to find time alone with you every day; to learn to submit our wills to you; to obey you; Lord, to walk with you; to seek your face; to draw near to you; -to enjoy your forgiveness, the intimacy of your presence, the joy of your smile, the coupling of our hand in yours, the true peace and rest that comes from knowing that you are our God and that you care for us. Teach us, Lord, how to pray. In Jesus’ name we ask, Amen.
Transcribed by Roy and Sue Marriot
Copyright © 2001 Reid A. Ferguson. Permission granted to quote in context.
top last update: 25-January-2001