We’re here! We’ve made it to the How-To part of the series! We’ve been working hard to get here, deliberately laying the foundation of making sure the motivations of our hearts are right with God. But now, we press forward to the practical outworking of the Four Core Christian Disciplines. Can you remember what they are? Prayer, Bible Study, Church Attendance and Serving Others. Right!
Why Study Prayer?
Some of you might be thinking, “Great! Finally! I’ve been struggling with this for a long time now and I can finally get some tips on how to strengthen these parts of my spiritual life.” Others here might be ready to tune-out thinking, “Why on earth would we need to learn how to do this? It comes naturally to me. I’ve been doing it all my life!” And there might be some here that are thinking, “How dare Pastor Al even think of telling someone how to do this. This is personal. There’s no right way to pray or read the bible. There’s no right way to attend church. It’s arrogant to think that one person’s way is going to work for everyone.”
Let me explain quickly why we are going through this how-to section:
While I agree that each of these Core Christian Disciplines are very personal, there really are practical ways that we can improve how we do them, and ways that we can get them wrong. Think of Luke 11 where the disciples had been watching Jesus at prayer. They saw something that He had been doing, an effect or some kind of power they didn’t have. They saw a lack in their own prayer and so they went to Jesus and said, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” They wanted a distinctively Jesus-style, a Christian prayer, that would set them apart from others and would let them access God the way Jesus did. They had to be taught how to pray, and I believe so do we.
There are a lot of people who don’t know how to do these things because they didn’t grow up in the church. For them prayer is mysterious and difficult, bible study is boring and confusing, they don’t know how to get the most out of attending church (which is probably why attendance is in such decline across North America), and while many desire to serve others, they don’t know what their spiritual gifts are, they have a packed schedule, and have so many personal needs that stepping into someone else’s problems sounds like a terrible idea! I know with absolute certainty that many people here desire to have a better prayer life, to know more about God, to have powerful corporate worship experiences, and to share the love of Jesus with others in practical ways – and I believe part of the way to get there is through training.
What Is Prayer?
What is Prayer? So many people have defined prayer in so many different ways. Some with complex theological language, other’s very simplistically. The famous Dutch pastor and theologian Hendrikus Berkhof wrote a great book introducing people to the Christian faith. But, when he came to the subject of prayer he found that he didn’t know where to put it in the book! He said,
“The nature of prayer happens to be such that its place in the study of faith is uncertain and therefore varying. The reflection on prayer would fit in with the doctrine of God, the doctrine of man, preservation, the covenant, the Spirit, the Church or man’s personal life.”
That tells us something important. It tells us that prayer is not just something a Christian does, but is the root of all Christian theology and practice. It’s overarching. It’s not just a part of the Christian faith; it is the very essence of it. Prayer is part of many other religions, but Christian prayer is the expression of a specific relationship with Jesus Christ, and is a response to His work in us, for us and through us.
I’ve read a lot of definitions of prayer:
- John Ortburg in The Life You’ve Always Wanted said, “Prayer… is the concrete expression of the fact that we are invited into a relationship with God.”
- Dallas Willard in The Divine Conspiracy said, “Prayer is talking to God about what we are doing together.”
- Patrick Morley in his book A Man’s Guide to the Spiritual Disciplines said, “Prayer is the conversation that turns salvation into a closer, personal relationship with God.”
So in light of all of this, I’ve come up with my own definition that we can use today.
Prayer is multifaceted, perpetual communication with God through Jesus Christ with the intention of seeking a closer relationship with Him through confession, worship, thanksgiving and supplication.
So let’s take this apart piece by piece to help us define prayer.
First, is the word “multifaceted”. There is no one kind or formula of prayer just as there is no one kind of marriage, friendship, or partnership. Our relationship with God is multifaceted. In the Bible He’s called our Saviour, King, Commander, Brother, Father, Priest, Prophet, and so much more. And we relate to Him on multiple levels in multiple ways.
This is good news because it means that the guilt you are feeling for not measuring up to someone else’s prayer life doesn’t need to be there. Sometimes you look at someone else who spends a lot of time on their knees, with their eyes closed, at five o’clock in the morning, and say, “Wow, that person has a way better prayer life than me.” And you feel guilty because every time you’ve tried closing your eyes at 5 AM to pray, you end up waking up at 7AM wondering what happened.
Perhaps for you, a focused prayer time happens with your eyes open, walking around, at 9 PM. Maybe you’re perfect prayer place is outside, or inside, or sitting, or standing, or lying down on your face. Sometimes it changes depending on the content of your prayer. If you are crying out to God after a car accident, your posture will be different than when you have just done something sinful and you are repenting before Him.
Someone may have told you that you need to always be quiet, and gentle, and sweet, or talk to God politely, like He’s your boss or He’ll fire you. That’s not the kinds of prayers we read about in the Bible. Prayers are “multifaceted” because people have a wide range of emotions.
This leads us to our next word. Prayer is multifaceted because prayer is “perpetual”. Ephesians 6:18 says we should “pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.” It’s not a one time shot we do in the morning to check in with HQ and then walk out the door on our own. Prayer is intended to be an ongoing communication with God. And because a lot happens to us in the course of a day, we are going to change our tone. We wake up in the morning, and it’s a good day. We have warm water in the shower. We look in the mirror and like what we see, get to work early, and the boss gives us a coupon for a free lunch at our favourite restaurant. “Thanks God! What a great start to the day!”
Or, we wake up in the morning, and our alarm didn’t go off. So we jump in the shower to find that there’s no more hot water left. We look in the mirror and it looks like we fell out of the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down. And when we finally do get to work the boss chews us out for being late and asks us to work through lunch. That’s going to be a different prayer! But God is there through it all, and desires to have us talk to Him all the way through it.
This is a very difficult thing to do, and I don’t think that any of us will achieve this kind of relationship with God on this side of eternity. But the that is set for us is to be naturally talking to God about everything that’s going on in life.
Which leads us to our next phrase, “communication with God through Jesus Christ.” This is key.
God wants to talk to you, and for you to talk to Him, and He’s done everything possible to make that happen because He loves you very much. Love requires communication. To build any relationship – marriage, friendships, family –requires honest, ongoing, open, long-term, intentional communication. If I told you I loved someone but never talk to them except occasionally when there’s a problem and I need something from them, you would question my loyalty and love for that person. Right? That’s the relationship I have with my mechanic, not my wife, kids or God.
I hope you realize that God wants to be in a relationship with you. We gloss over this so many times that it has become part of the background noise of our faith. We take this for granted, but we shouldn’t. God knows your every deed, every thought, and every word you’ve ever said… and He still wants to have you around Him!
We shouldn’t be allowed to pray. According to the bible, if it wasn’t for God sending Jesus to die on the cross in our place, we would still be dead in our sins, and totally committed to living by our sinful natures (Ephesians 2:1-4, Colossians 2:13-14) . James 4:4 says that before we are saved we are an “enemy of God”.
But God loves you very much, and wants to be in relationship with you. He desires to communicate with you, and for you to talk to Him. The Bible says in Romans 8:34 that Jesus is continually “interceding for us.” That means that Jesus is talking to God on our behalf and making the case for why we should be forgiven and ushered into His presence and allowed to speak. The Devil, the accuser, stands there saying, “This person is a sinner that turned his back on you, and He should be sent to Hell and punished forever. That’s your rule God and you need to stand by it!”
But Jesus defends us saying, “Father, you chose that person to be saved. They called out to me and believed in me, and I took their punishment. Their debt has been paid because I paid it. They’re one of mine. That person has been washed clean and has been given the gift of purity because I took all of His shame and have washed them myself. Father, allow this one to come before just I come before you.”
And this leads us to our next phrase, “with the intention of seeking a closer relationship with Him.” That’s what prayer is all about. God has opened up His heart to us and has made a relationship with Him possible. He bought us back from Satan, death and eternal damnation in Hell. He loved us so much that He sent His one and only Son to die in our place because no one else could. And therefore, when we become a Christian, we live with that in the forefront of our minds, and we make the intention of our lives to grow closer to the one who loves us so much. Why do we pray? We pray in response to God’s love for us! 1 John 3:1 says:
“How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!”
We pray to build a relationship with our Father whom we love and who loves us.
Have you ever walked into your home and smelled an apple pie baking in the oven? Or went into someone’s house in December and it just smelled like Christmas? Or you smell the scent of the person that you love when you are near them? Then you understand the feelings of pleasure associated with a wonderful smell. That’s what we are told our prayers are like to God. Throughout the Bible it says that our prayers are like a fragrant incense offering to God, something pleasing to Him. They are like a gift we give Him.
The Four Components of Prayer
And the final part of our definition gives us the Four Components of Prayer, “confession, worship, thanksgiving and supplication.” How do we express our love for God? How do we build our relationship with Him? There are things we do in prayer that will build up this relationship. At different times and in different ways all of these should be a part of our communication with God.
People sometimes struggle with what to say to God. These Four Components of Prayer will give you good guidelines on where to start your prayers, and what to say.
The first of the four is Confession which is a key part of building our relationship with God. In one sense, it is the beginning of our relationship with Him… though not exactly, since He created us and knows us before we ever acknowledge Him. But when we finally do acknowledge Him, the first thing we must do is confess our sin and need for His Lordship, presence and salvation to Him. We talked about that over the past couple weeks.
Confession and Repentance are the first things we do when we come to God, but they is also something we do throughout our lives to show our desire to walk away from sin and towards Jesus every day.
Next, as a result of our confession, repentance and forgiveness… we are naturally lead into Worship. If you struggle with worshipping God in your prayer life, then you probably struggle with confession, repentance and understanding your forgiveness. The songs on Sunday morning are actually prayer because singing is one of the many facets on the diamond of communication that we have between us and God. We are speaking words to God in song, and we are calling back to Him is attributes.
Worship is simply talking to God about who He is. It is telling God His attributes the same way that we do for someone we care about or are impressed by. We tell them about themselves as a way that we show love and devotion to them, or awe and fear of them. “You are special.” “You are beautiful.” “You are overwhelming!” “You are strong.” “You are skilful.” “You are so creative.” .” “You are powerful!” Worship is a natural response when we get a glimpse of God. We do this with each other naturally, and that’s what good worship music, and worshipful prayer is.
In Revelation 4:8 the angels worship God by saying “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty!” Holiness is one of God’s attributes.
Next comes Thanksgiving. Worship is talking to God about who He is, thanksgiving is talking to God about what He has done. The blessings and mercies that He has given, especially those we so often take for granted like sleep, food, health, family and the like, but most importantly, for salvation through Jesus Christ.
Listen to how the Psalmist gives thanksgiving to God:
Psalm 66:5, “Come and see what God has done, how awesome his works in man’s behalf!”
Psalm 139:14, “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.”
When we read about the worship in heaven in Revelation 4:6-11 we read them saying, “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.”
Finally, the fourth aspect of prayer is Supplication – asking God for what we need. This is a huge stumbling block for some people because they don’t understand why their prayers aren’t being answered. They have asked God for things, made requests, and it’s not happening. So they get discouraged.
This is why I prefer the word “supplicate” to “request”. Supplicate is made up of two words: “supple” and “placate”. When something that is “supple” it is able to bend. To “placate” means to “please” someone. So literally, when we come to God and ask for something, we come humbly, bending our will to His, so we may do that which pleases Him. This is as much about bringing our requests to God as it is about Him teaching us to be humble before Him.
The key to understanding supplication is found in John 15:5-8. Jesus is talking to His disciples about how we relate to Him uses the picture of a grape vine and the branches that connect to that vine and bear the fruit.
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”
When we come to God in supplication… when we ask God for things… Jesus says there is a qualification to all our requests: we need to be connected to the Vine. If we expect to have any grapes, then we’d better be getting food and nutrients from the Vine. If we disconnect ourselves from our source of life and think our little branch is going to do anything apart from the Vine, then we’re crazy.
What does it mean to be connected to the vine? Are you ready to come full circle? It means we are faithful to the Four Core Christian Disciplines. Jesus says, “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you.” The opposite of that is to say, “If you ignore me, push me aside, do your own thing, and don’t bother listening to or studying my words, distance yourself from my people, refuse to listen to me as Lord, serve only yourself… no matter what you ask for, it won’t be given to you.”
Why? Because if we ask for things without listening to God, we’ll be asking with selfish desires and destructive motives! We will want things that glorify me, comfort me, meet my wants, fill my desires, make me feel better, make my life easier, punish those that I don’t like. We won’t be concerned about praising God, learning more about Him, building our character to become more like Christ, or serving and taking care of anyone else. When we stop pursuing Jesus through the Four Core Christian Disciplines, it’s becomes all about us.
James 4:1-3 says:
“What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.”
If you have been praying for something for a long time and it’s not happening, check your motives. Why do you want that to happen? Do you trust God enough to believe that He already knows what you need before you even need it? Do you trust that God knows what He’s doing? He will answer every prayer you bring to Him. Sometimes “yes”, sometimes “no”, sometimes “later”. God is gracious enough not to give us those things which will harm us, or will not lead to His glory. Can you imagine what would happen if God said yes to everything everyone asked for? What a world we would live in! Praise God that sometimes He doesn’t give us what we ask for.
Let me close today with a few final, practical point about how to do this. We’ve talked about what prayer is, and the importance of it. We’ve discussed the motives of our hearts, and our need to humble ourselves before Him when we ask for something. I want to close answering a few practical questions about prayer that you may have:
What do I need to do to get started? (Or… How can I be more consistent?)
The simple answer is the one you have probably already heard, and is good advice for a lot of things. If you want to be a better writer, find a time and a place and show up and write. If you want a healthy marriage, set consistent and regular times to be together. If you want a strong family, consistently be together at meal times and at other times too.
The best thing you can do is find a time (morning, afternoon, evening, coffee break, lunch-time, before bed, before anyone gets up) and then set an alarm, put it in your calendar, and make that time sacred.
Then find a spot. A place were you know you can be alone, quiet and uninterrupted for a period of time. It may take some practice. You may have to get up earlier, stay up later, leave the house, or go sit in the car. Find a time, find a spot and be there.
I start praying but I don’t know what to say. What should I say?
You’re not alone in this struggle, a lot of people struggle with the words of their prayers. Some have been to prayer meetings with old saints who can pray for 15 minutes straight, in King James English, without even pausing to think or repeating themselves – and that’s a daunting thing to try to keep up with.
A lot of people struggle with what to say so they just keep saying the same word over and over hoping something will pop-out. “Lord Jesus, thank you Jesus for being my Lord, Jesus. I just want to, Lord Jesus, thank you, Jesus and just want you, Lord, give you my thanks, Lord Jesus just for being my Lord.” That can get very discouraging.
Here’s my suggestions. First, start with the Four Components of Prayer: Confession, Worship, Thanksgiving and Supplication. What do you need to confess to God today? What have you learned about God’s attributes in the past while? What has God been doing for you lately that you can thank Him for? What are your needs?
Second, if you struggle with what to say, bring your Bible with you. You’re already committed to studying it, now use it as the jumping off point for your prayers. There are lots of prayers you can pray – the Lord’s Prayer, Psalm 23 are two famous ones. Use their words as a starting point for talking to God.
“Our Father in Heaven” – “God you are my Father, and that means a lot to me because I need a father right now. I need advice, and help, resources, and someone to discipline me..”
Third, bring a prayer book with you. I highly recommend “The Valley of Vision” which is a collection of puritan prayers and devotions. It has helped me for years to find to express what was inside my spirit. There are lots of prayer books, and prayers online that can help to give you a starting point.
How long do I need to be there for?
I’ve already said that the hope is that we would pray without ceasing, but the question of how long we need to be in prayer during our quiet times is a valid one.
Here’s my answer: God is pleased with whatever short time we give him, even if it’s a few minutes of prayer. However, God will always ask for more time, and no matter how much time we spend during that set-aside quiet time, if our hearts are connecting to God, it will never feel like enough. His intention isn’t that we have hour long quiet times – it’s that we would eventually be so used to talking to Him that our whole life, when we are at work, talking to someone else, resting, playing, or whatever, is spent in constant communication with Him.
Start with a short quiet-time – 10 minutes of Bible Reading and Prayer, and as you do that consistently, you will need it to lengthen and it should naturally happen. As you mature, you will need more time, and then you will learn to pray more often, wherever you are, and be mindful of the presence of God in every situation.
Do I stand, sit, kneel? What should my posture be?
Why do we fold our hands and close our eyes? It’s more tradition than anything. I teach my kids to bow their heads out of respect for God, to close their eyes to keep from being distracted, and fold their hands so they’re not doing anything else with them!
In the bible we see people Bowing (Ex 4:31), Kneeling (Psalm 95:6), Sitting (Judges 20:26), Face to the Ground, (Matt 26:39), Standing (Mark 11:25), Lifting up Hands (1 Timothy 2:8), Looking upward (John 17:1), Heads between their Knees (1 Kings 18:42), Pounding on their Chest (Luke 18:13), and Looking out a Window (Daniel 6:10).
John MacArthur says something very important about the question of prayer posture. He says, “Rather than external positioning, the Bible emphasizes the posture of the heart. Whether you are standing, sitting, or lying down, the important thing is that your heart is bowed in submission to the lordship of Christ. False religion places a premium on external behaviour, while true Christianity is concerned with the heart. And true prayer is characterized by an attitude of humility before God-not the physical posture of the person praying.”
Practically speaking: be in a position where you will be comfortable, but not so comfortable you’re going to fall asleep. Change your posture based on what kinds of prayer you are praying. If you are requesting, open your hands to show you are receptive. If you are repenting, place your hands palms down as though you are putting something down. Our mind naturally follows our body, so we can change how we are relating to God just by changing our posture.
Why aren’t my prayers being answered?
We’ve already addressed this when I talked about the motives of our supplication, but here’s a list of scriptural reasons why God wouldn’t be listening to our prayers and answering them. Essentially, these are ways that we separate ourselves from the Vine:
Unrepentant Sin, Secret Sins or Sinful Motives – Sin is like cotton in the mouth of our prayer life. God will stop listening if we have sin in our lives that He wants us to get rid of. We also can’t fool God into giving us something that we’re just going to use to further our own destruction or sinful wants. You may be able to convince me to give you 50 bucks to buy something you say you need … and then go turn around and buy alcohol, or drugs, or porn, or something else… but we can’t fool God. He knows what we want to do with it.
Stubbornness and Pride – This is the prayer that goes, “God, I know what I’m doing… and I’m not really asking your advice… but I could use some supernatural help to get it going. If you could just bless what I’m doing… instead of messing with the why’s and how’s… then that’d be good.” God says that people who won’t ask God what He wants, but just want Him to bless their own plans will “eat the fruit of their ways and be filled with the fruit of their schemes.” That’s bible talk for “they’ll get what they’re asking for.” Which isn’t good.
Half-Heartedness – God’s not a big fan of half-hearted people. We talked about luke-warm believers before. He spits them out (Rev 3:16). James 1:8 talks about the double-minded man who is “unstable” because he’s not seeking God, or himself, or anything else with his whole heart. He’s half in the world and half out.
I’m often convicted by the story in 2 Kings 13:18-19 where Elijah tells the king of Israel to take his arrows and strike the ground with them to show that the Lord will bring victor over his enemies. The king took the arrows, struck the ground three times and stopped. Elijah gets furious with him and says, “You should have struck five or six times; then you would have struck down Syria until you had made an end of it, but now you will strike down Syria only cthree times.” The problem? The King’s lack of enthusiasm, his half-heartedness about being obedient and seeing God work. God doesn’t desire half-hearted prayers.
How can I pray for others?
I really appreciate the person who asked this question because it reminds me that our prayer life isn’t just about us and our own spiritual development, but is one of the key ways God has decided to work in this world. He has decided that He will work in this world in response to our prayer life. He desires us to pray, and He wants us to pray for others, so that we can see His hand working in our lives and theirs, and then give Him glory for what He does.
My favourite method of praying for others is what I call Praying in Concentric Circles. This all happens during the “supplication” part of your prayers. Here’s how it works: Start with yourself and your own needs. Then pray for the needs, comfort, salvation, and challenges for the people who are closest to you – your significant other, your kids, your family. Then work your way out a little farther – your friends, your church, your coworkers. Then a little farther – your community, your neighbourhood, your city, province, nation. Then pray globally for world missionaries, for the world events you know about on the news. If you pray in concentric circles, then it’s a little easier to frame your prayers.