It is ironic that I would be writing about prayer. I am not an expert on the subject. I am often disappointed with my prayer life and feel guilty that I don’t pray more often or with more passion.
I have good intentions but don’t follow through. I know some things about prayer, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I pray well.
The origin of the chapters that follow is a series of sermons I preached in the spring and early summer of 2013 in response to a request that came from the elders of the church I have served for 24 years. As I was finishing a series of messages on the Gospel of Mark, these men asked me to preach a few sermons on prayer based on the psalms. One man said, “I have begun to realize that I don’t know how to pray. I need some encouragement and help to understand the whole subject of prayer.”
As I began to prepare messages, my desire was not to give people techniques for praying or a better method for prayer. I’ve listened to lots of advice through the years about how to pray that hasn’t produced a greater desire in my life to actually pray. I know what I should do. It’s the desire to do it that is often lacking. So the question I asked was “How do I get my heart to want God more so that I will turn toward him more often and enjoy talking to him in prayer more than I do now? What has to happen in my heart for prayer to be a more natural part of my life rather than a duty I have to perform?”
The reason I liked the idea of talking about prayer in connection with the psalms is that the psalms present a rich portrait of the person and character of God. I don’t think anyone is going to pray more or pray better unless their delight in God grows. What better place can you turn to in Scripture to find expressions of delight in God than the psalms?
I began the sermon series with an introduction to the subject of prayer. In our church we have our worship service first and follow that with a time of discussion. I began doing this five or six years ago because I wanted to know what people were actually hearing in the sermons I preached. It’s easy for a pastor to assume people understand what he has taught, that the application was clear and people will go home and think about what was said and follow through on the suggestions made for application. But that’s not necessarily the case. It’s easy for people to walk out after a worship service and say that was a good sermon, and never think about it again. I thought a time of discussion after the sermon might help to reinforce the ideas presented in the sermon each week. So this has been our pattern for several years.
There are always things I’d like to say in a sermon that I have to leave out because of time constraints. The discussion time allows me to take the subject a little deeper. It also gives people the opportunity to ask questions if something wasn’t clear in the sermon. And it gives me an opportunity to ask questions that will help people apply the ideas presented in the sermon.
After giving an introduction to the subject of prayer and moving the subject toward the psalms, I invited people to ask questions they have about the subject and practice of prayer. I wrote down their questions and promised to do my best to address some of those questions. Their questions were not a surprise. I’ve been asked those same questions for years and I’ve asked many of those questions myself:
“Does prayer really change anything?”
“Why does God often seem so far away? Jesus invites us to ask the Father for what is in our hearts, but what should I think when God doesn’t seem to answer my prayers? Sometimes it feels like God isn’t even there.”
“Is it right to demand that God listen, like some of the psalmists did?”
“Can we question what God chooses to do in our lives, or is that a lack of faith and an insult to God?”
“What is the relationship between God’s sovereignty and our prayers? If God has already determined what he is going to do in a given situation, what difference does my praying make?”
“What role does my faith have in prayers – that is, should I assume the reason God hasn’t answered my prayers is that I don’t have enough faith, that if I believed more strongly, what I asked would happen?”
“Why should God care about my little requests when he has so many people to take care of in this world? Am I bothering God with my requests?”
As I listened to people’s honest questions and wrote them down, it struck me again that what people needed was not a bunch of simplistic answers to those questions. They needed a larger vision of who God is and what it means for us to be in a relationship with him.
Obviously, there is much more that could be said about prayer than I said in these messages. There are many fine books on prayer available for those who would like to read more. There are books available from men and women whose practice of prayer is or was far richer than mine has been, and who would therefore be qualified to give advice that I don’t feel qualified to give. Like I said, I am not an expert on prayer – just ask my wife. I need encouragement as much as anyone else when it comes to the practice or praying. So I approach all of this as a fellow-struggler.
What I have tried to do is provide some reflection on the person and character of the God to whom we pray and some application of what the psalms say about God and our relationship to him. I have found that I enjoy prayer more and go to God in prayer more often when I am delighting in the person and work of God.
Most of us probably know some things about prayer. We’ve heard sermons on prayer and read books or magazine articles about prayer. We know some things about the theory and theology of prayer. It would be easy to convince ourselves that knowing some things about prayer is as good as praying. But knowing some things about prayer is not the same as being a praying person.
As theologian J.I. Packer put it:
“If you get joyfully misty in a library researching prayer, yet end up with no time, energy, or motivation to do more than mumble a few goodnight words to God at the end of the day before sleep sets in, you are not a praying person.” (J.I. Packer in Praying: Finding Our Way Through Duty to Delight, p.9)
In an essay entitled, “Meditation in a Toolshed,” C.S. Lewis wrote:
“I was standing today in the dark toolshed. The sun was shining outside and through the crack at the top of the door there came a sunbeam. From where I stood that beam of light, with specks of dust floating in it, was the most striking thing in the place. Everything else was almost pitch black. I was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it.
“Then I moved, so that the beam fell on my eyes. Instantly the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no more toolshed, and (above all) no beam. Instead, I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of trees outside and beyond that, 90 odd million miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences.”
Lewis concludes his analogy with an application: “…it is perfectly easy to go on all your life giving explanations of religion, love, morality, honor, and the like, without having been inside any of them… You go on explaining a thing without knowing what it is.” (C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock)
The week I came across that essay, I had been in Miami to watch my nephew, David, play his first baseball game as a member of the University of Miami baseball team. I’ve watched David play baseball whenever I could get to a game from the time he was five or six years old. It has been his dream for years to play for “the U.” Because I’m a pastor and had to be home in time to preach on Sunday, I could only watch the first of the three-game series. I listened to the other games on the radio. They won all three games in their opening series and David had a great weekend at the plate.
When he was interviewed on the radio after the series, David said, “Everything I learned about baseball I learned from my dad.” That was a really nice thing to say (he loves his dad – my brother, Ed, who has been David’s biggest fan all his life). But it was a bit of an exaggeration.
Ed played football in high school and college (or as he puts it, he donated both of his knees to college football). We played a lot of baseball in the backyard while we were growing up. I think all of my brothers and I did a short stint in Little League and played some church league softball when we were in high school. All of us like baseball.
Ed has been watching David play baseball from about the time David could walk. David’s first word was “ball.” Ed was probably the first one to throw a ball to David so he could hit with a bat. Ed showed him how to throw and catch. He signed him up to play organized baseball as soon as David was old enough. Through the years, Ed has learned a lot about baseball: He has listened to things David’s coaches said. He has studied the game. He has watched David play hundreds of games from little league on through high school state championships and now to college baseball. For years Ed and David have gone to baseball games at the University of Miami, they’ve watched the Miami Marlins live and on television. They even bought the T-shirts when Miami won the World Series in 2003.
By now, Ed knows a lot about the game of baseball. He loves baseball. He can talk about it for hours. But aside from backyard and maybe some little league, he’s never actually played baseball. He has never stood at the plate and faced 90 mph fastballs.
I’m not belittling my younger brother. I’m sure if he hadn’t been in a cast after every football season, he probably would have been a good baseball player – he was a good all-around athlete. But as with C.S. Lewis’s beam of light, there is all the difference in the world between knowing about baseball and actually experiencing it by playing the game.
I’ve been a pastor for 31 years. In that time, I have read a lot of books and sermons about prayer by men like Charles Spurgeon, Martin Luther, and others. I’ve read collections of Puritan prayers. I’ve listened to some very good sermons about prayer. I have prayed with and for a lot of people – people who were sick, people who were dying, people who came asking for pastoral counseling. I have led corporate prayers week after week, year after year. I have preached about prayer and taught from passages in Scripture that deal with the subject of prayer. But knowing about prayer and actually praying are two different things.
Most of us probably know enough about prayer to convince ourselves that knowing something about prayer is as good as doing it. But knowing some things about prayer is not the same as being a praying person.
My desire in going to the psalms to consider patterns and models for prayer is to encourage people to enjoy God and to learn to express that enjoyment by simply talking more often to God. I hope these messages will be an encouragement to you and will stir you up to go to the Father more often and more naturally in prayer.