READ : Luke 11:9-10
Biblical prayer means not that you believe God will do anything you happen to want but that he will do just what he has promised to do.
PRAYER IS OUR RESPONSE TO GOD’S CALL
It’s a delight to talk with you about prayer and the promises of God. Remember right at the outset that prayer is really our response to God’s call. It’s not originally our idea, our bid for God’s attention. It’s response. God is always beforehand with us. Remember when Jesus called his disciples – we read about that in Mark 1 he came to where they were. They didn’t come to him. He saw them before they noticed him. He spoke before they addressed him. He came. He took the initiative. Like we sing, “I sought the Lord but afterward I knew he moved my soul to seek him, seeking me.” Did you ever think of the fact that among the disciples there were no volunteers? They were all draftees. They were all conscripts. Jesus went up into a mountain one day and called to him those whom he himself willed and appointed them as disciples. In the same way, it’s always the initiative of God, his grace, his call coming first. Then comes our response in prayer.
Before we can come to God, he must come to us. We would never know God at all unless he chose to reveal himself to us. We can’t apprehend him with our senses. We can’t scale the heavens to find him. We can’t know anyone really unless they choose to open up to us, to reveal themselves to us. And we’ve seen how God does wonderful things to make prayer possible. He reveals his name, Father, so that we may call on him with joy, affection, confidence. He opens a way in Jesus Christ, his death and resurrection, so that we may approach him freely as those accepted in him. He breathes his Spirit into us to help us to pray, and gives us the priceless gift of his Word. God first speaks to us so that we may come into communication with him and have a relationship with him.
PRAYER BEGINS WITH LISTENING
So think about this, that prayer begins with listening. There’s a psalm in the Old Testament, Psalm 81, in which you hear that longing of God, “Oh, that my people would listen to me . . . Hear, O Israel, while I admonish you . . . O Israel, if you would but listen to me.”
We know that longing too, don’t we? All of us need someone who will listen to us. We’ve had enough of people who only seem to listen. They look over our shoulder to notice someone more exciting to talk to, and we sense a sort of a vacant look in their eyes. We feel let down. But what about someone who looks right at us and is attentive to our words? It’s a wonderful blessing. In fact, probably as you think about it, the people that you feel closest to, that are your best friends, are ones who will listen to you.
When God addresses us, we say as young Samuel did, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.” That’s how the communication starts. We first listen, then speak, pray and live.
We can learn to listen, can’t we? I sometimes walk on spring mornings early, and sometimes if I am preoccupied, I don’t hear a single bird. On other days when I’m sort of attentive to that, I hear birds all over the place. It’s learning to listen for them that makes the difference. Or you can be sitting in a restaurant and talking to somebody across the table from you and then hear a conversation over to your right. You sort of shift your radar, your attention over there, and pick that up for a while.
We all have the capacity to direct our attention, to focus our listening. We can learn to do that more and more. Those of us who are pastors and try to help others and counsel others need to learn to listen not just to the words people speak but to the feeling behind the words, and then respond to the person, not simply to the intellectual content. So we can learn to do that. And that’s how we learn to listen to friends and how we learn to listen to God. You know, it’s possible to go to church or sit down and read the Bible without ever once saying in our hearts, “Lord, what are you saying to me?,” eagerly seeking to know what his message is for us.
HOW TO TURN THE SCRIPTURES (GOD SPEAKING) INTO PRAYER
One of the most wonderful disciplines of the Christian life for me is to turn the Scriptures (which is God speaking) into prayer (our response). Let’s say we’re reading the Bible, and whatever we’re reading about, we then lift it up to God in some form of prayer. That makes prayer always varied and fresh: reading and meditating on the Word, internalizing it, memorizing it. Then we can answer God in a significant way.
For example, when we read of God’s greatness, goodness and grace, the response is praise. The psalmist says, “For you, O Lord, are good and ready to forgive and plenteous in mercy to all who call on you (Ps. 86:5). We praise him for that wonderful goodness. “Who is a God like you?” says Micah, “pardoning iniquity and transgression and sin, we praise you. Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Micah 7:18). “Who is like the Lord our God, who is seated on high, who looks far down on the heavens and the earth? . . . He lifts the poor from the ash heap” (Psalm 113:5-7). We praise him as we read these wonderful words about who God is and what he’s like.
Or when we read of God’s gifts, blessings, mercies, we turn that into thanks. The psalmist says, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits” (Psalm 103:3-5). We remember his benefits, and we say thanks.
Or as in one of Paul’s letters, “Thanks be to God for his unspeakable gift” (2 Cor. 9:15)! “Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:57). You read that and then you pause to say, “Yes, God, thank you for these great things.”
Or when we read of our sins and failings, the response will be confession and repentance. We read Isaiah 53:6, “All we like sheep have gone astray. We have turned everyone to his own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” So we confess, “Yes, that’s me, Lord. I go my own way. I forget that you are my Lord and my guide and I strike out in this direction because it seems good to me.” And then we read that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), and we say, “yes, that’s true of me.”
I once read in Philippians 2 about some believers, unlike Timothy, who don’t have the concerns of Christ on their hearts. They seek rather their own things. (As I read about that, I wanted to confess how often I seek my own things rather than those of Jesus Christ.)
Or when we read of God’s will for us, then we may raise a prayer that’s an appeal for help to obey. For example, the great commands of God to us are that we love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind, and love our neighbors as ourselves, love them as the Lord has loved us. Those goals are so far beyond us that when we face them, we say, “O God, give me power to be able to live this way.” “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Ps. 51:10). And often, our prayers will then be cast in the very words of Scripture. That’s especially true in the case of the psalms. Meditation on the Scripture gives you words to pray and to share with others.
COURAGE TO PRAY
But now especially today, I’m thinking about how, when you read the Scriptures and you encounter the promises of God, this activity is what awakens faith and gives you courage to pray. There’s a wonderful story in 2 Samuel 7 about the time when David decided he was going to try to build a house for the Lord. At first Nathan, the prophet, said, “Go and God be with you.” The next day Nathan came and said, “No, God says that you are not to build a house for him. He is going to build you a house.” That is, he’s going to build you a dynasty, a succession of kings. And when this word comes to David, he’s overwhelmed. He goes in and prays before the Lord and says, “Lord, who am I that you should do this for me?” Then he celebrates this wonderful promise of God. He says it’s because the promise has been given him that he finds the courage to pray this prayer.
Have you ever thought of that? How do you know that God is going to do something in answer to your prayer? Is it because you want it so much? Will that somehow bring pressure on God? Is that what gives you confidence? If you can just pump up enough feeling that maybe it’ll happen, then it will? Bingo?
No, that’s not the way biblical prayer is. Biblical prayer means not that you believe God will do anything you happen to want, but that he will do just what he has promised to do. So you read the promise and then you say, like the psalmist did, “Remember your word to your servant on which you have caused me to hope” (Ps. 119:49). Or like David, “Lord, fulfill your word. Do as you have said” (1 Kings 8:25-26). That’s the way to pray. We read God’s Word. We find out what he wants to do, what he’s graciously willing to do, and then we say, “O Lord, let it be so!”
I remember working with a lady who had trouble believing she was forgiven. She said that every night she confessed her sins, but she never knew whether God had forgiven her. And so I talked with her awhile and I showed her these wonderful words from 1 John 1:9-10: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” And I had this lady (her name was Rose) read those words. I said, “Now, Rose, have you confessed your sins?” And she said, “Yes, I do that every day.” “Well, now, what does this Scripture say that God does when you confess your sins?” Then she looked at it again and she said, “Well, I guess he forgives and he cleanses us.” And I said, “How do you know that?” And she finally got the idea and she said, “Because he said so. Because he promised.”
O, dear friends, realize that that’s how faith comes. It’s not a feeling that somehow springs up in your head or that you talk yourself into. It’s when you look at God, his love and faithfulness, and you hear his gracious word of promise and say, “O God, do this.”
I am thinking about promises like the one for wisdom in James 1:5, “If anyone lacks wisdom.” We all qualify for that! Then, “ask God who gives to all generously and without reproaching and it will be given” (vv. 5-8). There must have been hundreds of times in my life when I came to God with that promise and said, “Lord, I don’t know the way to go in this. I don’t know how to deal with this situation. I pray for wisdom you have promised.” It’s his promise that gives you the confidence that it will indeed be yours.
Or “In nothing be anxious but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Phil. 4:6-7). How can you avoid anxiety? Only when you bring everything to God with thanks. He promises that then his peace will guard your heart and mind.
And you know, friends, the wonderful thing for a Christian is that all God’s promises find their “yes” in Jesus Christ. When you come through him, trusting in him, with his Word in your mind and heart, you can pray with great courage. You can pray prevailing prayer. God bless you as you do!