Whenever I drive to Fuller Seminary, I take the Lake Ave exit. And there is always this homeless man standing there on the corner with a sign asking for change. Now if you want to understand the meaning of prayer, then you should remember this beggar because he illustrates five different aspects of prayer which I want to share with you tonight. He shows: 1) its essence; 2) its presupposition; 3) its attitude; 4) its look; and 5) its object.
1. The Essence of Prayer
The essence of prayer is asking God. If you read the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6, you’ll notice that from beginning to end, it is essentially a list of prayer requests. From “hallowed be Your name” to “lead us not into temptation”, prayer is all about asking God. (Incidentally, the last part of the traditional Lord’s Prayer “for thine is the kingdom, and the power and the glory forever” is not actually in the Biblical version of the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6 or Luke 11 even though the ideas can be found in the Bible.)
But what about the famous acronym A – C – T – S (adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication) you might ask. Isn’t the S – supplication – just one part of the meaning of prayer? What about adoration, confession, and thanksgiving?
Of course, these are all parts of prayer. But the root of adoration, confession, and thanksgiving is asking God. For example, when you ask God for forgiveness, you are not only doing supplication, you are also doing confession and adoration at the same time. In asking God for forgiveness, you are admitting your need for forgiveness (confession), and you are proclaiming that God has the power and grace to forgive (adoration).
It’s when people do not see supplication as the basis of prayer that they begin to run into problems. For example, people who say things like, “I’m such a sinner”, but do not ask God for forgiveness have not really confessed, even if they think they are being really humble. What they’re actually doing is insulting God by implying that God is not rich enough to forgive their debt. So supplication is not just a part of prayer; it’s also the basis for all the other forms of prayer.
But to say that the essence of prayer is supplication not only includes other forms of prayer like adoration and confession; it also excludes other ideas of prayer. Let me give two examples:
1) If prayer is essentially asking God, then it cannot be like Zen Buddhist self-help meditation which focuses on the inner self and being mindful of the present moment. In Christian prayer, we are always addressing God.
2) Now if this first point is true, then prayer should not be considered a way of encouraging other people. There is a big temptation in worship services and prayer meetings to see the main value of your prayer as its ability to encourage people who hear you. But group prayer is not about using words to cheer people up, just as praise is not about using music to get people excited. Prayer is essentially about asking God.
2. The Presupposition of Prayer
The presupposition of prayer is that God will answer your supplications. We see this presupposition emphasized over and over again in Scripture. For example:
* Matthew 7:7-8 “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.”
* Matthew 21:21-22 “Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen. 22 And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.”
Karl Barth sums up these texts this way: “the only prayer that can be unanswered is prayer that is uncertain of an answer, so that it is not calling upon the true God.”
3. The Attitude of Prayer
Now if the presupposition of prayer is that God answers them, then our attitude should be both confident and humble – at the same time.
i. Romans 8:32
Our confidence in prayer comes from knowing two truths of Scripture. The first truth is found in Romans 8:32
“He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”
There are several reasons why you may doubt whether somebody will do what you ask: maybe the person is just forgetful; maybe the person is stingy; maybe the person doesn’t care about your needs; maybe the person is just not able to answer your request. Whatever reason you can think of for why somebody would not answer your request does not apply to the God who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all.
ii. 2 Corinthians 1:19-20
The second basis for our confidence in prayer is found in 2 Corinthians 1:19-20
“For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you, Silvanus and Timothy and I, was not Yes and No, but in him it is always Yes. 20 For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory.”
Praying in Jesus’ name is the reason that we can be confident that whatever we ask for it will be given to us, and in the profoundest sense, has already been given to us. Or to put it in terms of Romans 8:32, we are confident that God will graciously give us all things precisely because God has already given us His Son.
Let me give an example of what this means. Joni Eareckson Tada is a Christian artist paralyzed from the neck down. She once shared how whenever she went to some churches in her wheelchair, there would always be well intentioned Christians who would lay their hands on her and pray for a miraculous healing. And when this did not happen, some people thought it was because Joni lacked faith or because it was God’s will that she be paralyzed. Well, Joni responded to all this by saying that in a way God has answered their prayers, and the answer to their prayers is Jesus Christ. She said that because Jesus has risen from the dead, she knows that God will one day raise her broken body.
You see, the problem with most people is that they think only outside of Jesus Christ. They think that this moment we call life is all there is. If God does not heal before one dies, then that’s a tragic example or cynical proof of unanswered prayer. But the assumption of the Apostle Paul and of Joni Eareckson Tada is that in Jesus Christ their prayers have already been answered. For in Christ, we know that death is not the end but the beginning. This holds true for all seemingly unanswered prayer. Once you believe that Jesus has given Himself to you and risen from the dead for you, then you will grow in confidence that the essence of your prayer requests – your desire for true love, your desire for ultimate meaning in life, your desire for health and safety, your desire for world peace and justice – have already found their answer in Jesus Christ.
But what about answers to prayer in this life? Certainly there is reason to be confident here and now, but precisely because it is the here and now that we must practice humility. This is because of the truth expressed in Ephesians 3:20 which says:
“Now to [God] who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us”.
Because of our imperfection here and now, God often answers beyond our asking. So humility means being open to new, unforeseeable ways that God will say “Yes” to your prayers. Matthew 7:9-11 puts it this way:
“Which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? 11 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”
Humble prayer always keeps in mind that key phrase in verse 11 “how much more”. Humility always recognizes that “God is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask.”
Now at this point many pastors and theologians will bring up verses like 1 John 5:14 “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us” or they’ll point to Jesus’ Gethsemane prayer in Luke 22:42 when Jesus prays “not my will, but yours, be done.” Then they will say things like “God only answers prayers that are according to His will”, which then makes us pray always with the qualification, “If it is Your will”, which then makes us less confident in our asking because we’re no longer sure if we are asking according to God’s will. Or, at this point, some pastors will agree that God always answers prayer. Sometimes God answers yes, sometimes no, and sometimes wait.
Now these points are not wrong, but there is a greater point missing in them. That is, God’s answer to His children’s prayers are always ultimately Yes. Even the prayers that are not according to God’s will. Even the prayers that God has at first glance answered No. In other words, the greater point is that God will never answer less than we ask but He will answer more.
Let me give two examples, one from a recent event and one from the Bible. A few months ago, there was this really interesting documentary on tv called “Crazy Sexy Cancer”. A 31 year old actress named Kris Carr found out that she had Stage 4 incurable vascular cancer and only a few months to live; so she decided to video record her attempt to beat cancer. Early on we see her praying for God to miraculously heal her, but as the months of chemotherapy and suffering go on, we wonder if God listened to her.
Now towards the end of the documentary, she says something very interesting. She says, “When I found out that I had cancer, my biggest fear was that I was going to die. I was afraid that I was going to die before ever experiencing the joys of marriage, of having a family, of growing old. But, even though I would never wish cancer on anybody, I realize now that cancer has actually helped me live more than I ever did before.” Now, did God answer her prayer? I think the answer is both yes and no, and the no was for the sake of the ultimate yes. No God did not heal her of cancer, but yes, God did give her a healed life.
Now for the Biblical example. In 2 Corinthians 12:7-10, the Apostle Paul describes suffering from a “thorn in the flesh”. He calls it “a messenger of Satan that harasses him.” Paul writes in verse 8: “Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me.” We don’t know what that “thorn in the flesh” was. I think Paul leaves it blank so we could fill in our own problems. It could have been an opponent who was constantly attacking him. It could have been cancer. Now when Paul asked God to take away the thorn, did God answer his prayer?
At first glance, it seems the answer is no. God did not end up taking away Paul’s thorn in the flesh. But if you look closer, you’ll see that God did answer Paul’s prayer on a deeper level. One way to say this is that God answered the spirit of Paul’s request but not the letter of it. Let me try to explain this.
Why do you think Paul had asked for the thorn in his flesh to be taken away? He probably thought it was hindering his work for God. He probably thought that the thorn was preventing him from experiencing God’s power and peace. So when Paul prayed for this thorn to be taken away, he probably thought he was praying according to God’s will. But was he? I think the answer is yes and no. No, Paul’s request for the thorn to be taken away was not according to God’s will because the thorn was God’s special means of blessing Paul. If God had taken away the thorn, then Paul would have experienced less of God’s power, not more; Paul would have experienced less of God’s comfort and presence, not more.
But, yes, Paul’s deeper request underlying his request for the thorn’s removal was according to God’s will, and this request was answered. It was God’s will for Paul to experience his peace and love and power and above all grace and that’s exactly what Paul received from God (v. 9), but not in the exact way that Paul expected. So God answered the spirit of Paul’s prayer even if that meant not answering the letter of it. That’s why Paul could say in Ephesians 3:10
“Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us”.
You see, Paul had thought he was asking for fish but in the letter of his request he was asking for a snake. But God knew what Paul was really asking for even if Paul – being the sinner that he is – didn’t ask for it very well. And that’s the confidence that comes from humility. Because even if God does not seem to be answering the letter of our requests, he is answering the spirit of it. Romans 8:26-27 puts it this way:
“the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. 27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”
That is to say, when we pray, we do not pray alone. When we ask God for a snake because “we do not know what to pray for as we ought” (v. 26), the Holy Spirit intercedes for us and asks on our behalf for only fish. So even if we ask for things that could potentially mess us up terribly, God will answer our prayers more abundantly than what we ask.
But does that mean the letter of our prayers are unimportant? No. Remember our second point. If you don’t ask God, you won’t receive from God. But thank God He does not just answer by the letter of our prayers. Otherwise, we would just end up reincarnations of Kim Jong Il – selfish, cruel, lazy, immature, conceited, lustful – which no child of God really wants to be.
This brings up another important aspect of humility in prayer. Paul stated that he had pleaded “three times” (2 Cor 12:8) for God to take away the thorn in the flesh. And it was not until the third time that God answered Paul’s prayer request. This is consistent with Jesus’ parable of the old woman pleading for justice from the corrupt judge in Luke 18:1. Jesus makes the point that God will certainly answer those who persevere in prayer and cry out to him day and night. Why doesn’t God just answer us the first time? I think one big reason is because “we do not know what to pray for as we ought” and it takes time for us to understand how God is answering our prayers “more abundantly than what we ask”. So we should pray confidently, pray humbly, and pray perseveringly until God answers us.
4. The Look of Prayer
Even though the Bible says that Jesus often went to lonely places to pray (Luke 5:16), it would be a mistake to think that prayer is primarily individualistic. Because it is not. We know this by the very first word in the Lord’s Prayer, “Our”. “Our Father”. Prayer is a community activity just as praise is essentially a community activity. We may ask as individuals for individual things, but it is always done with the church in mind as well. This means that it is not enough to pray for your own daily bread; you must also pray for the daily bread of others. It is not enough to pray for the health of your own family; you must pray for the health of your brothers and sisters in Christ as well. Moreover, it’s not enough to pray by yourself; you must pray in community. For the moment that your prayers take on the look of “My Father” rather than “Our Father” or “give me this day my daily bread” rather than “our daily bread”, then that is when you are no longer praying as a Christian. Group prayer – actually looking into the faces of others and hearing the prayers of others – makes the “our” Father all the more real and helps avoid the illusion of “my” Father prayers.
However, just because prayer is a community activity does not mean that it does not require times of solitude. In fact, if a group’s members have trouble being alone with God, then there is a great danger that the group may turn prayer into a psychological mechanism, and make the prayer meeting a form of group therapy. Dietrich Bonhoeffer makes this point in his insightful book Life Together. He wrote:
“Many persons seek community because they are afraid of loneliness. Because they can no longer endure being alone, such people are driven to seek the company of others. Christians, too, who cannot cope on their own, and who in their own lives have had some bad experiences, hope to experience help with this in the company of other people. More often than not, they are disappointed. They then blame the community for what is really their own fault. The Christian community is not a spiritual sanatorium. Those who take refuge in community while fleeing from themselves are misusing it to indulge in empty talk and distraction, no matter how spiritual this idle talk and distraction may appear. In reality they are not seeking community at all, but only a thrill that will allow them to forget their isolation for a short time. It is precisely such misuse of community that creates the deadly isolation of human beings. Such attempts to find healing result in the undermining of speech and all genuine experience and, finally, resignation and spiritual death.”
Bonhoeffer goes on to say:
“Those who want community without solitude plunge into the void of words and feelings, and those who seek solitude without community perish in the bottomless pit of vanity, self-infatuation, and despair. Whoever cannot be alone should beware of community. Whoever cannot stand being in community should beware of being alone.”
This passage by Bonhoeffer deserves its own lecture. I only mention it as an appetizer for thought. You cannot have true community without the experience of solitude; and vice versa, you cannot really have a healthy experience of solitude with God apart from experiencing community.
Incidentally, for those of you who have trouble being alone, and who are also students, I’ve made copies available of Simone Weil’s sublime essay on how to use your studies to help you develop your solitude for prayer.
5. The Object of Prayer
Two things that have always bothered me about prayer is that 1) it seems to promote laziness; and 2) it seems to make God a cosmic butler. It’s analogous to what bothers me about giving to beggars: it seems to perpetuate a cycle of laziness and poverty, and it makes me feel taken advantage of. Let me address these two points now.
a. On Laziness
This first point is more obvious, so I’ll spend less time on it. God does not command us just to pray. Verses like 2 Thessalonians 3:7-12 and Ephesians 4:28 make this clear. But God does not command us just to work. As Psalm 127:1 states, “Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labor in vain.” Again, in Luke 10:2 when Jesus looks out at the lost world and says, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” Jesus does not say, “So work hard.” Instead he says, “So pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” We must both work and pray. Orare et Laborare as the old Latin saying goes. They go hand in hand, as the testimonies of prayer warriors like Martin Luther can readily affirm (incidentally, if you want to read an inspiring biography of Luther, read Heiko Oberman’s Between God and the Devil). If you are truly praying, then you will be truly working hard. And if you are not working hard, then you must not be truly praying. In other words, the difference between a non-Christian beggar and a Christian one is between a beggar who asks for a hand-out and one who asks for a hand-up.
b. On Cosmic butler
Now the second thing that bothered me about prayer is that it seemed to make us the master, and God the servant. And I didn’t like this idea because it went against my view of God’s sovereignty. But then I came across this insightful quote which I want to share with you.
“The fact that God yields to human petitions, that he alters his intentions and follows the bent of our prayers, is not a sign of weakness. In his own majesty and in the splendor of his might. He desires to be the God who has been flesh in Jesus Christ. Therein lies his glory, his omnipotence. He does not then impair himself by yielding to our prayer; on the contrary, it is in so doing that he shows his greatness.”
You see, my problem with prayer was based on a false sense of sovereignty. I thought it would be beneath God to do what I ask. I had imagined God to being like any earthly king except having infinitely more authority and power and respect. But I was wrong. Isaiah 53’s description of the Suffering Servant gives a clearer view of the heavenly King we pray to than anything else (v. 2 “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him.”). In a very mysterious way, you can get a better sense of God’s sovereignty by looking not at magnificent kings but at humble waiters. God has sovereignly chosen to display His Lordship, not as a benevolent dictator, but as a friend.
In closing, I began with the image of the beggar standing at the corner of Lake Ave as an illustration of the essence of prayer as asking. By now you should know that the person we see standing at the corner of Lake Ave is not only us, but more importantly, it’s also Jesus. God’s Son has left heaven to become a beggar on our behalf. Romans 8:34 says, “Christ Jesus is the one who died- more than that, who was raised- who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.” That is our glorious King; the humblest of servants. Let us follow in his footsteps with confidence and humility in prayer.
Prayer Seminar at FCCRC 12/1/07