PRS — WHAT PRAYER IS [PART 1]
by Pastor Mike Fortune
October 17, 2009
Introduction Video: ThyPhone
- Keeping company [Matthew 26:36]
- With God [Isaiah 1:18]
- Who is already present [Psalm 139:7-10]
For the last six weeks in our fall sermon series called Noomanautics based on John 16-17 we’ve been talking about ways the Holy Spirit helps us navigate our lives. One of those ways was commissioning us to pray with unbelievers. But what if we are the unbelievers? By praying will we cease to be? In other words, how do we become and stay a believer? That’s what I want to talk about in the next five weeks. Because it seems to me that becoming a Christian has to be as simple as staying one. Or nobody would be able to do either one right? And the good news is this too can be done. And if you remember nothing else in the next five weeks, I hope you’ll never forget that PRS is how you become and stay Christian.
PRS, Pray - Read - Share
Anybody who tells you anything else is selling you something. There are 129 pages in the book Steps to Christ, but three big ideas are behind it. Pray. Read. And Share. So as a way to help us grow in our spiritual formation that Pastor Rachel and I have been emphasizing this fall on Fridays in chapel with the kids, and on Sabbaths with you and your children in Kid Connect, the 11 o’clock, or Connections, we want everyone to know for sure how to become and stay Christian. And in my humble opinion, it all comes down to PRS. Not PMS. No! PRS and it stands for pray, read, and share.
Three things that make Christianity different
Today, as our video clip hinted, we’re going to start by taking a longer look at prayer. There are 3 things that separate Christianity from all other world religions. I used to think there were only 2. But now, I”m convinced there are really 3. The first is: grace. When I was in Cambodia a few years ago, in Angkor Wat, an ancient temple dedicated to the local gods of Buddism, we climbed a series of stone levels, each one going higher and higher, surrounded by a courtyard and more steps, until I reached the top of that temple. And at the top of that temple was an old lady, burning incense, before a statue of Buddha. She was there burning incense because karma was what she believed in. She said through a translator, if she got to the very top of Angkor Wat and got as close to that special statue of Buddha, maybe her karma would be better. Before we laugh too loudly at her though, we may want to remember that many Christians climb the steps to their churches where they approach their God like a Coke machine. Putting some church attendance in, saying a few prayers, and expecting God to give them what they want out. We’ll talk more about that but for now, just remember that no other world religion besides Christianity has grace to pray for!
The second thing that separates Christianity from all other religions is the end of all things. One day, death will die, evil will end [Nahum 1:9 NKJV], and Jesus will come again to make all things new. But the third thing that separates Christianity from all other world religions is prayer. Sure, other religions have prayer too. But not the same way. Prayer is more than a monologue from believer to being. It is a dialogue between Creator and Creature. So today I’d like to suggest we start thinking of prayer as “keeping company [Matthew 26:36] with God [Isaiah 1:18] who is already present [Psalm 139:7-10].
Praying brings you closer to God
Point number one is about keeping company. But how do we keep company with God? Well, we do that the way Jesus did in Luke 18:1 (NKJV). “Then He spoke a parable to them, that men always ought to pray and not lose heart.” Jesus prayed and kept on praying. To keep company with God we must keep praying. And most of us begin by making requests. In Matthew 7:7 he says, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” You see, Jesus knew our heavenly Father is interested in answering our prayers. But He is also just as interested in the relationship that results. For you cannot pray without growing closer to God! Jesus couldn’t pray without growing closer to the Father! Same thing.
Kids just get this. Their prayers are precious. Whether they’re for toys or food or safety. I practice popcorn prayer with my kids. Where eyes wide open we’ll praise, thank, or ask God for anything during the entire meal. Or during the entire bedtime story. We call it popcorn because we don’t know when a praise or request will be made. They just pop up! And as we’ve seen in the Gospel of John, Jesus prayed eyes wide open numerous times, before making special requests of the Father. Bless this fish. Multiply these loaves. Raise this man from the dead.
But the miraculous answers to these prayers overshadow the others that weren’t answered. Even for Jesus. Philip Yancy in his book simply called prayer talks about the time Jesus prayed all night for the right disciples and among the ones he chose were some pretty rusty tools with hot tempers and selfishness one of whom betrayed him. But maybe God was trying to show that God uses rusty tools and that somebody had to betray Jesus so it might as well be Judas so maybe Jesus’ prayer for choosing the right disciples worked after all.
But what about when Jesus prayed for Peter, that his faith would not fail, though Satan had asked to sift him as wheat. Peter assures Jesus that he would not deny him. And then the rooster crows and what happens? Peter denies Jesus three times? Was Jesus’ prayer for Peter not answered?
Or what about Gethsemane? Matthew 26:36 says, “36Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, ‘Sit here while I go over there and pray.’” And when he did, He asked the Father to take this cup from Him. Right? In fact, he asked three times! But did God take the cup away yes or no? No! You see, not even Jesus had all his prayers answered in the way he wanted. That should encourage us as we fail to see the answers to our prayers in the short term.
Prayer is keeping company with God
But that doesn’t mean keeping company with God isn’t a good idea. Because whether our prayers are answered the way we want or not, they are answered! As CS Lewis said in Miracles, “All prayers are heard, though not all prayers are granted.” It is a mistake to think that God doesn’t care about lists of people who need prayer in our bulletins or lists of people who need prayer under our pillows. He cares! Or he wouldn’t have us ask! And Jesus himself wouldn’t have asked. So ask and keep asking. It’s always okay to ask God for anything. Like Jesus, we can pray, “Thy will be done.” Because all our requests and prayers, from “Now I lay me down to sleep I pray the Lord my soul to keep” to the day we die are all heard. And even when they’re not granted the way we want, we have become closer to God. We have stoked a relationship with God. And friends, that is what God cares about most!
Over three hundred years ago, an uneducated cook in a French monastery discovered how to enjoy a profound awareness of God moment by moment, even in the midst of busyness and distraction. A little devotional book compiled by his letters called “The Practice of the Presence of God” has been translated into English and become a classic on the devotional life permanently warping my definitions of prayer. Listen to what he says about prayer. “There is not in the world a kind of life more sweet and delightful, than that of a continual conversation with God: those only can comprehend it who practice and experience it; yet I do not advise you to do it from that motive; it is not pleasure which we ought to seek in this exercise; but let us do it from a principle of love, and because God would have us.”
Prayer is about keeping company with God. Not because our God is better than your God. Or because He answers our requests. But because He loves us! He would have us! Flaws and all. We can learn to practice the presence of God. And if we do, then cleaning the toilet becomes prayer. Washing dishes or clothes. Mowing the lawn. We need to let God out of the box! He would have us let God out of the box!
But before I wrap up with Psalm 139 and plead with you to see prayer the way Brother Lawrence saw prayer, I want to talk about the difference between conditional and unconditional prayers. There was no easy segue for me here so I’m just going to blurt it out. Part of the confusion regarding why our prayers seem like they’re not answered though they are all heard is because we forget there is a difference between conditional and unconditional prayers. Morris Vendon says there are at least four of each kind so I’m going to list them for you. Ready?
There are eight kinds of prayer
The first kind of unconditional prayer is the sinner seeking God prayer. You don’t need to climb to the top of a temple. It makes no difference who I am. Jonah did so from the belly of a whale! Any sinner who seeks God is always heard. That is the first of four unconditional prayers. Psalm 34:4 (NKJV) says, “I sought the LORD, and He heard me, and delivered me from all my fears.” Good news! We can all seek God and know that He hears.
A second kind of unconditional prayer is the prayer of repentance and confession. Psalm 51:1-3 (NKJV), “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to Your loving kindness; According to the multitude of Your tender mercies, Blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, And cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions, And my sin is always before me.” Could be the first time. Or the millionth time. Prayers of repentance and confession are always heard.
A third kind of unconditional prayer is the prayer of thanksgiving and praise. Revelation 5:12 (NKJV) says, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom, and strength and honor and glory and blessing!” Isn”t it cool to think that even angels pray this kind of prayer?
And finally, one of God’s favorite kinds of unconditional prayers, is intercessory sinners prayer. When we intercede on behalf of someone else and pray for their salvation, repentance, or confession. Moses did this for the children of Israel in Exodus 32:31-32, “Then Moses returned to the LORD and said, ‘Oh, these people have committed a great sin, and have made for themselves a god of gold! Yet now, forgive their sin, I pray, but if not blot me out of Your book which You have written.” And though we don’t know the outcome of these prayers until Jesus comes again, we know they are always heard and unconditional.
Now, let’s look at 4 conditional types of prayer. First up, special requests for special blessings. 1 John 5:14B15 (NKJV), “Now this is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us, whatever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we have asked of Him.” A prayer for healing is a special request for a special blessing. James talks about this too. When he talks about gathering the elders to pray.
A second conditional prayer is for guidance. Psalm 32:8 (NKJV) says, “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will guide you with My eye.” But you may be thinking, how is that conditional? Well, it’s a promise from God but it is also a conditional prayer because the devil can guide us if we don’t have a relationship with God. Right? And God is not going to force His guidance upon us if we’re not seeking Him. Right? I’ve got a GPS in my car. But I don’t always follow it! So this is a conditional prayer. It’s based on me going where God guides.
A third conditional prayer is arguing with God. Some of the greatest believers in God have argued with Him. Joel 2:17 (NKJV) says, “Spare Your people, O LORD, And do not give Your heritage to reproach, That the nations should rule over them. Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’” In other words, God’s reputation is at stake. When we make requests, we can base our requests on evidence of God’s mighty acts. We can argue with Him! Isaiah 1:18 (NLT) says, “‘Come now, let us argue this out’says the LORD.”
So we can argue with Him, but many of us don’t want to. Maybe we think that’s too disrespectful or that God doesn’t learn from us or respond to us that way though the Bible is full of prayer of argument and debate and negotiation. But if God really loves us and would have us, why does he want us to argue with him? I don’t know! Maybe because a prolonged argument requires a prolonged relationship and relationship to God, even if its contentious, is way better to God than no argument or relationship at all.
And then finally, the fourth conditional kind of prayer is keeping company with God prayer. Where the conversation is not limited to lists or request, is not always hostile or heated, but includes a variety of give and take through various ways God reveals Himself to us and actually does talk back to us. We’re going to talk more about this next week so come back for that. But this keeping company with God kind of prayer is also conditional upon our willingness to listen and hear back from him expecting him not to be silent. It assumes he didn’t stop communicating with us after the New Testament was written. So CS Lewis is right. All our prayers are heard. But some of them aren’t answered the way we want because they’re conditional. Upon God's will. Guidance and a host of other heavenly factors we wouldn't understand if He explained them to us.
But what about people who come to us and quote Isaiah 59:2 saying “your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that He will not hear”? Well, that’s about the conditional prayer of special requests for special blessings. It’s not talking about the sinner seeking God. It’s not talking about if God hears our prayers of repentance or confession. It’s not talking about prayers of thanksgiving and praise or intercession. That’s the only way that verse makes sense to me.
But some people say, what about Psalm 66:18 (NKJV) which says “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear.” What does that mean? Well, I always start by asking people what “regards” mean? To some people, it means if we are still falling and failing from our perspective, even after we’ve come to Christ, then God won’t ever hear our special requests for special blessings. But think about it. That doesn’t make any sense either! Because the disciples had a relationship with Jesus. And they also had continuing faults and failures. They had things in their life they regarded and knew were wrong but they continued to regard and harbor and do them. The biggest of those things was pride. Right? But Jesus didn’t abandon them. He didn’t ask for another 12 disciples. Let’s start over. He continued walking with them. Eat with them. Working with them. Traveling with them. So whatever Psalm 66:18 means, it doesn’t mean that it is impossible for sinners to make special requests for special blessings. Acts 17:6 says the world was turned upside down by those same sinful disciples. So you can have a known and cherished sin in your life and still be heard by Jesus. The sinner seeking God is always heard. And that sinner can even make special requests for special blessings. And if said request is according to God will and guidance and a host of other Godly things we cannot even fathom, God grants those requests too!
I remember one summer in Maryland, my brother Mark and I were eating lunch at the Columbia Union College cafeteria and we were pretty hungry so we weren’t talking a whole lot. We were bent over our plates shoveling our food into our mouths. Well, eventually I came up for air and when I did, I noticed Mark was turning blue. He was flapping his arms like a wounded duck and gasping for air. So I jumped up out of my chair and ran around to his side of the table and punched him in the stomach. And all of a sudden, a large Dorito flew out of his mouth and landed on the table. He had been choking on that nacho chip and couldn’t breathe. And when you can’t breathe, you have difficulty communicating. Unless something miraculous occurs. Same thing with prayer and our relationships with Jesus. And that’s why prayer is about keeping company [point number one] with God [point number two] who is already present [point number three].
Psalm 139:7-11 says it this way: 7 Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? 8If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. 9If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, 10 even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.”
God's presence is always with us
We may be surprised how often we need God. But God is never surprised. Because he’s been here the entire time. We can practice the presence of God because God’s presence is always with us! We become and stay Christian by praying, reading, and sharing [PRS]. And prayer is about keeping company [Matthew 26:36] with God [Isaiah 1:18] who is already present [Psalm 139:7-10].So keep the lists and requests. But let's add practicing the presence of God. Because that's what prayer is.