Not all prayer is asking for something, but a great deal of it obviously is. When we do ask, do we pray mainly for our own physical and spiritual needs and concerns? It is certainly acceptable to pray for these things – we have Christ’s encouragement to do so – but that is only part of the picture we find in the words of Jesus and in the New Testament as a whole.
The New Testament actually gives us an insight into an important aspect of prayer that we might easily miss. See what that 80% principle is in our latest article, here.
YOUR CALL: USING THE DIRECT PRIVATE LINE OF PRAYER
By R. Herbert, Tactical Belief Books, 2017 ISBN 978-1-64007-969-4 Our latest e-Book is for new Christians and established believers alike. It takes a fresh look at what the Bible really says about prayer – about how we should pray and what we should pray. Some of the answers might surprise you, but this is a book that may transform your prayer life. It will certainly enable you to enhance your prayer starting immediately – by showing you how to more fully and effectively use the direct line that you have been given.
Like all our e-Books, Your Call is completely free and available in several versions to read on any computer or e-Book reader and many smart phones. You don't need to register or give an email address – just click on the version you want and download!
When we think of prayer, many of our ideas may be more cultural than biblical. For example, different cultures hold their hands in different ways in prayer. But the examples of prayer we find in the Bible rarely speak of how the hands are held –and when they do it is usually to say that the praying person's hands were outstretched to the heavens rather than in the manner with which most of us are familiar. How we extend our hearts in prayer is clearly more important than how we hold our hands.
In the same way, when we think of prayer we may think of closing our eyes, but this is not necessary or biblical. We can certainly pray with our eyes closed just as well as with them open, but the reverse is also just as true. In some parts of the world, where Christianity is outlawed and punishable by severe penalties, believers routinely pray with their eyes open to avoid unnecessary arrest and punishment.
In fact, praying with open eyes was probably the norm in biblical times. On two occasions when Jesus prayed to the Father, we are told that he looked up to heaven. In the first instance he was giving thanks: “Then Jesus looked up and said, ‘Father, I thank you that you have heard me’” (John 11:41), and in the second he was making a request: “After Jesus said this, he looked toward heaven and prayed: “Father … Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you” (John 17:1). Interestingly, the only other time a praying person’s eyes are mentioned in the New Testament is in the story of the repentant tax collector who was so distraught that when he prayed “… He would not even look up to heaven” (Luke 18:13), indicating that looking up to heaven would have been the normal way to pray.
There is a great deal of corroborating evidence to show that prayer in the Bible and in the early Church usually involved praying with open eyes, but acceptable prayer has nothing to do with whether our eyes are open or closed – any more than how we hold our hands. Sometimes we may wish to close our eyes in order to not be distracted by things happening around us, but often we may prefer to keep our eyes open to see that for which we are giving thanks or to feel a closer connection with the One who is "near to all who call on him" (Psalm 145:18).
“Then Jesus said to them, “Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.’ And suppose the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need” (Luke 11:5-8).
The parable of the Friend in Need (or the Friend at Midnight) appears in the Gospel of Luke immediately after Jesus gives his disciples the “Lord's Prayer” and is clearly a continuation of his teaching on how to pray. Three cultural aspects help explain the details of the parable. First, in the ancient Near East, ovens were fired and bread was usually baked in the early morning hours before the heat of the day – so by nightfall there might well be no bread left in a home, and people would borrow from their neighbors if more was needed.
Second, and also because of the heat of the days, it was not unusual for people to wait till evening to set out on a journey and to arrive at their destination later in the night. Finally, Near Eastern custom was such that if someone arrived at one’s home after a long journey, it would be regarded as shameful not to offer the person food. This seems to be the situation in which the man in the parable finds himself, so he goes to his friend’s house late at night to request food for his guest.
The obvious lesson in the parable is that of persistence in prayer, something Jesus taught on multiple occasions, and in other parables such as that of the Persistent Widow. But perhaps we may find other lessons in this particular parable as well. For one thing, we see in the action of the friend that he was doing everything he could do himself – going to a friend’s house, even late at night, and asking tirelessly until he received a positive answer.
The Greek word which is translated “boldness” or “persistence” in some translations, regarding how the man continues to ask his friend’s help, is well translated as “shameless audacity” in the NIV – it really does convey an attitude that goes beyond simple persistence to a level which might even seem audacious or rude. This, Jesus tells us, is the kind of persistence we should have in prayer — a confident boldness we also see in the story of the woman of Syrophoenicia who persisted in asking Jesus’ help till he rewarded her for exactly this attitude (Mark 7:25-30, Matthew 15:21-28 and see also Hebrews 4:16).
But we should also remember a final detail of this parable: that it is not based on the friend needing bread for himself, but for someone else. So an additional lesson we can draw from this story is that we can often be the answer to someone else’s need. That is what intercessory prayer is all about, and this small parable reminds us to pray for others not only tirelessly, but also with true boldness.
Paul frequently urges prayer in his writings (Ephesians 6:18, Philippians 4:6, etc.), but in his instruction to Timothy he gives the most complete guidance in this regard.
“I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:1-5).
The apostle begins his instruction with the words “I urge, then, first of all…” and if we are studying Paul’s writings carefully we see that he does not follow with a “second” or “third” exhortation – the “first” is not the first of many, but something he feels is first in importance. Paul tells us it is of primary importance that we are active in four forms or “dimensions” of prayer: “petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving.” Although there is some overlap, each of these four aspects of our conversations with God carries a different nuance of meaning.
The word “petitions” (Greek deésis) indicates prayer for a particular need – simply asking for something. Although prayer should never be just a list of requests, God’s word shows he does want us to look to him for our needs, of course (Matthew 6:11, 1 Peter 5:7, etc.), and when we do ask for something it should be in the firm confidence that this word implies.
“Prayers” (proseuche) is a more general word for prayer, but it often carries the idea of worship and praise. The same word is found in Matthew 21:13 where Jesus said of the Temple, “My house will be called a house of prayer.”
“Intercessions” (enteuxis) represents what may often be an urgent request on the behalf of others. But this intercession with God can be either for or against someone or something. We see this in Romans 8:26, 34 “… the Spirit himself intercedes for us … Christ Jesus … is also interceding for us” and in Romans 11:2 “Elijah … appealed to God against Israel.” The word can mean to intervene or to interfere in a situation, and the central idea is one of strong pleading for justice, mercy, or some other aspect of God’s intervention.
“Thanksgiving” (eucharistia) conveys expressions of gratitude which are a vital dimension of fully effective prayer (1 Thessalonians 5:18). It is also important to understand that our expressions of thankfulness should be for the good things that have been given not only to us personally, but also to others – as Paul stresses in telling us that all these forms of prayer are to be made “for all people.”
Paul then specifically mentions prayer for “kings and all those in authority” (vs. 2a) so that believers “may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (vs. 2b). But there is probably another reason Paul mentions kings in regard to prayer.
Although the Romans permitted the peoples of their empire to worship their own gods, they insisted that conquered peoples demonstrate their loyalty to Rome by also praying to the goddess Roma and the spirit of the emperor. Because the Jews worshiped only one God, the Romans allowed them to pray and sacrifice for the emperor rather than praying and sacrificing to him. When we remember this situation, Paul’s exhortation to pray for kings so that we “may live peaceful and quiet lives” takes on clearer significance and reminds us that we too should pray regarding the political and legal aspects of life that affect this world and God’s people in particular.
Finally, in these verses, Paul makes the point that our prayers should be offered through (or in the name of) the “one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus.” The pagan peoples of the ancient world believed in many intermediaries between humans and the gods, but Paul stresses the fallacy of this idea in presenting his guidelines for full and acceptable prayer. In saying these things, Paul stresses the importance of both our right approach to God as well what we say in our prayers. And we should remember that the four aspects of prayer he enumerates show our prayers should never be “one dimensional” – they should often include all these forms of address for full communication with God.
Something to think about: “Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering” (Hebrews 13:3 NIV).
This single verse packs a lot into a short space – the many people we should remember, the extent of our identification with them, and the extent of our responsibility toward them.
It is easy to think of this scripture as applying only to those held in physical chains in prisons or dungeons, but it refers literally to all who are “bound” and this includes prisoners who are so bound, as well as all who are held against their will in slavery and forced labor or simply detained, held in custody or imprisoned for their faith. In fact, the meaning extends to all who are mistreated, though again, the focus is on those suffering for their beliefs rather than those being punished for wrongdoing.
Our identification with these people is to be complete. The Greek is literally “Be reminded of the bound ones as being bound together [with them]” and encourages us to think about the actual circumstances of those for whom we pray – the conditions they suffer, the effects on their health, welfare, and families, as well as the depression and loss of hope such situations can produce.
The extent of our responsibility to these people is also stressed in various ways. The meaning is that we are to continue to remember them, rather than only occasionally, and remembering means not just “thinking about” but primarily praying for and also, by extension, doing acts of kindness to help those who are bound in some way. This verse asks questions of all of us: How few or how many of those who are “bound” are we remembering, how deeply are we thinking about them, and what are we doing in our own lives to ease the suffering of those in “chains”?
The Old Testament character Jabez is perhaps someone you have never heard of, but he was possibly well-known in his day. Jabez is introduced in 1 Chronicles 4 without any background at all – as though he was an individual with whom the readers of the book would be familiar. But the story of Jabez is an interesting one:
“Jabez was more honorable than his brothers. His mother had named him Jabez, saying, “I gave birth to him in pain.” Jabez cried out to the God of Israel, “Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.” And God granted his request” (1 Chronicles 4:10).
The story gives the origin of Jabez’s name and the Hebrew seems to clearly mean “he causes pain.” But there are two possible ways to translate the final part of Jabez’s request to God. The New International version and English Standard Version, for example, translate it like this:
“ … keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.” NIV “ … keep me from harm so that it might not bring me pain!” ESV
Apart from the fact that there seems to be little about this request to make it worthy of recording (the number of people who have prayed to be free from pain is doubtless a considerable one!), these translations ignore the fact that Jabez was given his name because his mother had suffered pain in his delivery and his name means “he causes pain” – not that he was somehow prone to pain.
What makes the Prayer of Jabez so unique is that it seems more likely that he was very conscious of the great pain he caused his mother in childbirth, and sincerely desirous not to cause pain to others. That leads us to the other possible meaning of the Hebrew in the last part of his prayer which is utilized by a number of other translations – as seen, for example, in the Holman Christian Standard Bible and the New King James Version:
“… keep me from harm, so that I will not cause any pain” (HCSB) “… keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain!” (NKJV)
These translations understand the prayer to be asking God not to keep Jabez safe from evil, but to help him not commit harm or evil; the translations opting for “that I may not cause pain” seem far more likely to be correct based on what little contextual information we are given. If Jabez prayed for God’s blessing on his life that he not cause pain to others, then the prayer was certainly a unusual and unselfish one. It is perhaps especially understandable that God granted his request, and that it was recorded. If we are correct in this reading of 1 Chronicles 4:10, it is an unusual prayer indeed. How often do we pray not to cause pain to others as opposed to praying to be delivered from pain ourselves? It is perhaps a prayer we can and all should pray – and one that, just as in the case of Jabez, God is very likely to answer.
“If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you” (James 1:5).
It’s a verse we all know and love. It seems to promise unbounded wisdom and that if we just ask for it, God will generously give it to us. But is that what this verse means?
Certainly, it is in God’s power to grant unbounded and universal wisdom to anyone he wishes, but does God really work that way? Put the question in human terms. If you walk into your local bank branch and tell the manager “I want a big loan, just give me money” – is the banker likely to help or will he or she ask “How much do you need and for what purpose?”
What we often miss in James’ words on asking for wisdom is their context. If we look carefully at the immediately preceding verses, we see James is writing about a very specific situation. He says: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-4).
James’ context is one of persecution. He tells believers that trials can bring about spiritual maturity in which we do not lack anything needed to deal with such problems (vs. 4). But if we do lack wisdom – implying wisdom in dealing with matters of persecution and patience – we can ask God and he will help us.
Take another example – that of the archetypal story of God granting wisdom to King Solomon. When God appeared to Solomon and offered him anything he wanted, Solomon did not simply ask for wisdom. Notice his request to God: “give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to govern this great people of yours?” (1 Kings 7:9). Because Solomon asked for wisdom in a specific context – to do the work of ruling Israel – God was well pleased and granted him great wisdom (1 Kings 7:12, 29-34) as well as other blessings.
But we should remember that Solomon asked for the wisdom he needed in a specific situation. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that in the compositions believed to be written by Solomon, he often ties wisdom to particular contexts. Notice the wording of just one example: “Whoever obeys his command will come to no harm, and the wise heart will know the proper time and procedure” (Ecclesiastes 8:5). Here, we see wisdom relating to “proper times” and “procedures,” and in many of the proverbs of Solomon, wisdom is tied to other specific needs and circumstances.
So when we consider the wider biblical context, the words of James regarding wisdom become clear. God rarely, if ever, gives unneeded gifts. If we desire wisdom, his word indicates we should not ask to be funnel fed wisdom without specific purpose. But we can humbly take our needs to God and ask for wisdom in the areas of life where we need it in order to best fulfill his will and our calling – and then, as James affirms, God will gladly give it to us.
The Martian, the recent award-winning film starring Matt Damon and based on Andy Weir's best-selling near-future sci-fi novel, has been called one of the best true to science sci-fi films in decades. If you haven’t seen the film, consider doing so (and realize this blog post may give some plot details away).
In the film, NASA astronaut/botanist Mark Watney (Damon) is left for dead when the crew of an exploratory Mars mission has to evacuate their insecure surface structures and lift off to escape a fierce storm. The crew reluctantly break orbit and begin the journey back to Earth while unknown to them Watney recovers and sets about the daunting task of surviving with limited food, water and oxygen.
The botanist’s efforts are successful in that he begins to raise a crop of potatoes in a controlled environment and in so doing he becomes the first person to colonize the Red Planet – the first Martian. When he is eventually able to make radio contact with Earth, the rest of the crew decide against all odds to "turn their ship around" and return to Mars for Watney.
Christian commentators have been quick to point out the similarity of the story with the Parable of the Lost Sheep, and it is not an unfair comparison as religion does appear in the book on which the film is based even though Hollywood has obviously scrubbed most of the religious references. Director Ridley Scott is known as an atheist who applies his beliefs to his films, but one surprising reference to Christianity does survive (like Watney on Mars) in the film and I’d like to look at that here.
The reviews I have read of this film agree that Watney does not ever pray in the film (although his character does pray in the book), but I disagree. At one point in the film, in order to survive, Watney has to somehow produce water for the crop he attempts to raise. He has hydrogen and oxygen available and knows he can produce water if he can initiate the necessary chemical process through the use of fire. Unfortunately, all the materials available to him are NASA flame-proofed, but Watney eventually finds a source of help. Finding a crucifix left in the emergency evacuation by one of his crewmates, Watney carefully shaves off some pieces from the base of the wooden cross and uses them to initiate the combustion which produces the water he needs for life.
It is at this point that Watney prays. It is not a formal prayer and is one that we might easily miss, but after he takes the wood from the crucifix to enable him to survive, Watney looks at the Christ figure and says “I figure you’re OK with this, considering my circumstances …. I’m countin’ on ya.” Perhaps the producers left this in the movie because they thought it might seem tongue-in-cheek, but they did well. It is a prayer and it contains all the basic attributes of a successful prayer for help. First, it acknowledges God by the very act of addressing him. Next it expresses a heartfelt need – in this case, of survival itself (“considering my circumstances”) – and finally, it expresses trust in God (“I’m countin’ on ya”).
Watney’s simple prayer is ultimately answered, and the movie has a good resolution. It’s a very worthwhile film (despite some occasional unnecessary language) and one that you can ponder. The film is done as a study in human ingenuity as the astronaut takes on the seemingly-impossible task of returning from certain death. But the film also, unwittingly or not, makes the point that those who find themselves (in this case) millions of miles from home and without any obvious chance of survival somehow do find it natural and even easy to pray. Beyond that, the film is a perfect “water of life” metaphor. It is the Christ figure that provides the water of life (John 4:14) which ultimately makes Watney’s survival possible.
Excerpted from "A Prayer to Avoid" by Richard Woike.
"O thou pleasant, comfortable, kindly, good-natured God: How glad I am that I can look forward, with a reasonable degree of certainty, to another ordinary day. Keep me today from anything that taxes my faith, from discomfort, from unnecessary strain, from unusual problems ...
Dear Lord, grant that nothing may occur which will disturb my satisfaction with the way I am, and the things I say, and the thoughts I think, the acts I do, or the many deeds I leave undone. Give me this day, in addition to my daily bread, the butter, meats, and sweetmeats that are my necessary diet, and let me not be troubled by qualms of conscience concerning the amount of time and money I spend on food and clothing, pastimes, good and bad, and those pursuits which, while not of spiritual value, are the accepted hallmark of the normal citizen in this enlightened age … "
"Pioneer: Noun, singular. One who is among the first to go somewhere or to do something."
There is a mystique about pioneers. They often seem larger than life, braver, stronger, more dedicated than the rest of us as they bravely go where no one has gone before. When I was a kid I thought it would be neat to be a pioneer – one of the first people to explore unknown continents, open the US West, go to the Moon, or whatever. Now I’m older, I realize it was not as easy as I thought for the ones who were the first to do these things.
Whether being among the first to open up new continents or making some other kind of new path in any age, being a pioneer has an extra share of difficulties most of us don’t have to face. Certainly the first Christians found this. They were pioneers who had to map out and go through a whole new way of life that often met discouraging obstacles and dangerous opposition. Just think about Stephen (Acts 7:59) or Paul (2 Corinthians 11:25) or what many of the early disciples went through (Acts 8:1).
So who are the spiritual pioneers today? Who are the Christians who face the particular difficulties inherent in walking the path alone – in being the first to do something with much more limited support and encouragement from others? Those people do exist in our faith – and their numbers are growing. They are the pioneers – the first in their families or villages to convert to Christianity from other faiths – groups that are often hostile to Christianity itself.
When individuals come to the knowledge of the truth in many parts of the world, they cannot help but stand out; and in those areas they may be regarded as apostates from their background faith – worthy of harassment, punishment, and even death. It is not a hypothetical situation, it is an ongoing reality that sees Christians afflicted and even killed in areas not officially classified as areas of persecution. Often these individuals are rejected by their own families and friends and have no local support to which they can turn.
There are other pioneers also worthy of our concern today. Consider the pioneers in various areas of humanitarian effort – the William Wilberforce’s of today, those fighting human trafficking, substance enslavement, and every other evil in this world – all who are struggling against steep odds and difficult conditions to suppress evil and to help people where help is needed.
Wherever they are, pioneers don’t have it easy. We may sometimes think we do not either, but they have it worse. The pioneers often encounter so many more obstacles, so much more opposition. They face more dangers, endure more discouragement, loneliness and for many, fear. It’s harder for pioneers than for most of us except in one area. It’s easier for them to give up. We need to pray for the pioneers.
The New Testament records that one day a disciple asked Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray.” Jesus replied: “When you pray, say …” and then he proceeded to give what is called “The Lord’s Prayer” (Matthew 6:9–13, and Luke 11:2–4).
We see that this prayer was probably intended as a model, which could be used as an outline and expanded in our own words, by the fact that the wording is different in the two gospels in which it occurs – so reciting its exact words is clearly not as important as following its points.
Today we have uploaded a guide showing how the points included in the Lord’s Prayer can be expanded in our own words for regular formal prayer which effectively covers all aspects of our relationship with God. This “how-to” article is “Using the Lord's Prayer as a Guide” on our Tactical Living page. If you would like to see how you can use the Lord's Prayer for fuller and more meaningful prayer, you can read it here.
Have you ever noticed that the “Lord’s Prayer” – the model prayer outline given by Jesus to his disciples (Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4) – does not contain any word of thanks? This might seem strange, but context probably explains it. The disciples knew that it was certainly Jesus’ custom to give thanks. We see examples of this not only in his giving thanks for food (Luke 22:19), but also in the thanks included in his other prayers (for example, Luke 10:1).
When we look at the outline prayer Jesus gave, we see (especially in Luke’s narrative)that the context was one of things for which we should ask (Luke 11:9-13). We can presume that knowing Jesus’ own example, the disciples would understand that rather than a separate point of thanks in prayer, every request would be made with thanks – both for help already given in that area and in faithful expectation of God’s continued help.
As the apostle Paul wrote, we should: “… not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6, emphasis added). Our attitude of prayer should clearly be one of: “Giving thanks always for all things to God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Ephesians 5:20). Such an attitude of thankfulness follows the example of Jesus himself and explains why the “Lord’s Prayer” has no separate point of thanksgiving. Want to learn more about how and what we should pray? If you haven't already read them, take a look at our articles on the following subjects: Before You Ask Another Look at the Lord's Prayer When Prayer Is Unanswered Do We Pray "Without Ceasing"?
In 1952, the Congress of the United States of America established a National Day of Prayer as an annual event by a joint resolution. This resolution was signed into law by President Harry Truman, who called for the nation to take time “to turn to God in prayer and meditation.” Every president over the last 62 years, regardless of political or religious affiliation, has proclaimed a National Day of Prayer which is now set by law to be observed on the first Thursday of May each year.
The roots of this day of prayer may be said to go back to 1775 when, on the very eve of the US War of Independence, the First Continental Congress called for a day of prayer. Today such public devotion may seem foreign to many, but the principle of approaching God in a spirit of national rededication is itself an echo of such days in biblical times. The National Day of Prayer is a great opportunity for us to give thanks and to remember the spiritual problems and needs of our nation.
“At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. One day at about three in the afternoon he had a vision. He distinctly saw an angel of God, who came to him and said … “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God” ( Acts 10:1-4).
Two aspects of Cornelius’ faithful walk before God are shown in these verses – twice over: his generous gifts to the poor and his prayer. Now I can’t prove it, but given the fact of Cornelius’ evident concern for those with needs, the final verse in this section of scripture makes me think he was praying for the poor as well as giving to the poor. If that’s the case, I’m sure that the poor were not all Cornelius prayed about, but in any case, the story of this centurion reminds us that prayer and giving are both important in helping others and in learning the spirit of true giving ourselves. Just as we can give without concerned prayer, we can pray without actual giving, and in either case our concern is limited as well as our effectiveness.
This is a point the apostle James makes so clearly in his Epistle: “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? (James 2:15). It’s a vital combination: we should not speak without doing. James doesn’t suggest that our words of comfort are not important, just that they should not be alone. This applies as much in terms of our words spoken in prayers, of course, as it does in our direct relations with others.
The Book of Acts shows us that Cornelius understood the importance of both speaking and doing. He reminds us of that other centurion who told Jesus “… just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it” (Matthew 8:8-9). Both centurions understood the relationship between speaking and doing, both understood that speaking of itself is not enough. But while the one story stresses what God does as a result of our requests, the other story stresses what we should do as a result of our requests. Words and deeds are always interrelated, in prayer as in other areas of Christian life, and the more we remember that, the more we can accomplish.
You know how a compass works. The floating needle or direction arrow points toward the earth’s magnetic pole. You also know what happens if the compass comes close to a local magnetic source – the direction arrow gets pulled away from its proper orientation and will not work properly until it is freed from the nearby influence.
Each of us lives with a spiritual moral “compass” we have developed which, if guided by God, points us in His direction, but sooner or later – and usually sooner – our spiritual compass gets pulled away from true by the physical influences that surround us. At that point we must reset the compass by freeing ourselves from the negative physical influences or, knowingly or not, we are headed in the wrong direction.
That “reset” would seem to be the exact purpose of the beginning of the model prayer outline that we call “The Lord’s Prayer.” Jesus taught that before making our requests to God we should begin by praying “Our Father which are in heaven, hallowed be your name “ (Matthew 6:9). These simple words, if expanded and prayed with sincere thought, reset our spiritual compasses and get us pointing in the right direction again. It is as we pray thoughtfully, concentrating on what God is, His nature, and His relationship with us that that we align and prepare ourselves for the requests we are about to make.
It’s all too easy to forget or skimp on this aspect of prayer, especially when our minds are crowded by our own needs and the needs of others, but it is to the degree that we do first align ourselves that we are better able to see things from the perspective God wants us to have. Without this realignment we eventually find ourselves asking for the wrong things in the wrong ways for the wrong reasons.
So, consider the importance of the opening thoughts of the Lord’s Prayer before asking for specific requests. Jesus' words help us in showing that alignment should always precede asking, and resetting should always precede requesting.
I was never in business, so the ways of the business world are often news to me. Take, for example, when I found out that some businesses have a direct private line to the CEO that is made available to the most important clients. Not to the rest of us, of course. We have to go through the recording with a raft of choices only to hear “There are twelve people ahead of you” then perhaps eventually be transferred a couple of times and perhaps put on hold for several minutes before we finally get an answering machine. All this to call companies with only a few thousand callers. Can you imagine what it would be like if we had to reach our Heavenly Father by phone? “There are four million three hundred and twenty five thousand seven hundred and fifty six callers ahead of you.”
The truth is we all have a direct private line that is always there. It’s humbling to think that we are each, individually, important enough to Him to have a direct line to the CEO of the universe. We don’t have to wait on hold in order to get through eventually – the line we are given is direct and instant. At any time. There isn’t even a weekend plan where we have to wait to call because we are low on minutes. It’s really a wonderful thing that we so often take for granted. No downed or bad lines, no poor satellite signal, no answering machine or dropped calls – ever. We can actually reach our heavenly CEO faster than we can get through to our doctor’s office or the manager of the local grocery store. Have you ever given thanks for that?
The fact that we have direct access to our Heavenly Father is truly a great gift – and it is sad that many do not understand that the access is there, but believe they can only call on God through various intercessors. Jesus’ words are clear on this, however, that although we ask in His name (John 16:23) and are only able to approach through His sacrifice (John 14:6), we do not need any intercessor, but may pray directly to the Father (John 16:26, Mat 6:9).
Another thing to remember is that our calls are always answered. Although we talk about answered prayer and unanswered prayer, I find it helps to remember that prayer is like a phone call that’s always answered. God is always there and the “phone” is always on. He may not give us what we ask for, or as quickly as we ask for it, for our own good, but we should remember the sincerely made call is always answered (Psalms 86:7, Jeremiah 33:3). Something else for which we should be constantly thankful.
There’s only one catch to the direct private line package, and it’s a relatively small one. We have to use it or we lose it. It’s not like that legendary “hot line” between the leaders of the US and the old Soviet Union – there to be used if circumstances become desperate enough that it is needed. Remember Paul shows we should pray in all things. But it’s not hard to do. In fact, we don’t even need a reason to call, God is always desirous to hear from us and happy to take our call. So if you haven’t done that recently, why not make the call and give thanks for your direct private line!
“Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest’ “ (Matthew 9:37-38).
Although these verses are usually interpreted to mean that we should pray for more people to come to the knowledge of the truth who could join the work, it seems to me that they may just as well mean that we should pray that laborers who are available, but not in the field, should get involved in the harvest. If that is the case, then we should all be praying for help to see what we can be doing, not just for others to come along who will do the work.
In any event, it is clear that we are told to pray earnestly (the Greek word is a form of deomai signifying “beseeching” or even "begging"). We can hardly pray in this manner without personal involvement in the need for which we pray. How? We can pray earnestly for more workers to be called, or to become involved, for their needs, and for the success of their work. What else can we do? Certainly we can help financially, as we are able, to support good work where it is being done [Note: TacticalChristianity.org does not accept donations or gifts], but prayer always must be the first priority. That’s what Jesus stressed. On the other hand, other scriptures do show the necessity of helping those workers who “go out” into the harvest. Notice the words of John in this regard:
“Beloved, it is a faithful thing you do in all your efforts for these brothers, strangers as they are … You will do well to send them on their journey in a manner worthy of God. For they have gone out for the sake of the name … Therefore we ought to support people like these, that we may be fellow workers for the truth” (3 John 1:5-8 ESV).
So, even if it is not our calling to personally go out into the “harvest field,” there is much that we can do to support those who do go and to be “fellow workers.” The “advertisement” for help needed has already been published. It is up to us to respond today!
Asking and giving may seem like polar opposites to us, but when it comes to asking something from God, or even giving something to Him, these actions have something in common in that they involve our relationship with our neighbor. Two verses in the New Testament show this fact. It’s easy to see one of them and then to think the other is just a parallel account, or a slight variation, but the two verses make two distinct statements:
“And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins” (Mark 11:25).
“… if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).
Notice that these situations are not the same at all. Mark 11 speaks of occasions when we are asking something from God – specifically forgiveness in this case – and shows us that we cannot receive this from God (and perhaps anything) if we ourselves are not willing to give forgiveness. In Matthew 5, the occasion is one in which we wish to give something to God, but He makes it clear that He will not accept the gift (perhaps any gift) if we know others have something against us and we are not willing to accomplish reconciliation.
Taken together these verses show how important right relationships with our neighbor are for a right relationship with God. In both these cases, God does not want to accept something - a request or a gift - from someone who is estranged from another, who is holding back something from another – whether we are holding back forgiveness or reconciliation. In the case of our forgiving others, nothing must stop us doing this, though God understands that in situations where others have something against us we can only do our best to reconcile with them. Sometimes, others are not going to hear our attempts at reconciliation and there is nothing we can do about that, other than to pray for them.
Normally, however, in our relationship with God, whether we are asking or giving, if we hold back from our neighbor, God holds back from us. On the other hand, if we are giving forgiveness and attempting reconciliation where it is possible, God does not hold back from us in accepting that which we are asking or giving.
This week's new (for this site) article, on the Tactical Living page, is by an old friend, Philip Shields. “Do We ‘Pray Without Ceasing’?” is condensed from the June 15, 2013, blog posting on his website at lightontherock.org. As for the title, when the apostle Paul spoke of praying “without ceasing” and “praying always”, he was talking about the elderly and sick and those with plenty of time on their hands, right? Surely he wasn’t talking about those who have to commute to work, mothers with young children, active duty service people, and all the rest of us? Philip’s article looks at what Paul meant by “praying always” and how that can apply to all of us.