Although most people pray, prayer is one of the most misunderstood and misused gifts that God has given us. Because people do not understand why God has given us the priceless gift of intimate communication with Him, we misuse prayer in such a way that it can be detrimental rather than beneficial in our relationship with God. God is a God of purpose and everything He has ever created has been designed with His purpose in mind. Let me illustrate by talking about another gift God has given us that can destroy you if you don’t understand God’s purpose.
Sex is such a beautiful gift given by God as a wedding gift to a husband and wife. I tell couples all of the time, “There’s no gift your friends will give you, no toaster, no vacuum cleaner, fine china, or Egyptian cotton sheets, that can even begin to compare to the wedding gift God has for you.” Yet, because we do not learn from God’s Word about God’s design and purpose for sexual intimacy, we misunderstand and misuse God’s gift. And what are the results? I don’t even need to answer that question for you do I? All you have to do is open the paper, watch the evening news, or take a look in the mirror. Pornography, sex trafficking, sexual addiction, sexual abuse, sexual infidelity, child sexual abuse…the list goes on and on. We’ve taken something good, very good, and we’ve misused it so that today many people, when they hear the word “sex,” cringe.
There’s no doubt that most people pray. A 2014 Pew Research Center survey found that 55% of people pray every single day, 21% pray weekly or monthly, and 23% of people surveyed say they seldom or never pray. 64% of women pray every day while 46% of men say they pray every day. Those who are 65 or older are much more likely to pray than those who are 30 years of age or under. 65% of the older folks pray every day while only 41% of those 30 or younger pray every day. Statistics are convincing, but they only tell us “who,” they don’t tell us “why” or “how.”
If God has designed and created prayer for His people to share in intimate communication with Him then we need to understand “why” God has created prayer and “how” we are to pray. The only way to arrive at an understanding of “why” and “how” is to learn from God’s Word. Here’s where the problem arises. The American Bible Society, in a poll they conducted, found that 88% of those polled said they own a Bible, 80% believe the Bible is sacred, 61% said they wished they read the Bible more, and the average household owns 4.4 Bibles. You would think that since we hold the Bible in such high regard that the Bible would be the most read book in our society, we would be wrong. Of those who do read the Bible, 52% read it four times a year or less. Only 14% read the Bible daily. Do you see the disconnect? We say God’s Word is sacred, inspired by God, but we just don’t read it. Because of our unwillingness to read God’s Word daily, to make God’s Word the bedrock of our lives, we misunderstand and misuse the gifts God has given to us.
We could focus on how this has had a negative impact on so many aspects of daily life, but this morning I want us to spend our time focusing on prayer. As we’ve been working our way through the Gospel of John we’ve run into three different occasions when Jesus spoke to His disciples about prayer. All three of the occurrences took place while Jesus was in the Upper Room, on the night before He went to the Cross. Let’s take a look at John 16:23-27.
23 In that day you will no longer ask me anything. I tell you the truth, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. 24 Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete. 25 “Though I have been speaking figuratively, a time is coming when I will no longer use this kind of language but will tell you plainly about my Father. 26 In that day you will ask in my name. I am not saying that I will ask the Father on your behalf. 27 No, the Father himself loves you because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God. (John 16:23-27 NIVO)
Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name.” (John 16:23b NIVO) We immediately zoom in on the phrase, “whatever you ask in my name.” Did Jesus actually mean for His disciples to ask for anything? Was He giving them a blank check when it comes to prayer? Let’s work our way backwards through the Scriptures that talk about Jesus telling His disciples to pray. Turn with me to John 15:7-8.
7 If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. 8 This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. (John 15:7-8 NIVO)
We learn a little bit more about prayer from this verse don’t we? Jesus said, “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given to you.” Our prayers need to be fashioned by our time with Jesus. Our prayers need to be shaped by our time in the Word of God. There’s another important truth that Jesus shared with His disciples. He said, “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” Jesus’ words should be a constant reminder to us that our prayers are not simply a “wish list” of what we want, but they are a constant source of connection to our Father who has redeemed us, reconciled us to Himself, so that we might bear fruit for His glory. Now, let’s go back to the first of the prayer discussions Jesus had with His disciples on the Upper Room. Turn with me to John 14:12-14 and let’s read together.
12 I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. 13 And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. 14 You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it. (John 14:12-14 NIVO)
This is the original statement made by Jesus in the Upper Room. Remember, we’ve been working our way backwards. Jesus said, “And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” Did Jesus really mean, “anything?” I’ve known many people who have understood “anything” to mean any and everything. Connie recently talked to a man who is best described as a skeptic. Connie has been sharing with him for awhile now and she’s been patient and considerate with his questions. Then, one day, the dam broke and his anger came out like a flood. He’s been so angry at God and prayer has contributed to his anger. He said, “When my dad was sick I prayed for him and he died. When my brother was sick I prayed for him and he died. When my mother was sick I prayed for her and she died.” If you will remember, I said that when we don’t understand the “why” and the “how” of prayer we will misunderstand and misuse it. The results of this have proven to be catastrophic for Connie’s friend.
I want us to understand something about prayer that is vitally important for you and me. In two of the three Scripture we’ve read, Jesus told His disciples to ask “in my name.” Praying in Jesus’ name means several different things which we need to understand. First of all, when we pray “in Jesus’ name,” we are acknowledging that we come to God on no merit of our own. We are aware that we are sinners, unworthy of God’s attention, undeserving of entering into His presence. We, as followers of Jesus, come boldly before the throne of grace, but we have the freedom to cry out to God because of Jesus, who He is, His sinless life, and His reconciling work on our behalf which makes our communion with the Father possible. We have access to God not because we are good, not because we go to church, not because we help people and refuse to take advantage of others, but only because of Jesus.
In Alpha a few weeks ago we watched a video about prayer. There was an illustration that was shared in the video that I think will be very helpful to you and me in understanding what I’ve just been describing for you. Let’s take a look.
The soldier needed to talk to the President of the United States, but he could not gain access to the President to share with him what was on his heart. Eventually the soldier was given the opportunity to talk to President Lincoln, but it was only because of Tad, Abraham Lincoln’s son, made it possible. You and I, those of us who are followers of Jesus, have been given access to God solely because of Jesus.
In the Old Testament, the high priest was the mediator between the holy and righteous God and His flawed and sinful people. Once a year the High Priest was to enter the Holy of Holies and offer sacrifices to atone for the sins of the people. The high priest was just a man, he was a sinner just like the people he represented before God so he had to offer sacrifices for himself before he ever interceded for the people. The high priest was really a foreshadowing of an even greater High Priest who would serve as the Mediator between God and people–Jesus our High Priest.
There is a second truth that is vitally important for you and me to understand about this gift of prayer God has given to His people. Praying in Jesus’ name is praying according to His character. When we study Scripture we learn that names are important. God’s names teach us about His character and attributes. Hagar was all alone when God saw her and her son, and came to her rescue. We read in Genesis 16:13,
13 She gave this name to the LORD who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.” (Genesis 16:13 NIVO)
Hagar gave God a name, “El Roi,” the God who sees. Over and over again we read of various names of God that are shared with us so that we might come to know God more fully. Let me give you one more illustration of this. In Psalm 47:2, we read another name of God, “El Elyon.” Let’s read the verse and you will know what it means.
2 How awesome is the LORD Most High, the great King over all the earth! (Psalm 47:2 NIVO)
There are kings, queens, presidents, and rulers spread out over all of the earth, but there is only one “El Elyon,” one LORD Most High. So when Jesus tells His disciples to pray “in His name,” He isn’t telling them to simply tag His name onto the end of their prayers. Jesus is telling them, and us, to pray that which is consistent with His character and for that which will bring glory to God the Father.
There are some things that we could pray, but they are not aligned with the character of Jesus our Savior so there is no reason we should ever think we will get what we ask for. We need to always pray with God’s will in mind. John makes this clear for us in 1 John 5 when he writes,
11 And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life. 13 I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life. 14 This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. 15 And if we know that he hears us–whatever we ask–we know that we have what we asked of him. (1 John 5:11-15 NIVO)
If you are like me then immediately the thought runs through your mind, “There are so many areas of my life where I don’t know what God’s will is for me. I wish I knew God’s will. If I don’t know God’s will then how am I supposed to pray?” That is a great, great question! In 1 Thessalonians 5:17 we are told to “pray continually.” In Philippians 4:6 we are told “not to worry, but to pray.” Not knowing God’s will about the situations and decisions of our life is not a hindrance to prayer, but rather this is one of the reasons why we do pray. Let me show you the brilliance and provision of our merciful God. If you will turn with me to Romans 8:26-27. Let’s read together.
26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. 27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will. (Romans 8:26-27 NIVO)
God knew that you and I would run into situations each and every day which would baffle us, confuse us, and leave us not knowing which way to turn or what to do. Rather than telling us to figure it out, He has provided for us His Word, written to us, and His Holy Spirit, who resides in us, to guide us and intercede for us in each and every one of the situations we will ever face.
The problem that we have today is that many of us pray, but few of us read God’s Word. Because of this we end up praying what we want and hearing from a god who sounds a whole lot like our own voice. Tim Keller, in his book, Prayer, writes,
Without immersion in God’s words, our prayers may not be merely limited and shallow but also untethered from reality. We may be responding not to the real God but to what we wish God and life to be like. Indeed, if left to themselves our hearts will tend to create a God who doesn’t exist. (Keller, Tim. Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy With God.)
This is why so many people in our day are disappointed in God and have given up on prayer. We ask for whatever we may ask for, but when God doesn’t come through for us then we become angry or disappointed or turn our back and walk away from God. When will we recognize that much of our praying is focused on “us?” What we want, what we hope for in life, what we need to get out of the fix we find ourselves in at the moment. James wrote to the people of his day and said,
2 You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. 3 When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. (James 4:2-3 NIVO)
I have asked much of God from “wrong motives.” How about you? Jesus said I should I pray for that which will bring God glory, not me. Far too often I have been convinced that God “spoke” to me about something that later proved to be wrong. I’ve come to recognize that it was not God who was wrong, but instead I was wrong because I confused the desires of my heart for the desires of His.
One of my favorite men of God is George Whitefield. Pastor Whitefield was born in Gloucester, England in 1714. They say he preached more than 18,000 times and more than 10 million people heard his sermons in England and the American Colonies. God used Pastor Whitefield in a powerful way throughout his life. When Pastor Whitefield and his wife, Elizabeth, had their first son they named him John, and George was certain he had heard from God. He believed that John would be a great preacher who would travel the world proclaiming the Gospel. George baptized his son, just one week after his birth, before a packed congregation, and thousands were present. He told the congregation what the Lord had told him about the future of his son and everyone rejoiced. Then, four months later, the little baby died. George wrote,
Last night, February 8, 1744, I was called to sacrifice my Isaac–I mean to bury my own child and son, about four months old. Many things occurred to make me believe he was not only to be continued to me, but to be a preacher of the everlasting Gospel…about a week after his birth I publicly baptized him in the Tabernacle, and in the company of thousands solemnly gave him up to that God who gave him to me. A hymn too, fondly composed by an aged widow as suitable to the occasion, was sung, and all went away big with hopes of the child’s being hereafter to be employed in the work of God. (Gladstone, James Patterson. The Life and Travels of George Whitefield.)
On the morning of his son’s funeral George Whitefield went out to preach before the funeral. Following his sermon he heard the church bells toll announcing the beginning of his son’s funeral. Whitefield wrote when he heard the bells he was shaken, but he looked up and regained his strength and quoted to himself the verse he had preached on that morning, “All things work together for good for those who love God.” Whitefield said the Scripture “made me as willing to go out to my son’s funeral as to hear of his birth.”
George and his wife Elizabeth were grief-stricken at the loss of their baby boy, John, but George was also wrestling with something else. He was convicted about how mistaken he had been to say what God’s future was for his son. George had equated his own desires with God’s will. George had confused his great hopes for his son to be a minister of the Gospel as God speaking to his heart. Not long afterward, he wrote a wrenching prayer for himself, that God would “render this mistaken parent more cautious, more sober-minded, more experienced in Satan’s devices, and consequently more useful in his future labors to the church of God.”
What was it that saved George’s faith? What was it that prevented George from becoming furious at God and turning away like so many others have done throughout history? The answer, George was rooted and grounded in the bedrock of God’s Word. George was able to recognize that God is Sovereign over all of life and what he thought he had heard was really what he had hoped for his own son. Tim Keller writes,
The lesson here is not that God never guides our thoughts or prompts us to choose wise courses of action, but that we cannot be sure he is speaking to us unless we read it in the Scripture. (Keller, Tim. Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy With God.)
Prayer is such a priceless, precious gift given to all of you who are followers of Jesus. Go to God in prayer. Carry your burdens to His throne of grace and mercy. Bring your questions, all of your questions, to the One who gives wisdom to all who come to Him. When you are weak and weary cry out to the One who is your Strength and Redeemer. When you feel trapped in the darkest of nights cry out to the One who is the Light of the world. When you don’t know which way to turn speak to the One who is the Way. Pray at all times with God’s Word before you.
If you are here this morning and you’ve never committed your life to following Jesus then I want to invite you to do so this very morning. Call upon His name and He will gather you in His Everlasting Arms.
Britton Christian Church
OKC, OK. 73114