Good morning! It’s good to be back with you in Apple Valley and to be back teaching Sunday school. It’s been awhile since we finished our series in John, and I am really looking forward to this new series. As you can see, we’re going to be studying prayer.
I’d like to start out by giving you some background on this series. In December, a friend of mine visited, and while he was here, he told some awesome stories about how God had answered specific prayers in his life. I was excited for him, but his stories also got me thinking, “When was the last time God answered a prayer like that in my life?” I couldn’t remember. Now God has answered many of my prayers in the past, and I’m sure He had even answered some of my prayers of mine in the recent past, and yet I realized that my prayer life had grown somewhat dry. So, I tentatively made it one of my new year’s resolutions to learn to pray, and I began to ask God to help me grow in that area. A couple of months later, I purchased a book on prayer that had been recommended to me, and it had a big impact on my life. So, when it came time for me to decide what to teach on next in Sunday school, prayer was at the top of my list.
By God’s grace, I think that my prayer life has improved this spring. Also, I’ve continued to read on this topic. I’m almost done with my third book on prayer, and I hope to read a few more this summer. So, I am really looking forward to this study and to sharing some of the things that God has taught me. One of the things I’ve learned about prayer is that it intersects with just about every aspect of the Christian life. Tim Keller says that “Prayer is… the key to everything we need to do and be in life.” The praying life is the opposite of the sinful life. To learn to pray is to learn to live. The most significant lessons that I learned from those books on prayer were actually not about prayer, at least strictly speaking. They were about humility, faith, and love. But what I’m learning and what I hope to show you is that things like humility, faith, and love actually have everything to do with prayer; you can’t pray the right way without them.
Goals & Warnings
So that’s why I’m excited, but this topic also scares me because it is so vast. When I talked to Pastor Kit about my ideas for the next Sunday school series, I told him that prayer was the topic that scared me the most. There are about 650 prayers in the Bible, and many of those prayers take up multiple verses, not to mention all of the passages about prayer that are not themselves prayers—that’s a lot of verses! How am I supposed to study and synthesize all of that data? People have done it; I have a massive book in my Logos library in which the author exposits every passage on prayer in the Bible. But obviously I can’t do that, so one of my great fears in this study is that I will say something that doesn’t accurately represent all of the biblical data. But I pray that by God’s grace, I will be able to present you with information that is thorough (if not exhaustive) and consistent with all of Scripture.
As far as structure goes, I’m not completely sure how long this study will take. My goal is for it to be a short study. I would love to finish by the time that the Ironwood summer staff leave, but I’m not sure that that will be possible. I plan to spend today and possibly one more week on introductory concepts, then dive into the three major aspects of prayer: adoration, confession, and petition. I’d also like to spend a week or two studying the Lord’s prayer and a week talking about some practical how-to’s. After that, we’ll see if there are any other topics that we need to wrap-up.
As far as a focus, my goal is to be inspiring and practical, but not necessarily deeply theological. Now there are some theological questions regarding prayer that we will discuss, but I don’t want those to become the focus. If you only gain information through this study but don’t actually learn to pray better, then I have failed as a teacher. Like I said a minute ago, one of the ways I want to help you pray better is by giving you some tips and tools to help you along. However, most importantly, I want this study to be biblical. I make no bones about the fact that I’m basing this study largely on the books I’ve read; however, I want to make sure that each week, we get into the Word of God and talk about what it means, and that we always test the ideas we read in books against God’s authoritative Word. Because ultimately, we don’t care what people say about how to talk to God; we want to know what God says about how we should talk to Him.
In fact, if we don’t stay focused on the Word of God, books about prayer can actually get us into trouble. And I want to park here for a minute, because I don’t know what books on prayer you’ve been exposed to, and I want to encourage you to be discerning. There are millions if not billions of unsaved people in the world who pray. Some of them have written books about prayer, and they’ll try to tell you how to pray. But obviously, as Bible-believing Christians, we don’t really care what they think. I hope that doesn’t sound rude, but it’s true. Why would we as children of God who possess His Word in our hands go to someone who doesn’t even believe the Bible to teach us how to pray? That obviously doesn’t even make any sense.
But there are also professing Christians who write books about prayer and teach on the topic, but who base their content primarily on personal experience, rather than on the Word of God. That is very dangerous! If you were involved in small groups this past week, you discussed Deuteronomy 4:2. It says, “You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you.” You see, the Bible is sufficient to meet our spiritual needs. God wrote us a book, and if you don’t think that what He said about prayer is sufficient, then you’ve got a problem! Stories about personal experiences of prayer are great insofar as they are used to illustrate the biblical text. But when an author tries to tell you how to pray without explaining what God says about prayer, he or she is in dangerous waters.
Two Views of Prayer
I’d like for us to begin our study by considering this question: “Why pray?” The simplest answer is “because God said so.” But beyond that, why do we pray? Here are some of the potential answers to that question that I came up with. Now, can we boil this down? I think we can. There are basically two reasons to pray: because we need God and because we love Him.
So which is the higher motivation?
I love to hike, and one of the mountains I’m itching to do is Mt. Baldy. Have any of you summited Baldy? I’ve heard that as you ascend Mt. Baldy, there’s a section of the trail called the Devil’s Backbone. From what I understand, it’s a narrow ridge with steep drop-offs that descend hundreds of feet on either side. It can be a dangerous hike if there is snow or ice on the ground. In fact, a hiker died just this past March from falling over the edge. Hiking Devil’s Backbone reminds me of how the care that we ought to take when approaching certain biblical topics, so that we don’t become imbalanced and “fall off the cliff,” so to speak. What does that have to do with what we’re talking about? Well, it’s very easy to become imbalanced when studying the topic of prayer.
In the introduction to his book on prayer, Tim Keller says that most people writing on prayer these days tend to emphasize one or the other of these two motivations.
Some people say that prayer is primarily about communion with God. Keller calls this view “communion-centered prayer.” A Christian who wants to emphasize “communion-centered prayer” may talk about how God is a person, so if we want to get to know Him, we’ve got to talk to him. To them, the primary purpose of prayer is to develop one’s relationship with God. They tend to picture prayer as a delightful conversation. They love to get up early in the morning and “get alone with God.” This view is represented by songs like, “Sweet Hour of Prayer.”
Other people say that prayer is primarily about advancing God’s kingdom. Keller calls this view “kingdom-centered prayer.” People who emphasize “kingdom-centered prayer” may talk about the Great Commission and praying for God’s will. They point to the way that Bible characters like Abraham, Moses, and Daniel interceded for God’s people. To them, the primary purpose of prayer is to get things done. They often picture prayer as a difficult struggle, as in the way that Jacob wrestled with God; and they tell us that we should not focus on feelings or expect a sense of God’s presence when we pray. In fact, sometimes they label the people in the first group as “mystics.”
So who’s right, the communion-centered people or the kingdom-centered people? Is it better to pray because we love God or because we need Him? Let’s go to the Bible to find out.
Turn first to Matthew 6:9-13. We aren’t going to spend a long time on this passage because I plan to come back to it at a later date. For now, I just want you to see how this prayer relates to the question at hand. Let’s read Matthew 6:9-13. Notice that almost every line in this prayer is a request. When the disciples ask Jesus how to pray, He gives them an example that appears to be rather task-oriented. This tells me that there’s nothing wrong with praying because we need God. “Communion-centered” prayer is not necessarily better than “kingdom-centered prayer.”
Turn with me to Psalm 63. Let’s read the entire Psalm. According to the heading, David wrote this psalm from the wilderness of Judah, and fittingly for that setting, he likens God to water in the desert. He tells God that he longs for Him and that he is determined to seek Him. He says that God’s lovingkindness is better than life, and commits to praising God. He says that his soul will be satisfied when he praises God in the tabernacle; but he also talks about times of personal communion with God. He says that he remembers God upon his bed and meditates on him in the night watches. What does David ask for in this Psalm? Nothing. It’s just a song about enjoying God. So, using Keller’s categories, we might say that this is a “communion-centered prayer.” Interesting.
Turn now to Psalm 10. (This might seem like a random Psalm for me to choose as an example, but it worked well for me because I’ve preached it before. So in case you were wondering why I chose it as an example, now you know.) Let’s read this psalm. If prayer is about mushy feelings, then this psalm does not qualify. After all, how does the psalmist start out? He says he feels as if God is standing afar off or hiding Himself during his time of trouble. He feels this way because God does not seem to be dealing with the ungodly nations around Israel. So, what does he do? He describes his understanding of the situation to God and then appeals for God to act based upon His character (vv. 12, 15). This psalm feels more like struggle than delight. The psalmist doesn’t come to God for a drink, he comes to God with a problem. He is almost incensed with what is going on in the world, and he pleads for God to intervene. This prayer fits into the category of “kingdom-centered prayer”—that is, prayer that pleads with God to advance His agenda in this world. (By the way, this prayer advances God’s agenda in two ways: God answers the prayer and judges the wicked, but He also uses the act of praying to cause the psalmist to trust in Him. We’ll come back to this idea in a later lesson, but one of the things prayer does is draw the pray-er back to reality. By the end of the psalm, the psalmist is resting in God and trusting Him.)
But I also want you to notice that although this prayer drives toward the petitions found in vv. 12, 15, it also includes a lot of indicative elements. You say, what does that mean? Before he ever gets to a request, the psalmist spends a lot of time telling God about what is going on the world and how he feels about those things. I would call that communion, even if it is somewhat frustrated communion. So what we begin to see here is that in many of the prayers in the Bible, the indicative and the imperative are inextricably intertwined. Many prayers include both “communion” and “kingdom” aspects; they are motivated by both dependence and love.
I think we have time for one more example. Turn in your Bibles to Psalm 27, and follow along as I read. Keller lists this as an example of “communion-centered prayer,” because David says things like, “One thing I have desired of the LORD, That will I seek: That I may dwell in the house of the LORD All the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, And to inquire in His tabernacle.” Also, in v. 8 he says, “When You said, ‘Seek my face,’ My heart said to You, ‘Your face, Lord, I will seek.’” However, notice vv. 11-12. So is this prayer about enjoying fellowship with God or about getting things done for God? It’s about both, as are most prayers in the Bible.
Which leads me to the big proposition I’ve been building up to: When it comes to the two motivations for prayer, neither one is better than the other. They are both equally important.
So if the biblical evidence doesn’t favor either motivation, why do many people tend to do so? I think a lot of it has to do with personality. How many of you are task-oriented? You probably tend to be drawn to the idea of “kingdom-centered prayer.” How many of you would consider yourself “people-oriented”? You are probably drawn to “communion-centered” prayer. whereas a more straightforward, logical person might be more interested in “kingdom-centered prayer.” But this is where the Bible comes into play. Ultimately, what matters most is not what I think or am drawn to. What matters most is what God says about prayer; and if we are honest with His Word, we should come out balanced.
Now let me ask you one more question: which motivation for prayer is more common? Is it more common for people to pray because they need God or because they love Him? This is purely opinion, but I think it is more common for people to pray because they feel that they need God. I think it rarer for people to pray because they love Him. I think that most of us understand the idea of petition. We don’t need someone to tell us that prayer is about asking God for things. But I don’t know that this idea of prayer as communion with God gets quite as much emphasis. In fact, one of the great dangers when it comes to prayer is only praying when we need or want something and neglecting to pray at other times.
However, I also want to acknowledge that “communion-centered” prayer can be taken to an unbiblical extreme. There is an old form of Catholic contemplative prayer that is back in vogue, and it’s dangerous.
A Lesson from Church History
I did a report for one of my church history classes in seminary about a man named Bernard of Clairvaux. Bernard was clearly mystical in an unbiblical sense. He placed a strong emphasis upon an ecstatic experience in which the believer loses his sense of contact with the physical world and God communes directly with his soul. He said when this happens, it looks like the person is sleeping, but it’s not actually sleep; his body is there, but God snatches away his soul for special communion that can’t be expressed in words. You can’t even really call it prayer, because it moves beyond prayer into a sort of wordless communion of souls. I hope that it goes without saying that that kind of teaching is a problem.
However, before we write off anything that even sounds remotely similar what Bernard describes, consider this quote from Jonathan Edwards. Edwards was not a mystic; in fact, he is arguably the greatest American theologian who has ever lived.
“Once, as I rode out into the woods for my health, in 1737, having alighted from my horse in a retired place, as my manner commonly has been, to walk for divine contemplation and prayer, I had a view, that for me was extraordinary, of the glory of the Son of God, as mediator between God and man, and His wonderful, great, full, pure and sweet grace and love, and meek and gentle condescension. This grace that appeared so calm and sweet, appeared also great above the heavens. The person of Christ appeared ineffably excellent, with an excellency great enough to swallow up all thought and conception — which continued, as near as I can judge, about an hour; which kept me the greater part of the time, in a flood of tears, and weeping aloud. I felt an ardency of soul to be, what I know not otherwise how to express, emptied and annihilated; to lie in the dust, and to be full of Christ alone; to love him with a holy and pure love; to trust in Him; to live upon Him; to serve and follow Him; and to be perfectly sanctified and made pure, with a divine and heavenly purity. I have, several other times, had views very much of the same nature, and which have had the same effects.”
Does that sound dangerously-close to Bernard? It’s probably at least enough to make us uncomfortable.
Now, I’m not here to argue that Edwards was infallible, but here’s what sets him apart from Bernard. Consider this quote (also by Edwards).
“I had then, and at other times, the greatest delight in the holy scriptures, of any book whatsoever. Oftentimes in reading it, every word seemed to touch my heart. I felt a harmony between something in my heart, and those sweet and powerful words. I seemed often to see so much light exhibited by every sentence, and such a refreshing food communicated, that I could not get along in reading; often dwelling long on one sentence, to see the wonders contained in it; and yet almost every sentence seemed to be full of wonders."
What sets Edwards apart from Bernard is the centrality of Scripture to his experience. Not that Bernard didn’t believe the Bible; but for him, there was something better than hearing from God through His Word, and that was this mystical ecstasy he described. For Edwards however, even though he was at times very emotional as he communed with God through prayer, His prayers were always intermingled with meditation upon the Word and were in fact His response to the Word. That’s your church history lesson for the day.
Before we close, let’s go back to those two motivations for prayer one more time. And I’m going to get very personal because remember, this series is not just about prayer, it’s also about your heart. So, if these are the two reasons why people pray, then why don’t you pray, or why don’t you pray as often as you should? There are only two options. Either you don’t love God enough, or you don’t really feel that you need Him. Is that convicting? It should be.