Saturday, June 24, 2006

Prayer: When, How, and Why? Philippians 4:6-7

Just outside of Toronto is the quaint little town of Port Hope, Ontario. Port Hope is most well known for three things: a 10km race down the Ganaraska River called “Float Your Fanny Down the Ganny” that draws 15,000 spectators every April, a Junior A league hockey team called the Port Hope Predators that nearly folded this season because of legal troubles, and the Pengally Cemetery. That cemetery is not important to most of the world, but to Christians it is significant because it is the burial site of Joseph Scriven.


When Scriven was a young man in Ireland his fiancée drowned on the night before their wedding. In the aftermath, he began to follow the teachings of the Plymouth Brethren which distanced him from his family. He set sail for Canada, where he would spend the rest of his life as a teacher and tutor. Once again, he fell in love and planned to marry. However, once again, his fiancée died tragically just a short time before the wedding. His own life came to an end by a mysterious drowning, which some have speculated may have been suicidal. Regardless the circumstances surrounding his death, Scriven is not known to us because the many tragedies he endured during his life. He is known to us because of a poem called “Pray Without Ceasing.” We came to know it by a different name after it was set to music:

What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear.

What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer.

O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear

All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.

The last verse of the song speaks to our hearts:

Are you weak and heavy laden, cumbered with a load of care

Precious Jesus still our refuge, take it to the Lord in prayer

C. S. Lewis, in his excellent book, Letters to Malcolm Chiefly on Prayer, says near the book's end, "... by talking at this length about prayer at all, we seem to give it a much bigger place in our lives than, I'm afraid, it has. ... Well, let's now at any rate come clean. Prayer is irksome. An excuse to omit it is never unwelcome. When it is over, this casts a feeling of relief and holiday over the rest of the day. We are reluctant to begin. We are delighted to finish. While we are at prayer, but not while we are reading a novel or solving a cross-word puzzle, any trifle is enough to distract us."

Do you find this true in your life, or is this just something that C. S. Lewis and I have in common? As I read those words it seems as if Lewis has been spying on me in my quiet time. I am relieved to know that he wrote these words 10 years before I was born. But I don’t believe Lewis and I are alone. I believe that many of us today would say that we are weak, heavy laden, and cumbered with a load of care. We have borne needless pain and forfeited the peace of God because we have forsaken the privilege of prayer.

We are like the disciples who said to Jesus in Luke 11, “Lord, teach us to pray.” They did not say, “Teach us how to pray;” they asked, “Lord, teach us to pray.” So in my life, when I find myself cumbered with a load of care, I must confess that I have either not yet learned or else have quickly forgotten the importance and the need for prayer. So Lord teach us to pray. Life’s hardships are our tutors, reminding us of our need to go to our knees in prayer. But what shall we do on our knees? We need practical help as well as theoretical instruction. And so from the two verses before us today, we will seek to answer three questions about prayer: When should I pray? How should I pray? Why should I pray?

I. When should I pray?

Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.

There are two very uncomfortable words in this verse. The first is the word nothing, and the second is the word everything. These words are awfully exclusive. To be anxious for nothing means that there is not one solitary thing in life which ought to cause me worry. If I am anxious about one single thing, then I am in violation of this scriptural admonition. Likewise, I am to be prayerful about everything. There is not one solitary thing that I will encounter about which I am not to be prayerful. That is very intimidating. But it speaks to me about when I should pray. Essentially, I am to pray at all times.

Ephesians 6:18 says, “With all prayer and petition pray at all times.” In Luke 18:1, we read that Jesus was teaching his disciples that “at all times they ought to pray and not lose heart.” 1 Thessalonians 5:17 says we are to “pray without ceasing.” Colossians 4:2 says we are to be “devoted to prayer.” Does this seem to be an unrealistic expectation? How in the world is it possible to pray at all times? We could never get anything done if we spent the whole day on our knees in prayer. I believe the answer to this was well-captured in a statement by the late Dr. Adrian Rogers, who said, “I have rarely spent hours in prayer, but I have rarely gone hours without prayer.”

When we realize that “the Lord is near,” as Paul said in the verse just preceding this passage, then we realize that we are always in His presence, and can utter our prayers anywhere at any time. When something arises or comes to mind, we can pray right where we are. You don’t have to kneel or close your eyes – just talk to your Father in heaven about what concerns you. He is listening, and He is eager for you to talk with Him. So devote yourselves to prayer. In the things that would normally cause anxiety, pray. Pray in the good times, pray in the bad times. Pray at all times and don’t lose heart. Pray without ceasing. In everything, pray.

II. How should I pray?

It is of interest here that Paul uses four different words to describe the act of prayer. In the NASB and KJV those words appear as prayer, supplication, thanksgiving, and requests. The NIV uses petition instead of supplication. These English words are reflective of four distinct Greek words as well in the original text.

The first of these words, proseuche, is a generic term which refers simply to prayer. Its most general meaning is that of speaking to God. It is a broad term which covers a range of different types of prayers, including two mentioned specifically here. The first, rendered petition or supplication, is a word which speaks more directly of asking for that which is needed. The word supplication has its root in the word supply – it is asking God to supply our need. Much of our prayers fall into this category. So Paul says to make our requests known to God. That is the third word used for prayer. This word is not the act of requesting, but the thing with is requested. We are invited to come to God and tell Him exactly what we want or what it is that we think we need. In your petitions, in your supplications, you don’t have to hide the deep desires of your heart. I will let you in on a little secret – you can’t hide it anyway – God already knows. So you are welcome to express those things to God. But if all of our prayers are asking God for things we deem necessary, then our prayer life will be myopic and self-centered.

Therefore, there should be an element of thanksgiving in our prayers as well. This is the fourth word for prayer that Paul uses here. When we pray with thankfulness, we acknowledge that God has met our needs in the past and on that basis we count Him faithful in our present situation as well. It expresses our gratitude for God’s blessings, and acknowledges that we have not taken the gifts of His grace for granted.

So Paul is saying to us here that our prayer life should be a balance of thanksgiving and supplication. In other passages, he uses different words to express different aspects of a healthy, balanced prayer life. In 1 Timothy 2:1, Paul says that “entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings,” should characterize our prayer life. He demonstrates an awareness of the well-rounded prayer life that Jesus modeled for us in Matthew 6:9. In what is called, “The Lord’s Prayer,” we see that the prayer of the Christian should contain:

Praise: Our Father, who is in heaven, hallowed be Your name.

Submission: Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Petition/Supplication: Give us this day our daily bread.

Confession/Repentance: Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.

Dependence: Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

Please remember that Jesus does not say “pray this prayer,” but rather, “pray this way.” Those who feel that the mindless repetition of this prayer is somehow spiritually effective need to be mindful that immediately prior to giving the model prayer, Jesus said in Matthew 6:7, “when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition.”

So, we can pray in this way without praying these exact words. A pattern for prayer has been popularized in the last generation using the acrostic ACTS: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication. If we will structure our prayers in this or a similar fashion, we will not fall into a habit of only praying selfishly for ourselves, or failing to deal with our sins, or forgetting to give God the praise and thanks He deserves.

III. Why should I pray?

There are at least three reasons to pray specified here in these two verses.

A. Prayer is the alternative to anxiety

How shall you heed the admonition to be anxious for nothing? Life is full of anxiety-producing circumstances. Consider all the people today who are taking some sort of medication or treatment for stress-related illnesses. Paul does not simply say, “Stop worrying.” How in the world could you with all that life throws at you on a daily basis. Positive thinking can’t help you. That is as foolish as sticking your head in the sand and ignoring it. You’d be a fool to be that cavalier about the severe situations you face. So how do you face them without anxiety? Not by minimizing their severity, and not by focusing on the bright side or some possible good that may come from the situation, but through prayer. Only in prayer can we face that situation right in the teeth and hand it over to an all-powerful God who alone can do something about it. We don’t bow ourselves up to tackle the situation in our own human abilities. We cast ourselves before God in total dependence and submission to Him, acknowledging that He alone can work in the situation to bring it to a satisfactory resolution.

There are tremendous giants facing us, and those giants dwarf us. They make us look like grasshoppers. But only when we turn those giants over to the Lord do we see them in true perspective. The giants might be bigger than us, but they are not bigger than God. So when we pray, we give Him those things that cause us worry and anxiety, and we are freed to focus on worship and serving Him. What other effective alternative to anxiety do we have besides prayer?

B. Prayer is the solution to self-centeredness

If we fail to pray, then we deceive ourselves into thinking that we can handle all that we encounter in and of ourselves. We give ourselves credit for our own victories and look within for the solutions to life’s problems. We develop a boot-strap theology which says that we are self-made individuals who possess all we need to navigate through this life. And while that mentality is obvious in the pagans and atheists in our culture, it subtly takes over the Christian when prayerlessness breeds rugged spiritual individualism. The Christian life is one of dependency. We depend upon God to provide our every need. We depend upon other Christians to aid us in our weaknesses. So there is no such thing as a Lone-Ranger Christian. When we pray we acknowledge that we cannot make it without God’s help. When we give thanks, we recognize that every good and perfect gift has come to us from the Father. We cannot pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, because we don’t even have any bootstraps or strength to pull ourselves up. And we have an incessant need to be reminded of this. We are so totally depraved by sin that given a moment’s distraction from focusing on the Lord and we will begin worshiping and trusting ourselves – therefore we must pray. Only in prayer do we find the solution to our self-centeredness.

C. Prayer is the pathway to peace

Notice that Paul says it is through prayer that we experience the peace of God which surpasses all comprehension guarding our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. There are five truths that need to be understood from this.

1. It is prayer, not the answers to prayer, which produces peace in our lives

Nowhere in this passage does Paul refer to our prayers being answered or our requests being satisfied. We do not find peace in God’s provisions – we find them in His person. As our relationship with Him deepens through prayer, we find His peace taking root in our lives. God has not promised to give us everything we want or to answer our every prayer in the way that we think He should. To be sure, God answers every prayer, but sometimes His answer is “No,” or at least “not yet.” But even in those cases, if our trust in Him is such that we rest in knowing that He is in control of it all, then we can experience His peace in our lives.

2. The peace found in prayer is the peace of God

This phrase, the peace of God, is found only here in the entire NT. In Colossians 3:15, we find the similar expression, the peace of Christ. This peace of God is a peace that He has in and of Himself – nothing ever troubles Him, because nothing is ever outside of His knowledge or exceeds His power. And this is the peace that God has given to us. Jesus said in John 14:27, “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Do not let your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful.” God is confident in His own sovereignty – He wants us to have the same confidence in Him. And He makes it possible as we experience the peace of God through prayer.

3. The peace of God surpasses all comprehension

There isn’t much explaining we can do here. If it surpasses comprehension, it surpasses explanation. If you have ever experienced the peace of God in this way, you get it. If not, you don’t. But certainly, some of you can bear testimony to some instance in which you felt led of God to make a decision that defied all conventional wisdom, and rather than anxiety or worry, there was an undeniable sense of peace you experienced, regardless the outcome. If you have never experienced that, you have no idea what I’m talking about it. But I hope that as you develop a lifestyle of prayer, God will grant this transcending peace to you.

4. The peace of God guards our hearts and minds

This term “guard” is a military term that the Philippians knew very well. It was used to describe a detachment of soldiers who were charged with the task of protecting a city from attack. A Roman garrison stood guard over the city of Philippi in this way. And in this same way, Paul says that God’s peace stands guard over our hearts and minds, which are constantly susceptible to the attacks of our spiritual enemy, Satan. Though he may attack, he will not prevail, for this peace of God which surpasses all our understanding stands guard over us protecting us from whatever onslaught we may face.

5. This peace is only found in Christ Jesus

The words in Christ Jesus isolate the realm in which this kind of peace is experienced in prayer. Let me ask you a very important question? Does God answer the prayers of a Buddhist? Does God answer the prayers of a Hindu? Does God answer the prayers of a pagan? I am not here to share my personal opinions with you. I stand on what the word of God proclaims. You are well aware, by Scripture and personal experience, that we are all sinners by nature and by practice. Romans 3:10 says that there is none righteous, not even one. Romans 3:23 says that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. And Isaiah 59:1-2 says this about sin and prayer: Behold, the LORD'S hand is not so short That it cannot save; Nor is His ear so dull That it cannot hear. But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, And your sins have hidden His face from you so that He does not hear.

So, because of our sins, all of us stand outside of God’s hearing. However, in Christ Jesus, we have been granted access. Jesus said in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” We are accustomed to applying this verse to salvation, and it certainly includes that, but it is broader. Essentially Jesus is saying that there is no means of approaching God apart from Him. It is on the basis of what Jesus Christ has done for us that we are beckoned to come boldly to the throne of grace in Hebrews 4:14-16. So, as uncomfortable and unpopular as this answer may be, we must stand on the word of God and declare that God does not answer the prayers of those outside of Jesus Christ. In His general grace and love that He gives to all people, they may experience blessings which happen to coincide with their prayers, but He only answers directly the prayers of His people – those who have been adopted as sons and daughters by faith in Jesus Christ.

This is not a narrow-minded, exclusive claim of religious fanaticism. It is a biblical fact. We are separated from God by our sins, but Jesus Christ died for our sins, so that we could be forgiven. And He rose from the dead to open the way to the Father for us. And by faith in Him, our sins are purged, and we are clothed in His righteousness as Paul said in Philippians 3:8-9 -- that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith. And so, what is said in Proverbs 15:29 is true: The Lord is far from the wicked, but He hears the prayer of the righteous. And the only ones who are righteous are those who have received the righteousness of Christ by faith.

God only answers the prayers of the ones who are in Christ Jesus. But that being said, He does not answer all of them. Psalm 66:18 says that if I regard wickedness in my heart, God will not hear my prayers. That means that if I am clinging to some sin which I do not want to confess or repent from, then that sin has become more important to me than my relationship with Christ, and He will not hear me when I pray. So, I must take inventory of my life and ask the Holy Spirit to search me and show me if there is anything displeasing to Him, and then claim the promise of 1 John 1:9 – If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. This will open the pathway of prayer again, so that once again we can experience this peace of God guarding our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Hear the words of Philippians 4:6-7 once more: Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

How does this speak to you today? Are you weak and heavy laden, cumbered with a load of care? Have you forfeited the peace of God, and borne needless pain, because you have forsaken the opportunity, the right, the privilege, and the responsibility of prayer? If so, respond to the Lord today by asking God’s forgiveness and saying like Christ’s disciples, “Lord, teach me to pray.”

Are your prayers lopsided, focusing only on giving God your wishlist? Do you need more balance in your prayer life? The ACTS model has helped countless people shape their prayers in a more well-rounded way. Begin spending time in prayer with adoration, giving God praise for who He is; confession, speaking honestly to God about the sins you are wrestling with; thanksgiving, mentioning specifically the things you acknowledge God has done for you; and then supplication, making your requests known to God.

Do you find your prayers empty and ineffective, feeling as if they lift no higher than the ceiling? Ask yourself some hard questions: Are you harboring sin in your heart as Psalm 66:18 says? If so, just pour it out to God in repentance. Are your praying with selfish motives? James 4:3 says, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives so that you may spend it on your pleasures.” Ask God to examine your motives in prayer, and to shape your desires after His own, so that you want what He wants you to have.

Finally, are you in Christ? Have you come to the place in your life where you have turned from sin and confessed Christ as your Lord and Savior, receiving by faith in Him the adoption as a son or daughter of God, and the righteousness of Christ which grants you access to the Father? If not, then this very day could be the first day of a brand new life. I invite you to come to Christ today and give yourself to Him.

1 comment:

Watercolored said...

Dear Pastor Russ, this touched my spirit and will affect me for eternal purposes. I have been needing this exact message. I have read many words on prayer and heard many sermons on prayer. I think we always need to hear this. Well written. thank you!