“And shall I pray Thee change Thy will, My Father, until it be according unto mine?
But, no, Lord, no, that never shall be, rather, I pray Thee blend my human will with Thine.”
– Amy Carmichael
A YOUNG CHRISTIAN recently asked me about prayer and their questions got me thinking about the subject. I realize volumes of books have been written, and I’ve read a few of them. However, I keep coming back to two basic truths about the Christian life that shape how I pray, what I pray about and my expectations as to how God answers.
Those two basic truths are that believers have been made both aliens and ambassadors in this world. Let me first deal with being aliens.
Those who’ve come to true faith in Christ are aliens and strangers here on earth and that won’t change until either we die or Christ returns (I Peter 2:11; Phil 3:20,21). If we use Scripture for our guide we’ll see that being aliens means at minimum being misunderstood, mocked, misrepresented; and possibly being physically persecuted and put to death.
Another reason for our alien status is that regarding our physical bodies, believers have been given hope in what we will be – which means presently we aren’t what we will be (Romans 8:17-25)!
One more thing, there is within us a ‘spiritual war’ that won’t be over until we’re where we belong (Gal. 5:17; Rom. 8:12-17). So believers are not home and won’t ever feel quite at home (not even in our own flesh!). And prayer is not going to change that. Rather, we eagerly anticipate what is to come (II Cor. 5:1-5; I Cor. 15:50-58; Rom. 8:22-25; Heb. 11:13,14).
Now, before I speak to being ambassadors, there’s a truth closely tied with being aliens that needs to be acknowledged. Our awkwardness in this life is one of the means by which God prepares us to be with Him. We have to be humbled, we have to be made to see our total dependence on Christ; and He uses opposition, suffering and disappointments, foibles and physical weakness to purify our faith in Him (I Peter 1:6-9; 2:21; James 1:2-4; Romans 8:17,18; Phil. 1:29; II Cor. 12:7-12; II Tim. 3:12; Acts 14:22; Mark. 10:30). These truths are bound to affect not only how we pray but for what we pray. Which leads me to the subject of being ambassadors.
WHEN WE ARE brought to faith in Christ, there enters into our thinking and affections the understanding and desire that Christ be accurately and genuinely represented. We are now convinced there is a standard of moral/spiritual truth that reveals everyone as a sinner justly under the righteous wrath of God. And, there is one way of being protected and saved from God’s wrath – in the person and work of Jesus Christ as recorded in the Bible (John 14:6; Eph. 4:17-24; Heb. 4:12,13; II Tim. 3:14-17; Acts 4:12; John 3:36; I Tim. 2:5; Eph. 2:1-10).
So with our saving faith comes proclaiming our faith – we are Christ’s ambassadors (II Cor. 5:20). Since ‘truth is in Jesus,’ we must accurately represent what is recorded in the Bible about Him. Just as becoming aware of being aliens influences our view of prayer, so too our awareness of being ambassadors will influence our understanding of prayer.
A clear example of this is found in Paul’s writings. He asks that others pray for him that he will be bold/clear in what he ought to speak (Eph. 6:18-20). He prays that unbelievers will be saved (Rom. 10:1). And you can see in his letters what he seeks for professing believers (examples: Eph. 1:15-23; 3:14-21; Phil 1:3-7; 4:4-8). In general, his prayers for other believers are that spiritual truths will have a greater grip and influence on the way they think, feel and act. Which brings up another facet of being ambassadors.
We’re going to have to practice what we preach – we’re going to have to represent our Lord in the way we live. And this impacts praying; we will find ourselves asking God to help us walk worthy of our Lord – to please Him in all respects (Col. 1:9-12; Eph. 4:1-6).
Now I’m going to state the obvious: The vast majority of Christ’s ambassadors are ordinary people living quite ordinary lives. Husbands, wives, dads, moms, singles, carpenters, electricians, teachers, farmers, factory workers, nurses, clerks, doctors. We’re not aliens and ambassadors on mission trips to Paraguay, we’re that in our own pajamas!
That means that in our everyday life, what we pray for – the outcomes we desire – will be shaped by our unordinary spiritual existence. Eternal truths, fruit of the Spirit, doctrinal clarity, moral purity, God-honoring words and wisdom – these kinds of desires and truths will be on our minds and lips because of who we are in Christ.
SO BASED ON these big truths it’s clear what prayer isn’t. It’s not a means by which we get God to be our cosmic vending machine plunking out earthly comforts whenever we put in a prayer. It’s not buzzing God for room service on the cruise ship of life.
Will we have earthly possessions and should we enjoy them? Certainly, but every believer will wrestle with how we view our stuff and how it relates to being aliens and ambassadors (see I Tim. 6:7-10, 17-19; Matt 6:19-21). The truths of eternity and the temporal state we find ourselves in make it extremely difficult to think prayer can be about anything else than the glory of Christ and our being prepared to be with God forever.
With those unchangeable realities in the background, consider the following about prayer:
FIRST, IN A NUTSHELL, prayer is us intentionally talking to God (in our minds, with our mouths) about what we are presently understanding as to what’s going on in this life. Prayer is rooted in the simple child-like realization the Lord knows what He’s doing and we don’t; He’s in charge, we’re not.
In prayer, we’re not informing God of what He doesn’t know for He is all-knowing (see Ps. 139; Is. 46:8-10). So the point of prayer isn’t so much to alert Him as what’s going on as it is to ‘pour out our hearts before Him’ (Ps. 62:8). This goes back to the concepts I stated above: Christians are sinners being prepared to be in the holy presence of God for all eternity. And there is so much of that we are clueless about – and will never fully grasp in this life. God has the eternal picture. We don’t! Prayer then, becomes very much the acknowledgment of our ignorance and seeking God’s wisdom as a result.
Further, God is after something in our lives that isn’t natural to us. He’s doing a work in us that humbles us and brings attention to His Son. He is making us holy – sanctifying us – in His Son.
Look at it this way: You and I weren’t born of a virgin; we are descendants of sinful Adam and we bear his sinful nature (Rom. 5). Believers in Christ have been brought out of spiritual deadness (something Jesus never was) and into spiritual life (something Jesus always was) entirely by God’s great mercy and grace (Eph. 2:1-10).
That means we shouldn’t really expect what God is doing with our lives to be easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy, get-it-mastered-with-10-steps-to-Jesus-likeness-in 30-days workbooks. It’s a way of life we’ll never be entirely accomplished at while here on earth.
How does this apply to prayer? The Apostle Paul helps us much in acknowledging what is true for every believer, “we do not know how to pray as we should” (Rom. 8:26). But he gives us great comfort in telling us the “Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (8:27).
Yes, we will see progress — more joyful obedience, more budding fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, etc., and better ability to explain biblical truths. But what really changes is our awareness of how utterly dependent we are on Christ. Or, another way of putting it: We will grow in our awareness of how sufficient Christ is for us in all things. As Paul tells the Corinthians: Christ has become to us “wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, that just as it is written, ‘Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord’ ” (I Cor. 1:30,31).
It is these realities that keep me coming back to defining prayer as a pouring out of our hearts. However, as I’ll try to explain next, God doesn’t ignore the mundane.
SECOND – DOES GOD answer our prayers about day-to-day earthly matters? Does he answer our prayers about finances, jobs, where to live, what to name the kids, etc.? He certainly does. He wants us to talk to Him about those things and acknowledge His promises that He will supply all our needs (Phil. 4:19). But His answers to our earthly matters are often ‘answered’ by means of us growing in wisdom from our study of His Scriptures and seeking the counsel of godly men and women around us. He gives us believers who’ve been where we’re at to help us make God-honoring decisions. Sometimes he provides by what might be called spontaneous providence, ways that we will marvel at due to His perfect timing and specific care. But for the most part He will answer our prayers through what we might call the normal means of His grace.
But let’s also remember God is moving our lives and in our lives for His purposes. So how we think He should answer our prayers won’t always line up with what He has purposed and is bringing to pass. Let’s also remember, He doesn’t merely use our events or circumstances or possessions for His purposes; He uses us. And He doesn’t have to ask our permission. Which means, He will answer our prayers ultimately according to His will. Illustration: You may be praying for a bigger house in which you can host more people, The Lord may direct you to become house parents at an orphanage home with 39 orphans! All that to say, as we grow to understand He has bigger plans, we will humbly and gladly pray, “Your will be done.”
THIRD, LET’S THINK about how to actually pray. Jesus helps us with this. He gives us a pattern (often called the Lord’s prayer) in Matthew 6:5-15. Remember, He said pray like this; that’s why I use the word ‘pattern.’ He explicitly states we won’t honor God using meaningless repetition (6:7), yet at the same time He does give us a template. Below are the areas He covers.
+ Acknowledging who God is – Our Father who is holy (hallowed be Your name)
+ Expressing our desire for God and His truth to be better acknowledged and obeyed in this world, first and foremost in our own lives — Thy kingdom come+ Gratefully admitting we depend on Him for everything — give us this day our daily bread
+ Confessing our sins as well as asking for help to forgive others who’ve wronged us — forgive us our sins
+ Asking for wisdom and the ability to not sin, to not wander away or be deceived — lead us not into temptation
+ Thanksgiving, yielding to Him in gratitude – for Thine is the kingdom
Do we have to always use this pattern mechanically — follow it to a ‘T’ every time we pray? Again, it’s a model and should be used, particularly for those who might just be learning how to pray. But don’t fall apart if your prayer falls apart! Because here’s something else we’re instructed to do: The Apostle Paul teaches, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” – I Thessalonians 5:16-18.
REJOICE ALWAYS? Pray without ceasing? Give thanks in all circumstances? Yes, as aliens and ambassadors it goes with the territory — we will develop a state of mind of consistent rejoicing and prayer. As we study the Scripture and grow in our understanding, our thoughts will be more and more aware of our union with Christ.
Another way of putting it: As we come to understand He is always present, then we will more fully respond to that awareness in our minds. We will want to rejoice (after all – we’re saved!). We will be quicker to ask for His help for we will grow in our understanding we can really do nothing apart from Him. We’ll thank Him more – for tiny things, big things. We’ll more quickly confess our sins and turn from our desires/temptations to sin. That’s not so much a formula as it is an organic way of acknowledging God’s grace and presence in our life.
Does ‘praying without ceasing’ mean we don’t have to schedule a time of prayer? No, learning the ways of God requires intentional practice. Believers should discipline themselves to have a daily ‘quiet time’ or ‘devotions.’ This is a time in which they avoid distractions and devote themselves to studying the Bible and praying. There are many helps to do this (for example is the very popular booklet called ‘Our Daily Bread.’).
So let’s say you’re a young stay at home mom. You’ve got a good number of responsibilities, so having a quiet time will need to be flexible. In other words, set your mind to have one on a regular basis, but remember our Lord knows your day. He knows if the kiddos are have the crud, or hubby needs help putting a new engine in the pickup, the cat’s having kittens, etc.
The point I’m making is that our Heavenly Father would have us discipline ourselves and establish faithful habits. But He is not unaware of the reality of life. That’s the beauty of what Paul says, about praying without ceasing. We can pray washing dishes, driving, cleaning toilets (yup, there too!).
Well, again, there is much more to say about prayer. My guess is some who read this will desire to ponder the subject more deeply. But I trust this will encourage us in the high privilege of pouring out our hearts as we daily live our life as an aliens and ambassadors!
Pastor Tedd Mathis,
Pueblo West Baptist Church
In prayer it is better to have a heart without words,
than words without a heart.