My Faith: What about prayer?
Welcome to the fifth and final session of our My Faith course. Tonight we are considering prayer, and like our session on the Bible last week, we want this to be a practical session. I will begin with some general points about prayer and then move to some practical tips.
Three -quarters of the population of this country admit to praying at least once a week. Thousands of words have been written and said about prayer down the years. Books large and small have been written and still most of us, if we are honest, would admit that we find prayer difficult some of the time, if not all of the time. Most of us feel guilty at some point that we do not pray as much as we would wish or as much as we feel we ought to. I do not wish to add to this guilt at all. My hope for this evening – indeed my prayer – is that all that is said, heard and thought here will encourage us all to pray more and help us all to pray more fruitfully.
What is prayer?
So what is prayer? There are all sorts of definitions, but my favourite is by St Cyril of Alexandria who said that ‘prayer is keeping company with God’. At its heart, prayer is spending time with God; it is the conversation we have with God. As with those people we enjoy keeping company with, keeping company with God will involve talking to him, listening to him and sometimes just being silent with him. Sometimes it will be just us and God, and at other times we will gather with other people to keep company with him together.
Christian Prayer is Trinitarian Prayer: we pray to our Father in heaven who created us and all things and has the power to do more than we can ask or imagine. We pray through the Son because we can only come to God through Jesus. It is Jesus who enables us to call Almighty God, Abba, Father and it is the power of his name that gives our prayers weight. This is why we end our prayers with phrases like ‘through Jesus Christ our Lord’ or ‘in the name of Jesus’; these phrases are not magic formulae which we recite but reminders of reality. We pray by the Holy Spirit which lives in all those who believe in Christ and teaches us how to pray.
We know from our human relationships that they will not endure – let alone flourish – if we do not spend time with the other person. If we do not spend time with God, our relationship with him will not flourish either. So we pray in order that we might get to know God better, so that we may grow in our relationship with him, so that we might be able to follow him more faithfully. Contrary to some people’s views, prayer is not something which is separate from our daily life, something that is reserved for the hyper-spiritual or the clergy. We are all called to pray and we are all given the privilege of being able to pray. When Jesus was asked by his disciples if he would teach them how to pray he said ‘when you pray’. Not ‘if you pray’ or ‘when some of you special ones pray’ but ‘when you pray’. Jesus prayed and he calls us to pray too: Jesus prayed because he wanted to spend time with his heavenly Father and he wants us to spend time with him too.
John Pritchard wrote this in his helpful book, ‘How to Pray’
‘Prayer is essentially practical. It should make us more human, not less. It should give us resources to live our lives more fully, and to be more deeply engaged with others and with our communities. One Christian of the early church said that ‘the glory of God is a human being who is fully alive.’ So let’s not see prayer as something that draws us away from real life. It’s precisely the opposite – it should make us enter the everyday realities of life more deeply.’
So we pray in order that we might grow as Christians and be more faithful witnesses for our Lord.
Does God answer prayer?
I think that the most commonly asked question about pray is ‘does God answer prayer?’ Or probably more frequently we hear the heart-felt cry of ‘why didn’t God answer my prayer?’ We probably all know people – or have had the experience ourselves – of faithfully and earnestly praying for something and seeming to draw a blank.
As Amanda said when she spoke to us about suffering, we need to be incredibly sensitive when responding to these questions, sensitive in both what we say and when we say it. Remember, Job’s friends started well – they sat in silence with him as he grieved – it was when they started to talk that it all went wrong.
The first thing to emphasis is that just because God does not appear to answer a prayer in the way that we wanted and expected does not mean that he was not listening and does not care and has not acted. It is not in the garden of Gethsemane that Jesus feels forsaken by God but on the cross. As he poured out his anguish to his heavenly Father and prayed so fervently that he sweated blood, he did so knowing that God was with him and heard his prayer and responded.
Sometimes our prayers are so selfish and self-serving that it is hardly surprising that God chooses to ignore them. History does not record whether or not John Ward of Hackney felt that the Lord had heard him but no doubt a committed historian could scour the records to discover whether or not his property was saved from fire and earthquakes:
“O Lord, thou knowest I have nine estates in the City of London, and likewise that I have lately purchased one estate in fee simple in the County of Essex; I beseech thee to preserve the two counties of Middlesex and Essex from fire and earthquakes, and as I have a mortgage in Hertfordshire, I beg of thee likewise to have an eye of compassion on that county; and for the rest of the counties thou mayest deal with them as Thou art pleased. O Lord, enable the Bank to answer their Bills, and make all my debtors good men. Give a prosperous voyage to the Mermaid sloop, because I have insured it. Preserve me from thieves and housebreakers, and make all my servants so honest and faithful that they may attend to my interests, and never cheat me out of my property night or day.”
Janis Joplin may have thought she needed the Lord to buy her a Mercedes Benz so that she could keep up with her Porsche driving friends but no-one needs a Mercedes however much they might want one and it is perfectly possible to enjoy abundant life without a colour TV or a night on the town. If we feel God has not answered our prayers, we might wish to take a look at our motives. God is not some cosmic cash register or a heavenly Father Christmas ready and waiting as we send him our lists.
Sometimes God appears not to answer our prayers because of the knock on impact of our request. In the funny but deeply thought-provoking film Bruce Almighty, God (a white-suited Morgan Freeman) gives Bruce all his powers. Bruce can do anything except interfere with the free will of others so Bruce sets about making his life better. He alters the night sky to make it more romantic by erasing the clouds, creating new stars and pulling the moon closer. He gets the evening he hoped for with his girlfriend Grace but there is a tidal wave in Japan causing untold misery for thousands of people. Tired of being bothered by all the prayer requests he hears, he decides to say yes to all of them meaning that everyone who was praying to win the lottery was a winner but each winner only receives $17 and so there is chaos. Bruce’s approach to answering prayers begins to wreak havoc all over the globe. If we stopped to think about it, it may not be feasible to answer two people’s prayers if they are both praying that they would get the same job, would marry the same person, that their team would win.
Jesus told us that God only wants to give good gifts to his children: if we ask him for a scorpion he will not give it to us because it would harm us. If we ask for an egg but do not realise that it will harm us because we have an unknown allergy to eggs or because a scorpion is going to hatch from the innocent looking egg, he will not give us the egg. You would not give your young child a knife, however much they begged for it and however innocent it looked because you know that it is going to harm them. Sometimes God in his loving kindness does not give us what we ask for because he knows that it is not good for us or the best for us. The great preacher Martyn Lloyd Jones said:
‘I thank God that he is not prepared to do everything that I may chance to ask him…I am profoundly grateful to God that he did not grant me certain things for which I asked, and that he shut certain doors in my face.’
I love the Prayer of St Chrysostom which we say during evensong. It is states the confidence with which we can pray but tempers it with the request:
‘fulfil now, O Lord, the desires and petitions of thy servants, as may be most expedient for them;
granting us in this world knowledge of thy truth,
and in the world to come life everlasting. Amen.’
God does answer our prayers but we do not always like the answer or recognise it. We can be confident that he loves us and wants only what is good for us. As we get to know him better, we are more likely to pray for things that are in line with his will. Those prayers he delights to answer. Jesus’ prayer on the night he was betrayed shows us this. He understandably prays that he will not have to go to the cross but he prays that God’s will be done. God answers, not by taking the cup from his Son but by giving him the strength to drink from it. ‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done’.
How to pray?
I now want to give some practical tips for how we might pray more often and more fruitfully. The most helpful thing anyone has said to me on this subject is ‘pray as you can, not as you can’t’. That is all that God asks of us so please be encouraged by this, not feel condemned!
- Choose a time which works for you
Just as we said last week when we talked about reading the Bible, it is important to choose a time of day which works for you. Again, it is good to be realistic and better to commit to praying for 5 mins every day than doing 30mins on the first day and nothing else for the rest of the week. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism used to pray from 4am – 8am every day. His mother – who had 19 children and a limited income – used to sit in her kitchen chair when she had time and put her apron over her head to enable her to pray. Both prayed, both spent time with God, both grew as Christians, both prayed as they could. When he was interviews for Desert Island Discs, Justin Welby said that at one time in his life he found the time he spent doing the ironing a great time to pray. Ironing did not take too much concentration and yet kept him awake he shared!
- Establish a pattern
Remember, prayer is about a conversation with God and developing a relationship with him. It doesn’t need fancy words; it does need us to be honest and natural. Just like a marriage, we need times when we are just getting on with it and our relationship is a backdrop to our lives, times of chatting through the day, times set aside for proper talking and times of intimacy where being quiet together is more important than any words we might say. Just like a marriage, we need times when we are on our own with God and times when we are enjoying his presence with other people.
When we are thinking about our prayer lives therefore, it is good to plan in times when we will join with other Christians to pray: in Church services, a prayer meeting, or a small group. There is enormous power when we pray with others; it was whilst the church was praying fervently for Peter that an angel released him from prison (Acts 12). However, Jesus also talks about praying on our own in our room behind a shut door (Matthew 6.6). We need to spend time on our own with God, setting aside regular times for focussed conversation with God and times when we will just be quiet with him as well as some chatting through the day.
In the Itchen Valley we have our Sunday services, but also times of corporate prayer on Mondays and Tuesdays which you could join in with. I have a pattern of personal prayer morning and night and then regular quiet days through the year when I can spend longer keeping company with God. I also like to chat with God whilst I go through my day, asking him for the right words when I go to see someone, thanking him for the beauty around me on a walk.
- Prayer is a conversation, not a monologue
It is easy for us to forget that prayer is not a one-sided monologue. If we wish to get to know God better, we need to listen to what he says. This means leaving space in our prayers where we give God a chance to get a word in. Listening to God is not about hearing voices – though some people do hear a distinct voice which they recognise as God’s – but it is about being attentive in the silence. God always wants to communicate with us but we can be slow to listen. As we discussed last week, one of the main ways in which God speaks to us is through the Bible. Therefore it is good to include some reading of the Bible as part of a time of prayer. We might then use what we have read to help us know what to pray for. If we have read a Psalm, it might remind us of something about God’s character that we wish to give thanks for. If we have read one of Jesus’ miracles it might remind us that God loves the poor and the marginal and prompt us to pray for them. We might write our own Psalm of praise inspired by one we have read as I did for my last blog from Jerusalem. Or we might take one of St Paul’s prayers for the church and use it to pray for our church or people we know. Ever since I knew that I was coming to the Itchen Valley, I have been regularly praying Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians for you (Ephesians 3.14-21). Praying using the scriptures is powerful because we are praying the word of God which is ‘living and active’ (Hebrews 4.12) and we can be confident that we are praying for things that God wants.
- A balanced approach
Whilst God loves it when we chat with him and bring our concerns to him, prayer is not intended to be a long list of things we want him to do for us. Intercession is a really important part of prayer – if they need something, we want our children to ask us for it – but it is not the only part. It can therefore be helpful to have a loose structure to ensure a more balanced approach to our prayers. There are many you could use but I want to mention just three:
- The Lord’s Prayer
When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray, he gave them this prayer:
This is an incredibly powerful prayer. As the Archbishops of Canterbury and York wrote recently:
‘It is impossible to overstate the life-transforming power of the Lord’s Prayer. It is a prayer that is reassuring enough to be on the lips of the dying and yet dangerous enough to be banned in cinemas. It is famous enough to be spoken each day by billions in hundreds of languages and yet intimate enough to draw us ever closer into relationship with Jesus. It is simple enough to be memorised by small children and yet profound enough to sustain a whole lifetime of prayer. When we pray it with sincerity and with joy, there is no imagining the new ways in which God can use us to his glory.’
You might like to pray the Lord’s Prayer through slowly or use it as a structure for your prayers, taking a phrase and talking with God about it. I have included some ideas about this on the back of the question sheet. Of course, in praying the Lord’s Prayer, you are praying using words from the Bible.
Another helpful structure is given by the acronym ACTS which reminds us to include
Adoration – praising God for who he is and what he has done
Confession – asking God’s forgiveness for anything we have done wrong
Thanksgiving – for health, family, friends, answered prayer etc
Supplication – praying for ourselves, our friends and for others.
- finger prayers
thumb (nearest to us) -pray for those nearest to us, our family and friends
index finger (pointing finger) – pray for those who point us in the right direction e.g. church leaders, teachers
middle finger (tallest) – pray for those who lead us e.g. political, economic, cultural leaders
ring finger (our weakest finger) – pray for those who are sick or in need
little finger – pray for ourselves
We are enormously privileged for we are invited to keep company with God. Jesus enables us to come before God and be his beloved children. Prayer is the most important thing we do in our lives because it is the main way in which we develop our relationship with our heavenly Father. The more we know God, the more we will pray for the things he would have us pray and the more answers to prayer we will see. So let us
‘Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you [and me] in Christ Jesus.’ (1 Thessalonians 5.16-17)