Prayer (18 Dec 2013)
Can I pray a believing prayer?
And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.” (Mark 11:22-25 ESV)
I pray often but having a very sick grandchild stimulated me to think more about prayer, especially since a very long list of friends and family assured me they prayed also. So, how do I understand prayer?
Jesus’ words quoted above are some of many things he said about prayer and one of many passages in the Bible on the subject. When I read it I find myself asking not do I doubt but can I avoid doing so. If having prayers answered is dependent on my faith, my not doubting, or even on my forgiving others then I would not expect my prayers to be answered.
I acknowledge that I pray because of my dependence on God and my inability so often to obtain what I want.
Prayer must be put into words – it is what we say that will come to pass. If we don’t ask we do not receive. Jesus encourages specific requests in our prayers, not vague “bless me” prayers but ask for a mountain to be moved. Whether the mountains are real mounds of rock and earth or a metaphor for whatever looms before us does not matter but we should be bold enough to ask.
“Whatever you ask for” is an instruction to be right up front with our prayers, to ask for whatever it is we really desire. In these verses Jesus tells us to ask for what we earnestly want and we are asking on our own behalf, not someone else’s. This is an instruction to pray for yourself, your own needs, something that can be granted for you. Unburden yourself – go ahead and ask.
Phil 4:6 says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”
Get it off your chest, make your requests. Be thankful that you can at least pray but also be thankful that you have blessings to count or prayers that are answered.
The requests are to be made believing at the time the prayer is prayed. The answer, however, is to come at some time in the future. The answer is in the future but it requires belief in the present: at the time of the prayer.
But what about doubt? What about belief? What do I believe?
I hear of people who “pray believing” and I cannot join them when what they mean by “believing” seems to be teeth-gritting, personal determination. I need something other than that.
What I do believe about prayer is that I should pray. There are Jesus’ words,
And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. (Luke 18:1 ESV)
Jesus said that we ought always pray and not lose heart. Paul told his readers to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17 ESV) meaning that our conversation with God does not stop. This is persistence in prayer and then some more. It is a mindset and a lifestyle that knows of the eternal ever-present fatherhood of God so our conversation with him is simply ongoing.
In this parable he taught of a widow who finally obtained justice as a result of her persistence in seeking it. Will not God give justice to his elect who cry to him day and night?
Praying with others and praying out loud are described in the Bible. The prayer Jesus taught his disciples is a corporate prayer yet one in which we ask for the specific, the mundane, the essentials. Jesus and his disciples prayed with others and out loud, an encouraging, satisfying activity. But prayer is essentially between God and me. It is not for show or attention-seeking. The most important of my prayers are in private.
“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then like this:
“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. (Matthew 6:5-13 ESV)
In his letter, James wrote,
Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit. (James 5:13-18 ESV)
Elijah is given to us as an example of a man with the same nature we have, a man who prayed. He prayed for drought and was given three years of drought. Then prayed for rain and rain it did.
And Elijah said to Ahab, “Go, eat and drink, for there is the sound of a heavy rain.” 42 So Ahab went off to eat and drink, but Elijah climbed to the top of Carmel, bent down to the ground and put his face between his knees.
“Go and look towards the sea,” he told his servant. And he went up and looked.
“There is nothing there,” he said.
Seven times Elijah said, “Go back.”
The seventh time the servant reported, “A cloud as small as a man’s hand is rising from the sea.”
So Elijah said, “Go and tell Ahab, ‘Hitch up your chariot and go down before the rain stops you.’ ” (1 Kings 18:41-44)
The example is of a man of God who prayed fervently and persistently. He put some effort into it. Seven times he sent his servant to see if the answer to his prayer was coming. We cannot know whether checking for the answer was because Elijah could not get his prayer right six times, whether his belief took some building up or why God delayed the answer but Elijah did stick at it and his prayer was answered.
James also reminds us that while we should certainly pray when we are suffering we should also be ready to give thanks and praise to God.
Also, it is good to ask others to pray over us, perhaps anointing with oil or laying hands on the one being prayed for as a way of making specific and personal contact with that person. Just as Jesus did in the prayer he taught we are reminded of the need to be forgiving and to be forgiven. The unrepentant person need have no expectation of an answer to prayer. It is the prayer of the righteous man that has great power as it is working.
But what is that “prayer of faith” which brings healing, the answer to prayer?
In the previous chapter James has warned,
You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. (James 4:3)
If prayer is to be answered it requires faith, belief. It is also true that the prayer must meet certain conditions. One is that our motives must be right, godly and in alignment with the Bible. Another is that the answer must be in accordance with God’s will:
And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him. (1 John 5:14, 15 ESV)
Even Jesus prayed submitting himself to this limitation. On the eve of his crucifixion he prayed,
“Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will but what you will.” (Mark 14:36)
If Jesus can ask for something, even knowing that what he wants is not what God wants, then so can we but ultimately there is the submission to his will.
In Exodus 32 we read of the Lord determined to destroy the Israelites following their faithlessness. In response Moses prayed with God not to do this, offering his own life as an alternative and arguing that should God destroy his people it would cause God’s enemies to mock him as a God who could not save his chosen people. Moses argued that it would bring greater glory to God if he would relent and not destroy the people.
Job tired of the unhelpful advice of his friends and told them to keep quiet, he had better things to do:
I desire to speak to the Almighty and to argue my case with God. (Job 13:3)
We can certainly present to God good reason to answer our prayers but they had better be good! Making threats, being manipulative, offering deals and promises do not work. Praying according to the will of God does work. Of course!
If I know what God’s will is I can pray for that and my prayer will be answered. In fact, I can pray with confidence. I can pray believing. It will be a prayer of faith.
How can I know the will of God?
The Bible tells me some things that are the will of God.
I can pray as at the end of Revelations, “come, Lord Jesus”, knowing that Jesus will return. I don’t know when this prayer will be answered but I can pray it believing.
I can pray a prayer of confession; ask for forgiveness and to be found acceptable to God in the light of Jesus sacrifice on my behalf. I can pray this prayer believing because it is a clear promise in the Bible. I will then have the peace of God having had the prayer answered. How anyone else will know that prayer has been answered for me I cannot tell.
I can pray that God will enable me to avoid giving in to temptation and he will answer me (I Corinthians 10:13).
But what is God’s will for someone who is sick? What is God’s will for me when confronted with one of life’s decisions?
One big consolation is that I am not alone when I pray.
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. (Romans 8:26 ESV)
I am often aware of prayer being so much deeper than my own words and thoughts and when the Holy Spirit of God himself is praying for me – and he certainly knows the will of God so those prayers will be answered. Because I do not usually know what the Spirit is praying on my behalf I must wait to see the answers in order to find out.
When I am aware of what the Holy Spirit is praying for me it is so easy not to be anxious and to believe, to have faith.
But when it’s up to me to pray if I am to pray according to God’s will, to pray a prayer of faith, to pray believing, I must resort to first praying to God first asking that I would know his will as I pray. After all, the faith I need is a gift of God.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, (Ephesians 2:8 ESV)
As I read the Bible it is my hope that my thinking will become more like Christ’s so that I will know his will when I pray.
I pray that my relationship with Jesus becomes closer and more real so that I will more often find that I really do know his will. The more I practice this I think I get better at it not because I am more skilled but because God is so gracious.
These are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for, “Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.