Talk 3: Prayer = Power
James 4.2-3; Ephesians 3.14-20
So far we have seen that prayer is struggle – we struggle to pray our desires and loves are disordered: and because prayer is one of God's greatest goods for us, we have no appetite for it. But gloriously, struggle is good for us, God makes us work for blessing. Concerted, ongoing, persistent prayer is wrestling with God in order to receive from him the very blessings that he wants to give to us. Prayer is struggle – with God and ourselves to receive blessing from God. That was talk 1.
We've also seen that prayer is intimacy. God made us for himself; we reject him but still he pursues us and brings us close through Jesus. One day everyone who trusts in him will see God face to face and live with him forever. By prayer God allows us to experience wonderful intimacy with Him right now in this fallen world. In prayer we enter right into the heavenly throne room to be welcomed as Jesus himself, and to be treated as Jesus is treated, taken right up into the lap of the heavenly majesty to receive comfort and help. That was talk 2.
This morning I want to talk about the power of prayer – prayer is power: power from God for us.
Prayer is power… perhaps that sounds like overstatement to you… perhaps it is. But I've read a lot of church history, I've closely read the bible cover to cover. And I am yet to hear of a major movement of God that did not start with Prayer, or a man or woman greatly used by God who was not a person of prayer.
The great revivals of New England – started with a prayer meeting. The Welsh revivals – a prayer meeting. The reformation – started by a monk who spent a lifetime in prayer. The great Korean revivals – founded on the prayer mountain.
And people: John Wesley preached to tens of thousands and changed the face of England – he was renowned for his praying; CH Spurgeon, preached to thousands and read by millions and maintained a permanent prayer meeting in his church, he would step into his pulpit fresh from a prayer meeting in another room; Ridley, Latimer and Cranmer – martyr heroes of the English reformation were the men who wrote the prayers of the prayer book; George Muller famously funded his orphanages purely by prayer, never asked for a penny but housed thousands; Jim and Elizabeth Elliot, inspired thousands to the mission field, zealous for prayer; the great evangelist Billy Graham who describes his ministry as resting on three key things 'praying, praying and more praying'.
And this is exactly in keeping with what we see in the bible – the great men and women of the bible are great men and women of prayer. We've already seen Jesus constant in prayer. What about Daniel, whose prayer life was so well known it was his only weakness; Ezra and Nehemiah, leading men in the return after exile, builders of the temple and the wall, great men of prayer, and architects of prayers of national repentance; Abraham: pleaded with God for the lives of the righteous in Sodom, Moses: spoke to God face to face and rescued Israel at Mt Sinai; David: author of many of the Psalms, poet, singer and prayer of the nation; Miriam, Hannah and Mary: women whose prayers flowed over into great songs of praise, central to the salvation story; and Elijah: he prayed and brought down fire from heaven, prayed and stopped the rain for 3 years, prayed again and brought the rain once more. The apostles dedicated themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word; Paul constantly prays for all the churches and earnestly begs them to pray for him … if you look for it you see it everywhere.
The power of Prayer can be seen in exactly this measure: prayer stands behind every great man and woman of faith, prayer initiates and underpins and powers every great movement of God.
So as we come to this last talk on prayer let us not neglect to pray – Heaven Father you are the great architect of history, the one who stretched out the heavens, and the one who will roll them up like a scroll when you're done with this creation and you bring in the next. You are vast, mighty and glorious, and we are small, weak and ashamed. But your grace, your kindness and your love give us hope. Please work in us according to your loving kindness, exercising your power to transform us for your glory. Amen.
The Big idea of this talk is this: Prayer is the way in which we receive the blessings of the gospel: the way we change and the way we change the world. Prayer is the way in which we receive the blessings of the gospel: the way we change and the way we change the world.
We're going to flesh this out in three smaller ideas:
1) Prayer is Power to receiving the rich blessings of God.
2) Prayer is Power for us to change
3) Prayer is Power to change the world
1) Prayer is Power to receiving the rich blessings of God.
James 4.2a-3 'You do not have because you do not ask, when you do ask you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures'
You do not have because you do not ask. As simple as that. God has great things for us if we would but ask for them. But we don't.
Prayer is power to receiving the rich blessings of God.
Prayer is power to receiving the rich blessings of God. Am I making you uncomfortably yet? The Key to unlocking the rich blessing of God – that has whiff of the prosperity gospel about it doesn't it? The prosperity gospel says that God wants to bless you richly – literally to make you rich; and successful and popular and healthy and free from hardship of any kind, sailing through life on a cushion of success and happiness.
There are thousands of false teachers who peddle this prosperity gospel for their own prosperity. They say prayer is the key to unlocking your earning power. But it's a Ponzi scheme, they get rich by fleecing everyone else, and then say 'look how God has blessed me; he'll do the same for you'! And if you're not rich and successful, you need to have more faith and give more generously to them, that'll fix it! Well they will have to answer to Jesus for ripping his people off – not just stealing their money, but feeding them false hope and cutting off their access to real hope.
No, we must oppose any false, distorted gospel like that.
But we need know that they are right about one thing – God does want to richly bless you and me; and he puts prayer before us as the path to blessing, he invites us to wrestle in prayer in order for those blessings, just like Jacob did.
The point where we depart from that false teaching is when we realise that God's blessings are better than bling and comfort and success in this world. As we've been seeing God's blessings are richer by far – he gives us intimacy with him and he gives us what we need in to live lives that are pleasing to him by doing the good works he gave us to do. In answer to our prayers he brings us close to him and he holds us close, he protects us from temptation and delivers us from evil, and he transforms us so that we increasingly want the things that are true riches and shun temptation.
Point Two: Prayer is Power for us to change
Look at what Paul prays for the church in Ephesus:
For this reason I kneel before the Father, 15 from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name. 16 I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge--that you may be filled to the measure of all the fulness of God. 20 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.
I'd love an hour or two to unpack this, but we're up against it…
Paul's prayer is that God would bless us richly according to the full measure of his goodness and his power to bless. Notice God's power to answer prayer isn't in question. His ability to answer is unlimited, far greater than our ability to imagine what good we should ask or hope for. So Paul prays a big prayer whose scope is wider than we can imagine, according to God's power at work in us in response to prayer.
We notice, don't we, that the richest blessing Paul asks for them is that God work in them by his Spirit so that Christ will dwell in them. In this they will come to know – through experience not just information – how rich and deep and wonderful God's love is and so become more and more like God. This is intimacy with God, God living in us, God's changing us to become more and more like him.
And notice this will change us – prayer has power to change our behaviour, and even the deep things of our hearts: God changing our deep longings and desires so that we love the things that God loves and we reject sin and temptation for the fakes they are.
Paul is modelling for us a better prayer life. As we follow Paul's lead our prayers will focus more on relationship with God and holiness of life and upholding one another and less on our circumstances, our comfort and pleasure.
In fact it is as we pray in response to God's word that we begin to internalise God's priorities and values and we untangle the devils lies that are embedded in our hearts.
Let me say that again, because I think this is really important: it is as we pray in response to God's word that we begin to internalise God's priorities and values and we untangle the devils lies that are embedded in our hearts.
The things of God can't just be said over us, or taught to us, to change into the likeness of Jesus we need to receive them by faith – with prayer. We always remain powerless to change ourselves, even our decisions to change can't change us. But in prayer we approach the one who has all power and we ask him to change us. We always remain powerless to change others, but we bring them to that same powerful God and ask him to work good in their hearts too.
I often hear people saying that we need to preach the gospel to ourselves. I'm sure that's right, but it's insufficient. We need to pray the gospel too, not to ourselves, but to the one who can apply it where it is most needed.
Let's go back to some of those great men and women of prayer: there's David watching his sheep, and writing his prayers out as songs to God. As he prayed the truth deep into his heart God fitted him to lead his people: First by saying no to temptation to fight Saul and only second by taking over as King in Saul's place. There's Billy Graham travelling the world to preach, always starting every campaign with a build up of prayer, prayer and more prayer. There's CH Spurgeon walking up the steps into his pulpit to preach some of the greatest sermons ever, with each step remembering that it's God's work not his own, praying that God would work through his words that night – and often interrupting his own sermons to call on the congregation to pray for him that he would preach it right. There's Jim Elliot giving up his life in missionary journey to South America – and leaving behind on the beach where he was killed a battered prayer journal in which he had written – and prayed – 'he is no fool who gives up what he can not keep in order to gain what he cannot loose' – words that have launched a thousand missionary journeys. Again and again God fitted his people for his work only after he had led them to consistent, dogged, intimate, wrestling in prayer.
How did they come to be greats in God's economy? Which came first their gifting for greatness or their desire to pray? I don't know. But I do know that they got there with prayer, they got there by prayer.
And what was it that made them fit for great things? Was it a great aptitude for hard work, amazing intellect and a quick mind, great faith and boldness to face down their fears and do what is right regardless of the cost?
I'm sure they had those things, but where did those things come from? God worked those things in them – how? Do you think that it had anything to do with their constant habit of prayer? Do you think it's too much to say that God made them fit for purpose in response to their prayers? Do you think it's too much to say that we can become more and more useful to God if he would change us to be more and more like the Lord Jesus?
So pray for change so that we can be pleasing to God, and useful to God. 'You do not have because you do not ask God' says James, 'and when you do ask you ask with wrong motives'. We need to pray and bring our requests to God – and we need to pray, not just for the good things that we want from God, but also for the right motives, for the change of heart that re-orders our motives, our hopes, our dreams, those deep wells from which spring our desires.
If you dream of a life of significance and purpose don't pray God will make you famous and successful, or give you a great career – don't pray for a task to do, or a mission to undertake – pray for a heart that is pleasing to God, pray for a life moulded to the shape of the gospel, a consistent love for God and a life lived for his glory. The rest flows out of this.
This bring me to point three:
3) Prayer is power to change the world
This is the end of Paul's prayer in Ephesians:
20 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.
By Prayer we call on God to complete the good work he has begun in the world, and we see him winning glory for himself in his people – the church – and in Jesus throughout all generations.
God meets needs in answer to prayer, he provides for his people and he provides for his church. And his provision is gloriously wider and more gracious than we would ask for.
All these things come together in the Lord's Prayer. Think about the 7 petitions or requests that make up the Prayer:
The Lord's name be hallowed
The Lord's Kingdom come
The Lord's will be done, on earth as it is in heaven – three petitions about God and his plans and purposes in the world
That God provide our daily bread – one petition about provision (this is where almost all of our prayers centre isn't it? We rarely get beyond this…)
That God forgive our sins as we forgive others
That God lead us not into temptation
That God deliver us from evil (three prayers about our relationship with God, our sanctification)
This is a prayer about the big picture of God's work in the world – undoing the work of Satan by restoring the honour and prestige of God's name; bringing in the Kingdom where God is recognised as rightful ruler and all things conform to God's good, perfect and pleasing will. And that we get on board with that agenda in our own hearts – being forgiven for our rebellion, and forgiving others; being protected from temptation so we can resist sin and being delivered from evil and all it's out-workings in this world and in our own hearts.
The weight and emphasis is certainly not on material blessings, comfort, wealth or prestige! But praying for our needs is not out of order, it's exactly right – he provides for us – daily – all we need. It's right to express our dependence by asking for those things we need. But we're not invited to pray for a lifetimes supply, just for the needs of the day – God blesses us with daily dependence on him so we don't forget him.
The Lord's prayer turns out to be a beautifully balanced model for our prayers that will widen our horizons and deepen our prayers. Prayer is power to change the world. Prayer is power, power to receive God's blessings, power to change ourselves, power to change the world. Prayer is power. Let's learn to pray.
Now I'm by no means the greatest prayer in the world, but I want to finish with a word of personal testimony and some practical tips. Over the last year my prayer life has grown. During Sabbatical I took time to work on my spiritual life. I was confronted with the brute fact that I cannot change myself. I want to change. But I can't make it happen. There is a whole process that has to happen of undoing the warping of my heart, we've been talking about that. And this process happens in community and in prayer as God works on those deep things of the heart. So I need to pray. But wanting to pray more is one of the things I've struggled to change … how to do it?
I started by tying prayer to things I was already doing: I started with praying when I can't sleep. Happens to me a lot, so I dramatically increased my praying straight off, and reduced my stressing –it's transformed my sleepless nights. Then I started praying when I exercise. I don't do enough exercise , but when I do my mind wonders all over the place, so I focused it by praying. Eventually I came to delight in those times, it got to the point where I wanted those times of prayer daily, not just when I happened to be awake over-night, or when I managed to go for a run. So I've started getting up earlier to pray.
Alongside that I've learnt to read the bible more prayerfully. I read a passage through, then pray it verse by verse, idea by idea: I read, think, and pray about what I read. Then repeat with the next couple of verses. So often God puts his finger on something in my life that needs to change. Or helps me to see how this relates to something else. Or makes me think of someone to pray for. This is Christian meditation – not clearing my mind of conscious thought, nor waiting for a voice in my head – but chewing the passage over in my mind before God, asking him for understanding and for strength to do what it says and allowing him to lead me and to make connections and bringing these all before him again in more prayer.
So what about you? Where are you in relation to prayer? Do you need to start with a prayer that recognises that you're a rebel and a long way from God and ask him to bring you close in Jesus? Please talk to me about that or a friend who can help you. Do you know God, but you're not really engaged in prayer? Do you pray, but need to widen your prayer horizons beyond your needs and those of your friends? Do you walk with God daily and delight to pray and you could give me some help along the way?
Let me finish with some practical tips, in no particular order:
1) Start where you are – just start praying
2) Pray with friends. Jesus warned against praying for other people to see – that's showing off, not praying. But Jesus loves us to pray with others. Even the Lords prayer is a collective prayer 'Our Father…' Come to the prayer meeting, join a home group – make those things a priority. Find a prayer buddy.
3) Write out some prayers – keeps you focused when you mind wanders, and gives you something to come back to and see that the Lord has answered.
4) Keep a journal – nothing fancy, but each morning when you sit down to pray write a page starting: Yesterday…
5) Pray the scriptures – Christian meditation: read the bible, and slow down to pray it too. Luther suggests 4 runs through the passage to pray: pray back through it
1. Acknowledge what it teaches
2. Thank God for it
3. Repent for failing
4. Ask for help to do it
6) Pray first thing. If prayer protects us from temptation and we face temptation fresh every day, then sensible to start as we mean to go on
7) Tie prayer to things you're already doing – your commute, exercise, driving…
8) Pray when you can't sleep
9) Read books on prayer
10) Read Christian biographies
11) Repent often
12) Pray for godliness, your s and others, pray for mine!
13) Pray the Lord's prayer
14) In times of trouble and stress pray the Lord's prayer, working through it's various requests for this situation you are in right now – what would it mean for God's name to be hallowed in this situation – ask God for that to happen; how would this situation be changed if God's rule was acknowledged and reflected in it? what would it look like if God's will was done in this, for me, for the others involved – ask for that; what is it you need to be provided for you in this situation? What sins need to be forgiven – for you and what do you need to forgive others? What are your temptations in this situation, what might others be tempted to do? What evil do you need to avoid, need to be rescued from in this situation?
15) Pray the psalms –the prayers of the Messiah.
16) Pray the application bits of the NT – eg. Pray for the fruit of the Spirit; pray the sections in Paul's letters where he tells us to do something, or to stop doing other things.
17) Use written prayers – the prayer book is full of amazing, pithy prayers that can be expanded on; Luther's prayers; the Valley of Vision …
18) Just keep praying – like exercise hard at first, but gets easier and more enjoyable as we grow in it.