PRAYER: How to approach Our Great God, And what to Expect From Him
3 Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts. James 4:3
21 And (Job) said, Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.22 In all this Job sinned not, nor charged God foolishly. Job 1:21-22
As I read the word slowly and with great deliberation, I find that prayer, as taught by Jesus Christ and the Apostles, bears little resemblance to the “name it and claim it” prayers (and attitudes) being widely taught today. With great frequency I hear self-proclaimed evangelists and teachers instructing the body to sow their financial seed to God (via their ministry) and then to tell God, in no uncertain terms, exactly what material “blessings” they want in return from Him – placing their order with God for goods, services, and health if you will. They are then instructed to wait on God to deliver…and if He doesn’t, well then it is their own fault for not having enough faith.
I have found the above method of prayer to be patently and outrageously false when tested in the refining furnace of scripture, given to us freely and graciously by our precious Lord. My hope is that we will all learn to pray, not as petulant children demanding money and a new car from our father, but as trusting and obedient sons and daughters, praying humbly and with great reverence to the one who know us and adores us. This attitude is perfectly illustrated by Paul in 2 Corinthians.
In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul states that Jesus Himself allowed a messenger from Satan to torment him, lest he become proud regarding his intimacy with and knowledge of God. Paul begs the Lord to remove this thorn in his flesh, pleading with Jesus three times…but Jesus Christ, who made Paul and knew with great precision what was best for him, said…no. His grace was sufficient to get Paul through all of the tribulations of this short life, despite constant and extreme suffering.
In the above referenced passage, Paul isn’t asking Jesus for material blessings, or for respect amongst his peers. He isn’t even requesting that his basic needs be met, since that was a continual struggle for him. (See, 2 Corinthians 11:22-33). Instead he was simply asking that Satan not be allowed to constantly torment him. This seems like an easy request with an obvious answer, right? Well, actually no. Our Great and Loving God, who made all things and who knows all things, declined to remove this painful trial from the life of His beloved apostle. Similarly, when Jesus was in Gethsemane, awaiting torture, humiliation, and a long slow death, He asked the Father to remove the cup of suffering from Him. The Father refused to change His plan for saving mankind, despite the fact that Jesus had already lived 33 perfect years of love and obedience on this earth.
What stands out to me about the prayer in Gethsemane is the fact that Jesus, who was Himself, God incarnate, didn’t demand that His Father save Him from the abuses and degradations to come. While He felt the freedom to ask His Father for anything…He ended the prayer with a beautiful picture of surrender and trust “…Yet not my will but yours be done.” Jesus knew that what He wanted at that moment in time might not be right in the eyes of His Father. So rather then make a demand or give an ultimatum, He simply submitted His own perfect will to the One whom He knew loved both Him and the world with an everlasting love.
Today, a prayer like the one by Jesus Christ in Gethsemane would be considered by many leaders to be weak and faithless…but in the reality of a life hidden in the arms of a loving and Omnipotent God, it is strong and powerful. Instead of demanding a certain result from God, the prayer of Jesus places the outcome fully in the hands of God no matter the short-term cost. Jesus, unlike us, doesn’t need a specific result to be at a place of complete peace and trust with His Father. The result of our own (my own included) prayers should, as Jesus exemplified, be fully submitted to God with absolutely no secret strings attached, and as Job so eloquently stated in the midst of total destruction, whether God gives or takes away…blessed be His name! (Job 1:21-22).
In Luke 11, when one of His disciples asked Jesus to teach them all how to pray, Jesus taught them what is commonly known as the Lord’s Prayer. Two simple and oft overlooked parts of this passage, which speak deeply to my heart about what my disposition towards God should be as I approach Him in prayer are:
“Thy will be done…”- meaning, not what I want God, but what You want and know is good, true, and right since you, and not me, are the God who knit me together in my mother’s womb (Ps. 139), and made this glorious universe for me to enjoy.
I also love the part of this great prayer where Jesus says, “…give us this day our daily bread….” He didn’t teach us to ask the Father to make us wealthy and successful so that we can impress our friends, neighbors, coworkers and fellow believers – and so that we won’t have to worry about our retirement. No. Jesus wants us to have to depend on Him every single day, lest the temporary riches and comforts of this world deceive our hearts and draw them away from the Living God. (See, Parable of the Rich Fool, Luke 12:13-21, and the Parable of the Sower, Luke 8:4-15).
In Luke 11:5-13, just after teaching the disciples how to pray, Jesus goes on to tell them that their Father in heaven wants them to have good things, just like any earthly father would. He then encourages them to ask, seek, and knock, for everyone who asks receives, everyone who seeks finds, and to anyone who knocks the door will be opened to them. But what whispers to my heart from this passage, with gentle but strong conviction, is the last verse, which after stating clearly that the Father does give good things to those who ask, then goes on to define exactly what those good things are in His eyes. In Verse 13, Jesus says, If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
Jesus seems to assume that true believers, meaning those like Paul and the disciples, who really love Him in the deep places of their hearts, and are seeking His eternal kingdom, will ask for…. not a big bonus check, a new car, or favor and respect among men, but instead will request more of the Holy Spirit of the Living God. Ouch. That’s not exactly what we typically ask for here in the western church…and sadly, that is not what we are taught to ask for. We are told to sow a big seed so that we are blessed with more seed to sow back in to the pastor’s ministry. And why don’t we, if we truly love Him, receive the material blessings we seek so earnestly in prayer? James the brother of Jesus says it perfectly. In James 4:3, he says: “When you ask you do not receive because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” Double ouch.
How many times, when praying for what we think we want or need from God, ask for more of the true Holy Spirit? Sometimes perhaps – yet Jesus seems to assume that we, as His disciples, will ask for it constantly, since it is the greatest gift that He has left for us on this earth. If we follow many of the well-known pastors and teachers of today, we are taught to ask for wealth, temporal success, creativity and children who are world-changers, along with a false “Holy Spirit” who is disorderly and often manifests himself in a fashion similar to the demons Jesus cast out and sent back to hell during His ministry. Yet here in the word, Jesus assumes that we, His beloved sheep, will simply want more of Him and His eternal kingdom, rather than the fading and deceiving pleasures of this ill world.
Luke 1 is another excellent example of how God relates to us in His unadulterated sovereignty. In the first half of this chapter, Luke makes it clear that Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth are honorable people in the eyes of God. They are righteous because, as verse 6 says, they walk in all of the commands and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly. Since Sarah is barren, and they are both very old, it is easy to assume that they have prayed to have children for decades, with no success. Then one day, the angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah in the temple and tells him that he will finally have a son. Apparently, seeing this mighty angel of God in person wasn’t enough to convince Zechariah that what Gabriel said was true because he asks for another sign. Because of his unbelief, Gabriel prevents Zechariah from speaking until the baby, John the Baptist, is born.
Since God wanted Sarah and Zechariah to have a child, it WAS going to happen, regardless of whether they named it and claimed it. Their faith was completely irrelevant to God’s purpose being accomplished. They could have screamed at God, reciting His promises to them in Psalms and Proverbs, all day long…but that would have been of no effect. Instead, God saw the devotion of their hearts to Him, as reflected in their lives…and He gave them what they always desired but never thought they could ever have. In all things, His sovereignty and goodness will prevail. It just seems to take a long time…and in this particular case, it was almost a lifetime.
Similarly, if Jesus wanted Paul to have a thorn in His flesh, then it WAS going to remain, tormenting Paul as He saw fit, no matter how many times he begged God to remove it. Yet Paul, like Jesus in Gethsemane, accepted the final, painful decision of God, and instead of accusing God of wrong doing, he instead chose to glory in his weakness…for he knew with great certainty, that where he was weak, God was strong (2 Corinthians 12:10). May we all seek the eternal riches of Jesus Christ through His precious Holy Spirit, rather than the temporary comforts of this dark and dying world.
I am, without a doubt, a foolish man, who has expended much time and energy chasing the lies of this world. As I have, in failure and brokenness, turned my eyes and heart to Jesus Christ and only Jesus Christ – as fully as I am able, I have learned to pray for people, in every situation, not that they would be blessed, be healed or have temporal success. I simply pray that the Holy Spirit would pour Himself into their circumstances, and would draw, with His mighty power, all those involved closer to Jesus Christ, as He truly is in the word…because really, nothing else matters. Nothing. Eternity and eternity alone is what matters, because once that door to heaven closes…it can never, ever be opened. I encourage anyone who reads this to consider eternal things and only eternal things, as they pray, teach and share life with those they love, for what is seen truly is temporary, but what is unseen…is eternal.
Intimacy with and dependence upon Jesus Christ, and only Jesus Christ, should be the sole goal of our prayers as we walk this path towards eternity.
***EXCELLENT BONUS SCRIPTURE FROM DANIEL 3 ***
14 and Nebuchadnezzar said to them, “Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the image of gold I have set up? 15 Now when you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipes and all kinds of music, if you are ready to fall down and worship the image I made, very good. But if you do not worship it, you will be thrown immediately into a blazing furnace. Then what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?” 16 Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. 17 If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. 18 But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”
Shadrach, Meshach and Abendego knew that God could do anything – even save them from being thrown into a furnace by an angry king. But they didn’t demand that God save them…and they didn’t even try, by their “positive confession,” try and save themselves. They simply declared, with great boldness, the absolute power of the One and Only God in the presence of their enemies and in the face of a horrible death. That was enough for them. They let God be God and they were His humble and faithful servants…even unto death.