In this sermon, Pastor Dave Capoccia finishes examining the spiritual discipline of prayer and why and how believers should devote themselves to it. In part 3, Pastor Dave looks at the how of prayer and gives six principles from the Bible to maximize your effectiveness and enjoyment in prayer:
1. Pray Biblically (Matthew 6:9-13)
2. Pray Variously
3. Pray Reverently (Ecclesiastes 5:2)
4. Pray Boldly (Ephesians 3:11-12)
5. Pray Persistently (Luke 18:1-8)
6. Pray Innocently (Psalm 66:18)
Let’s pray. Heavenly Father, great God, we do ask that You would be our vision and Lord that You would also speak to us now by Your Word, even by my mouth. Enable me to do this. Speak clearly and well and transform my spirit by Your word. Amen.
Back in 2018 my wife and I were privileged to be part of a short-term ministry trip to Kyiv, Ukraine where we participated in a softball outreach ministry for kids. The idea was to develop relationships with kids by playing a sport and give them the Gospel and let their families know about a nearby Evangelical church. Now we chose softball for this outreach, not because anybody on our team was particularly good at softball, but because baseball and softball are not commonly played sports in Ukraine. This was an advantage to us because that meant that our outreach with this exotic American sport would be attractive to many kids. It also meant that we would not end up looking foolish playing the sport with kids because they weren’t already good at it. If we tried soccer or basketball then we’d probably get schooled, so we played softball.
Naturally since these Ukrainian youths were pretty unfamiliar with the sport, we had to teach them how to play even down to the basic rules and techniques. Though it shouldn’t have surprised me, I was nonetheless amazed at how wrongly the kids would try to practice and play the game without our instruction. Many kids didn’t know how to swing the bat or even how to hold the bat. They didn’t know how to throw the ball or properly catch the ball with a glove. They didn’t know that you’re supposed to run to the bases after hitting the ball or even that you’re supposed to let go of the bat after hitting the ball. Of course, they didn’t know anything about the different infield and outfield positions.
After spending two weeks with us, our group of Ukrainian kids got proficient at softball. They weren’t masters by any means, but they had learned the basics. They had a good foundation for continuing to learn to practice and to play. But what if we had never taken the time to teach them? What if we’d shown up, told them why they should play the game, and then handed them the equipment and said, okay go ahead practice and play? What would they experience playing softball be like? Well, I’m sure a few kids might have learned some things by trial and error. All of them would have gotten confused and frustrated at some point. Some might have injured themselves; others might have made up rules for the game that aren’t actually part of the game. In the end, the sport wouldn’t be very fun to play and most, if not all, of them would eventually quit.
I bring this up to you because I see a parallel between sports training and spiritual disciplines, even the spiritual discipline of prayer. After all, we’ve already seen Paul tells us in 1 Timothy 4:7 that we are to discipline ourselves for the purpose of godliness. That word for discipline, you might remember, is the word gymnazo in Greek. It means to discipline yourself, train yourself like an athlete does. But if somebody never trains an athlete in how to train will he ever get good at the game? Will he ever be able to win? Will he ever be able to enjoy it?
In a similar way even if we know that we ought to pray, and even if we have a desire to pray, if no one ever teaches us how to pray then we will end up just as frustrated and lost as uninstructed Ukrainian kids trying to play softball. Perhaps that has been your experience with prayer. You’ve tried to get into a habit of prayer, you’ve tried to discipline yourself for prayer, but you’re just plagued by that nagging feeling that you’re not doing it right and that God is not listening. Or your prayers just don’t seem very effective. You don’t see God answering, doesn’t seem like He’s listening, so what’s the point? Or prayer has just turned into repetitive drudgery for you. You don’t enjoy it and you’re pretty sure God doesn’t enjoy it either so why not just quit? If you feel this way know that the problem is not really with God or with prayer but with your approach.
Yes, devotion to prayer will always require effort. Prayer is a spiritual discipline. Yet prayer is also a gift that’s meant to bless our souls and provide what we need. If you’re not seeing the blessing of prayer in your life that just means you’re doing it wrongly. But there’s good news. There’s someone who can teach you how to pray rightly. This someone is perfectly trustworthy, He is the authority, and His ways are guaranteed. Who’s that? Of course, I’m talking about God. After all, if you want to learn how to pray well what better source than the originator or prayer? And we need His instruction because without it we will never learn how to pray well. Where has God taught us how to pray? In His Bible. In that God-breathed authoritative Word that He gave to us. Of course, that’s what I want to look at with you this morning.
This message is Disciplines of Grace: Prayer, Part 3 where we are looking at the ‘how’ of prayer. We’ve spent the last two weeks looking at the ‘why’ of prayer. We’ve seen that devoted, fervent, regular prayer is a command from God to all His people. You are to be doing that. Additionally, it’s how we receive our requests, how we enjoy worshipful fellowship with God and how we realign our hearts to be in tune with His. We’ve looked at the why but today we will look at the how. How we should pray in a way that honors God and blesses us.
We can summarize the biblical teaching on the ‘how’ of prayer, I believe, in six main points. Those will be the six points of my sermon. I want to show you six principles from the Bible to maximize your effectiveness and enjoyment in prayer. I’ll be moving a little more briskly today so that we can discuss all six principles and not make this an extra part.
First principle I want to bring to your attention is the most foundational. Everything flows out from this. To maximize your effectiveness and enjoyment in prayer you must, number 1, pray biblically. This is the principle to which I was already pointing us in the introduction.
If you want to know how to pray and you want to know what to pray about, you need to learn from God and His Bible. He not only gives you the truth, but He even provides specific instruction. Direct, explicit instruction on how to pray and gives examples. After all, let’s just look at Matthew 6:9-13. This is part of Jesus’s great sermon on the mount. In the immediate context is that He’s just spoken about how God’s people should not prayer—don’t pray like the Pharisees do, instead Jesus says to pray like this, Matthew 6:9-13,
Pray, then, in this way: ‘Our Father who is 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 do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil. [For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.’]
I know we could do a whole sermon series just on this prayer, but rather than examining all the details right now let’s just focus on a few broad items. Let’s consider what we see in this prayer broadly.
Jesus in this prayer, traditionally called the Lord’s prayer, is giving us a prescriptive model to pray. Fundamentally this prayer is based on the truths and promises given in the rest of the bible—it assumes those things, so you will need to know them in order to pray this prayer. For example, the prayer says: Father. You pray to the Father, so you need to know who the Father is. You must have a real relationship with Him as Father. For example, you also need to know what it means to ask for God to provide daily bread and what that looks like. This prayer certainly is based on, in a foundational sense, the truths and promises in the rest of the Bible.
Also, this prayer exemplifies the proper attitude that one should have toward God in prayer. We see this even in just the first verse. You pray to a holy God in heaven whose name is hallowed and whose will and kingdom are glorious and supreme, but you also pray to your loving Father who you know will listen and grant your requests.
Finally, this prayer demonstrates, even in its short length, the key element to prayer that should be part of our prayers as well. We see in this prayer expressed worship and desire for God and His will and His kingdom—that’s verses 9 and 10. There are requests for the days, necessary physical and spiritual needs—that’s verses 11 and 13. There’s even an admission of sin and a request for forgiveness and restoration in verse 12.
If you want to know how to prayer, well God gives you direct instruction right here—pray this, God says! Do you mean with these exact words, God? Not necessarily, but certainly according to this model with that same foundation of truth, with that same attitude, and even with those same key elements. We know we don’t have to pray these exact words because after all this is not the only authoritative model for prayer in the Bible. There’s actually a whole book that contains 150 models for prayer. What book am I talking about? The book of Psalms. The Psalms are a collection of inspired prayer songs that are meant to instruct us in how to pray and how to praise.
We can’t look at all of the Psalms right now, but if you ever do you will notice that the Psalms clearly vary in form from the Lord’s prayer but they assume that same foundation of truth, they exemplify the same proper attitude, and they even contain the same key elements as in the Lord’s prayer.
In fact, if we want to summarize or generalize when it comes to the key elements of prayer then what should be our categories of prayer? One common and helpful acronym is the word A.C.T.S. You might have heard this before, but this is a good way to remember the key elements of biblical prayer. Each letter stands for a category of prayer that should be part of our prayers.
A stands for adoration, tell God about Himself, tell Him about His wonderful qualities, tell Him how glad you are in Him. C stands for confession, tell God about your sins, ask Him for His forgiveness, express repentance for habits of sin that you’ve fallen into and are turning away from. T stands for thanksgiving, in some ways this is overlapping with adoration, but with thanksgiving give thanks to God for who He is and what He has done and what He will do, also thank the Lord for answered prayer. S stands for supplication, which just means requests, this is where you tell God about your needs and desires and ask Him for help and provision. A.C.T.S is a useful way to remember what to pray but not every one of your prayers has to have every single one of these categories or go through in that order. It can and that’s helpful, but it doesn’t need to. The main point God shows us in the Bible is that these ought to characterize our prayers in total–adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. We want to make sure that we are not consistently neglecting these in our prayers and thereby make our prayers less effective and less enjoyable.
Two other quick applications before we move on from this first point. First, if you want a better prayer life then you’re going to want to read the Bible. You’re going to need to read it regularly and consistently because the truth needs to inform your prayers and you even see the prayer models. The second application is to consider regularly praying those model prayers in the Bible so that you can train yourself in how to pray. This is actually something I started doing while I was in seminary and over the years it has indeed reshaped my prayers to be more biblical.
We could just stop with this first point to pray biblically and all go home because anything else I’m going to say is just a further extension of this point. If you’re just following the Bible, learning the truth of the Bible, following its model you should be good. But I’m guessing you would appreciate a little bit more explanation as to what praying biblically means so we’ll keep going.
A second principle from the Bible to maximize your effectiveness and enjoyment in prayer is number two: pray variously. While there is some element of repetition in the discipline life of prayer that God calls us to that doesn’t mean that prayer should become mechanical, boring, stale—far from! Actually, following the biblical pattern of prayer means praying with a great deal of variety. What do I mean by that? Well let me illustrate by briefly mentioning ten ways to pray variously. These are going to be subpoints under point two, we’re going to denote them with the letters A-J.
These are the ten ways to pray variously. 2a, private and corporate. In the Bible we see Godly people going off by themselves to pray but we also see them coming together to pray. There are advantages to both. Praying alone helps you be less self-conscious in prayer and less tempted to perform before others but praying with others helps you focus together, keep each other on track, share prayer burdens, encourage each other through what you pray. So as Christians what should we do? We should be regularly participating in both private and corporate prayer.
2b, focused and arrow. Some Christians are only used to shooting up quick arrow prayers as it were in the middle of their other activities saying God help me with this, oh God thank You for this, or Lord I just remembered this. That is fine and good, that is part of praying without ceasing. We do see a few examples of arrow prayers in the Bible, but you know what? The biblical norm and the far greater number of examples we see in the Bible is focused prayer. That is a person or a group of people setting aside all other activities and distractions and just praying. If you’re going to be biblically devoted to prayer you should practice both focused and arrow prayers.
2c, spoken and silent. Silent prayer is way more common today than it was in Bible times. Almost all people in the Bible when they are praying are praying out loud. Partly that is just cultural. The ancient cultures were out-loud-cultures. They read out loud, they prayed out loud, sometimes even thought out loud. Ours is less so, so it’s partly cultural, but also praying aloud has a great advantage. It’s a great way to focus on praying and to remind yourself that you are talking to a real person. Many Christians today have found that simply praying out loud has done wonders for their prayer life. Now silent prayers can sometimes be strategically necessary or just helpful when you’re feeling emotionally overwhelmed, but we want to make sure that we use both spoken and silent prayers in our lives—and whispered prayers are fine too.
2d, prepared and extemporaneous. You may have a certain preference when it comes to prayer. You might prefer something written beforehand, or something composed on the spot, but you know what? Both actually appear in the Bible and both are good. Extemporaneous prayers encourage honestly, sincerity, a lack of posturing but prepared prayers are also good because they encourage carefulness, precision, cogency, and making sure that what you pray is biblical. When spoken from the heart both kinds of prayers glorify God so we should practice both.
2e, physical and spiritual. When it comes to prayer requests some find themselves only concerned with physical and circumstantial needs, but others feel like to pray for anything physical is shallow, ungodly, only to pray for spiritual things. But here again, if we just look at the examples of the Bible, what do we see? We see prayer requests for both. So that means that we should pray both. In your physical requests, don’t forget the spiritual. And in your spiritual requests, don’t forget the physical.
2f, yourself and others. If you’ve come to know yourself and the Bible at all then you know that you personally need prayer. You need God, you need God’s wisdom, you need His physical and spiritual provision, but you’re not the only one. In fact, God has called you directly in the Bible to pray for others—especially for your brethren. So be sure in your prayers not only to pray for yourself but to pray for others, too.
2g, short and long. One of the most remarkable aspects of the Lord’s prayer that we just read a few moments ago is its brevity. It’s a short prayer. You could pray that prayer in less than a minute and Jesus says that this is how you should pray. This is in great contrast with what Jesus was talking about in that passage. The pharisees who use long prayers, thinking that for their many words they’re going to be heard. We can fall into that same trap to think that longer prayers equal more effectiveness. That’s not necessarily so. A short prayer if spoken sincerely and with reverence can be just as effective as a long one. Of course, there is a place for long prayers, too. We see that in the Psalms, looking at Psalm 119, but the biblical model and biblical instruction is that we use a variety of lengths in our prayers to God.
2h, different emphases. Something notable about the Psalms is how some of them major on certain categories of prayer. Some Psalms are mostly praise and thanks. Some Psalms are mostly confession and lament. And other Psalms are mostly petition. This is fine. Biblical prayers can have these major emphases and so can ours. Don’t feel like that because you haven’t given equal time in your prayer to adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication that somehow that prayer is no good. You can use, and you should use, a variety of emphases in your prayers to God.
2i, different times. The Bible does not prescribe set times for prayer, but it shows God’s people using a variety of times for prayer. Many Jews prayed at three set times each day along with the morning and evening sacrifice and around noon. But of course, they and others in the Bible, also prayed impromptu times and just in reaction to different events. This is a good example for us to follow both set times that are helpful and doable for us and impromptu times. Many Christians have found prayer in the morning to be especially helpful for setting one’s heart for the day—I would commend that. But regardless, be prepared in your prayer life to pray according to set regular times and as there is additional need.
Finally, 2j, different postures. It may surprise you to hear that our traditional American prayer posture of kneeling with a bowed head, closed eyes, and folded hands is not actually found in the Bible—or at least not exactly. If you do an overview of the different prayer positions or postures found in the Bible you will see people kneeling, people standing, people sittings, people lying down, people with their hands raised, people with their hands down, people with their eyes raised, people with their eyes down. There’s a variety of postures. Now is there a special power in a particular prayer posture? No, of course not! God is not going to pay attention to external things like that. So, what is the point? Your posture is simply supposed to express your heart, help you stay focused, and hopefully not distract other people. Moral of the story is to use a variety of postures in your prayers.
That was all ten! Ten ways to pray variously. There is a biblical way to pray, and we just saw that in point one. But that biblical way contains within it a lot of variety so pray variously. Even though there is a lot of freedom and a certain amount of commanded variety in biblical prayer, there are other biblical principles that should apply no matter when or how or what particular variety you are praying. Those are the other four principles I’d like us to look at.
The third biblical principle for maximizing your enjoyment and effectiveness in prayer is number three, pray reverently. For this, please turn to Ecclesiastes 5:2. It wasn’t too long ago that we were studying Ecclesiastes together. You might remember that Ecclesiastes 5:1-7 is a section of practical reminder of what living in the fear of God means. It affects your worship. It means not making rash vows before God and not failing to fulfill your vows that you make, but it also means you are to have a certain approach when you speak to God in prayer or in praise. This is what we read in Ecclesiastes 5:2. Look at that with me,
Do not be hasty in word or impulsive in thought to bring up a matter in the presence of God. For God is in heaven and you are on earth; therefore let your words be few.
We Christians must always be on guard of becoming too casual with God, especially in prayer. It’s true that if you believe in Jesus, you have been saved once and for all in Him and brought into the very throne room of grace. But that amazing gift should never cause you, should never cause us, to start taking God and His holiness or His power for granted. Nor should it cause us to be flippant, unthinking, or merely prattling to God when we pray. Such will not please God and it will make our prayers ineffective and unenjoyable.
Someone will say, Pastor Dave this is Old Testament and we’re in the New Testament era now. Don’t we cry Abba, Father? Even as we said earlier in our service. We do indeed cry Abba, Father (Romans 8:15), and praise the Lord for that wonder! But let’s remember what that means. Abba is not a casual term. It does not really equate to daddy as is sometimes claimed. Really, it’s Aramaic for ‘my father,’ which is a name and a title with great intimacy and affection. Children would call their fathers Abba. But it’s also a name or title with deep respect.
Salvation in Christ should never cause us to lose that holy reverence for God that God so desires to inculcate to imprint in us in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. After all, just going back to the Lord’s Prayer, how does it begin again? Our Father who is in heaven—who is high above in heaven! Hallowed or honored and made holy be Your name! That was the model Jesus gave us for prayer.
Solomon’s not saying anything different here in Ecclesiastes 5:2. Rather, our author Solomon tells us that when you pray to God remember who He is and remember who you are and appreciate the contrast. He is in heaven dwelling in unapproachable light, surrounded in glory and you are on the earth, in the dust and of the dust. Therefore, let your words be few, which is not a prohibition against long prayers, but it is a warning against unrestrained, unthinking, foolish words in prayer. So practical application: you would be wise to take time before your prayer and even in your prayer simply to remember who it is you’re talking to. Remember who God is so that you regard Him rightly in your heart and you speak to Him rightly with your mouth.
Remember, too, it’s not just that God is exalted and glorious and we are low but that He is righteous, and we are sinful. Again, yes, according to the glorious gospel, we who believe in Jesus are clothed in His own righteousness. We are forever justified, forever made clean positionally before God, but that doesn’t mean we forget what we once were and what we still are many times practically in our lives. Our attitude to God in prayer ought to resemble what Jesus tells us about in Luke 18:13-14. This is the repentant tax collector in the story Jesus tells there. Luke 18:13-14, Jesus says,
But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’
That is the worst sinner, the sinner par excellence. What did Jesus say was God’s response to such a prayer? Verse 14,
I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.
Brethren, even though we should come to God boldly in prayer, and I’m just about to talk about that, we must also come humbly, reverently, gratefully because we remember who God is. We remember His greatness, His holiness, and we remember who we are. When we pray to God in holy fear and that affectionate reverence, that is the beginning of wisdom according to Proverbs, God will be pleased. God will hear and our souls will prosper.
Let us beware coming to God casually, insincerely, and even hypocritically lest we fall into the same judgments and discipline that Israel fell under according to Isaiah 29. Isaiah 29:13-14, this is quoted in the New Testament,
Then the Lord said, “Because this people draw near with their words and honor Me with their lip service, but they remove their hearts far from Me, and their reverence for Me consists of tradition learned by rote, therefore behold, I will once again deal marvelously with this people, wondrously marvelous; and the wisdom of their wise men will perish, and the discernment of their discerning men will be concealed.”
Which is to say, I am going to confound them with judgment. If you want to pray to God rightly and well, pray reverently. But there’s a parallel truth which we’ve already introduced. Even as we pray humbly and reverently to our holy God in heaven we must also, number four, pray boldly!
To show you this, turn to Ephesians 3:11-12. Remember that Ephesians is Paul’s letter to new gentile believers in Ephesus. He is writing to explain to them the amazing salvation inheritance that they have by faith in Jesus and how this salvation should cause them to live worthy lives, holy lives. In this section specifically Paul is explaining to the Ephesians that they should not be disheartened that he is in prison. Even in prison because he was preaching to gentiles likes them because Paul regards such as a privilege. He is glad to do it. Near the end of explaining why he’s glad to see gentiles receive salvation Paul says in our two verses, Ephesians 3:11-12,
This was in accordance with the eternal purpose which He carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and confident access through faith in Him.
Now for the sake of our discussion on prayer, I am just going to focus on verse 12. Notice that Paul says that through faith in Christ, we believers have boldness and confident access. Access to what or whom? Well in context, to God and to full salvation blessing, full salvation inheritance, and this is for Jews and Gentiles—both the same. The words for boldness and confidence here, notice, are pretty similar in meaning. Just look up the Greek word for boldness, an alternate translation is the word confidence.
So, Paul is doubly emphasizing how confident we can be that we have been brought near to God. What’s one implication from that? It’s not directly stated here, but certainly it is true that we can come boldly to God in prayer. We ought to come boldly and confidently. Why? Because we know He is our God! Even our Father who loves us, will listen to us, and will grant our requests. Again, we heard this at the beginning of the Lord’s prayer, didn’t we? It begins with ‘our Father.’ Our Father who is in heaven, yes. But our Father, He’s my Father, and He is going to act like a Father! He is going to be loving towards me. He is going to take care of me. Those who are adopted by the Father in Christ, they can come to their Father in prayer knowing that He is eager to listen to them and grant their requests. Children should be able to come confidently to a loving father.
Didn’t we already see this in our previous sermons on prayer? Jesus’ own teaching in Matthew 7:11 says,
If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!
He will give because He is your Father and loves you. John 16:26-27, Jesus again speaking,
In that day you will ask in My name, and I do not say to you that I will request of the Father on your behalf; for the Father Himself loves you, because you have loved Me and have believed that I came forth from the Father.
We might as well add the other verse that we mentioned earlier, Romans 8:15,
For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, “Abba! Father!”
Brethren, according to the scriptures we can come to God in prayer boldly, confidently, expectantly trusting that the Father loves us, He will hear us, and He will grant us the good things for which we ask. This is why we can come to God in father. Even when we are suffering in situations that don’t seem right, if our Father really loves us, we’d bring that to God, too! Saying as it were, my Father I know that You love me so why are You hurting me right now—even so, I know You have a good answer and will make things right.
You see, we are to come to God with both reverence and boldness. These don’t contradict each other; they complement each other, and they inform biblical prayer. He’s commanded us to come this way and He’s honored when we come this way.
You know, I’ve heard some people make an excuse when it comes to prayer. Something like, oh, I don’t pray because I know God is busy and He doesn’t have time for little old me. Or they will say, I don’t pray because God’s not going to want to listen to my prayers, He is holy, and I am sinful. Those may sound like pious reverential statements but they’re actually not! These are actually like Ahaz when he said hypocritically to the prophet Isaiah: I will not ask for a sign or test the Lord. That is Isaiah 7:12 when God commanded him to ask for a sign. Or like the unfaithful slave in the parable of the talents who told his master, I’m just paraphrasing here, I knew you to be a hard and unscrupulous man so I was afraid of failing you, so I didn’t even try. That’s Matthew 25:24.
Saying that you’re too afraid to pray to a righteous God does not honor Him—that’s proud unbelief and is impugning His character. If you really believe God to be who He says to be then you know that He is not only holy and righteous but that He is merciful and that as a Father, He wants His people to come and pray. If you really want to honor Him, you’d take Him at His word. You come to Him in faith and repentance, and you receive from Him salvation and you enjoy worship, petition, and prayer.
You must come reverently to God in prayer because you need to remember who He is, but you also must come boldly to God in prayer because you need to remember who He is.
I know some of you may struggle with that last point because you say to yourself, I have come boldly to God in prayer, I’ve come in faith, I’ve asked Him to provide for needs just as He’s promised, but He still hasn’t done it. I’ve come more than once; I’ve come over many days and months and years, but I still haven’t received an answer. What gives? Does God not love me? Is He going to be faithful to everybody else except me? Well may it never be!
If that’s you or if that has been you, I can’t say exactly what God is doing, why He hasn’t answered that prayer, but I do know this: a fifth biblical principle for maximizing the effectiveness and enjoyment of prayer is number five, pray persistently. God has His own wise reasons for sometimes not giving you that good thing for which you’ve asked. He doesn’t have to explain Himself. We know that it wouldn’t be good if He gave it to you, He has a good reason for withholding it, and He doesn’t have to tell you how exactly. But He’s also called you as His beloved child to keep coming to Him in prayer until you’ve received what you’ve asked.
Jesus taught this principle explicitly in at least two places, both in Luke, Luke 11:5-8 and Luke 15:1-8. For the sake of time, we will just look at the second passage. Please turn in your bibles to Luke 18:1-8. This is the parable of the unjust judge. Jesus tells this parable right after teaching about a second coming to His disciples and right before telling the story about that proud pharisee and the repentant tax collector whose prayers so contrasted. Let’s read the entire parable, Luke 18:1-8,
Now He was telling them a parable to show that at all times they ought to pray and not to lose heart, 2 saying, “In a certain city there was a judge who did not fear God and did not respect man. 3 There was a widow in that city, and she kept coming to him, saying, ‘Give me legal protection from my opponent.’ 4 For a while he was unwilling; but afterward he said to himself, ‘Even though I do not fear God nor respect man, 5 yet because this widow bothers me, I will give her legal protection, otherwise by continually coming she will wear me out.’” 6 And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge said; 7 now, will not God bring about justice for His elect who cry to Him day and night, and will He delay long over them? 8 I tell you that He will bring about justice for them quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?”
Consider this parable. Why is it that the widow finally receives the legal protection that she is due? It’s not because the judge is a good guy, no, but because the widow wears him out by her persistence. Now is God saying He is like this unrighteous judge? Far from! This is one of those things where how much more so is the point. If even an evil judge will give someone justice just because of simple bothersome persistence, how much more will a good God provide loving justice and answer to prayer to those who persist in bringing their good requests to Him? If even an evil judge will do it, how much more God? God will not ignore the cries of His own nor will He delay at all in bringing about what is good. He will bring it about as quickly as possible in accordance with His perfect plant.
The application this parable is giving right to us in verse one. Recognizing that we have such a loving and just judge should cause us not to lose heart but to persist in prayer even through long difficulty. Persisting this way in prayer by faith glorifies God because what are you testifying when you pray in that way? God is worthy to be trusted, worthy to be sought persistently, never quitting. He is that kind of God.
Notice the way Jesus ends the parable in verse eight. He ends with a question related to eschatology. When Jesus comes and God’s people have had to persist in faithful prayer for months, years, decades, centuries waiting for the justice of God, waiting for the ultimate answer to prayer, Jesus asks will there be anyone left who still has faith? What’s the implication? I’d say it’s this: God is ready to reward God glorifying persistent prayer, but is anyone brave enough, perseverant enough, faith-filled enough to take Him up on that offer?
We must confess that we Christians are often not very good at waiting in faith. If God takes more than a week, a month, or a year to answer our prayer we give up. If we would only learn to persist in prayer as Jesus teaches this here, we would learn not to give up but to keep coming to God saying, I believe You so I’m going to keep coming. You know what God says? I’ll reward your persistence; I will answer your prayer! It may not look like God will ever do it, but He says He will. We of course need to be ready for God’s will to be different from our own, praying like Jesus not my will but Your will to be done. But if we’re praying for something truly good, even something that He taught us to pray, then we should not give up. We should keep praying like the widow is saying give me what I ask, I am due this, you promised this, give it to me because I believe you.
You know what? The Bible and Christian history and even many people in this church can testify that even after long times of waiting and praying even when it seems like there is no possibility it could be answered anymore, you know what God did? He answered prayer. God loves, because it particularly glorifies Him, to reward prayer that hangs on even to the last moment. So, you know what we should do? We should pray persistently.
We come now to our final principle. We’ve seen so far that according to the Bible if we want to maximize our effectiveness and enjoyment in prayer, we must number one, pray biblically, learn the Bible, and follow its models for prayer. Number two, pray variously, recognize the enjoyable freedom and variety that should exist in your prayers. Number three, pray reverently, remember the exalted holiness of God, and pray to Him accordingly. Number four, pray boldly, remember the love of God and the salvation work of Christ, and pray accordingly. Number five we just saw, pray persistently, keep praying in faith until we see God keep His promises to you. Now finally number six, pray innocently.
By pray innocently I do not mean that you must be perfectly righteous before you pray to pray to God. Practically in your life that has never been possible for any man except our Lord Jesus. We have access to God even as we read from other scriptures not based on our own practical perfection, our record of righteousness, but by believing in Jesus and His perfect life and substitutionary death on our behalf. Jesus is the one who has secured for us once and for all salvation and full access to God. So that is not what I mean when I say to pray innocently.
Instead, I mean this in a truth that applies to both unbelievers and believers if we are walking in unrepentant sin, if we have not truly turned from our own evil way, our idols, sinful thoughts words or action then God will not hear our prayers. If we live in sin our prayers will be wholly ineffective and totally unenjoyable. God tells us this directly in one of His model prayers. Turn to our last passage, Psalm 66:18. Psalm 66 is a psalm with a pray emphasis, it’s a psalm of praise for answered prayer, even for deliverance from enemies. Toward the end of the psalm the psalmist testifies that he has prayed to God innocently, not with perfection but without known, dominating sin in his life, without a heart divided between God and something else. He comes to God with a clean heart because he notes a certain truth, a certain principle that would otherwise make praying amid sin useless. That’s what he says in Psalm 66:18. Look what it says there,
If I regard wickedness in my heart, the Lord will not hear;
It’s straightforward, isn’t it? Sin in your life and in your heart blocks God from hearing you pray. Not in a sense that God doesn’t know what you say, but rather out of His holy discipline He chooses not to regard what you say. See disobedience is like a jammer that prevents your prayers for good things going through. Why? Our good God is too good, too loving, to pretend that everything in your relationship is alright and just reward hypocrisy. He’s not going to do that, He’s a good Father.
Consider this, brethren, could this be the reason why some of your prayers are not answered? Are you yet regarding iniquity in your own heart? Do you come to God confessing sin, expressing your desire to turn away from it, but you never do so? You continue to allow that sin to dominate your life. If so, friend, I’ve got to tell you from the Bible that you’re deceiving yourself. You don’t really want to get rid of that sin. That’s fake repentance and the result in prayers are just prattled before God. He will not regard such prayers.
To get more specific and to bring in some other scriptures. Is unforgiveness, a bitter heart, and a refusal to pursue reconciliation with another person with whom you have conflict, is that a jammer to your prayer? Listen to Mark 11:25. Jesus teaches this,
Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father who is in heaven will also forgive you your transgressions.
Unforgiveness will block your prayers. What about mistreatment toward your spouse? Is that jamming your prayers? Listen to 1 Peter 3:7, particular exhortation to husbands, it is Father’s Day after all,
You husbands in the same way, live with your wives in an understanding way, as with someone weaker, since she is a woman; and show her honor as a fellow heir of the grace of life, so that your prayers will not be hindered.
One more example, are your covetous desires, the ones that manifest in your angry conflicts with other people, are they jamming your prayers? Because James says in James 4:2-3, and we’ve seen this before,
You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. You are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel. You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures.
When we come to God with this iniquity in our hearts God will not hear. That could be a real dampener on your prayer life, I can understand you not wanting to pray. In fact, maybe you are at the point where you don’t want to pray anymore. Has unrepentant sin caused you to give up on prayer? I can understand why you can’t enjoy fellowship and you can’t see answered prayer when you’re living in sin. Have you stopped praying because of sin?
You know, I said to you before when we were talking about the discipline of the Bible, as many others have said, the Bible will keep you away from sin and sin will keep you away from the Bible. Same thing is true of prayer. Prayer will keep you away from sin, but sin will keep you away from prayer. If you’re struggling with prayer sometimes the issue is much more basic. Are you continuing to live in sin? You got to deal with that first. And don’t say, well I guess I will just give up on prayer and I’ll just continue in sin. No! That is the way to death! That is the fool’s way that God constantly exhorts you in the Bible not to take.
Rather, what is the wise way? It is to repent. Repent and believe the Gospel for the first time if necessary or again if necessary. God is life. He is your true treasure, not anything in the world and certainly not any sin. No sin is worth giving up God or loving a relationship with Him and the ability to come in prayer towards Him. So give up your sin and turn back to God letting go of whatever is keeping you away from Him, whatever is dishonoring Him give that up and turn back to God and then enjoy prayer with Him.
Now perhaps the sin that you might need to repent of today is prayerlessness. After all, we have examined that this is a command from God, be devoted to prayer. Are you saying that I don’t want to do that, or I don’t have time for that? Maybe that’s the thing you need to repent of. But again, it’s for your good so that you can enjoy the fellowship, the obedience, the answered prayer, and the realigned heart. Do you need to repent of prayerlessness today?
I’ve told you before it’s my prayer and my hope that this month, June, would be a transformative month for our church. That we, all of us, might truly embrace what God has meant for us, which is a life of disciplined devotion to God in prayer. What do you need to change in your life to make that happen? Whatever it is, do it because you know what the result will be? It will be blessing! It will be a blessing in your life and blessing in this church. Imagine if all of us here come to God in prayer the way He’s told us to. What would be the result? We together will behold the glory of God and we will see Him work mightily in our church and through our church. Isn’t what we want as Christians? If so, then let’s discipline ourselves for godliness, even specifically for the purpose of prayer.
Let’s pray. Lord God, we need to confess again our prayerlessness before You. Lord thank You that we have grown, we’re not where we used to be even when it comes to prayer. You have enabled us to pray. You have put faith in us enough so that we can come and pray and yet God, I think many of us, collectively all of us, don’t pray like we ought. We have every reason to come, You have even shown us how. God, thank You for Your forgiveness, but let’s no longer walk the way we are going and have been going. Lord, let us come to You in prayer. Let us discipline ourselves for prayer. God, do that work in us! We know our responsibility God, but we ask you because you’re a God who answers prayer, even a prayer to help us pray! God, we want to behold Your glory, just as Moses prayed. We want to see souls saved. We want to see Your people sanctified and we want to see Your people joyful in knowing You and following after You and we know that prayer is such a central part of that so help us God. Help this people, help anyone who’s listening today to turn from sin, to turn from distraction, to turn from false treasures, whatever it is Lord that is keeping us from You and prayer. Help us to pray. In Jesus name, amen.