Prayer – What is it?
Dr. John Hoole – February 19, 2017
Today we continue in our series on “Prayer.” In our last lesson, we took note that most of us are not at all satisfied with our prayer life. I mentioned that many people in church history over the past 400 years also were frustrated with their own prayer life.
Most of us are also aware that James 5:16 says: “The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man (or woman) avails much.” But we don’t think our prayer life is very effective at all. Therefore, we conclude we must not be very righteous.
And yet, as we noted in an earlier lesson, every writer in the New Testament extolled prayer as a vibrant part of a believer’s contact with their God.
I do believe prayer is the single most significant activity a believer can do. Prayer is the answer to life’s situations and difficulties. It is the avenue for receiving wisdom and strength. And if prayer is that important, we need to know more about it.
Today I would like to begin to explore some of the many facets of this subject of Prayer. When it comes to prayer, a number of questions naturally arise.
1. Can a person be saved without praying for salvation?
2. Why is it the common practice to bow the head when praying?
3. Is it important that we pray audibly?
4. Can Satan hinder our prayers? And if so, how?
5. Does prayer change things, really?
6. Is it ever proper to address a prayer directly to the Holy Spirit?
7. Why do we say “amen” at the end of our prayers?
8. How long should we pray?
9. Does God always answer our prayers?
10. When should we pray?
11. Where should we pray
12. What does the Bible specifically instruct us to pray about?
13. What is the difference, if any, between praying as a group and praying privately?
14. Why pray at all?
WHAT IS PRAYER? HOW WOULD YOU DEFINE OR DESCRIBE IT?
Dwight L. Moody was once addressing a crowded meeting of children in Edinburgh, Scotland.
In order to get their attention, he began with a question. He asked: “What is prayer?” He really wasn’t looking for a reply and expected to give the answer himself. To his amazement, scores of little hands shot up all over the hall. He asked one lad to reply, and the answer was clear and correct. The lad said: “Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God for things agreeable to His will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins and thankful, acknowledgment of His mercies.”
Mr. Moody’s delighted comment was, “Thank God, my boy, that you were born in Scotland.” But that was over a century ago. What sort of answer would he get today. How many American children could give a definition of prayer?
“Prayer is a sincere, sensible, affectionate pouring out of the heart or soul to God, through Christ, in the strength and assistance of the Holy Spirit, for such things as God hath promised, or according to the Word, for the good of the church, with submission, in faith, to the will of God.”
I believe there are at least four aspects of the definition of prayer. I will give all four now, and then discuss each of them.
1. Prayer is opening the door of our heart allowing God entrance.
2. Prayer is conversation with God.
3. Prayer is the contact of a living soul with a living God.
4. Prayer involves seeking God’s greatest good for your life or that of another.
1. Prayer is the opening of the door of our heart allowing God entrance
Revelation 3:20 (NAS)
20 'Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him, and will dine with him, and he with Me.
I doubt that I know of a passage in the whole Bible which throws greater light upon what prayer is than this one. This is what prayer is all about. It’s about opening our heart, where we allow Christ entrance into the secret places of our heart, and where we truly enjoy the presence of the Almighty. To pray is nothing more - or less - than the opening of the door giving Jesus access to our needs, and permitting Him to exercise His own power in dealing with them. Prayer is communion with God.
Let me give you a homely illustration. We have given to each of our children a key to our home. When they arrive, they do not have to ring the doorbell or knock on the door. All they have to do is insert the key and come in. They have a special relationship with Paula and me. They are our children. They don’t even need an appointment. They have immediate access to us.
Isn’t that what Jesus meant. Those who have a personal relationship with Him have immediate access to Him in prayer. Prayer is a key to unlock the door to the throne room of heaven, allowing you access to request anything you desire. He wants us to ask Him for anything. But it all begins by allowing Him entrance into the deepest places of our heart.
2. Prayer is conversation with God
The one who prays makes the assumption that God is real, and that He is a personal deity. And because He is personal, all people can offer prayers. Prayer is talking to God. To understand that, let’s go way back to what I believe is the first recorded prayer in the Bible.
DO YOU KNOW WHEN THE FIRST RECORDED PRAYER OCCURRED AND WHO WAS INVOLVED?
Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
DO YOU THINK THIS PRAYER OCCURRED BEFORE OR AFTER ADAM AND EVE SINNED?
It was after.
It occurs when they were hiding from God (Genesis 3:8). They heard him walking in the Garden. It is true that there were words from God recorded prior to this moment. But this is the very first dialog between God and man recorded in the Scriptures. For prayers to occur, there must be a dialog. That’s what a conversation is – two people speaking to each other. Prayer, basically, is simply conversation with God.
Genesis 3:8-9 NKJV
8 And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden.
9 Then the LORD God called to Adam and said to him, "Where are you?"
This is the beginning of prayer. It is suggested here, and I think deliberately so, that this was an habitual thing in the lives of Adam and Eve. Each day in the cool of the evening, God would come down and walk and talk with them. Daily they had experienced the habitual blessing of conversing with their Creator.
We are not sure just how God appeared to Adam and Eve. We do know that no one has actually seen God physically at any time (John 1:18; 1 John 4:12). We also know that they heard the sound of his walking in the garden. So, it doesn’t sound like He was in the form of a spirit. The sound of His footsteps reminded Adam and Eve that the time had come for their daily conversation and interchange with God. And we are told here that they didn’t hide until they heard the sound of Him walking.
Many believe that God appeared as another human being. If so, we then can say that in some faint way, this pictures the incarnation, when God himself would come down and be man. But, when that occurs, He wouldn’t just appear as a man, but actually be one of us..
One of the remarkable things about this incident, though, is that the initiative for beginning this prayer starts with God. It is the Lord who comes into the Garden. It is the Lord who calls out for man. Prayer, therefore, begins with God.
Now let me link this thought with the Passage we read in the first definition of prayer we discussed a few minutes ago.
Revelation 3:20 (NAS)
20 'Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him, and will dine with him, and he with Me.
Earlier in our lesson, as we were attempting to define “prayer, I stated no Bible verse throws greater light upon what prayer is than this one. Prayer is the opening of the door…..where we allow Christ entrance and together we have fellowship, as we dine with each other. Truly, that is what prayer is all about – having communion and fellowship with God.
I know that most of the time when we consider this verse in Rev. 3:20, it is depicted as Christ knocking on the door of a sinner, with a desire that the person will open the door to his heart, lets Jesus in, and thus begin an intimate relationship, as a saved person. And I have no problem with that application. But could it be applied differently?
Back in the 50’s & 60’s, Gary S. Paxton was a song-writer. In 1960, he had a song reach #1 in the nation. (“Alley Oop”). His band was called “The Hollywood Argyles.” He not only composed a number of individual songs, but also wrote orchestration for some of the movies of that era. Then, in September, 1971, He got saved and turned his talents to writing and singing and speaking for the Lord.
Probably his most well-known gospel song is “He Was There All The Time.” In the chorus of that song, he interjects what I think was an inspired thought --- “waiting patiently in line, He was there all the time.”
This is not some new revelation……not at all. The thought of “standing in a line” says many people want your attention and Jesus is patiently waiting in line, waiting for you to finally see Him there, or hear His voice, and give him some of your attention. Jesus will not force himself through the door of your heart, and if you are not saved, today He is patiently knocking at your door, waiting for the clamor of your life to die down just enough for you to hear his knock and His voice.
While reading Revelation 3:20, we must keep in mind to whom John was writing.
IN REVELATION 2 & 3, WHO IS JOHN WRITING TO?
Those two chapters are addressed to 7 churches in Asia Minor, specifically, but to the entire church at large as well. These words are spoken to those who were followers of Christ. But this was a church that had gotten caught up in the things of the world. It had become rich and increased with good and in the process didn’t see any great need for being on fire for God. Their fellowship with God dropped off to an almost non-existent state and as a result, it says they had become lukewarm and God was about to spew them out of His mouth.
But Jesus, being patient and longsuffering - not willing that any should perish -- says “What you need is to spend time with me, so you won’t be lukewarm anymore. But I won’t force myself into your life, so I will patiently knock on the door of your heart, and call your name, until you hear. And then, if you open the door, I will come in an sup with you and you with me.”
How many times has Jesus knocked on my door, wanting to spend some time one-on-one and I either was too busy to hear the knock, or unprepared to dine with Him if I let Him in. Like the man in the parable in Luke 11, has Jesus’ knock caught me totally by surprise.
Revelation 3 says that because the Church had no intimacy - no fellowship - with Jesus, they had become wretched and blind. They couldn’t even see their own depraved estate.
Prayer begins with God. It is He that comes to our garden. It is He that calls to us. It is He who knocks on our door. And now He is patiently waiting for your and my response.
Again, prayer in its simplest form is conversation with God. And God is the One who initiates the dialog.
Consider this statement: There are always only two persons represented in true prayer – you and God – and no one else. Others may be present as in this Garden of Eden account, but when a person speaks to God, it is just them and God.
But someone may object, asking, “what about public prayer.” Even in a group like this where one person prays for the requests of the whole class, it is still a prayer between that one person and God. At the same time, the rest of the class should also be praying. You may be listening to the person chosen to take the collective requests to God, and you may even agree with what is said, but as soon as you do, that agreement becomes your prayer.
DOES THE COVERSATION WITH GOD HAVE TO BE INTELLIGIBLE?
Someone has said, “Prayer is the heart’s sincere desire – unspoken or expressed.” Even when your prayer is unintelligible to you, it is not with our God. A person may misinterpret what you are saying to them.
God never misinterprets what you say to Him. In fact, He already knows what you are going to say before you say it. Therefore, you are safe talking to God about anything.
Psalms 5:1-2 NKJV
1 Give ear to my words, O LORD, Consider my meditation.
2 Give heed to the voice of my cry, My King and my God, For to You I will pray.
Three forms of prayer are mentioned in these two verses.
1. “Give ear to my words…” These are words understood by the speaker.
2. “Consider my meditations.” These are the unuttered thoughts of ones heart.
3. “Give heed to the voice of my cry,….” These are audible sounds which are not always intelligible to the person speaking. But the psalmist says this cry has a “voice,” coming from our heart unto His.
God has no problem understanding any of these forms prayer may take. Sometimes we cannot put our prayers into words – they are but a cry. But the Lord can comprehend the meaning for he hears a voice in our cry. Tears have a tongue, and grammar, and language all their own, and our Father knows that language.
3. Prayer is the contact of a living soul with a Living God.
Psalm 25:1 (NIV)tell us:
To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul;
What a beautiful description that is of prayer. The primary goal of true prayer seeks God Himself, rather than the answer to our requests. This is true because when you have God, you have everything else we need.
Matthew 6:33 NKJV
But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.
Prayer is something deeper than mere words. Prayer is present in the soul before it has been formulated into words. And it abides in the soul after the last words of prayer have passed over our lips. When we lift up our soul to God in prayer, it gives God an opportunity to do what He desires in us and with us. It is putting ourselves at God’s disposal. When we pray, it become God’s opportunity to do great things.
4. Prayer involves seeking God’s greatest good for your life or that of another
Philippians 4:19 NKJV
19 And my God shall supply all your need according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus.
Prayer is often the cry to God for specific things. It is an appeal from our heart to His. Prayer is God’s life-giving breath.
As we mentioned earlier, prayer has its beginnings in God Himself. No matter how deep a heart’s longing may be, none of us would attempt to make contact with God unless some provision, outside of ourselves, made it possible for having an audience with Him.
They would lock me up if I tried to enter the grounds of the White House or Buckingham Palace without an invitation. Similarly, unless the King of kings invites us into His presence, we will not have access to Him. But that’s the great news…….He has!!!!
HOW DO WE KNOW WE HAVE BEEN GIVEN ACCESS TO GOD?
Hebrews 4:16(KJV) says,
16 Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.
God has invited us into His presence.
In Jeremiah 29:12, God declares:
Pray to Me, and I will listen to you
3 Call unto me, and I will answer thee, and shew thee great and mighty things, which thou knowest not.
Psalms 65:2 NKJV
2 O You who hear prayer, to You all flesh will come.
Prayer then, is not overcoming God’s reluctance -- it is responding to God’s provision. It is not forcing our way into God’s presence like a gate-crasher at a party -- God has already granted us an audience. Prayer is merely taking advantage of that invitation. God has committed Himself to be available to the person who will pray in Jesus’ name.
I am reminded of a story told by Josh McDowell, printed in Our Daily Bread. While Josh was away attending seminary in California, his father went Home to be with the Lord. His mother had died many years earlier, when He was very young, but Josh was not sure of her salvation.
He became depressed, thinking she might be lost – was she a Christian or not? The thoughts obsessed him. “Lord,” he prayed, “somehow give me the answer so I can get back to normal. I’ve just got to know.”
Two days later, Josh drove out to the ocean. He walked to the end of a pier to be alone. There sat an old woman in a lawn-chair, fishing. “Son, where’s your home, originally?” she asked. “Michigan – Union City,” Josh replied. “Nobody’s heard of it. I tell people it’s a suburb of----“ “Battle Creek,” interrupted the woman. “I had a cousin from there. Did you know the McDowell family?
Stunned, Josh responded, “Yes, I’m Josh McDowell!” “I can’t believe it,” said the woman. “I’m a cousin to your mother.” “Do you remember anything at all about my mother’s spiritual life?” asked Josh. “Why sure – your mom and I were just girls – teenagers – when a tent revival came to town. It was the fourth night – we both went forward to accept Christ.” “Praise God!” shouted Josh, startling the surrounding fishermen.
Today we go to church to receive our spiritual food. We sit in rows of chairs, as if at a meal, and expect the pastor to have prepared a feast. We may even think our spiritual food should be packaged so that we can take it on the run, with minimal interruption in our lives. However, to feast with Jesus requires us to stop and fellowship with the Savior. We must desire this time of feasting as much as we desire life itself.
And that takes me right back to The Sermon on the Mount - back to the fourth Beatitude.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.”
Hunger is a wonderful thing. It gives us life. Hunger is what makes eating a pleasure. And without it we might starve to death.
One day your appetite will be stimulated again. Words will again leap out of the pages of the Bible and taste good. Once again the spiritual saliva will flow as you sense your need for His presence. Once again the food has become as appetizing as ever -- and you taste and see that the Lord - He is very good indeed!!
Psalm 107:4-9 (NIV) says it so well.
4 Some wandered in desert wastelands,…….
5 They were hungry and thirsty, and their lives ebbed away.
6 Then they cried out to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress.
8 Let them give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for men,
9 for he satisfies the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things.
Did you notice how their thirst and hunger was satisfied? They went to the Lord.
Is Jesus knocking at your door - at mine? Is He calling our name? How is our sense of need for sitting and eating at His table. It’s only the hungry that will eat and be filled.