I'm beginning an email series on praying. I hope this will encourage and stimulate each of you to grow in your prayer ministry. Each entry will be fairly brief, and I'll try to send them once a week.
Pastor Van Ness
If I asked you what prayer is, you’d probably say something like, “Prayer is talking to God”, which I would say, too. Then, if I asked you to explain prayer a little more, you’d probably agree with this statement: “Prayer is coming to God through Christ.” After all, Jesus is our access to God.
Now, let’s take it a little further: Who and what do we need to pray well? Are you having trouble with the question? Let’s look at how other serious Christians have answered that question?
Here’s an answer I like a lot: “Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, in the name of Christ, by the help of his Spirit”. That’s the first part of what the Westminster Larger Catechism says about prayer (Question 178). As you can see, this statement answers the “who” part of my last question. To pray well we need the Holy Spirit (We pray “by the help of God’s [Holy] Spirit”).
And now for the “what” part of the answer. Here’s what the same men say (in The Westminster Shorter Catechism):
"Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God for things agreeable to his will.” (Question 98). In this definition of prayer they don’t say anything about the Holy Spirit. But they do answer the “what” part of the question: we pray well when we ask God for things that are “agreeable to his will”. Where do we go to know what His will is? He tells us in the Bible; his Word is his will.
Now we can answer both parts of the last question. Who and what do we need to pray well? God the Holy Spirit and God’s will (the Bible).
Benjamin Palmer, who prayed a lot and wrote a wonderful book about prayer, said that since each of the answers has only one of the answers (either the Who or the What), it would be helpful to put the answers together, like so: "Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, by the help of his Spirit . . .”
If you’ve read my previous prayer blog (“Prayer that Overcomes Distractions”), you may remember that I’ve already emphasized how important it is to let God’s Word guide you as you pray. But now I’m expanding my emphasis to say, it’s also important that we have the Holy Spirit to pray well.
But now maybe some of you have a good question. If the Holy Spirit has inspired the Word, isn’t it redundant to say I need both Him and the Word when I pray? No, not at all. Not only has the Spirit inspired the Bible; he also illumines Bible readers so they can understand what he has inspired.
Not only that, God’s Word—his revealed will—is not just a copy, a record, of what God has said (in the way that all books are records of what their authors have said). The Bible is also what God is continuing to say. God never changes (he’s immutable). So what he said that was perfectly appropriate thousands of years ago is still perfectly appropriate today. In a way, then, we may also say that God’s Word is really His voice. Through his Word, God speaks to us today just as fully as He’s ever spoken to any other Christians. Thomas Manton said, “The Spirit of God rides most triumphantly in his own chariot.”
Just consider what will happen when you pray well. When you pray, keep your Bible open, and the Spirit will help you understand not only what God is saying, but how that applies to your life today. When Christ tells you, “Follow me,” he means, “Keep reading my Word”. Jesus sent the Spirit, and through the Spirit, he still uses what the Spirit has inspired, to show you how to praise God and what to ask for and how to think and live. The Bible not only tells you that David confessed his sins and repented of them; the Spirit shows you that you, too, need to confess and repent today. God the Son not only told his twelve disciples “Follow me”; God the Spirit tells you that you also should follow Christ.
There’s another question you might have. What good is it to keep my Bible open while I pray? Aren’t I supposed to keep my eyes closed when I pray? The short answer is: No.
Will you ask God’s Spirit to help you pray? If you do, you’ll help him answer the prayer by keeping your Bible open while you pray. If you do that regularly, you can say confidently, “There, God is speaking to me and I know I’m speaking to him.” That’s what you call a good relationship.
Bonus Reflection –
You can see more clearly the Spirit’s work with open Bibles while we pray if you see the rest of what both of the Westminster Catechism answers tell us about prayer: it includes “confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of his mercies.”
When Paul shepherded the church in Corinth he targeted certain people there who were casting doubts on his authority by lying about him. Paul tells the Corinthians, “We . . . take every thought captive . . ." (2 Cor. 10:5). As new creatures in Christ we are given the ability to recognize what’s false and overcome it with the truth.
Christians can also use Paul’s principle in other areas, including evangelism and apologetics. Richard Pratt’s book about evangelism, Every Thought Captive, comes to mind.
And when you pray. You can take your own distracting thoughts captive when you pray, including otherwise good thoughts that aren’t part of what you’re praying about. This is good to know, because being distracted while praying often hinders our praying. Consider the confession of 17th-century pastor John Donne (I’ve updated some of his English so that you won’t become . . . well, distracted):
"I invite God . . . into my house, but when he is there I neglect [him] because of a noisy fly, the rattle of a passing coach, or a creaking door. I keep praying with uplifted eyes and bowed knees, but if God would ask me when I last thought about him, I couldn’t tell him. Sometimes I realize that I have forgotten what I was praying about; worse yet, I cannot remember when I began to forget. A memory of yesterday's pleasures, a fear of tomorrow's dangers, a crumb under my knees, a light in my eyes, an anything . . . troubles me while I pray."
Sound familiar? It’s does to me! I “pray” like that often. Well, it’s not hopeless. Here are two ways to "take every thought captive" when you pray.
First, when you pray, offer your stray thoughts to God as they occur to you. It’s natural to think about other things when you pray. But what’s not natural, getting rid of what distracts you, the Holy Spirit will enable you to do: hand over each errant thought to your heavenly Father. He will hold it for you so that you can resume praying what you were really trying to pray about. Practicing this will deepen your conviction that God cares about every department of your life: your tax deadline, your calendar, or your weekend date with shrimp scampi at Maggiano’s Little Italy.
You can do the same thing in bed, after your alarm goes off, when your mind clears and you begin to think about a multitude of things, including your problems. C. S. Lewis gets it right:
"The moment you wake up each morning, all your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists in shoving it all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other, larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in."
In other words, praying disciples turn over life’s details to God. This is what my friend Jimmy Lyons meant when he said that when he woke up he prayed, “Good morning, Lord, this is your day; I am your child, show me your way.” That’s general, of course, but once you’ve reiterated who’s in charge, you’ve opened the door to give God the specifics.
Second, when you pray, keep your Bible open (and your eyes) to use what you’ve just read to guide your prayers, including specific things.
Christians mature when they put Bible reading and prayer together to form a conversation. Christ has brought you to this relationship: God speaks to you and you speak to God. So when you pray, keep your Bible open.
Geo. Mueller was frustrated about his “prayer life”. Every morning after he read the Bible, he’d pray, but he wouldn’t get very far because he became so distracted. Then the Holy Spirit blessed Mueller with an insight that solved his problem. He discovered that when he left his Bible open to meditate on what he’d just read, not only did God feed his soul, he also was moved to pray by what he had read.
A certain man had panic attacks when he thought about the crushing burdens in his life. But then he learned how to think about his problems, and was able to do a lot better. Later, he wrote about it in the form of a conversation with himself: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.” (Ps. 42:5,11)
What did this man learn to do? Martyn Lloyd-Jones says that he stopped listening to himself when he began talking to himself about his relationship with God. He reminded himself from the Bible that God is great and that he loves his people. Then the man could pray, because his mind was on what God says, not on the things he’d allowed to distract him.
Give your thoughts to God and let his own thoughts guide what you say to him. What do these two strategies have in common? They assume that you, a new creation in Christ, will take responsibility for your spiritual growth. Whenever you fret, take yourself aside: remind yourself of what God says.
A recent headline says, “Pedestrian Deaths on the Rise”. One of the main factors? “Driver and walker distraction. . . . More people are distracted by smartphones. . . . Pedestrian deaths had been declining for decades, until 2009, when smartphone sales and data use began to spike. . . . Cellphone use shows a consistent, large scale change, year after year.” You don’t need a smartphone to know how easily distracted we are. Such chronic problems need profound solutions. Open the book and read it well, leave it open to meditate on it, and be guided to pray undistracted.
In Psalm 23, David testifies that God "restores my soul" (v. 3). There’s no better time to see this in your own life than when you pray regularly. J. I. Packer says that when a Christian prays, he is, "at his sanest and wisest."
Benjamin Palmer makes the same point in a more clinical way. Palmer says that sin has mixed up our personalities:
“Temptation addresses fancy and taste, and snares our emotions. Our emotions seduce our mind by obscuring our perceptions. Then our wills act blindly to carry out what the dulled mind has decreed.” Long-story-short? When you bypass your conscience, "you are drawn into evil through a fraud practiced on your mind. You become a victim of a conspiracy in which reason is dethroned and your conscience is paralyzed."
But by God’s grace, the Gospel in the life of the believer who prays regularly restores “proper equilibrium” to "all the powers of the soul”. The Holy Spirit will put your mind, conscience, emotions and will back in good order. How do you know? Your daily living—your actions and habits—will exhibit more of Christ’s influence.
Good advice about this is easy to find. "Life stitched w. prayer is less likely to unravel.” "The family (or couple) that prays together stays together.” And these lines in the hymn, "What a Friend We Have in Jesus": "O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear, all because we do not carry everything to God in prayer!" To say it in a more everyday way: If you don’t talk to God about your problems, you’ll forfeit some peace and feel more unnecessary pain.
God really does restore his people’s souls. Jesus says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Mt. 11:28). If you’re out of the habit of praying and your life is becoming unnecessarily out-of-whack, ask the Lord to help you pray. Remind yourself who you are because God has done good things in you in His Son. Then see if he doesn’t restore your soul. He’ll get the glory and you’ll resume moving forward.