Over the past several weeks we have looked at the spiritual battle that comes with following Christ. It is a fierce battle and Paul has reminded us that God has not left us to fight alone; He has given us resources (armor) with which to fight the battle. These are resources from God that are meant to be used as we depend on him.
John MacArthur has written,
It is especially easy for Christians who live in a free and prosperous society to feel secure just as they are, presuming on instead of depending on God’s grace. It is easy to become so satisfied with physical blessings that we have little desire for spiritual blessings, and to become so dependent on our physical resources that we feel little need for spiritual resources. When programs, methods, and money produce such obvious and impressive results, there is a proneness to confuse human success with divine blessing.
This morning Paul will remind us of the most powerful weapon we have at our disposal: prayer. It is through prayer that we tap into the strength that God is eager to provide to His followers. Paul writes,
18 Pray in the Spirit at all times and on every occasion. Stay alert and be persistent in your prayers for all believers everywhere.
If you will, prayer is the glue that holds all the other pieces of the armor together. You see, it is not just a matter of us putting on the armor and going out to fight . . .we must put on the armor and be ready to fight as the LORD directs and gives us strength! We tap into this direction and strength through prayer.
D. Martyn Lloyd–Jones wrote, “our ultimate position as Christians is tested by the character of our prayer life.”
If you are like me, that statement (though surely true) makes me uncomfortable. If you struggle to make time for prayer, to have a real conversation with God (as opposed to merely giving Him our wish list), and waiting on the Lord, you are challenged by these words. This morning I hope we can look at this as fellow believers who want to learn how to pray effectively.
We Are to Pray “In the Spirit”
The Bible tells us (Romans 8:26) that “we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words.”
Some believe that “praying in the Spirit” means we are to pray in a language that we do not understand. Though that may on occasion happen, I don’t think that is what is intended here.
To pray in the Spirit means to pray consistent with The Spirit’s guidance and will. It means to line up our minds with His mind. If we pray according to the Spirit we are letting the Holy Spirit direct our praying. That doesn’t mean we are lazy in prayer. It means we are attentive in prayer.
Think about the conversations you have with others. You may go into the conversation with things you want to share, but if you really are having a conversation, you have to listen to and interact with, the other person. This means the conversation often will go in a different direction than anticipated.
Youth leaders, teachers, and many others, find that they are much more effective if they pay attention to where their students are mentally and then adjust their instruction to them. Effective communicators are always making adjustments based on the response of the other person.
This is what we are called to do. We must come into prayer taking time to listen to the Holy Spirit. A good way to do this is to begin your prayer time reading God’s Word. If we start by praying about what we read we will quickly be able to get in tune with God’s Spirit. Likewise, if we come into prayer seeking to impose our will on the Lord we will only end up frustrated. The challenge in prayer is to tune our hearts to His . . . not the other way around.
We Are to Pray Continually
We are told to pray “at all times”. Paul is not saying that we need to always be praying (in which case we would never accomplish anything). He is telling us that we should be in an attitude of prayer, or a readiness to pray, at all times.
We should be like two people who are traveling together. You don’t necessarily talk all the time you are together. You will talk periodically. There will be a comment here, an observation there, a question, and at times we will just visit about “stuff”. At other times there will be silence.
We should set aside blocks of time for quiet and prayer but that should not be the end of our prayer time. We need to learn to talk with God throughout the day. We pray for people as we see them. We discuss our feelings and attitudes as we become aware of them. And we should express gratitude throughout the day.
What we want to avoid is behaving as if we should close the door to our place of prayer when we leave and not talk with the Lord again until we return the next day. On the contrary, we are to be like people who sit down to have a good conversation and then continue that conversation throughout the day.
We Are to Pray in All Circumstances
We are to pray in every circumstance. One of the mistakes we make in prayer is that we pray only when we “feel like it”. Satan will work hard to make sure we seldom feel like praying. It is better to come to God in prayer at our regular time and confess that we feel distant (or indifferent in our praying) and we need God’s help. We can (and should be) honest about frustration, anger, and hurt. Good prayer begins with honesty. In fact it is in our times of struggle that we often find the greatest benefit in prayer.
As you read through the Psalms there are many times when the Psalmist starts with a question, or shares his frustration or even his anger. In Psalm 2, for example, David starts with “Why are the nations so angry? Why do they waste their time with futile plans?” As David was being pursued by King Saul (Saul wanted to kill David because he saw David as a threat to his throne) he wrote many Psalms expressing his frustration. In most of these Psalms the author begins where he is emotionally and mentally and then works through those issues in prayer until they are again in line with the heart of God. That is a good practice for us.
When we are tempted we should pray about the temptation we are facing. When we encounter needy people we should pray for them right then and there. When we need wisdom we should send up a cry to God for that wisdom. When we see anger, bitterness or resentment building within us we should talk to God about those things. The door to prayer should remain open all day long.
Our prayers should also be of different types. Sometimes our prayer will involve confession of sin and bad attitudes. At other times we will express worship, wonder, or gratitude for God’s greatness. At other times we pray for guidance and wisdom. At still other times we should intercede for (or pray on behalf of) others. In our quiet times of personal prayer it is a good idea to include time for all of these things.
Take time to worship or appreciate God. When we worship the Lord we are not “flattering God”. We are instead testifying again to His greatness. We are reminding ourselves of the character of our great God.
We should make time for confession. This is when we ask God to forgive us for the things we know we did wrong.
- When we disobeyed His clear instruction in the Bible
- When we “knew” what we should do and didn’t do it
- When we hurt someone
- When we had a bad attitude
- When we are guilty of our own acts of idolatry (looking to other things to satisfy us instead of looking to the Lord)
I have found that it is valuable (and threatening) to ask God to show me things that are wrong or going wrong in my life. I don’t often like facing the things that come to mind, but they are important. The Holy Spirit may convict you about your time management (or lack thereof), the way you spend your money, the way your actions show a lack of regard for the people around you, your sense of arrogance or pride, or an anxiety that reveals a lack of trust. If we ask God to show us what is wrong, we need to be willing to be still and allow Him to bring to mind those problem areas in our lives.
We are to Pray Persistently
Jesus speaks a great deal about being persistent or steadfast in prayer. This is something difficult for us because we are used to being able to get things quickly. We get information immediately from Google, we can order things online (never having to leave home) and they are delivered in a day or two. We cook our food in a microwave, we frequent “fast food” restaurants, and sometimes we have our food delivered to our door. We watch movies “on demand” and we carry cell phones so that we are never out of touch. With text messaging and e-mail we don’t ever have to wait to communicate something to someone. Consequently, when we come to pray we feel we should be able to “give our order” and receive our answer.
Prayer doesn’t work that way. It’s not that God CANNOT give us what we ask for immediately, He certainly can. But He doesn’t. It’s not that God is reluctant and will only respond if we “bug Him” long enough. I won’t know for sure why there are delays in answer to prayer and I suspect we won’t know until we get to Heaven, but here are some possible reasons,
- Important things are learned by waiting. We develop a greater hunger for lost people as we pray for them year after year. We learn compassion as we have to wait for a healing. We learn to appreciate blessings if we have to wait for them. Sometimes God’s delays helps us become more self-sufficient. God is at work even in the delays.
- Some delays take place because a spiritual battle is going on. I don’t pretend to understand the nature of the battle but the Bible does tell us that Satan is doing his best to hinder our prayers (remember the book of Daniel?).
- God understands the importance of timing. Some things can’t happen until other things are in place. Think about it: if we pray for someone who is not a believer it would be nice if God would just zap them and make them His follower. However, to do that would negate man’s freedom. Instead the person needs to be exposed to the Word of God. They need to see the love of Christ in others. Sometimes they need to get questions answered. And all of this has to take place before they are ready to make any kind of commitment to the Lord.
We need to remember that just because we don’t see what God is doing, it doesn’t mean He isn’t doing anything. God is always working. He is working in us, and He is working in those for whom we pray.
Let’s also not forget that sometimes we ask for things that we think are good but actually they are not. Our perspective is limited. In the times when God seems quiet we must be persistent asking Him to teach us what we need to learn and to change our prayer if we are asking for the wrong things.
We Are to Pray for Others
There are many people who need our prayer support: Pastors, Missionaries, our mates, our Children, People who are sick, Persecuted believers, Civic leaders, Church leaders, people who are going through a difficult time, People facing a major challenge, people who have not come to place their faith in Jesus.
In fact, there are so many people who need prayer that we sometimes are overwhelmed. And sometimes when we are overwhelmed we just give up; we walk away from prayer because the task feels too overwhelming. Sometimes, because the need is so great in the lives of others, we find ourselves reciting what sounds a lot like a Christmas wish list. Prayer loses that sense of personal intimacy and becomes a chore that we have to “get through”. We stop talking WITH God and start demanding OF God.
I believe we should pray for many people. However, if we are quiet before the Lord . . . if we tune ourselves to His whispers, we will have certain people that God impresses on our heart in a powerful way. We must concentrate the most prayer on these people “assigned to us by God”.
What should we pray? Listen to what Paul says,
19 And pray for me, too. Ask God to give me the right words so I can boldly explain God’s mysterious plan that the Good News is for Jews and Gentiles alike. 20 I am in chains now, still preaching this message as God’s ambassador. So pray that I will keep on speaking boldly for him, as I should. [Ephesians 6:19-20)
Notice that Paul believed enough in prayer to ask for prayer himself. When was the last time you asked someone to pray for you? We all want to appear to be self-sufficient but that is foolish! God designed us to need each other. He wants us to make our requests known not only to Him, but also to each other. This is what builds the body of Christ.
Notice not only what Paul asks but also what he does not ask. He does not ask that he might be spared trouble or that his problems would go away. He doesn’t ask that he be released from prison, or that he be given stuff. Paul focuses on what truly matters.
He asks that the people pray that he
- Be given the right words
- Might have boldness in declaring the good news of the gospel.
- Endurance to keep being faithful in spite of the chains.
Imagine being a person with a bad illness. Instead of asking people to pray that you be made better you ask that people pray that you not waste this opportunity to testify of your faith in a powerful and effective way no matter what happens. That is a powerful prayer; a life changing prayer.
I don’t know about you, but I would love for people to pray that I might speak the right words at the right time (and not speak the wrong words at the wrong time). I would love people to pray that God would help me speak truthfully, boldly and faithfully. Hopefully this is something we all want.
Jesus told us to pray for workers who would declare the good news of His mercy and grace. We need to pray that God would raise faithful witnesses around the world. There is nothing more urgent than communicating the truth of the gospel!
I wish there was a simple formula that would help you (and me) leave here today being true prayer warriors. But I don’t’ think this happens with some magic formula any more than an athlete becomes great by taking a pill; or a musician becomes great by watching a video; or even becoming a good driver by taking a class. These are all things we must learn over time. The same is true with prayer. Prayer is not a course of study to master; it is a relationship to develop.
Beware! Satan will try to convince you that prayer “is just not your gift”. Though I believe there are people who have a special gift (or heart) for prayer and intercession, prayer is not just for a select few. Satan’s goal is always to keep us from prayer.
So let’s begin to fight the battle with Satan with God’s help. Let’s set aside time every day to simply “be still and know that He is God.” Let’s develop our listening skills so we can discern the voice of God’s Spirit. Let’s lift each other up in prayer, asking that God would help us to serve Him effectively.
Most of all, let’s develop a life of prayer because God is worth knowing intimately. He is such a wonderful Savior that we should cherish every moment we have to talk with Him and every opportunity that we have to serve Him.