- This is a vast topic and one which desperately needs to be addressed if the discipleship crisis in the contemporary church is to be remedied.
- There are many visible signs of the marginalisation of prayer in current Church culture. As “worship” i.e. singing has expanded as the dominant space filler in many Sunday meetings, prayer together as a whole body has been extinguished. Likewise, some of the largest churches in our lack regular corporate prayer times. These trends often reflect the neglected place of prayer amongst contemporary Christian leaders.
- Contrast this with what the most influential theologian of the twentieth century said in relation to his life calling to minister the Word; “The first and basic act of theological work is prayer. Prayer must, therefore, be the keynote of all that remains to be discussed…. theological work does not merely begin with prayer and is not merely accompanied by it; in its totality it is peculiar and characteristic of theology that it can be performed only in the act of prayer. In view of the danger to which theology is exposed and to the hope that is enclosed within its work, it is natural that without prayer there can be no theological work.”" (Karl Barth) The neglect of prayer indicates that many pastors and teachers have fallen away from the centre of their calling.
- Teacher and revivalist Andrew Murray profoundly remarked, “It is the life which prays”. He meant that prayer is not simply a useful spiritual habit, our prayers are the expression of our life with God; “Christ who is our life” (Col 3:4). As Jesus taught, “from the overflow of the heart (centre of the person) the mouth speaks” (Matt 12:34).
- Many if not most Australian Christians struggle to find a rhythm of prayer, are unsure exactly who they are praying to (God, Father, Lord, Jesus, Spirit) and have an unsteady conscience about prayer; “I know I should be praying more”.
- Believers who are self-conscious about their spiritual poverty in prayer are caught in a vicious circle. God consciousness rather than self-consciousness is the key to prevailing prayer.
- We can only be disciples of Jesus as we share with him the way in which he was discipled by the Father; “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” (John 15:10 ESV). This is why Jesus’ life of prayer is the key to ours.
- Jesus taught us to pray like himself, ““Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.””(Matthew 6:10 ESV). At the very centre of discipleship is the issue of the kingdom of God; whilst (all?) past generations of Christians were familiar from memory with the Lord’s Prayer many today would struggle to repeat its petitions.
- To go further with this it is best to share a personal testimony.
A Personal Testimony
I remember being asked to preach on prayer at a church some years ago, and the first thing I said was, “Apart from being taught to pray by God himself I wouldn’t be able to stand here, I would have given up on ministry long ago.” (Cf. “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” (Romans 8:26 ESV)). I wasn’t trying to be spiritual in saying this; it was a plain fact that without the strength that comes from prayer I would have never been able to continue with the work of God given the battles I had been through over the years.
The transformation in my prayer life came through an unusual series of circumstances. I was at a conference in Adelaide in the mid 80’s for a single meeting, and they mentioned the coming year would feature Paul Yonggi Cho, pastor of the world’s largest church. I had a strange sense that I should attend. Over the next year I grew increasingly and persistently dissatisfied with my inner life.
I recall being surrounded at a BBQ by people whose lives had been transformed by my ministry – some had come to the LORD, others had an encounter with the power of the Spirit. Outwardly it was the most effective time in my pastoring and teaching experience. When I said to these folks I felt like a weak and ineffective Christian they were dumbfounded. I deeply felt the need for some sort of personal spiritual revival.
About this time I came into possession of George Mueller’s, “Answers to Prayer”, the amazing story of a man who cared for thousands of orphans, ran an evangelistic and tract ministry costing millions of dollars, and never once asked anyone for money but always depended solely on God through prayer. Later came the influence of a book by Dick Eastman, “The Hour that Changes the World”. The Lord was speaking to me powerfully about prayer and I had come to a decision that after the summer break I would commit myself to an hour’s prayer a day.
By the time I got to the conference with Yonggi Cho I knew as I sat in my seat that he would speak on the connection between prayer and revival; and when he announced his topic that was exactly what he said! At that stage (1986) many outstanding miracles were occurring in South Korea and 12,000 people were being added monthly to the fellowship Cho led. What spoke most deeply to me however was a specific challenge he laid down to all his hearers. After explaining how the church had daily prayer meetings from 4 a.m. each morning, with prayer all night Friday, he said that if you are really serious about knowing the presence and power of God pastors will pray at least 3 hours a day and lay persons one hour. I was embarrassed to think I had made up my mind for a huge commitment of an hour a day.
Returning back to parish life I upped my devotional life to 2½ hours a day – 1½ hours in the morning, ½ hour in the middle of the day, and ½ hour before tea. A new sensitivity to the Holy Spirit came into my life. Repeatedly I found myself on the doorstep of someone in desperate need and/or who had just prayed for help. I was led by the Spirit to connect with people at exactly the right time without an arranged appointment because I felt led to go to their house. At times I sensed in prayer who I would be seeing later in the day, and even on certain occasions what they would say to me. Within two months I was out of full time pastoral ministry, but I have sustained a similar routine over the last 25 years. Not simply out of obedience to God or some sort of habit but because it is the most enriching part of my life.
Over this period the Lord has taught me that we all have an optimum way of praying; the best personal method of prayer for me is walking and (generally) praying aloud. I have found that the greatest insights/revelations into the things of God happen in prayer. I have started many prayer meetings and several prayer networks over the years. Prayer occupies a place at the centre of my marriage. Intriguingly, some of the people who have most opposed my life and ministry have been men and women of committed prayer.
Jesus the Man of Prayer
- Prayer occupies a crucial place in the life of Christ. As a real human person Jesus needed to pray in order to be enlightened and strengthened in doing the will of his heavenly Father in heaven in bringing in the presence of the kingdom of God.
- Apart from the single exception of the time when he bore our sin on the cross (Mark 15:34), Jesus always addressed God as “Father”. His sole goal in coming into the world was expressed in the prophetic words, “‘Behold, I have come to do your will, O God’” (Heb 10:7; Ps 40:8). Cf. “Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.”” (John 4:34).
- It was in doing the will of the Father that Christ experienced the pleasure of God as he prayed in the Spirit. “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:21-22 ESV). “In that same hour he rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” (Luke 10:21-22 ESV)
- Jesus prays as someone who experiences an intense sense of Sonship in the power of the Spirit. He knows he is the one commissioned to bring God’s kingdom near and this is his greatest joy (Luke 10:9). The whole life of Jesus as a man of prayer is encompassed within the great dynamic of Sonship and the kingdom of God coming in the power of the Spirit (Matt 12:28).
- There are many occasions where we see Jesus at prayer in the Gospels. At the age of twelve Jesus explains to his parents why he has remained behind in the Jerusalem temple, ““Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”” (Luke 2:49). Jesus is in the temple because this is God’s “house of prayer” (Isa 56:7). He is at prayer at his baptism, he prays in order to choose the twelve apostles, the fruit of his prayers is seen in the working of miracles (Luke 3:21-22; 6:12-16; 9:16). Christ exhibited supreme confidence that his prayers would always be answered because his stated his life purpose was to do the will of his Father (John 5:26-30). Standing at the tomb of Lazarus “Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” (John 11:41-42). The resurrection of Lazarus is evidence that the communion expressed in prayer between Jesus and his Father is the essence of eternal life.
- There is an intimate link between Christ’s most powerful experiences in prayer and his coming suffering. Immediately after prophesying of his own death and resurrection, and charging his disciples, ““If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.””(Luke 9:23 ESV), Jesus goes up the mount of transfiguration to pray (Luke 9:28). It is whilst he is in prayer about his departure (literally exodus) from the earth that he is glorified before the disciples and hears once more the favourable words of God the Father, “And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!”” (Luke 9:35 ESV).
- The greatest concentration of Jesus’ prayers is during his passion. The record of Jesus prayers in Gethsemane is especially intense, “And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. And he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” (Mark 14:35-36 ESV); “And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.” (Luke 22:44 ESV). “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence.” (Hebrews 5:7 ESV). The intensity of Christ’s prayer is an acknowledgement that only with divine assistance can he accomplish his life purpose of seeing the kingdom of God come with power (Mark 9:1).
- The ordeal of the cross is punctuated with many prayers (Luke 23:34, 46; John 19:30). Prophetically the cross is described as a great act of prayer; “he made intercession for transgressors” (Isa 53:12). Cf. ““Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”” (Luke 23:46)
- Even when Jesus was cut off from the pleasure of Father through bearing our sin he still prayed to God as a covenant partner; “Jesus cried out with a loud voice “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”” (Mark 15:34). This is the power of the indestructible life by which his prayers were always answered (Heb 7:16).
- Characteristically, Jesus ended his life in prayer, “Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last.”(Luke 23:46 ESV)
- Jesus is now exalted in heaven and still praying, “he always lives to make intercession” for “those who draw near to God through him” (Heb 7:25); “Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.” (Rom 8:34). Through his prayers Jesus presents us faultless before the Father. Jesus is praying for us as a human being who remembers how hard it is to make connection with the Father in the presence of the consciousness of sin (Cf. Heb 4:14-16). All Jesus wants is to share with us his experience of the Father in heaven.
- Christ is praying for us today the same thing that he prayed in his own earthly prayer life. He is praying that we might share in all that the Father has done for him. Jesus is asking that we might grow in his image in the same way as he grew in the likeness of his Father. He is praying that we might have life in the Father through him. The way in which Jesus’ prayers are answered involves the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus in our Prayers
- If prayer was such an important part of the life of Jesus why do so many Christians struggle to pray? There are two major answers to this question.
- Firstly, we need to place Jesus rather than ourselves at the centre of our praying. Maturity in prayer involves being taught by the Spirit that the Father’s answer to our prayers is Jesus himself. Or putting the same point another way, sharing in the life of Jesus is the answer to our prayers. This is why Paul says, “For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed …was not Yes and No, but in him it is always Yes. 20 For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory.” (2 Cor 1:19-20). When we close our prayers with “In the name of Jesus”, we are asking God to share with us and others the life of his Son which was perfected through prayer (John 19:30).
- Secondly, many believers struggle to pray because they live as though they are still “under the law” rather than the power of the Spirit (Rom 6:14; Gal 5:18). There is a God given sequence of submitting to the operation of the Spirit in order to enter more fully into the life of prayer.
- “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” (Romans 8:13 ESV). Worldly passions must be put to death by the power of God’s Spirit. It is this which unites us with the action of the cross that is the source of our sonship. “For all who are led by the Spirit of God [i.e. in dying to self-interest] are sons of God.” (Romans 8:14 ESV)
- It is in this context of tribulation and struggle that we are one in prayer with the Spirit who moved Jesus to pray to the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane and cry out (krazein) to God on the cross. (Heb 9:14; Mark 14:36;15:34) “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry (krazein), “Abba! Father!””(Romans 8:15 ESV). Union with God through the Spirit in the midst of trial is the essence of sonship and is most deeply known in prayer. This involves the Spirit “bearing witness to or with our spirits (symmartyreo) that we are the children of God” (Rom 8: 16; Gal 4:6).
- Such closeness and submission to the Father is the very opposite of “the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear”. Such a spirit involves coming under the influence of evil powers, legalism, accusations of failure etc., all of which has been defeated by Christ and his cross (Gal 4:3; Col 2:8; 20ff). It is when we are freed from subjection to these powers that prayer is transformed from being a responsibility or religious obligation into the most wonderful part of life.
- Paul brings this teaching to a climax, “and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” (Romans 8:17 ESV; Gal 4:7). This means that everything that the Father has prepared for Jesus is also ours. And what has been prepared is a kingdom (Matt 25:34).
- It is in this context of sons inheriting the kingdom from our Father that Jesus taught us to pray, ““Our Father in heaven… Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”” (Matt 6:9-10). Christ-centred prayer asks that as the power of the kingdom of God formed the life of Jesus the Father might shape our lives and the lives of others to be like his Son.
- The Holy Spirit is indispensible to such praying. Jesus said his disciples, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, 17 even the Spirit of truth” (John 14:16-17). The Father gives us the Spirit as a result of the prayerful request of Jesus, and the Holy Spirit reveals that God is our Father in the same way as he revealed the Father to Jesus in his earthly life. This will involve “the fellowship of sufferings” (Phil 3:10) that see the kingdom of God come in power through many personal death-and-resurrection experiences (Acts 14:22).
- The goal of the Holy Spirit is to unite our prayer life with what Jesus is praying for us in heaven. As Jesus wanted to grow up and become just like his indwelling Father, so the Spirit who indwells us and intercedes for us wants to grow us into the maturity of full Christ-likeness (Rom 8:26, 29). This necessarily involves living a life of forgiveness.
- Jesus taught us to pray, ““and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation.”” (Luke 11:4 ESV). He counselled, ““And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.”” (Mark 11:25).
- A striking example of this is found in the prayers of the first Christian martyr, Stephen. It reveals that faith in the gospel is at the heart of a Christian’s prayers. “Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him….And as they were stoning Stephen he called out, ““Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.” (Acts 7:58-60). Jesus also cried out with a loud voice (Mark 15:34) surrendered his life to God (Luke 23:46) and prayed for the forgiveness of his enemies (Luke 23:34). Stephen is not imitating Christ, as a Spirit filled man (Acts 7:55) he is united with the praying heart of Jesus in his union with the merciful Father.
- Whenever a believer unconditionally seeks to obey the will of God they join in the Spirit’s perfect uniting of the will of the Father and the Son. In these circumstances we share in Jesus’ assurance that our prayers will be answered by the Father (1 John 5:14-15). Then it is as true to say, “Our life prays through Jesus.” as to say “It is the life of Jesus that prays through us.”
- Prayer must not be reduced to a matter of getting things done, it is a most intimate bond with God himself. “The priests brought the incense into the Holy Place, so as to fill God’s house with fragrance. The prayers of God’s people are the delightful incense, with which He desires to be surrounded in His habitation. The value of prayer does not consist merely in its being the means of obtaining things we need. No ! it has a higher aim than that. It is a ministry of God, in which He delights.” (Andrew Murray)
- God delights in prayer because of its intimate connection with his will, “Prayer is the releasing of God’s willingness to act” (S. Grenz); “Prayer is the human willing of the will of God.” (K. Barth). The Lord’s will is not simply what he wants, it is a heart expression of who he is.
- As Jesus passionately and totally desired to share in the fullness of his Father’s kingdom at whatever cost, so empowered by the Spirit, all a Christian really wants is to grow up to become just like Jesus! This is the road of prayer.