A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on January 13, 2013.
Lord, as your first disciples did, we also ask that you would teach us to pray. Teach us to trust in the power of your spirit to understand our hearts even when our words are not eloquent or, particularly, when our thoughts are confused. Help us to know that you understand us. With all of our hopes, fears, and inadequacies, help us to know that you understand us all. Teach us to trust that you know what we need before we ask or even if we ask for the wrong thing. Teach us not only to pray but teach us to love to pray. Help us to release ourselves into your presence even when our requests and your answers seem to conflict. Remind us that to draw from your peace, grace, and light is to have our prayers already answered. Teach us that to be changed by your heart is to have our prayers answered as well and that the longings of our hearts would be satisfied in finding this. God, if there is one thing you want to give us other than what we ask for, then change our hearts until, at last, we ask for what you want to give for then we know our joy will be full. In Christ’s name. Amen.
What if He (God) knows Prayer to be the thing we need first and most? What if the main object in God’s idea of prayer be the supplying of our great, our endless need—the need of Himself?
In the grand sweep of scripture, one thing we are certain of is that God’s people pray. As the old preacher used to say “from cover to cover,” from Genesis to Revelation, we run into God’s people praying–patriarchs, prophets, kings, disciples, saints, sinners, men, women, believers, and unbelievers. People pray. In the march of scripture, many, many people pray but my how differently some of them pray. We run into many different forms of prayer, many different ways of praying, and many different styles of praying. It can be confusing.
In the parable in Luke 18, Jesus tells the disciples that they should be persistent in prayer. He talks about a widow who is trying to have her case heard before a judge. He is a not a good judge, but the woman is so persistent. Luke said, “If this judge will finally yield to her request, then how much more will God who loves you give you what you want if you are persistent.”
We think we need to pray about something a lot, but if we look at Mark 11, we find the verse that says, “If you have faith, you can say to the mountain, ‘Get up and move.’” This is a verse that has often been utilized in what is called “name it and claim it.” You articulate the prayer one time, and if you really have faith, you do not have to go back to it. So which is it? One time or many times. The people of God have prayed both ways.
In our heritage, we have seen art of people who pray with folded hands, but in scripture, it talks about “lifting up holy hands.” We know people that have bowed their heads, and we have heard admonitions to “lift up your eyes to heaven.” That is hard to do at the same time. Bowed heads, on knees prostrate laid out before God, different postures, different frequencies, different words, and different reasons. How then are we supposed to pray? With all of these pieces of different advice and different examples, how are we supposed to consume, digest, and know what is the right way to pray?
We look for a passage of scripture out of all scripture that might serve as a focus point for us. We don’t look at Jesus today, we don’t look at Paul, but we look in a rather odd and different place. We look at Moses in the Book of Deuteronomy. In the Book of Deuteronomy, we find Moses’ great sermon. It is the second giving of the law before the children of Israel are ready to go into the Promised Land. In the 4th chapter, he gives this one piece of advice, “Seek God with all your heart and with all your soul and he will be found.” It does not matter how we stand, it does not matter about repetition, and it does not matter about form. What really matters is that we put our whole heart into it.
Think about communicating with someone that you love. It could be a best friend, an adult parent, an adult child or spouse. Think of the different ways that in a month we might communicate with each other. Some communication only calls for a little snippet. You might send a text while sitting at the traffic light that says: Running late. That’s all you needed. Perhaps you see something the other person has put on Facebook and you just check like. That’s all that is needed. You might go to a party and see someone you have not seen in a while, but it is loud and noisy and you have to shout to each other so you say, “Let’s meet for coffee,” and you get the corner table. Before you realize it, an hour has passed.
There are some topics of conversation that it seems like we have talked about a hundred times and then there are other things that only need to be mentioned once. Sometimes a phone call will do, but sometimes we have to go in person. Sometimes we cannot find the right words to say so we go to the store and buy a Hallmark card where someone else has articulated the words we could not find and we sign our name to it. We want to say, This is what I would have said if I could have thought of it.
Prayer is communicating with God just as we would communicate to one another. Just as there is tremendous variety in the way that we might talk, speak, or send messages to each other, there can be a tremendous variety in the way that we communicate with God. The equivalent of a quick text is one of those stop light prayers where we have a moment, and while we are waiting for the light to turn, we remember something that, in the moment, is enough to call before God and we say it. Just as we might sign our names to a card because we could not think of the words, there are times where we find prayers in scripture or we find a prayer of the saints. We read it and we think, God, this is my prayer. I wish I could talk like this. I wish I could think like this. This expresses my heart.
There are times where we pray in the congregation. There are times where we pray privately. There are times when we pray out loud. There are times when we pray in our heart. There are things we pray to God about a hundred times and then there are other things that we have a peace about and we say it only one time and let it go. If we communicate to one another in all of these different ways, why would we think there would only be one way to communicate to God? We have this misconception that if we could just figure out the right way (on my knees, hands folded, head bowed, head looking to heaven, hands held high), then God would answer all of our prayers. It does not work like that. It is about the relationship and a good relationship requires all the different things. Sometimes prayer is called for one way and sometimes it is another and I think we get confused sometimes. Because of times when prayer was meaningful, we think that’s the way we ought to pray all the time.
If you have a good liberal arts education, you probably know about Pavlov’s dogs. He rang the bell, they came, and he fed them. Like dogs do, they salivated because they would anticipate the food. Pavlov got to where he would just ring the bell and they would start salivating with no food present. It was a conditioned response. Everybody is familiar with that.
Do you know about B. F. Skinner’s pigeons? This is a little more off the beaten path of knowledge. Skinner also studied behavior. They had pigeons in cages, and every 15 minutes, they would feed the pigeons. Whatever was going on, they would open up a chute, pigeon food would drop down, and they would eat. What they observed was that whatever the pigeon was doing before the food dropped into their cage, they would then do again in an effort to get the food to come again. Pigeons bob their heads repeatedly, so just before the food came in, a pigeon was bobbing his head. Then when he wanted more food, he would go over in front of the chute and start bobbing his head. The pigeon thought bobbing his head was what brought the food in. The pigeons had no idea that their actions had nothing to do with the food coming to their cage.
I think we get superstitious at times. One time, if we prayed on our knees and it was a prayer in which something we wanted with all of our heart was answered, we think, I’ve got to pray on my knees every time. If we prayed out loud, we think, I’ve got to start praying out loud from now on. We never stop to think that whether we were on our knees, praying out loud or whatever it might be, what was really going on was that we prayed with our whole heart. The being on our knees was a demonstration in that moment that our hearts were in it. When we pray another time, we might be sitting by ourselves in silence with our heads bowed and our hands on our lap, and our hearts will be just as in it. It is not the posture. It is not the words. It is the heart. Seek God with your whole heart.
People often tell me that one of the great hindrances in their prayer life is the words. I don’t always know what to say. I don’t always know the right things to express my prayer to God. I would like for you to think about some child in your life. Maybe you are a teacher and it is a child in your classroom. Maybe you have a favorite niece or nephew. Maybe it is your own child or grandchild. Think about how at an early age that sometimes words don’t come out clearly.
When our younger daughter, Jordan, was two, she could not say her older sister, Rachel’s, name. She would say Wachel. We knew who she was talking about even though she did not pronounce the “R” correctly.
Have you ever noticed how children try out vocabulary? They have heard words from the adults around them. They are trying out words but they are not using them correctly. I remember a little boy who was talking about a footbridge and he said, “Do you think that bridge is sincere?” It seemed like a very authentic bridge to me. It did not take too much thinking to know that he meant, “Was it solid? Was it substantial? Was it safe?” He did not have to get the vocabulary right for the adults near him to give him an answer. We listen to children all the time. The words, the pronunciation, the right vocabulary, and the right order do not have to be right. We do not say, “When you get your diction correct, I will answer what you ask.” Do you think that God is waiting for us to say it the right way in order to answer our prayers?
In Romans 8, Paul says that the spirit intercedes and interprets the sighs and the longings of our hearts and God knows what it is we are saying. It is about the heart. It is not about the right words. It is not about standing or laying down flat on the ground. Seek God with your whole heart. Whatever form your prayer might take in that day, it is a good prayer. When we seek God with our whole heart, it does not mean we are always going to get what we ask for. It means when we seek God with our whole hearts, we have allowed God to intersect our lives and somehow God has drawn close and we have drawn close. What we need from God, God fills us with, whether it is what we asked for or not. Even if it was not what we were asking for, our prayers have been answered.
It is not about words. It is not about posture. It is not about frequency. It is about the heart. Would you like to pray and feel as if God heard? Then seek God with your whole heart and you will find him.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.