A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on September 19, 2010.
O God and Father of us all, how we want to know you. It is the hunger of our soul. It is the thirst within our hearts. We feel as if nothing seems right until we have taken care of this great consuming fire within us. O God, how do we know you? If we must love the truth to find you, then plant the love of the truth within us even if it means that some sheltering lie is overturned or some self-deception is made plain to us. Grant us courage to see what is real about our souls, what is true about our hearts if that is the only way to love you. If we must love our brothers and sisters in order to love you, then challenge the hardness of our hearts towards many, challenge our disdain toward you or even our bitterness towards life. Anything that discolors our relationships with other people, challenge it. If loving you means we must love the difficult or love beyond the barriers that even we ourselves have erected, then so be it. Help us to see that if we will do these things, it is not our loss but our gain to do so. O God, change these old hearts of ours. Change them with truth and love that we might see you and that our hearts might be glad. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
Anthony de Mello tells a story about a man who traversed land and sea to check for himself the Master’s extraordinary fame. “What miracles has your Master worked?” he said to a disciple. “Well, there are miracles and miracles. In your land it is regarded as a miracle if God does someone’s will. In our country it is regarded as a miracle if someone does the will of God. —Mary L. Caldwell in Praying for Fishhooks
After 35 years of listening to people ask spiritual questions, inquiring about their hearts, souls, and things of God as it relates to them, there are a couple of things related to the issue of prayer that have become abundantly clear to me. If you listen to enough people who ask the questions and bring the concerns, you can distill out a lot. There are two things about prayer that relate to the passage of scripture and theme of the day, and they are:
(1) Nearly everybody at sometime has a sense of inadequacy or dissatisfaction or some sense that their prayer life could or should be better. It gets expressed a number of different ways. People who feel as if they are on the periphery in their relationship with God will often ask a minister, “Will you pray for me?” They believe that somehow their words are inadequate or their theology is wrong, but if somebody else would voice the prayer, then it might do some good. They are just not very confident that if they say a prayer for themselves that God will pay much attention.
Other people who have been working intentionally at trying to grow in their faith will often compare themselves to somebody. They say, “I just wish I could pray like him.” They see people who have a naturalness or express a certain maturity in the way they articulate their prayers and they don’t think they measure up to other people. Again, the sense of dissatisfaction and the desire for their prayer life to be better.
Sometimes prayer life is a bit rusty or suffers from dry rot due to underuse. Other times it is like a weak muscle that is simply underdeveloped because it has not been used enough, but there is a sense that prayer is not load bearing. It is not going to be able to lift up and sustain a life and hold it in the place that it needs to be. Almost everybody sometimes feels inadequate in the way they pray.
(2) If you are a Christian long enough, almost everybody will have an experience in their lives where they learn a lesson on prayer that moves them from here to there. Your brothers go to war and you watch your mother pray. Divorce comes and the pain with it. Maybe it is a health problem. You receive a diagnosis that you have heard for others but now it comes to your life and, all of a sudden, it takes on a fresh power. You have a child over which you have no control and you feel absolutely helpless to do anything about it, and all you know to do is to pray. A parent dies and there is a vacancy in your life. Events like this happen where we come to a new, fresh, and growing experience of prayer and, suddenly, we pray differently than we did before. We realize something has taken place and there is no going back. Our prayer lives are now changed because of this experience and we have moved to an additional way of praying.
The theme through May is Now That I Believe. Now that I have come to Christ, now that I grow in Christ, certain things change. Today we are thinking about prayer with the text being The Lord’s Prayer.
If you are not aware, The Lord’s Prayer is recorded twice in scripture. In the Gospel of Luke, the disciples say, “Lord, teach us to pray, even as John taught his disciples.” We see here that the request for The Lord’s Prayer for the disciples in that moment is because they have a sense of inadequacy. “I need somebody to teach me, Lord. Teach us as John teaches his disciples to pray.”
Matthew records it just a little differently, but he says, “When you pray, don’t be like the unbelievers.” What is Jesus implying if not there is prayer before you come to a relationship through him with God and there is prayer afterwards. There is some change. Based upon this passage of scripture, what is it that can be different in our prayer life now that we believe in Christ?
If you follow the words that come before The Lord’s Prayer, Jesus says, “But when you pray, go into your room, shut the door, and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you,” then Jesus goes on to offer the prayer.
In poor Palestinian homes, there were not a lot of inner rooms or separated rooms. Not many people had their own private rooms. The emphasis is on getting away someplace where our sole focus is God. That is what Jesus is trying to teach us in these words before the prayer. The focus is not on me and my overwhelming concerns and anything that I might want because of my preoccupation with them. The focus is on God. Get away, eliminate the distraction so that you can focus solely on what it is that you want to say to God and what God would want to say to you.
If you look at the words of the prayer, you will see that the prayer begins and ends with God. If we are thinking about what we are supposed to pray about when we pray, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” When we get to the end of the prayer where it says, “For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen,” it is about the things of God. We discover that if we pray as Jesus teaches us to pray, it is not simply what we want to ask for but it is about what God wants to give us. It is not simply about things that we want to see happen but tuning our minds and hearts in such a way that we are paying attention to what God wants in the world.
Think of it this way. If we are praying for something like peace and we ask for peace, and God makes peace break out in the Middle East or in Washington, D.C. and Republicans and Democrats are hugging each other, but we are still living the same way, what happens when peace gets to Rome, Georgia, our street, and our house? What if there is still peace in our families, work, school, or other relationships? Whatever peace God would work is going to be ruined when it gets to us. The important thing is not for God to do the hard work and make peace break out, but in my praying for peace, I realize what I have to do for there to be peace around me.
If I pray that God would end world hunger, wouldn’t that be great? But what happens if God makes such a tremendous wheat or corn crop that all the world can eat, but I am not required to think about what my role in helping my brothers and sisters down the street or in other countries might be? If all the food should magically appear that is needed for everybody in the world to gain weight and overeat, but I still did not have to change my level of generosity or think about what it means to be concerned for other people in other places it would take a bad turn when it got to me.
What we learn is that we not only ask for what we want but we are listening for what God wants. When we pray things like, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done . . . the power and the glory forever and ever,” we are not thinking about gaining gifts from God but about what it means to turn my life toward things that God would talk to me about and that God would want me involved in the work of the kingdom.
It would be easy to count up the words in the Lord’s Prayer and figure out what percentage of those words are “give us this day our daily bread.” This is the only thing that God would have us ask for. When we pray for ourselves, the emphasis is on things like, forgive my sins and help me develop a forgiving heart for others. Help me to resist temptation. Help me not to succumb to the evil that is all around us. The things that Jesus teaches us to pray for are the things of the spirit. It seems it is much more important about what is in our hearts and minds than what is in our garage.
Jesus is trying to get us to see that, when we ask for things, the things that God really, really wants to give us are the things that will make our hearts right, things that will put our minds at peace, and things that will help us to be disciples of Jesus Christ.
Are you familiar with the parable of the Prodigal Son? I was told a template to put over the parable many years ago and it has become such a powerful way for me to think and remember that parable as a lesson on prayer. Think about the two things that the Prodigal Son says to the father in the parable. First, as he wants to go and live his life in loose living, he says, “Give me my share of the inheritance.” Than after he has gone and squandered it in loose living and he comes to himself in the pig sty, he comes back and says, “Make me as one of your hired servants.” The lesson I was taught is the growth step in prayer. We start immaturely with “give me.” Give me this. Give me that. Give this to my children. Give this to my brother-in-law. Give this to the church. Give this to the world. But when we mature, we come to the place where we are more concerned about the matters of the spirit. “Make me.” Make me kinder. Make me humbler. Make me more like Jesus.
Now that I believe, prayer changes. It will change in more ways than we could count today. It will change multiple times for each of us here. According to what Jesus is teaching us as part of his disciples, one way that prayer does change is that the focus changes from us to God. “God, what is it you want me to hear? God, what is it that you want me to be a part of? God, what is it that I can align my life with to be a part of your work in the world?” The focus is on God and less on me. When I focus on myself, my attitude is, “Give me my share of the inheritance. Give me all the things I think you should give me from your hand.” When my focus is on God, my attitude is, “Make me one as of your hired servants. Make me into the disciple you need in this world.”
Now that I believe, I pray differently.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.