Even though we know we should pray constantly, many—if not most—of us would confess we don't pray as often as we should. But I don't want this to be just a "drive-by guilting" about prayer. Could the reason we don't pray more be that we have misunderstood the purpose of prayer?
Today I want to ask the question: "Why pray?" I know some of you are thinking that is either a ridiculous (or maybe even a sacrilegious) question. I hope you will bear with me, because part of what I want to do is challenge you to look at your motivation in praying.
Most everybody prays when they are desperate. We sometimes hear the phrase "foxhole praying," which, of course, comes from the idea that when you are pinned down in a foxhole with bullets flying all around you, almost everyone is inclined to pray. The idea is that in life we all get to some point where you realize you can't accomplish something without divine intervention, and so you go to God in prayer.
The premise I want to put forth is that, according to God's Word, our entire lives are intended to be lived with the attitude that unless God intervenes, we can't do anything. It is having an attitude of absolute dependence on God: not just in case of emergency, but at every moment. What if every single thing you do today, as a follower of Jesus Christ, was not possible without divine intervention? I'm convinced that is exactly the case. And that is the first reason we should pray.
We pray to show we always need God
If you look at what the Bible shows us about prayer, it will reveal that the heart of prayer is about recognizing—every moment of every day—that we are completely dependent on God. I want to prove this to you by taking a look at the life of Jesus. Luke records more prayers of Jesus than any of the other gospels. If Jesus is our model and our mentor in prayer, we should learn from his example about what is at the heart of prayer.
Jesus prayed in total dependence on God. At the beginning of Jesus' ministry, we see that immediately after he was baptized, he was praying (Luke 3:21). Other gospel writers talk about the baptism of Jesus, but only Luke mentions that it happened as he was praying. In Luke 4, we see that Jesus' whole ministry begins with a battle involving prayer and fasting that took place, literally, face-to-face with the devil (Luke 4:1-2). In Luke 5, everybody is coming to see Jesus, but listen to what Luke tells us about his source of strength: "But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed" (v. 16).
In Luke 6, Jesus is about to call the 12 apostles. What does he do before he chooses them? "One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God" (v. 12).
In Luke 9, we have the account of Peter's confession of Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God. This is a very significant moment in the disciple's training. Right before that, I want you to hear what Jesus was doing: "Once when Jesus was praying in private and his disciples were with him, he asked them, 'Who do the crowds say I am?'" (v. 18). Later in the same chapter, at the Transfiguration, the purpose for Jesus getting alone with Peter, John, and James was prayer: "[H]e took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray" (v. 28).
In Luke 18, we find Jesus teaching the disciples about persistence in prayer: "Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up" (v. 1). Finally, one of the most well-known instances of Jesus praying is when he went to Gethsemane right before his arrest and crucifixion.
Here is the question: "Why was Jesus always praying?" Or maybe a deeper question, when you look at Jesus' life and ministry in the Gospels, is this: "What did he do on his own, apart from prayer?" The answer is absolutely nothing. There's not one thing that Jesus did on his own. It was all in dependence on the Father. Everything.
He said, "The Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing" (John 5:19) and "By myself I can do nothing" (John 5:30). That really begs the question: If Jesus, God in the flesh, would say, "I could do nothing by myself," then who are you and me to think there is anything in our Christian life we can do on our own? There is absolutely nothing we can do apart from total dependence on God.
This is why the disciples came to Jesus and asked him to teach them to pray. It's not that they had never been taught to pray; they knew to pray in the synagogue and on the Sabbath, and they knew to pray in various circumstances and how to follow religious rituals. But they saw in Jesus something very different. They saw in his life something more than just a religious ritual. Prayer was something that literally nourished him. It was a necessity for him, and his life was dependent on it. The disciples saw the difference, and they said, "Lord, teach us to pray like you're praying."
The early church prayed in total dependence on God. It wasn't just Jesus who emphasized praying all the time; the early church followed his example (Acts 1:14). When the apostles had been persecuted by the Sanhedrin, they didn't get together and complain about how hard it was to be a Christian. They prayed (Acts 4:24). Later in that same chapter, we see the power of praying with absolute dependence on God (v. 31). When was the last time that was said about a prayer meeting that you participated in?
When Peter was imprisoned, what was the church's response? Prayer (Acts 12:5). When the church at Antioch wanted to make the gospel known in all nations, how did they start? They started by praying (Acts 13:2-3). When they needed leaders in the new churches, what did they do? "Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust" (Acts 14:23). Do you sense a pattern?
The fundamental root conviction of the church in Acts was that they could do nothing without God—so they prayed. That is why we must pray, because we are dependent on God and we can do nothing without him. The early church knew this. What concerns me is that what was essential for the early church has gradually become optional for us today. In the Book of Acts, they did not just pray before meetings or after meetings. Prayer was the very purpose of their meeting together!
In your life, is prayer essential or optional? Some of you might think, I don't need to learn to pray. Prayer is just talking to God. Well, you're wrong: We need to learn to pray.
Here's why: Because if we can do nothing without God, then that means we cannot pray without him, which is why the disciples came to Jesus. You don't see them in the Gospels asking Jesus to teach them to witness or teach or even heal. All you see is them saying "teach us to pray," because prayer is the core upon which our Christianity is dependent. We pray to show we always need God.
We pray to seek to know God better
Jesus responds to the disciples' request to teach them how to pray by starting with how to address God. We begin by saying "Father" (Luke 11:2). Prayer begins with a relationship with God, and the primary purpose of prayer is to deepen that relationship. It is when we forget that is the primary purpose of prayer that we stop praying except in case of emergency.
Most of us grow up thinking about prayer and seeing prayer as asking for things. We learn to pray by saying, "God, help me with this. God, give me this. God, bless me with this. God, protect me." Or we pray for others, and so we pray the same thing: "God, help them. God, protect them. God, bless them. God, keep them and be with them."
If we were just honest with each other this morning, this is probably one reason why we don't pray a lot. Maybe you've stopped praying altogether, because if prayer is asking for what you want and you don't get it, then what's the point in praying?
I am sure that many of us—again, if we were genuinely honest—could tell about a time when we prayed hard for something and we didn't get the answer we wanted. It may have been a prayer for someone to be healed. It may have been a prayer to get a job or to have a baby or to have a relationship restored, and no matter how hard we prayed, the answer didn't come. We began to wonder: Am I asking in the wrong way? Is there some code or combination of words that I'm not using?
In response to that line of thinking, I want to ask two questions: What if the purpose of prayer is knowing God, not getting answers? It's not that asking for what we want and bringing our needs before God is not a part of prayer; it is. But what if prayer was intended to be much more than that? What if prayer wasn't just asking for him to bless us or keep us or protect us or help us? What if there's a depth of prayer that is much further beyond that?
Do you remember what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount about prayer? When he said, "[W]hen you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them" (Matt. 6:7-8)? Then listen to what he said: "[F]or your Father knows what you need before you ask him" (v. 8). God knows what you need before you even ask him.
Now for some of us, that's just time to throw up our hands. Well, then, what is the point? If he already knows everything, what is the point of praying? If that is the question we're asking, then I think we're on the verge of breaking through into what prayer is really all about. What if God doesn't tell us to bring all of our needs to him so that we can inform him about everything we need? What if he already knows everything you need, and maybe there's an intimacy he has designed for prayer that supersedes what we want and what we need? What if the reason he told you to "go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen" (Matt. 6:6) is that there is a closeness God intends to take place in this thing called "prayer" that we will miss if we make it all about our list of things?
One writer put it this way: "We are not desperate for something. We're desperate for Someone." This is the heart of prayer. What if God has designed this whole thing called prayer for you, ultimately, to enjoy him and to enjoy being with him and to experience his goodness and his grace and his mercy personally, in a way that nothing else in all Christianity can even begin to compare with?
What if the priority of prayer is time, not talk? I want to remind you this morning that the most important thing in the world is not your job, and it's not your finances, and it's not your football team, and it's not your family, and it's not your husband, and it's not your wife, and it's not your kids. The most important thing in the world is your personal, intimate relationship with Jesus. It is the most important thing in the world because everything in our lives flows from this one thing.
This model prayer is Jesus showing us why he was constantly going aside to be with the Father. It was because there was an intimacy that happened when he was alone with the Father in prayer that would affect every single thing he did. Jesus teaches us that in order to develop that kind of intimacy, we need to set a specific time alone with the Father.
Now I know the first thing that many of us think at this point is: Well, I pray all the time and I pray without ceasing. It says that somewhere in the Bible, doesn't it? So that's what I do. I pray when I'm shaving and driving to work. I pray when I'm cooking and washing dishes. I pray when I'm doing this or that. That's when I pray. I pray all the time. I don't need to set aside a concentrated time.
Well, that sounds good, but what if you tried that in your marriage? My wife and I are together all the time. We talk all the time as we're running to here and there. We're always talking. But there's something about intimacy that just doesn't happen when you're constantly going here and there and everywhere. That's why we see Jesus setting aside a specific time when he was alone with the Father.
I truly believe there is something that happens in that time that God has designed for us to experience unique closeness with him. So I encourage you to pray everywhere and pray all the time, but also set aside a time to go in your room, close the door, and pray to your Father who is unseen. I am convinced that this one practice will revolutionize your life—not just your prayer life, but your whole life—if you make that your singular goal this year. I think it will revolutionize your life because there is a reward that is waiting from your Father in that time that can't be found anywhere else. The reward is to actually know God, not just know about him. We pray to seek to know God better.
We pray to surrender to God's plan
In talking about prayer, it is easy to focus on the "have to" and the "need to," but there is also a "get to" aspect of prayer. That is to say, God has designed prayer as the means for you and me to be involved in what he is doing in the world.
The power of prayer is in relationship. All my life, I have heard phrases such as "prayer changes things" or "there's power in prayer." I want to make a strong statement and then explain it: Prayer, in itself, is powerless. The goal of this message is not just to get you to pray more—to be more structured, to be more organized, to be known as a person of prayer. If that is our goal, then we are no different than other religions. In fact, most of the followers of those other religions put Christians to shame by their devotion to prayer. If all we do is think that we need to pray more, then we may end up being just like other religions.
But if in our praying we connect with the living God who is the Lord and Creator of the universe, then we will be connected to a power that is infinite and unstoppable. Prayer in and of itself is powerless. But when prayer is a means by which we connect in a vital relationship with God, then we will see incredible power. God is the one who has all power—not our praying. The way we connect with that power is through surrender.
By "surrender," I mean that our attitude reflects that of Jesus in Gethsemane. We pour out our hearts and ask God for what we want, but ultimately we say, "[Y]et not my will, but yours be done" (Luke 22:42). That is surrender, and it grows out of a relationship of absolute trust. As we recognize our desperate need for God, and as we seek to know him better and better, we will grow to understand that his plan is always best, and we will grow to the point of surrender to his will in all things. That is where life gets exciting, because that is where God begins to use us!
The pattern of prayer is comprehensive. This has been an introduction of sorts and a call to see prayer in a different way. The prayer we see in Luke 11:1-4 is a pattern, a framework for our praying: not just a prayer to repeat. The reason you want to know this and the reason we sing it occasionally and recite it and even memorize it is because if you have it memorized, then it can be your framework.
I want to end with an illustration from a book I recommend. In Tim Keller's book entitled Prayer, he shares the following story:
In the second half of my adult life, I discovered prayer. I had to. In the fall of 1999, I taught a Bible study course on the psalms. It became clear to me that I was barely scratching the surface of what the Bible commanded and promised regarding prayer. Then came the dark weeks in New York after 9/11, when our whole city sank into a kind of corporate clinical depression, even as it rallied. For my family, the shadow was intensified as my wife, Kathy, struggled with the effects of Crohn's disease. Finally, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. At one point during all this, my wife urged me to do something with her we had never been able to muster the self-discipline to do regularly. She asked me to pray with her every night. Every night. She used an illustration that crystallized her feelings very well. As we remember it, she said something like this:
"Imagine you were diagnosed with such a lethal condition that the doctor told you that you would die within hours unless you took a particular medicine—a pill every night before going to sleep. Imagine that you were told that you could never miss it or you would die. Would you forget? Would you not get around to it some nights? No—it would be so crucial that you wouldn't forget, you would never miss. Well, if we don't pray together to God, we're not going to make it because of all we are facing. I'm certainly not. We have to pray, we can't let it just slip our minds."
I believe that is true about each one of us and about our church: "If we don't pray together, we're not going to make it because of all we're facing … we can't just let it slip our minds."
Steve Abbott is Senior Pastor of First Baptist Siloam Springs, Arkansas.