Rejoicing and Thanksgiving

The sermon I preached at Crossway Church (Franklin, MA) on November 9th, 2014.

“Rejoice, always, in the Lord who is near.” LISTEN

Philippians 4:4-9

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone.The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

Part 5 of 5: Practical Tips for Improving Your Prayer Life

In 1 Samuel 12:23, Samuel says to the people of Israel, “far be it from me that I should sin against the LORD by ceasing to pray for you.” Prayerlessness is a sin. Yet so many of us struggle to pray. Why is that?

Why We Don’t Pray
The most often cited reason is busyness, but this is least likely. As Richard Foster writes, “Of course we are busy with work and family obligations, but that is only a smoke screen. Our busyness seldom keeps us from eating or sleeping or making love” (Prayer, p. 7). We’ll never have time for prayer. We must make time. So what are the real reasons?

  1. Underappreciation of the Gospel. A vibrant prayer life requires a robust appreciation of the gospel, because it’s the reality that we have Christ as our mediator that gives us the “confidence [to] draw near to the throne of grace” (Heb. 4:14-16). A prayer life motivated by guilt is legalistic and lifeless; a prayer life motivated by the gospel is joyful and Spirit-empowered. The gospel fills us with love for God and his people, and this love inspires prayer.
  2. Unrealistic Expectations. Generally speaking, if you do not have a regular prayer life, you are not going to be able to simply will yourself into praying for an hour everyday. Such unrealistic expectations set you up for failure and discourage you from trying at all. Try 10 minutes first. Also, don’t feel like everything has to be “just right” for prayer. Your prayers do not have to be elegant poetry, your surrounding does not have to be completely still, you don’t even have to be in a good mood. Don’t wait until you feel like praying. Just pray as you are, from your heart. Complain and implore as Moses (Num. 11:11-12) and David did (Ps. 88:13-14; 137:9). God will work on your heart as you pray. Our attempts to get prayer “right” put us “on top” of the equation, but prayer is about yielding to God and “coming under.”
  3. Unbelief & Pride. Subconsciously, we don’t feel that we need God and lack confidence that prayer actually gets anything done. And since we have so many things to actually get done, prayer gets sidelined. But if we really believed that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Eph. 6:12),” we would know that our strivings are futile unless guided and sustained by prayer.

How We Can Pray
In addition to addressing the fundamental issues above, there are tangible things we can do to improve our prayer lives:

  1. Develop Habits: Regularity is key. Using Richard Baxter’s lingo, we must find the “fittest time,” “fittest place,” and “fittest temper” for prayer (The Saints’ Everlasting Rest, Ch 13). Regularity reminds us that we are not in charge, God is. It could be three times a day at 9AM, 12PM, and 3PM as was the Jewish custom (Dan. 6:10; Acts 3:1), early morning (Mk. 1:35; Ps. 5:3), and/or late at night (Lk. 6:12). I’ve personally found that it works best to make prayer my first business of the day. Also, designate a personal sanctuary for prayer away from distractions (Mk. 1:35), whether it be a closet, an attic, a bathtub, a garden, or even a particular chair with noise-canceling headphones on. Your phone will ring and you will suddenly have the urge to do the chore that you had put off, but you must resolve to guard your sacred hour and space. Praying at a particular time and place is not opposed to praying without ceasing (1 Th 5:17). As John Dalrymple notes, “The truth is that we only learn to pray all the time everywhere after we have resolutely set about praying some of the time somewhere” (Simple Prayer, p. 47).
  2. Keep a List: Often, people simply don’t know what to pray for or quickly run out of things to pray about. Keeping a list of prayer requests can guide us and help us pray specifically. I use the application Pocket Prayer Pro on my phone to keep a list. A preliminary list from Scripture should include prayers for the lost (Rom. 10:1), our governing authorities (1 Tim. 2:2), the sick (Jas. 5:13-15), our enemies (Lk. 6:27-28), our Christian brothers and sisters (Eph. 6:18), and gospel laborers (Mt. 9:36-38; Col. 4:2-4). We can also use the Pater Noster (the Lord’s Prayer) as a model, or follow the popular A.C.T.S. outline (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication). Don’t feel obligated to run through a list everyday (that can be a drudgery), but use it to guide and prompt you while being attentive to the Spirit’s lead. There are also tremendous benefits to written, liturgical prayers like those contained in The Book of Common Prayer. The breadth of topics covered by liturgical prayers, their theological depth, and wonderful eloquence can cultivate reverence for God, instill a sense of continuity and community with the saints throughout history and across the world, and help us express yearnings that we may have been unable to articulate. It’s also a great practice to pray through sections of Scripture. The Psalter is a great place to start!
  3. Add Variety: Feel free to experiment with different modes of prayer. If you’re prone to get distracted, try writing down your prayers and/or praying out loud. Verbalizing your prayers can increase your concentration and add coherence to your prayers. If your prayers are an endless profusion of words, including a time of listening silence can add depth and intimacy to your prayers (Ecc. 5:1-7). Employ different postures that mirror your heart’s attitude. Scripture records praying prostrate with face to the floor (Mt. 26:39), while lifting up hands (1 Tim. 2:8), kneeling down (2 Ch. 6:13; Lk. 22:41; Acts 9:40; 20:36), standing (Mk. 11:25), and sitting (2 Sam. 7:18). Try lifting up your hands high in prayers of adoration, lying prostrate in prayers of confession and repentance, kneeling with your hands out and palms up in prayers of thanksgiving and supplication, and/or walking through your neighborhood in prayers of intercession for your neighbors. You can also pray in song accompanied by musical instruments (Ps. 72:20)!
  4. Find Accountability: Seek out those who are more experienced in prayer and ask them to pray with you regularly. I have found this to be very helpful in improving my prayer life!

What are some other practices that have enhanced your prayer life?

This is Part 5 of 5 posts in my series on prayer. See Part 4 of 5: Coping with Unanswered Prayer.
or Part 1 of 5: Does Prayer Change God? Or Does It Change Us?

Part 1 of 5: Does Prayer Change God? Or Does It Change Us?

God foreordains everything

“Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” -Ps. 139:16 (cf. Job 12; 14:5; Prov. 19:21; Eph. 1:11).

Every one of our days unfolds according to God’s definite plan. Indeed, all of human history has been irrevocably purposed and foreordained* by God from eternity:

[*NOTE: I am using the term “foreordination” instead of the more popular “predestination,” because the former broadly refers to God’s definite and sovereign plan for everything, while the latter narrowly refers to God’s election or reprobation of a person (Rom. 8:29-30; Eph. 1:5). I think this is a useful distinction worth preserving. For my take on predestination, see my post “If God Predestines People for Salvation, Why Do We Need Missions?”]

“The Lord Almighty has sworn, ‘Surely, as I have planned, so it will be, and as I have purposed, so it will happen. … This is the plan determined for the whole world; this is the hand stretched out over all nations. For the Lord Almighty has purposed, and who can thwart him? His hand is stretched out, and who can turn it back?’” -Is. 14:25-27 (cf. Is. 37:26; Acts 4:28; 17:26; 1 Cor. 2:7)

Moreover, God’s sovereign plan is based on his omniscience and omnipotence. He is all-knowing. Therefore, his plan is perfect. He is all-powerful. Therefore, he is able to execute his plan. So God never changes his mind (Mal. 3:6; 1 Sam. 15:29; Is. 46:9-11; James 1:17). What he has foreordained inevitably comes to pass (Num. 23:19; Ezek 24:14).

If this is the case, why is prayer necessary or consequential? If prayer cannot change God’s will, why should we pray at all? If prayer is not specified as the condition for the coming of the kingdom of God, then why should we pray, “Let your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt. 6:10)?

Does prayer change us? (Yes, but that’s not all…)
The popular response to this conundrum is the response that “prayer changes us, not God.” Some say that prayer is simply a matter of obedience, since we are commanded to “pray continually” (1 Thes. 5:17). In this view, the command to pray is an arbitrary fiat.

Unsatisfied with this explanation, others say that prayer is an expression of our identification with, and conformity to, God’s will (Paul Helm, Providence of God, p. 158). It is true that, in a real way, prayer does change us. Prayer softens our hearts to accept the will of God.

Does prayer change God? (Yes and no…)
However, this is is an incomplete picture of prayer. Those who pray in the Bible expect objective results (Phil 1:19). They believe that God will bring about tangible outcomes in response to their prayers (Acts 26:19; Rom. 1:10; 15:30; Eph. 6:19).

In fact, throughout the Bible, it seems that God does change his mind in response to prayer. God pronounces judgment on the city of Nineveh, yet relents when the people repent and pray (Jonah 3:10). God decrees that Hezekiah will die of his illness, yet he heals him when Hezekiah humbles himself in prayer (2 Kings 20:1-6; Is. 38:1-8).

Prayer does not change God per se. Examples of God “regretting” his decisions (Gen. 6:6) or changing his mind are anthropomorphisms–attribution of human characteristics to God. Nonetheless, these are accurate phenomenological descriptions.

A both-and scenario
God has foreordained that prayer be a means to certain divinely-instituted ends. And since we cannot directly experience God’s eternal and final perspective on things, it is impossible to answer the “how” questions concerning prayer. But as far as we are concerned, from a finite, temporal point of view, prayer does move God to actions that otherwise would not have happened.

This is not an either-or scenario. It’s a both-and. So pray humbly and submit yourself to the will of God! But also pray boldly and effect the will of God! Pray knowing that God is ultimately responsible for all things! But also pray knowing that you are, in a very real way, responsible (1 Sm. 12:23).

This is Part 1 of 5 posts in my series on prayer. See Part 2 of 5: Using the Lord’s Prayer as a Model for Our Prayers.