The Necessity of Prayer
Today I’d like to continue with the topic of prayer, which we covered earlier in the week. Prayer is such an important topic in our spiritual lives. Years ago, I attended a conference where Jon Tyson was a speaker. If you don’t know him, he is a pastor in NYC, and I have benefitted from many aspects of his ministry. At this conference, he was giving a talk on leadership in the local church. After walking through numerous practical examples for growth, one person in the audience asked him to identity the most crucial aspect of leadership. Tyson paused. He paused for a long time. Then he said this: “I cannot overemphasize the importance of prayer.”
Briefly, I would like to re-emphasize the necessity of prayer. All of the catechisms have a section on prayer. My favorite is the Heidelberg Catechism (I’m a good German!). Question 116 asks this: “Why is prayer necessary for Christians?” The answer? “Because prayer is the most important part of the thankfulness which God requires of us. Moreover, God will give His grace and the Holy Spirit only to those who constantly and with heartfelt longing ask Him for these gifts and thank Him for them.”
I want you to pause for a moment and take that in. Do you treat prayer as thankfulness to God? I’ll be honest—I don’t approach prayer with that attitude all the time. Personally, I easily fall into, “getter done” mode. I’m trying to be faithful in prayer—but the rest of the day is calling! Often, I can make the mistake of running to the petition phase of prayer, which we spoke about on Monday’s post. As a result, the soil of my heart is selfish rather and expectant for God to speak. I’m treating God with entitlement rather than thankfulness.
Notice the last sentence of the answer again: “God will give His grace and the Holy Spirit only to those who constantly and with heartfelt longing ask Him for these gifts and thank Him for them.” God will only …? Does that mean that sometimes God does hear my prayers? Biblically speaking, the answer is—yes. This is all the more reason to focus on heart preparation before we make a request. God cares about the posture of our heart—he wants us to come to him with a heartfelt longing for his grace and mercy.
Does God Hear Me?
Let’s come back and reflect on James 4 for a moment. This is a convicting verse for me and I need meditate upon it daily in prayer. Am I coming to God with the right motives? Whether God hears or answers certain prayers is tied to the posture of our hearts. James 4:3-4 says this: “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?” Sit with that verse for a moment and let the Holy Spirit speak to you. Ask him to search your heart before you pray. God will not hear us is we don’t come with the right attitude! Prayer is necessary, but we dare not love the world over our Savior.
If that verse seems harsh to you, I’d like to suggest a reason why. The following prayer offers a satirical look at our shallow view of sin. This superficial prayer is based on a modern “overhaul” of a traditional public confession of sin found in the Book of Common Prayer.
“Benevolent and easy-going Parent: We have occasionally had some minor errors of judgment, but they’re not really our fault. Due to forces beyond our control, we have sometimes failed to act in accordance with our own best interests. Under the circumstances, we did the best we could. We are glad to say that we’re doing okay, perhaps even slightly above average. Be your own sweet Self with those who know they are not perfect. Grant us that we may continue to live a harmless and happy life and keep our self-respect. And we ask all these things according to the unlimited tolerances which we have a right to expect from you. Amen.”
Wow. Ask yourself—is this the posture I have when I come to prayer? Friends, we need a different posture! The right posture answers the question: Who is God? And Nehemiah 9:6 tells us—he is the Lord of heaven and earth. How can we pray authentically? Another reason we don’t pray is that we claim we don’t know how. I can’t pray, Pastor Bob—I’m not good at it! I’ve got good news for you—Jesus showed us how to pray. He just says—pray like me. Author John Bombaro reminds us that Jesus invites us to pray like him … he writes this:
The Lord’s Prayer frees us from the tyranny of spiritual creativity and allows us to rest in the confidence of something certain and true. Instead of fabricating something snappy to garner God’s attention, Jesus would have us lose all such originality and simply plagiarize … at the [invitation] of the Lord himself.
The Lord’s Prayer. Matthew 6. And if you have a problem with praying that same thing over and over—these are the very words of Jesus … that give us the right posture every time. That is authentic prayer—praying the words of Jesus from your heart.
The Remedy? Put On The Sackcloth!
So … how do you get to the right heart posture of thankfulness? I would like to suggest the answer is found in Nehemiah 9:1-2 which says this: “Now on the twenty-fourth day of this month the people of Israel were assembled with fasting and in sackcloth, and with earth on their heads. And the Israelites separated themselves from all foreigners and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers.” This is a public assembly of the people of God. They separate themselves off and they make a corporate confession of sin. As Christians, we are part of a covenant community. How did they prepare themselves to offer this confession?
Notice three words: Fasting, Sackcloth, and Earth on their heads. As I explain these words, I want you to think—could I do this? (1) First, Fasting. This is a spiritual discipline where we give up something important to us. Often this involves food, but you can fast from anything. The point of fasting is to put aside an earthly desire or need so they can focus on the Lord. Do you have a regular practice of fasting? This is a lost art in Christian formation. (2) Second, Sackcloth. In the ancient world, when someone wore sackcloth it was a symbol of humility and mourning. Sackcloth is the burlap that is used in potato sacks. Anyone done a potato sack race recently? Now, imagine wearing a potato sack on your bare skin. It is itchy! It would make you feel super-uncomfortable—like 100 mosquitoes bit you! The point is this: the people were clothing themselves with discomfort. It was a reminder that our sin should make us uncomfortable. Does your sin make you uncomfortable? If not … you need to adjust your heart in prayer. (3) Third, they put EARTH or DIRT on their heads. The dirt is to remind them of how they are unclean, how dirty they are before a Holy God.
Authentic prayer requires the right preparation every day. When life is comfortable, and we don’t sense a need for God our hearts grow cold. A thin layer of ice builds up around our heart muscle. This happens every night. Imagine that. Every day you wake up with a layer of ice over your heart—prayer is how you melt that ice and set your heart on fire every morning. You need that! You have to break the ice if you want that authentic prayer.
There was a well-known song we sang growing up—“Light the fire in my soul … fan the flame … make me whole … Lord you know where I’ve been … light the fire in my heart again!” We need that.
If you want to be thankful in prayer—put on the spiritual sackcloth, get uncomfortable with your sin, and remind yourself that your Savior’s blood was spilt on your behalf.