ST ANDREW’S OCCASIONAL PAPERS
- The Privilege of Prayer.
God is God of the whole universe. Every star, every galaxy, everything that can be seen from large objects in the remotest distance to the smallest particle under the most powerful microscope was made under God’s direction. Yet out of all that vast universe God has focussed on earth, a planet in orbit round an insignificant star. On this planet He has overseen the development of life into its highest form – people like us! But having created human beings, He has not gone off to try something else but remains intimately concerned with what happens here.
Furthermore, despite His greatness and majesty, He is prepared to converse with the creatures He has made. He will actually listen to what they have to say – and that is what we call prayer. We need to see the privilege that it is, for created human beings to be actually in contact with the Creator and Sustainer of this mighty universe, and that God does not allow this on sufferance but is glad to listen and actually encourages His people to talk to Him (1 Thessalonians 5:17).
Prayer is talking to the mighty God – what a privilege!
- Forms of Prayer.
When we chat with our friends we may well touch on many different topics. We will tell them what has been happening to us and ask about their activities. We may have to apologise for anything we have forgotten to do for them. We may well have to ask for their help or tell them about other friends and their problems. We may have to remember to thank them for some gift they have sent.
It is no different when we chat with God! In our prayer we shall do several things. The way in which these are classified may well vary between different writers but most will include praise, thanksgiving, confession, intercession and petition/supplication in their prayers.
Expressions of praise are the result of reflecting on God’s nature and who He is, a Creator (Genesis 1:31) who loves His creation (1 John 4:8).
Thanksgiving (Philippians 4:6) is simply saying thank you to God for all that He has done. Especially we thank Him for our salvation through the work of Jesus, but also for the day to day blessings which God showers on us.
Yet, despite God’s goodness, we know that we have failed to reach His standards, and so we come to Him in confession, owning up to all our failures and omissions and asking for His forgiveness – knowing that He will forgive whenever we repent of our wrongdoings and turn back to Him (1 John 1:9).
In our intercessions we bring before God the needs of others (Colossians 4:3). This stretches from the furthest bounds of our world, often focussing on its trouble spots, to the needs of those closest to us in our neighbourhood, our Church family and our own family.
Finally, in our supplication or petition, we lay our own needs and concerns before our Father God and pray for His guidance in our everyday affairs (2 Corinthians 12:8).
These are not meant to be rigorous divisions, prayer may well overlap any scheme, but it is surely beneficial to make sure that we do not omit any area. It could well be that we skimp on praising and thanking God, in our eagerness to ask Him for His help.
Prayer covers the complete range of our lives.
- Who should pray?
When God sent the ten plagues on Egypt (Exodus 7-12), Moses and Pharaoh were in conflict. Yet, sometimes, when Pharaoh felt that he had had enough of a particular plague, he would request Moses to “Pray for me” (Exodus 8:28;10:17). No doubt he felt that his own prayers would not be answered while those of Moses would be.
There may well be the same temptation today, that prayer should be left to the “professionals,” those who have been given positions of responsibility in the Church. But that is not how Jesus saw it. He expected all His people to pray (Matthew 6:6) and towards the end of His life, in the garden of Gethsemane, he called on His disciples to “Watch and pray” (Matthew 26:41).
Now this does NOT mean that every Christian must lead public prayer, some may feel prepared to do so, others would be terrified if they were called on, and that is only natural. Yet every Christian should talk to his or her God in private, following our Lord’s instruction (Matthew 6:6).
Prayer should be the practice of every Christian.
- When should we pray?
In 1 Thessalonians 5:17, Paul instructs the Christians in Thessalonica to “pray continually” and to the Christians in Ephesus he says, “And pray in the Spirit on all occasions” (Ephesians 6:18). He also tells Timothy that “night and day I constantly remember you in my prayers” (2 Timothy 1:3).
In one sense we can and should pray at anytime, whenever we feel the need to share something with God. However most Christians know that they should set aside some time each day to pray and read the Bible. Some folk can do this at the same time each day, others, perhaps with a busier lifestyle may have to be more flexible. Yet if we are God’s people we do need to be in regular contact with Him and maybe we must discipline ourselves to set aside a definite time to pray.
Prayer should be both regular and at the time of need.
- Where should we pray?
It is fairly safe to say that prayer will form a part of every service in Church, so there is one place where we should pray. Yet we have already mentioned the need to talk to God in private (Matthew 6:6). Some folk find that being in a beautiful part of the countryside or in a lovely garden can be a setting for prayer. Yet others find that meeting with two or three close friends can be an aid to prayer (Matthew 18:20).
In other words we can pray anywhere, but this should not be an excuse for putting off praying until we are in a favourite spot. There needs to be a regularity, a discipline about prayer.
Prayer can take place anywhere but we should have a special place where we can draw aside to be with God.
- How long should we pray for?
Again this will vary widely, often depending on the demands of family and work. Those who have fewer commitments can pray for longer, those who are at a time of their lives when the pressures are great may have to be shorter, but this does not give us an excuse not to pray at all. If we believe and trust in God, we cannot then ignore Him. We “make” or “find” time for human things, we must do the same for the things of God. Jesus sometimes prayed all through the night (Luke 6:12).
As well as a regular time of prayer, be it long or short, our Heavenly Father is “open” to urgent prayer, even just a single sentence, at any time. He is ready to listen 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year, so in any time of need we can turn and talk to Him, asking for His help and guidance, just as Jesus did (Matthew 14:19).
Prayer can be long or short, God is always listening.
- What “language” should I use for prayer?
Many people down the ages have composed and written down prayers which others can use. Jesus, Himself, gave us the most familiar of prayers, the Lord’s Prayer, which we will have repeated many, many times.
In one sense God speaks all languages – as the disciples discovered at Pentecost (Acts 2:8-11) – and can also understand feelings that cannot be put into words (Romans 8:26), so it does not matter whether we use formal or everyday words as we talk to Him.
It may well be that our most intimate prayers will be expressed in our “own” words as we tell God all our worries, all our concerns and ask for His help and guidance. However if we find a written prayer that puts the same thoughts into more polished language we can use that instead of, or as well as, our own words – it just does not matter which words we use, because what really matters is that we actually take time to be with our Heavenly Father.
Prayer can be in our own words or the words of others, or a mixture of the two.
- Prayer in the name of Jesus.
It is very common for our prayers to end with the words “and we ask this in the name of Jesus Christ” or something very similar. There is good biblical precedent for this. In John 16:23, Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name.” Paul tells the Christians at Rome that he thanks his God “through Jesus Christ for all of you” (Romans 1:8). The risk is that we may see this instruction to pray in the name of Jesus as some kind of “magic” formula which will ensure the success of our prayers. However to the Jews of Jesus’ day, a name was meant to be not just a label but a description of the person, a revelation of character. So when we pray “in the name of Jesus” we are, or we should be, saying that we are praying for something that would be appropriate to His character, the sort of thing of which He could approve. If we were really aware of this we would, no doubt, be more careful of praying in His name, and make sure that what we ask is something we would be prepared to ask Him for if we stood face to face with Him and could actually see His reaction to our request.
Prayer can be “in the name of Jesus” when it is consistent with all we know of Him.
- So what is the purpose of prayer?
In order to answer this question we need to go back to the five types of prayer mentioned in 2. above. Our prayers of praise are part of our worship, our acknowledgement of God’s worth, His greatness, His majesty and His love for all His children.
Our prayers of thanksgiving will overlap with this as we thank God for all He, in Jesus, has done for us in making us His children. To this we add thanks for all God’s help in our everyday life. We are simply saying “thank-you” as any polite child should do when he or she has received a gift.
Our prayers of confession make us fit to come into the presence of God. If a child had been playing in a muddy field and had managed to acquire much of that mud about his or her clothes and body, a good wash and a change of clothes would be needed before sitting down to a family meal, etc. So it is with spiritual “dirt” – it must be washed away. Our confession is part of this, the rest is the work of Jesus.
Our prayers of intercession and petition – which may well seem to us to be the most important! – are not about changing the mind of God. God cannot be badgered into doing what we want! Indeed it is possible to think of two sincere Christians asking God for seemingly contradictory things. To take a trivial example. A Christian farmer may be praying for rain so that his crops will grow, while the Christian organiser of the Church Fete may be praying for continuous sunshine so that many folk will turn out and enjoy themselves. Even God cannot satisfy both at the same time.
When we bring our prayers of intercession and petition to God we should not be telling Him what to do. He knows and understands the problems far better than we do and He already knows what the best course of action will be. In our prayers we should be seeking to align ourselves to that course of action, so that God’s will is done. Even Jesus in His agony in the Garden of Gethsemane did this (Luke 22:42). In other words our prayers should be an avenue to changing our thinking, our plans, not those of Almighty God who has our best welfare at heart.
Prayer is aligning our spirit with that of God.
- What if our prayers seem to be unanswered?
Prayer is never unanswered! What we probably mean is that we do not get the answer we want! God always answers our prayers, but He may well say “No” or “Wait” instead of the “Yes” we desire. If, as we must believe, God knows best and if His desire is that we should come to see things His way, then we may well have to accept His “No” or “Not now” as what is the best solution.
Prayer is always answered by God, in the way He knows to be best.
Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version. © 1973,1978,1984, International Bible Society. Used by permission of Hodder and Stoughton, a member of the Hodder Headline Group. All rights reserved.