Copyright © 2001 Kenneth S. Hemphill.
All rights reserved.
TILL YOU'RE BLUE
IN THE FACE
* * *
THREE REASONS PRAYER
DOESN'T SEEM TO WORK
Remember the old joke about the guy who angrily brought his new chain saw back to the hardware store for a replacement? He stormed through the door and flung his purchase hard onto the front counter. It lay there, rocking slowly for a moment, bent and beat up, much of the paint chipped off and the teeth at all angles.
"I've been using this thing all day," he sputtered to the first face within shouting range, "and I haven't cut even a handful of firewood!"
The sales clerk, trying hard to remain cooperative, assured the man he'd be glad to take a look at it and do what he could. The saw was a mangled mess, all right. And trying to see if it might start in this condition seemed a foolish waste of time. But not knowing where else to begin, he took a chance and yanked hard one time on the rip cord. Sure enough, after several uncertain seconds of tired gasps and coughs, the motor somehow rattled its way to full throttle.
The red-faced customer suddenly went white, backing two full steps away from the counter in stunned confusion.
"So that's what that string was for!"
What's the Point of Prayer?
Here's the point: Before concluding that prayer doesn't "work," you need to ask yourself how you've been trying to use it.
Have you been praying according to the proper guidelines in the manner that the Master himself taught?
What have you been expecting prayer to do for you? And what would it look like to you if it were "working"?
In fact, is prayer actually supposed to "work" at all? Does it perhaps have a purpose far more significant than the shallow practicality we expect of a gas-powered lawn tool? Would it be asking far too little of prayerand far too little of Godto demand that it, and He, perform just the way we want them to?
The answers to most of these questions are found in the sixth chapter of Matthew, in the middle of what we call the Sermon on the Mount. This teaching of Jesus, which covers three solid chapters of the Bible, contains instructions that are absolutely basic to understanding what it means to be a follower of Christ. And imbedded among them is a clear pattern of what God says prayer is supposed to be and dothe highest achievements that prayer is designed to fulfill.
This is how prayer works.
"You, when you pray, go to your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you." (Matt. 6:6)
I have frequently heard people despair that their prayer wasn't answered. Perhaps someone they loved was sick, and they prayed asking God for healing. But instead of getting better, the person died. They had asked for one thing, but they had gotten another. Therefore, their prayer didn't "work."
Don't misunderstand me. God does answer prayer. I know it from experience. Besides that, the Scripture is full of instances where God's people prayed and He responded exactly as they had asked.
However, having our requests granted is not the primary goal of prayer. Prayer is not simply the process of giving God our wish list. Many times we ask for things that seem to be what we need, but we later recognize thathad we gotten themthey would have been far from our best interests. God does not exist merely to give us what we want.
Neither is prayer a way to alert God to our needs. As we'll see later in this Bible passage, God knows our needs even better than we do, and He needs no formal reminders about where we are and what we're up against. Prayer is in no way a squeaky wheel designed to manipulate God into remembering us.
One of the most primary purposes of prayer is to spend time in conversation with our Father. And when this is our goal, we can pray at all times guaranteed that it will be rewarded.
Will it be answered the way we want it to? Maybe.
But will it be rewarded by bringing us into the Father's presence? Absolutely.
You see, prayer is not about answers. Prayer is about reward.
I'm telling you, this understanding of the purpose of prayer will begin to revolutionize the way you approach God. It will cause you to marvel at the miraculous privilege of being able to engage in intimate conversation with the Creator of the universe. By His own grace and design, He has chosen to become our Father. He has opened the windows of heaven and allowed us to spend hours at a time in His awesome presence. In fact, as we'll continue to see throughout this book, this fellowship is hardly limited to what we usually consider our "prayer time" but is truly a constant, continuous, moment-by-moment relationship with God.
And you can enjoy His reward every time you pray.
What Did You Bring Me?
Before I accepted the presidency of Southwestern Seminary, I spent a great deal of time flying across America to lead church growth conferences. I felt all the usual guilt over leaving my family for several days each week. So like many frequent travelers, I got into the habit of always bringing home a small gift for my two girls who were still home at the time.
It happened almost without fail. As soon as my car would enter the driveway, they would run from the house and greet me with the tender address, "Hi, Daddy. What did you bring us?"their words and their hands coming out simultaneously. They would feel through my pockets, rifle through my briefcase, looking for the gift that they knew was hidden somewhere in my belongings.
After one particularly long and exhausting trip, I arrived home only to be greeted by the same predictable welcome: "What did you bring us, Daddy? What did you bring us?" But for some reason this time, I just wasn't in the mood for giving presents. So instead I gave my girls a short but strong lecture.
I knew they wouldn't be able to relate entirely, but I explained how hard it was to be apart from them and how tired I was every time I came home. I tried to help them imagine what it would feel like for them to be away from their family for days at a time. Just once, I expounded, it would mean so much to me if I knew they were simply glad to have Daddy homenot just glad to have a gift.
The following week I returned home after being out of town again, having forgotten about my lecture from the past weekend. As usual, my girls ran to meet me in the drivewayonly this time, my youngest, Katie, leaped into my arms, gave me a big hug, and said in the sweetest voice, "I love you, Daddy. I'm so glad you're home."
Ahhhhh. My heart melted within me.
With her next breath, of course, she asked, "Now . what did you bring me?"
Well, at least it was a start. She was getting close. But my daughter's behavior made me realize that my own prayers to my heavenly Father often began like thatwith little more than requests, requests, requests. I'm sure my words often sounded just like my girls' childish refrain: "What did you bring me, Daddy?"
When I finally comprehended the fact that prayer permitted me to come into the presence of my Father, to express my love for Him, to thank Him for His constant provision and give Him the honor He is due, I discovered a new passion for prayer.
Communicating with Him is reward enough.
And if that is the purpose, there is no such thing as an unanswered prayer.
Where Prayers Go to Die
There is, however, such a thing as mistaken prayerprayer that gets a different kind of reward.
Listen as Jesus describes three of the most common problems we often introduce into our prayer habits. They are misguided motives that ensure we'll become empty, discouraged, and spiritually out of sorts with God. And apparently these three conditions are universal across the generations because they're just as prevalent now as they must have been in the days when Jesus first spoke these words.
The Phantom Prayer
"When you pray ." (Matt. 6:5a)
The first reason prayer doesn't seem to connect people with God is so obvious, I almost hesitate to mention it. In fact, I wouldn't bring it up at all except that it is so pervasive and widespread. You could ask just about any Christian believer if he had been guilty of it at some point in his life, and he would almost certainly confess that he had.
One of the main problems with our prayer is we don't pray. Now this is despite the fact that Jesus speaks repeatedly in these verses with the understood assumption that "when you pray" means there is no question that the follower of Christ will invest himself in prayer. "When you pray" says a lot more than "if you pray" or "whenever you feel like praying." But unfortunately, "when you pray" begins at a basic starting point that too many people rarely achieve.
A recent national survey conducted by a mainline Christian denomination indicated that 25 percent of its members admit that they never pray. Never! Add this to the number of people who'd be honest enough to tell you that their prayer life is sporadic or dull at best, and it doesn't take a genius to figure out that one glaring reason people are so dissatisfied with their prayer life is simple: They don't pray!
Think of the ridiculous analogies: A football team that never practices. An orchestra that never tunes its instruments. A farmer who never plants any crops. A sales rep who never calls on his clients. An artist who never buys herself any paint. To never do something is the worst way to get any better at it.
But we're too busy, we say. Our schedules stay overlapped with nonstop activities that keep us about two days and ten minutes behind all the time. And though our demands stressfully require us to keep the plates spinning constantly, somehow the power stays on, the bills get paid, and the dog gets fed whether we pray or not, so . we don't. And yet we still expect prayer to work on demand when the wheels come off or the kids get sick, when we resort to pleading with a God we largely ignore during the normal routine of life.
Prayerlessness makes absolutely no sense, yet just about all of us have been guilty of itand of foolishly putting the blame on God for not answering prayers we never pray.
The Phony Prayer
"When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full." (Matt. 6:5)
Soon after I dedicated my life to the ministry, I was visiting my dad's church with my wife-to-be. During the service Dad called on me, his "little preacher boy," to deliver the morning prayer. Suddenly feeling myself the focus of attention, I took a deep breath, intoned my best preacher's voice, and wowed the crowd with all the spiritual jargons and theological rhetoric I knew. After I finally reached the "amen" and took my seat, my fiancé, Paula, elbowed me in the side, leaned over, and whispered six sobering words in my ear: "Who were you trying to impress?" I got the message.
But isn't that the way we do it? We preachers may be the worst, using public prayer for everything from reinforcing the points of our sermon to communicating the announcements from the church bulletin board. I shudder to think of how many times I've been complimented for saying a beautiful prayer and took it as a personal accomplishment, how many times I have been more concerned with the way I framed my words than with whether I was honestly communicating with my Father.
Have you ever done itchanging both your tone and your vocabularyso that others could get a feel for your superior spirituality?
Things were no different during the time Jesus was teaching this. To be asked to pray in the synagogue service in first-century Palestine was a mark of distinction. And though prayers were not normally practiced "on the street corners," as the verse says, people who were so inclined probably made a habit of observing their afternoon prayer in a public placewhere they could be observed as well.
Whatever the case, their driving desire was certainly not to commune with God but to be seen and heard, admired and appreciated. They delighted at the sound of their own voice and the hearty approval of their colleagues.
But Jesus had a succinct response to such showboatingone little phrase that kind of says it all, that takes all the air out of phony praying. He said, "They have their reward."
If you want recognition, good. Take it.
If you want other people's approval, fine. Enjoy it.
If you want us to say you're wonderful, OK. You're wonderful.
Notice the difference between this reward and the reward we talked about earlierthe reward for those who prefer the inner room to the public square, who prefer the closed door to the open displaythe precious reward of being in the glorious presence of the Father. In the case of the hypocrites, their full reward comes from the crowd, from their friends, in some ways even from themselvesthe kind of reward that feels good for a moment but is never enough to satisfy the endless demands of pride. For the humble and pure in heart, however, the reward of prayer comes from God Himself "who sees what is done in secret." And His reward is always enough.
Does this mean we should never pray in public? Of course not. Jesus Himself prayed publicly when He blessed the five loaves and two fish before feeding more than five thousand people with them. The early church in the Book of Acts is shown in public prayer on several occasions.
The problem is not public prayer but praying for effect. Whether in public or in private, we can and should pray with the singular desire of communicating with our Fatherand receive the reward of His presence.
The Frivolous Prayer
"And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words." (Matt. 6:7)
To the first-century Greeks and Romans, prayer had both its formal and its magical sides. Since the pagan gods of their religious mythology each controlled some aspect of naturebut couldn't control their own behaviorprayer was the butter that greased the palms of the pantheon. And just in case the gods didn't hear or remember it the first time, these pagan worshipers would often pray the same prayer over and over to make sure they had gotten some heavenly attention, to convince whichever god they wanted that this petition was worth rewarding.
This is different from the idea of perseverance in prayer, which Jesus later applauds and encourages. For to these turn-of-the-millennium Gentiles, prayers carried their own magical power. Therefore, it was not merely an issue of repetition but one of repeating a precise formula or incantation that would gain the favor of a god. They thought the more frequently and fervently they spoke these words, the more powerful and effective their prayer became.
Today we would call this a mantra, like the New Age advocate's repeating of a certain phrase or the Muslim repetition of the Shahada.
Jesus called it "meaningless repetition." The actual Greek word for this is battatogeo. If you try to pronounce it, you'll notice its similarity to the English term babbling. He may have used this term to underline the foolishness of praying in such a singsong manner. On a much earlier day, though, an Old Testament prophet called it a mockery.
First Kings 18 records the spiritual showdown between Elijah, the prophet of God, and 450 pagan prophets of the god Baal. The contest involved two altarsone piled high with wood and sacrifice, the other soaked with (not one, not two, but) twelve huge tubs of water until the runoff puddled up in a trench around the base. The question? Whose god would hear the prayers of his people and send down fire to lick up the waiting sacrifice?
The Baal worshipers went first, crying out from morning till noon, pleading, begging, running around, imploring their god to send even a spark to ignite this famine-dried tinderbox into a flame for his glory.
Excerpted from THE PRAYER OF JESUS by Ken Hemphill. Copyright © 2001 by Kenneth S. Hemphill. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.