The Discipline Of PrayerErwin W. Lutzer | January 12, 2003
Selected highlights from this sermon
Prayer is an absent discipline in the lives of many Christians. We often think it is boring, pointless, and frustrating. But this message will help us turn back to God with a renewed fervency and perspective toward prayer.
Pastor Lutzer will guide us to become more interested in God’s agenda for ourselves and the world instead of praying for all the things we want.
When we submit our prayers with and through God’s Word, our dedicated times of prayer can come alive.
Years ago there was a survey taken at a convention with 17,000 Christians. And they were there for a conference and the conference emphasized the theme of prayer and revival. And the survey revealed that the average Christian, and these probably are people who are above average, spends less than five minutes a day in prayer. Now at this conference there were 2,000 pastors and their wives, and of course, pastors would do a lot better, wouldn’t they? Amen. They did 40% better—7 minutes.
Why is it that we don’t pray more? Well, I know that the devil hassles us, but rather than talking about him, let me give you some other reasons today. First of all, it’s because we don’t feel like it. We don’t necessarily feel this great urge to come to God, and sometimes what happens is we don’t get close enough to God for Him to share any particular burdens with us, and so there is really no compulsion to pray, and so we don’t pray.
There’s a second reason and that is that (And I speak more plainly here maybe than I should) prayer is boring, because we say the same thing about the same things. We ask God to bless our families. We always use the word bless, whatever that means. And then we always add a new crisis that comes, and all of us have our crises, and we kind of ask God to take care of this, to take care of that, and then the prayer is over and it is gone. And we say the same thing tomorrow and ten years from now some Christians are saying the same thing about the same things.
Third, all communication is one way. We’re talking to God. We think that He’s listening because His Word says that He is, but we’re getting no response, and that’s tough. I told you this before, but because it’s a true story, I can tell it again.
True story! One day I was sitting on a couch talking to a man and trying to help him understand the interaction between Satan and God in Job chapter 1. And he had a different opinion and I was trying to help him to see the truth. (laughter) The problem is that after I went on with my exposition I noticed that he was nodding off. And then when he drifted into a light snore, do you know what I did? I stopped talking.
If I’m talking to you I at least want a grunt, and not necessarily in this context, though sometimes that wouldn’t hurt either, but I need some kind of a response. And if I’m talking to God and I’m not sure that God is listening, and I’m not sure that He’s hearing, and I don’t really believe that anything will be changed (either I will be changed or circumstances will be changed), it’s tough to pray under those conditions. And sometimes Christians just don’t believe in prayer.
You also remember the other story about the liquor store (the pub) that was built right next to the church. And Christians told the owner who built it there that they were going to pray that God would intervene and take care of the problem and wipe them out. The next night a great thunderstorm came and lightning struck it and the place burned down. He took the Christians to court, saying that it was their prayers that caused the lightning. What did the Christians do? They hired an attorney. And they said, “We are not responsible for this pub burning down.” And the judge said, “I don’t know which way it is going to go, but one things seems clear. The bar owner believes in prayer, and the Christians don’t. (laughter) That much seems to be clear.” And so, if you don’t really believe in prayer, it’s hard to pray.
Let me give you another reason. We’ve lost the meaning of prayer, and this is essential. We think that prayer is getting a reluctant God to finally do something if we could just find the key. That’s, I think, one of the reasons why the book The Prayer of Jabez has sold so well. There are many people reading it, and they’re interpreting it as an opportunity to finally figure out how they can get God on their side and to do something.
I met a woman at O’Hare Field. She was reading it and so I struck up a conversation with her. She said, “I’m a Mormon, and I’m reading it because I’m beginning a new business and I want God to prosper it.” So, you know, if there’s some way that I can finally get the Almighty to do something good for me, I’ll read any book. That’s not the purpose of prayer, as we shall see in a moment.
Four years ago I preached on this, and this message is somewhat similar to that, but I say that not to make an apology because this is a message we have to hear every single year, but to simply say that we need to renew our minds as to how to pray. Now I want you to know today, and I’m making this promise to you, that I’m going to outline a method of prayer, and we’re even going to maybe take the opportunity of praying right here in such a way that, number one, you’ll never have to say the same old thing about the same old things again. Always fresh! Always new!
Secondly, God will respond. A way in which you interact with God! You can say something and He can say something. And then third, your soul will be satisfied. Aren’t you glad you came?
Now, how do we do this? Well, the answer is we combine two disciplines. We combine the discipline of meditation, which we spoke about last time. If you weren’t here last time, I encourage you to get a copy of the message. Meditation involves, as we know, we analyze, we personalize, we memorize, and we gave examples and illustrations of how to do that so that your Bible reading is transformed. And now what we’re going to do is we’re going to combine that meditation with prayer.
This message, by the way, is for average Christians—you know, the super average Christians. The real super stars don’t need to hear this. This is for struggling Christians, average Christians struggling in their prayer life. Does it include you, or are you beyond it? It’s for all of us.
Someone, by the way, who did this in a remarkable way, combining the two, was George Mueller. Now George Mueller lived in the 1800s and he ran orphanages over in England, and never asked for any money. And he just… Through prayer God supplied, and he did this, he said, for three reasons. First of all, there were some young people who did not believe that God would answer prayer, so he had to prove to them that God was trustworthy. And then he said that there were businessmen who were cheating because they thought that if they were honest that they would not be able to compete in the business world, and therefore they were not trusting God, and he wanted to illustrate to them that God takes care of them. And then he said there were older people, people who didn’t think that God would take care of them in their final days. And those were in the days, you know, before social security. And he said he needed to prove the faithfulness of God.
Now some people think that he represents the fact that nobody should ever ask for money. Well, that’s not true biblically. The Apostle Paul even urged the people to give. But that was the way in which God led George Mueller.
But let me tell you about his devotional life. He says, “Before this time, my practice had been for at least 10 years previously as a habitual thing to give myself to prayer after having dressed in the morning. Now I saw that the most important thing was to give myself to the reading of God’s Word, and to meditate on it that thus my heart might be comforted, encouraged, warned, reproved, instructed, and that thus, by means of the Word of God, while meditating on it, my heart might be brought into communion with God.”
I need to pause here and say that in this series of messages next week we’re going to speak about the discipline of worship. Incredibly important because what God wants to do in worship is to bring us into communion with the Lord, and next message, God willing, we’ll illustrate exactly how that can occur.
But he says, “The result I found to be most invariably this is that after a few minutes my soul has been led to confession, to thanksgiving, to intercession, to supplication so that I did not, as it were, give myself to prayer but to meditation. Yet (listen here) it turned almost immediately to prayer. When thus I had been for a while making confession or intercession or supplication or giving thanks, I then go on to the next words or verse, turning all as I go on into prayer for myself and for others as the Word may lead me to it, but still continually keeping before me that food for my own soul, which is the object of my meditation. The result of this is that there is always a good deal of confession, thanksgiving, supplication and intercession mingled with my meditation, that my inner man almost invariably is sensibly nourished and strengthened, and that by breakfast, with rare exceptions, I’m in a peaceful, if not happy state of mind.”
Would you like to have breakfast with that guy? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to, by breakfast, have your soul in a peaceful state of mind through meditation and through prayer?
Now what we’re going to do here is to illustrate how this is done. And in the process of illustrating it, hundreds of you I believe who have not been doing it this way (Some of you already have been.) are going to go home, and you will find your prayer life transformed. You’ll actually be excited about that sweet hour of prayer about which the choir sang just a few moments ago.
Let’s begin with one of the most familiar passages of Scripture in all the Bible. It’s one that all of us can quote. If you’ve been saved more than two weeks, I’m sure that you can quote Psalm 23. You’ll notice it. How do we take Psalm 23 and translate it into a prayer so that we learn to begin to both meditate and to pray the Scriptures? How is that done? Perhaps like this!
“The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want.” And then we pause and we say, “Oh Father, I want to thank You today that Jesus is my shepherd. Thank You for the privilege of being one of Your sheep. I pray that You will make me an obedient sheep.”
And then as you begin to meditate on the Scripture you begin to realize, at least in my case, that I also am a shepherd, and I pray, “Oh God, make me a good shepherd of the people that you’ve entrusted to my care.” And then I begin to think of other shepherds at Moody Church to pray for—the pastoral staff and the elders.
And so after you’ve begun a time like that then you go on to the next verse. “He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside quiet waters.” “Father, I pray today that You might enable me to be led beside quiet waters. May my soul rest in You. Satisfy, oh Lord God I pray, my soul with You.”
And then it says, “He restores my soul.” We need to pause there and say, “Father, I know that so often I wander from You. There are things that I do that ‘Oh prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, oh prone to leave the God I love.’ Oh Father, restore me. Keep me in the path. Keep me walking righteously.”
And so you go all the way through this Psalm and you use the Psalm as a basis of meditation, yes, but you are combining the discipline of meditation and the discipline of prayer. And after you have finished Psalm 23, the next day or the next segment of time, you go on to Psalm 24, and now, of course, doing that with the Psalms is easy because most of the Psalms are prayers. But we’re taking those prayers and we are personalizing them. We are making those prayers our own. And if you are reading through the Psalms every month, as I am doing… And remember that we do have a schedule that we’re giving out free if you want to do that. The simple fact is that it is our opportunity to pray back to God the things that have been written in God’s Word.
Now there are so many examples that obviously every Psalm is an example. But let’s suppose that you are going through a difficult time because someone at work is persecuting you, or you’re in a situation where someone has it in for you, and you’re going through this difficult time of wondering whether or not God is going to defend you because you have an enemy or two out there somewhere, what about a Psalm like Psalm 31? We don’t have time to read it, but many of you are going to remember that now, aren’t you?
Psalm 31: “In you, oh Lord, I have taken refuge. Let me never be put to shame. Deliver me in your righteousness. Turn your ear to me.” I must skip these beautiful verses. Verse 4: “Free me from the trap that is set for me for you are my refuge. Into your hands I commit my spirit. Redeem me, Oh Lord, the God of truth.” And on and on it goes, and one of the loveliest passages quoted by Jesus, even on the cross is verse 13: “For I hear the slander of many. There is terror on every side. They conspire against me and plot to take my life, but I trust in you, oh Lord. I say, ‘You are my God. My times are in your hands. Deliver me from my enemies and from those who would pursue me. Let your face shine on your servant. Save me in your unfailing love.”
What an expression for those who are going through times of difficulty. What a way in which we can pray to God as we take His Word, and we’re praying His Word back to Him.
Now I could give you many other illustrations. You say, “Well, that’s the Psalms. What about the Epistles of Paul?” They are very, very easy to pray. By the way the epistles are not the wives of the apostles. The word epistle means letter or writing.
You know, in Ephesians, for example, you have two wonderful prayers. If you ever wonder how you should pray for us as members of the pastoral staff, if you’re ever thinking of how to pray about a missionary because I don’t know what his needs are, that’s not right. You know exactly what his needs are.
Ephesians, chapter 1! You pray that the eyes of his heart will be enlightened, that he might know the hope of his calling, and know who he is in Christ, and experience the length and the depth and the love of Christ. That’s the next prayer actually in Ephesians, chapter 3, and you begin to pray this because when the Apostle Paul prayed, he was always praying for people spiritually.
Now I don’t want to play down the need to pray for people in their physical ailments and in their needs and so forth, but when you look at Paul’s prayers (and there’s more than a dozen of them in his writings), every one of them are focused on people’s relationships with God, and nothing was said about their physical needs or about their conflicts, because Paul was convinced that if people are rightly related to God and if the eyes of their mind are enlightened as to who they are in Christ, they can endure what it is that they are going through.
Often I have prayed Colossians 1 for my children. What a marvelous prayer, but we do not have time to turn to it, but you do and you pray it phrase by phrase. Seven requests Paul makes that could be made for any Christian, and you pray those requests.
Yesterday I was praying through Romans 12. As you know, I have prayer partners, and many of my prayer partners pray this way for me. And one day one of them read the entire 12th chapter of Romans for me as a prayer. Wow! Can you imagine being prayed for in that way? And I was praying, and it says in Romans 12, “Therefore I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God.” I stopped there. I prayed for myself that my body would be a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, and this is my spiritual act of worship.
And then the Lord brought to mind the need to pray for our three daughters and for their husbands, and so I prayed Romans 12, verses 1 and 2, where it goes on to talk about holiness, pleasing God and the mind being transformed by the Word of God and by the Spirit of God. I prayed that for our sons-in-law. And then I prayed it for others, and I have to tell you I did not get beyond verses 1 and 2 because so many people came to mind for whom I began to pray that this would be true of them. Do you see how this works, so that you’re not simply praying, “Lord, bless somebody?” What you are doing is you are praying God’s thoughts.
What are the advantages of this kind of prayer? Let me give them to you very quickly because as I’ve already emphasized, we are now praying God’s agenda and not ours. What if I were to speak to a businessman, and I were to say to him, “Would you share with me please how your relationship with God is coming along? What kind of a relationship do you have with the Almighty?” and he were to say, “Well, you know, I don’t really like my job. As a matter of fact, I wish I could change jobs.” And I’d say, “That’s not the question I am asking. I am asking you a different question? How is your relationship with God?” And he were to say, “Well, you know, if we had more money we could do a lot of things, but we are short on money. We can hardly pay our bills.” And I’m saying, “Hey, that’s now what I’m asking you. How’s your relationship with God?” And then he says, “Well, I want you know that I’ve had a lot of trouble with my back recently, and it hurts.” And I’m saying, “Don’t you get it? That’s not what I’m asking.”
We do that with God all the time. God’s on a different trajectory. What are we doing? We’re talking about this, and God says, “You know, everything in My sight is important, but I’m not worried about the circumstances here. That’s not my big agenda. My big agenda is your heart, and your purity, and your holiness, and your ability to endure. That’s much more important to me than solving all your problems. And every time you come, all that you think of me as is a problem-solver.”
Spurgeon, you remember, said, “Oh blessed acts of sorrow that cuts a pathway to my God, by chopping down the tall trees of human comfort.” You know, all that we’re doing is we’re praying for our creature comforts. “Make it easier. Solve the problems.” God says, “That’s not my agenda.” And we keep coming to Him with an agenda that isn’t really His. It’s ours.
Boy, when you are praying Romans 12, and if you turn to that passage, I hope you stay there because we’re going to return to it in a moment. But when you are praying that, now suddenly you’re getting the mind of the Lord. You are discovering what the will of God really is for your life.
The second advantage is God uses His Word to trigger our memories and our concerns. You see, when you are reading the Bible, oftentimes you’ll come across passages that really don’t apply to you, so what you do is you say, “Oh, blessed Spirit, does this passage apply to other people? Help me to know, Lord, other people for whom I can pray this.” And God will bring people to mind and situations to mind for which you will be able to pray now and use the Scripture in the process of doing the praying. What a wonderful experience that is!
Now, if there’s a passage that absolutely does not lend itself to prayer, and that may be true of some of the historical sections of the Bible, then what you do is you simply read it and if possible, if you can’t read it aloud, at least read it and let your lips move and read it to God. Say, “Lord, I am reading Your Word, but I am reading Your Word in Your presence, and I’m reading this Word to You.” And in the process, God is honored because He says He has exalted His Word as high as His Name.
You say, “Well, Pastor Lutzer, what about posture in prayer?” Well, I have my own convictions, but actually the posture is not that important but it is the heart. I read about one man who never prayed because he could never have the right posture. When he knelt his suit got creased. When he stood, his legs ached. When he sat it seemed to be too irreverent. Well, one day he was walking through an open field and fell head-first into a narrow well. (laughter) Am I going too fast for some of you? (laughter) He discovered, you know, that there are moments when posture is not that big a deal. In fact, you could even pray upside down if you really have to.
You say, “Yes, but Pastor Lutzer, what about the distractions?” Now, when you begin to do this you are going to find all kinds of distractions because remember the devil is now really going to awaken. He who has been asleep is suddenly going to come alive and say, “I can’t let this go on.” So what will happen is you’re going to be distracted. You’re going to have so many concerns.
Years ago sometimes what I would do is actually take… There are two answers to this, by the way. The first is to pray for the thing that has distracted you. It’s probably an anxiety. And so what you do is as that distraction comes you say, “Lord, this has come to mind and this is distracting me now, and so I want to give this to You. I want to pray through that so that I can get back to my adoration of You and get back to the Scriptures.”
In fact, there were times earlier—many years ago—when I would actually have a notepad next to my open Bible, because the minute I would go down to pray, suddenly I remembered what I should do. I was thinking about this and so forth, and then I couldn’t let go of those thoughts because I thought I might forget what it is that I have to do, so I would simply write it down.
You write it down and take care of it so that you can get back to the business of praying. I don’t necessarily think that you should always put your Bible in your left hand and your Palm Pilot in your right, but something has to be done so that we can get back to the business of praying, and so that our distractions are used for the glory of God instead of destroying the communion that God wants us to have with Him. And so what happens is God triggers our memories. Just try this.
I was reading in Psalms the other day where it says, “The fool has said in his heart there is no God.” What do you do with a verse like that? Well, immediately I began to think, “You know, I have never prayed for atheists. This might be a good opportunity to do that. “Father (and a few do come to mind), I pray you will help them to understand how foolish this is. God, have mercy upon their souls.”
Do you see how reading God’s Word will trigger in our minds other things and people to pray for that we would never think of on our own? You say, “Well, should you have a prayer list?” Yes, a prayer list is good because what it does is it helps focus our wandering mind, but in praying this way we will never pray the same old thing in the same old way. And finally, we now have a prayer that will stay with us all during the day, because we’ve combined meditation and intercession.
Now, I encourage you to do this. I encourage you to do it for a month. Commit yourself to it for a month. What you’ll discover is the hunger and the burden for God’s Word, and the desire to be in God’s presence will grow so much that afterwards it will simply become a part of your whole habit and experience. But the first few weeks will be difficult, and you know who’s going to try to make it difficult for you.
I asked you a moment ago to keep your Bibles open to the 12th chapter of Romans. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, and I just thought of this idea this morning, if we as a church were to take verse 9 of Romans 12 to the end of the chapter and all of us pray it this week for Moody Church? Can you imagine?
Love must be sincere. Oh God, we pray, make us people who are sincere and devoted, and there may be a specific situation that the Lord brings to mind that you need to commit to Him in your own life and in the lives of others here at the church.
Oh God, as a congregation, may we hate what is evil and may we cling to what is good. And we ask God to give us a burden to intercede for those who are tied up with evil, who are bound by evil, and then be devoted to one another in brotherly love, and go down all the way and pray that prayer for our congregation.
It won’t just simply be, “Now bless Moody Church.” It’ll be God’s agenda for God’s people. And what will happen if we begin to pray this way? We’ll finally obey the words of Scripture which say, “Pray continuously,” because the words will be in our minds and our hearts, and as we meet God in the morning, and as we finally surrender the day to Him and begin every day at the foot of the cross, so to speak, and as we commit ourselves to Him, and as we are meditating and praying, we’ll have something to take with us throughout the day. And the prayer that we prayed in the morning will be in our minds and in our hearts.
Yes, we will be rebuked, exhorted, encouraged, smitten with conviction, given hope. All of those things will take place if we treat the Scriptures in this way. We’ll discover, as someone has said, that when we pray something that is not God’s will, He’ll say no. If we pray something that is not His timing, He will say slow. And if we pray in a way and God sees that we are the problem, He will say grow. But in the process we’ll finally meet God, and what we’ll discover is that it’s not abnormal to be able to say that you belong to the Prayer Watch and spend an hour with the Lord, because what you’re are doing is you are reading His Word. Your prayer list is on one side of your hand, and the Bible is on the other, and then you are connecting the two. And God is leading you into the depths of prayer.
Some of you are here today and you are surprised at the intimacy that all of us want with God, and the reason may be because you personally have never trusted Jesus Christ as your Savior. You say, “Well, how do you do that?” That’s what a man asked me one time. He said, “How do you do that? What do you say?”
Well, of course, it’s not the words that are important, but it is the expression of the heart. There is a prayer in the Bible that you can pray, and some of you need to pray it this morning. The Bible says that Jesus told the story about two people who went into a temple to pray. Now both were praying, but the one man was praying his own agenda. He was not praying God’s agenda at all. He said, “I thank thee, Lord, that I am not like other men. They are extortioners and adulterers, but I fast twice a week, and I give a tithe of everything that I possess.” You don’t find that in the Bible, bragging like that. Where’s that coming from? He’s praying his own ideas. He is exalting himself in the very presence of the God who should humble him.
But next to the Pharisee there was another man, a publican, despised, thought of to be lower class, and the Bible says that he would hardly even look to heaven. He couldn’t stand to look up, as if he would see the face of God. He simply smote his breast, and here’s the prayer that he prayed, that some of you really should pray today. He said, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” And Jesus said that that man, the second man, went home justified, and the other did not.
How do we connect with God? We connect by acknowledging our own sinfulness and our need of a Savior, and we say, “Oh, God, I receive Your mercy as it is given to us in Jesus Christ, our Lord.” We receive our mercy from His loving hand. It is a gift given to those who finally give up all dependence upon works and trust Christ alone. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
Let’s pray together.
Our Father, today we want to pray as earnestly as the disciples did when You were here on earth, Lord Jesus, when they said, “Lord, teach us to pray.” We confess today that there are many people who have listened to this message who have never gotten beyond good intentions. Transform today, we pray. Make it different. We ask today that You will help us to be able to meditate and to pray, and to pray Your thoughts back to You, and to pray Your agenda and not ours. Make us a praying people, we ask. Oh we think, Lord, of those who perhaps have never attended a prayer meeting here. Would You share with us that burden and that hunger that would transform our lives and the lives of our community and our family through burning, continual, faithful intercessory prayer?
And for those who have never trusted Christ, we pray today that they might cry out to Him and say, “Yes, be merciful to me, a sinner,” and receive Your grace. We ask this in Jesus’ name, Amen.