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Prayer That Makes A Difference

The Sin Of Prayerlessness

Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer | September 9, 1990

Selected highlights from this sermon

Most of the time, our prayers are casual—and that’s if we pray at all. But, prayerlessness is a sin; it’s the symptom of a heart filled with pride and deception. Only intense, fervent prayer can help destroy the deceptions within us and mend our divide hearts. 

Let me ask you today what is it that comes to mind when I mention the word prayer? What comes to mind? For some, maybe it’s a ritual. And for some, perhaps, it’s duty. Some may have bad memories of times of prayer. For others it may be a delight. For others it may be something that you have to do because it’s expected of you.

I know that I have felt differently about prayer at different times, and in some sense have felt all of these emotions from time to time. But as we begin this series on prayer, I want to begin by reminding you of something that ought to jolt us into pursuing God and prayer.

Do you realize that God, in His infinite sovereignty and mercy and grace and wisdom and planning, has ordained that prayer should be the means by which He is going to implement and extend His kingdom here on earth? That’s an awesome thought. Of course, God’s kingdom will come to earth in the way that He sees fit, whether we pray or not because God’s purposes are never frustrated by our own lack of involvement. If we aren’t involved, God will find someone else to be involved because God will never find His purposes thwarted because of the unbelief and the faithlessness of men. But what God does do is to invite you and me to be a part of what He is doing and to enter into it and to effect change because we pray.

Do you realize that through prayer you can stand on a platform with Billy Graham? You’ve always wanted to stand there, haven’t you? You can be with Billy at his side as he preaches, and influence what he says and the impact of what he says through your praying with God’s intervention and interaction in your life. Do you realize, my friend, today that you can stand up here with Jerry Edmonds and lead the choir in prayer? You can stand with him.

You can stand with me as I preach. You can stand with people who are serving in India. You can go through the hallways and the streets of Calcutta, and you can go to Japan, and you can influence the impact of missions there all through prayers, and all through learning to pray. What an awesome privilege God has given to us to be able to extend our influence and our impact worldwide to every country.

You can go into an apartment building and participate in the healing of the wounds of an abused child through your praying. God, in His infinite sovereignty and wisdom and planning, has ordained that we should participate in the extension of His kingdom on earth through prayer.

Secondly, at the beginning of this series, I want to remind you that there are various levels of prayer. First of all, there is what I call casual praying. Casual praying is the kind of praying we sometimes do at mealtime where it’s expected that we pray. I know that when I was growing up we used to say that we don’t take time to thank the Lord unless it’s worth twenty-five cents or more. Casual praying! “Lord, we’re thankful.” And there’s nothing wrong with casual praying as long as it is done with a sincere heart, but casual praying is the kind of praying that we do that is oftentimes almost a memorized prayer. We do it because it’s expected. Sometimes we also do it because we want to, but it is not really agonizing in prayer. It isn’t fervent prayer. It’s casual prayer.

Secondly, there is what I call committed prayer. Committed prayer is more focused. Committed prayer is when you begin to get a prayer list and when you begin to pray specifically for change in the lives of people, or change of events. Committed prayer is focused. Committed prayer is prayer with a burden. And sometimes we graduate from casual praying to committed praying. We have a teenager who just received her driver’s license last week. We tend to move then from casual praying to committed praying. It’s amazing how we change our emphases.

But there’s a third kind of praying that we should do and that is combat praying. Combat praying or warfare praying, as it sometimes called, is more than even committed praying. In Colossians 4:12 Paul is speaking of a man named Epaphras, and he says of him that “he prayed fervently for you.” I looked up the Greek word yesterday and discovered it is the word that Paul uses when he says, “Fight the good fight of faith.” That’s why I like the translation that says he wrestles for you fervently in prayer.

Now, what is combat praying? Combat praying is when you pray against Satan. It is praying that actually is front line praying. It is going behind enemy lines and taking back territory that has been given to the enemy, and bringing it back under the authority of God. And some of you have children who are rebellious and have turned against God. They are not living for the Lord. You will probably not see a change through casual praying, even committed praying, until you, as a parent, are willing to take back territory that has been handed over to Satan, and to take it back in faith behind enemy lines and win some battles because you wrestle in prayer, and you agonize in prayer, and you fight in prayer, and you war in prayer. That’s the kind of praying that gets results.

Now, I want to be very clear as to what my purpose is in this series of messages on prayer so that no one misunderstands. My great burden is to extend the number of people here at The Moody Church involved in combat praying. As I’ve been thinking about this series and praying about it, I’ve said, “Oh God, take some people who are casual prayers and lead them to the higher level and make them committed prayers. And God, we know that you’ve got hundreds of committed prayers at Moody Church, but take many of them who have stayed on that level, and let us bring them up to another level of combat prayers. And I thank God that we’ve got many of them already.

On Wednesday night at prayer time, at prayer focus, we gathered together in three semi-circles and we began to bombard heaven for requests. And I could tell that as we were praying for Sunday school classes and the choir and the ministry of the Word, and as we were praying for the extension of God’s kingdom in the high-rises around the city of Chicago, I sensed immediately that we have many people here at the church who understand what it is to pray combat prayers. But God knows we need hundreds of people just like that. And my prayers will not be answered until, as a result of this series of messages that I begin today, God raises up people who are going to stand with us against sin, against unbelief, and the needs of this great neighborhood that the Lord has given us as our mission field. Combat praying!

I need to remind you (Do I not? Perhaps I don’t.) that God actually expects us to pray. Remember that, would you? I mean it’s not just that He invites us to. He’s actually expecting us to pray.

Today I am speaking on the sin of prayerlessness. Next Sunday I’m going to speak about praying for one another, and then after that I speak on the topic of praying for this city, praying for the world, and praying for the glory of God. Those are the messages that are to follow, but for today, please take your Bibles and turn to 1 Samuel 12. Don’t get 1 Samuel confused with 2 Samuel. It’s easy to do that when you look at some of these books that have a first and second, but this is 1 Samuel 12.

Samuel was a judge of Israel. He was like a circuit rider to keep things in check in the land in those days. And the people wanted a king. God says, “No, I don’t want you to have a king. I’m your king.” But they said, “We want a king.” So God came to Samuel and said, “Samuel, go ahead. Give it to them. It’s going to be a bunch of trouble, but give it to them.” (chuckles) Does God sometimes answer requests that He knows are not good for us? Yes, we can be so insistent. God just says, “Fine, give it to them.” “If she wants to marry that guy (She’s not listening to my voice.), let them get married. They’re going to have lots of trouble but just let them.”

Samuel is giving his concluding speech. Notice we pick it up at verse 19 of chapter 12: “And all the people said to Samuel, ‘Pray for your servants to the Lord your God, that we may not die, for we have added to all our sins this evil, to ask for ourselves a king.’ And Samuel said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid; you have done all this evil. Yet do not turn aside from following the Lord, but serve the Lord with all your heart. And do not turn aside after empty things that cannot profit or deliver, for they are empty. For the Lord will not forsake his people, for his great name's sake, because it has pleased the Lord to make you a people for himself. Moreover, as for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by ceasing to pray for you (I like the King James Version here. It says, “God forbid that I should sin against the Lord by ceasing to pray for you.”), and I will instruct you in the good and the right way. Only fear the Lord and serve him faithfully with all your heart. For consider what great things he has done for you. But if you still do wickedly, you shall be swept away, both you and your king.”

The key verse, of course, is verse 23: “God forbid that I should sin, not against you folks, but sin against the Lord by ceasing to pray for you.”

I’ve had missionaries say to me, “We just want to thank you so much that you’ve been praying for us.” And I think to myself, “Oh, if they only knew how little we pray.” But you know, it is not a sin against them. Only secondarily! It is a sin against God.

Why is prayerlessness a sin? Let me give you three reasons. First, it’s because prayerlessness is a sign of a proud heart. A proud heart! Now, in order to illustrate this, I want to use the nation of Israel as an example, because they did not pray about the decision they made to want a king. Samuel was a man of prayer, but the people he served were not a people of prayer. What kind of an attitude did they have? First of all, the had an attitude that was filled with pride because they wanted to independently make their choices.

Since you have your Bibles open to 1 Samuel, chapter 12, turn back a couple of chapters to 1 Samuel 8 where we see this delineated in more detail. It says in 1 Samuel 8:4: “Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah and said to him, ‘Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.’ But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, ‘Give us a king to judge us.’ And Samuel prayed to the Lord. And the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.’”

And God said, “I want you to grant their request. Let them have the king, but they’ll live to regret it, and I will make sure that because they have rejected Me, they will live with those consequences.”

But I want you to notice what God says. He says, “Samuel, in going against my will, in refusing to pray and to submit, the people have not rejected you. They have rejected Me.” And prayerless people reject God because they want to make their own decisions. They don’t want to consult the Almighty. Who wants to go through the trouble of consulting God who may say no when you want Him to say yes? So you just go ahead and do it. God says it’s pride.

They wanted to make independent decisions. They wanted to be independent in their relationships. They said, “We want to be like all the other nations.” In fact, even in 1 Samuel 12, Samuel said, “You saw the kings of the Ammonites, and you said, ‘We want to be like they are. We want a king too.’”

My dear friend, the more prayerlessness that is in our lives, the more we are going to want to be like the world. We’ll adopt the attitudes of the world. We’ll adopt the values of the world, and we will say to ourselves, “I am able to run my own life and to make my own decisions and to have my own relationships and do my own thing,” and God says that is pride.

Why is it that prayerlessness is a sin? It’s because prayerlessness is you and me admitting before God that we can run our own lives. It is a confession of our own self-sufficiency. It is a confession of our own wisdom. It is an acknowledgment that we have rejected Him and put ourselves in place. That’s why Samuel says, “Oh, God forbid that I should become a prayerless prophet because I would sin against God. Pride would enter into my life.”

First of all, it is the sign of a proud heart. Secondly, it is also a sign of a divided heart. I want you to notice in verse 21, and now we’re back in 1 Samuel 12 where we began, that Samuel is speaking and says, “You must not turn aside for then you would go after futile things which cannot profit or deliver because they are futile.” What he’s saying is that if you forsake God, if you are prayerless, you will, first of all, seek help that is against God’s will because you’re not turning to God. And isn’t that exactly what we do today?

I didn’t know whether or not I should say this today because I like to be known as a nice guy. I really do, I hope that occasionally I am, but I am bothered, for example, by the intrusion of secular psychology into Christianity in an attempt to help people with their problems. Now I believe in Christian counseling. I do it myself. I did it this past week. Every one of the pastoral staff does counseling, so we believe in Christian counseling. There is even such a thing, I am sure, as Christian psychiatry. We know that there is secular psychiatry.

But Christians are looking everywhere to find a solution to the deep needs of the human heart, and they are casting about even in secular personality theories, hoping to get hope, confessing that God is not adequate, even though the Word says that “He has given unto us exceeding great and precious promises so that by these we might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the pollution that is in the world through lust.”

Remember the story of Ahaziah who got sick in 2 Kings 1? And he went over to Baal to try find out how long he was going to live, and whether or not he could be healed, and do you remember the conflict with Elijah, the prophet? And Elijah said three times, “Why is it that you are going to Baal? Is there no God in Israel who is able to take care of you?” Is there no God in Israel? Is it true that His promises can no longer be believed, and that we must fetch about in secular worldly theories to find the answer to the deep, deep, really deep problems of the human heart? Is there no God in the Christian church today who can do it?

You see, we’re always going to turn for help to others. The question is, do we turn to God or do we not? Even when somebody gets sick we often turn to the medicine cabinet first. I’m not saying we shouldn’t take medicine. I’m all in favor of doctors, but at the same time isn’t it interesting how quickly we leave God out of our lives and don’t think of Him first?

Samuel says, “If you turn away from the Lord and become prayerless, you will go to futile things that will not be able to help you.” Why is it, by the way, that God is not reaching the deepest needs of human hearts today? Why is it? He does it sometimes. Why doesn’t He do it more often? It is because we have not learned how to pray. Combat praying involves prayer and fasting, as we shall see in one of the messages in this series.

And we’ll cast about in the world, not only for help, but also for our sense of fulfillment. Why is it that you and I sometimes turn to the world, the worldly ideas and worldly forms of questionable entertainment? Why is it that we like to keep our fingers in money, secular values? It’s because praylessness breeds a divided heart so that there is something within us that loves God, and we really honestly truly do love God and want to serve Him. And I believe that you are here today as proof of the fact that you do, but just like me, we struggle, don’t we?

There are times in my heart when I want to seek something else, and I want to go a different direction.

Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love.

A divided heart! We want to give adoration to God, but we also want this over here too. That’s a sign of prayerlessness. A prayerless heart is always a divided heart, and sometimes when we pray to God it is only with part of our hearts, not with our whole hearts.

It’s also a deceitful heart. It’s the sign of a proud heart and a divided heart, but also a deceitful heart. Samuel said in verse 24, “Only fear the Lord and serve Him in truth with all of your heart.” And by the way, notice he did say “with all of your heart,” and not just a divided heart, “for consider what great things He has done for you.” Samuel is saying to Israel, “Serve God in truth. Don’t deceive yourselves.”

Why is it that prayerlessness tends to give us hearts that are filled with deception? I’ll tell you why. You know that when you have a garden and you don’t weed the garden, automatically weeds will begin to grow up, and you know that too. And those weeds grow and they sink in deep roots, and soon the garden is indistinguishable from the weeds, and the weeds have taken over. Now your heart and mine is like that garden with seeds that are sinful. That’s the way we are, isn’t it?

Sometimes, as a matter of fact, we are even surprised at our own sinfulness. Have you ever had something come out of your mouth in a moment of anger, and you wonder later how in the world you could have done that? You see, we have all of these seeds in our heart, and if those seeds are allowed to grow, all of the desires of the flesh and the wrong attitudes and the sinful aspirations of the soul will begin to take over. What is it a sign of? Prayerlessness, because when we really learn to pray, our garden will be weeded because the blessed Holy Spirit who has been given to the church to point out sin in our lives will fulfill that work. And soon we will find out that when we get beyond the casual praying to the committed praying and then the combat praying, as we progress into various levels of intensity and burden, we will not be able to let those sins take root in our lives without the Holy Spirit of God pointing them out and showing us precisely why it is that we can’t seem to graduate from one level of praying to another.

Casual praying is possible with all kinds of sin in your life because it’s basically mumbling words, or perhaps saying them with clarity, but there’s no burden. There’s no intensity. There’s no fervor. Committed praying is a little more difficult to do with sin in our lives. In fact, when we get to that level the Holy Spirit really begins to work in our hearts and show us all the blockages as to why our prayers seem to amount to nothing. When we get to combat praying that’s when the war really begins. And God, by His Spirit, begins to work in our hearts, and begins to show us our desperate need, and the deceptions that we have lived with begin to fall away when we see our need before God.

I want to say to you today that I believe with all of my heart that the spiritual needs at Moody Church are much greater than anyone of us realizes—much greater. As a pastoral staff and its elders, we all are aware of specific battles that are being fought, and sometimes being lost in marriages, in relationships with children, in this matter or in that matter, but that is only a microcosm of many battles that we do not know about, many secret hidden battles, sins that are going on in which people are genuinely struggling and agonizing, but there seems to be no way out. And we are tempted to say, “Where is the God of D. L. Moody or Elijah?”

I want you to know that the only way that we can begin to overcome and to see those battles won is to become a people of prayer. You say, “Lord, I’m into casual praying. Teach me combat praying. Teach me what it’s like to wrestle.” That’s what the Greek word means. Teach me what it is like to agonize because I begin to see and feel the burdens and the hurts and the defeats of God’s people. And that’s what God needs to do in us.

Why is it that we don’t pray more? Some people say, “Well, it’s because we don’t know how.” That’s a possibility, though if you come Wednesday night, we’ve been teaching people to pray, explaining what prayer is all about, the different aspects of prayer. But you know, I think that the need is even deeper than that. The need is because we have not seen prayerlessness as sin. We’ve simply thought that it’s a weakness; it’s something I hope to overcome and I’m going to work on it. Someday I’m going to be spiritual.

God has convicted my own heart. There is no doubt that I have sinned in prayerlessness, and sinned often in prayerlessness. But as I was studying this passage of Scripture it dawned on me that prayerlessness must be considered to be a sin just like any other sin, and therefore must be treated as sin, and must be repented of just like any other sin. It isn’t a matter of simply saying, “Well, after that message we’re going to make some new resolutions, and we are going to pray more,” because you don’t deal with sin like that, do you? You don’t look to your past sins and say, “Well, now I committed this sin, and I don’t want to commit it again, so I’m going to have to do better.” What you need to do before you get that far is you need to ask God to give you the grace to submit and repent of that sin. And that becomes the basis upon which you are going to change. And I guess what I’m saying to you this morning, as I pour out my own heart to myself first, and only secondarily to you, is do we understand that our prayerlessness, which we often excuse, is a sign of a proud heart? And God says he is at war with the proud, but He gives grace to the humble.

It is a divided heart. And Jesus said that you cannot serve God and man, even though you think you can. God will accept no idols—no idols!

The dearest idol I have known,
Whate’er that idol be,
Help me to tear it from Thy throne,
And worship only Thee.

And it’s a sign of the deceived heart. Do you know why? It’s because only desperate people pray. Only desperate people pray. And if we saw ourselves we’d know that we are desperate, but we don’t know that because we think that we are doing better than we really are.

You know, this past week I thought about, what if famine came to the United States and there were bread lines? What if there were no crops? I think that you’d see an increase in prayer meeting. People who haven’t prayed for a long time, except casually, would say at least, “Teach me how to pray in a more committed way.” Isn’t it interesting that when tragedy comes to homes, people who have never prayed for weeks with any sincerity suddenly want to really lay hold of God? That’s true of us all because we don’t really pray until we’re desperate.

And I am asking you to open your life up to God today in such a way that He will show you not only your true relationship with God apart from the righteousness of Christ, because we know that that righteousness of Christ makes us perfect in the sight of God at all times, and our position in Christ never changes. But there are times when God has to show us what we are like apart from that righteousness to see how far we have come in spiritual growth, and we need to open our lives to say, “God, show me what You see, and then show me the needs of others, and oh Lord (as the disciples said as they came to Jesus Christ), teach me. Teach me to pray. Lead me in the depths of prayer.”

Sammy Tippit wrote an excellent book on prayer, which I scanned this past week. He said, “In Romania there was a man in prison who prayed for his child. The child was not allowed to attend the university, but this man would not accept that, and continued to pray that his child would be able to attend the university. And God changed the minds of the leaders. This, of course, was before the recent changes that have taken place, and they allowed his child to go to the university.”

But this is what this man said to Sammy Tippit. He said, “Many people come to my country and want to make a big fire for God.” And that’s true today. People like to go everywhere and make a big fire for God. But he said, “I do not want to make a big fire for God. I want to be consumed by God’s fire until I am ashes, and when I am ashes I will see the glory of God.”

My friend, today, are you willing to say, if your life has been prayerless (and that may apply to some of you), “Oh God, forgive me. It is sin against the Lord. Show me the pride, the divided heart, all those things that have contributed to a lifestyle whereby I could get away without praying day in and day out, just saying scattered prayers at scattered moments, and that’s it.”

If you are willing to ask God to change you, would you join me now as we pray? And I want you to take your bulletin today and open it to the first panel, because you’ll notice that after the message that is listed, there is a congregational response. I want us to pray that in just a moment, and to include at the end the word Amen. I shall pray, and then if you will, I want you to respond, and let us read this response together.

Lord, at this moment we ask that your blessed Holy Spirit may do what no man can. We think, Father, of the times when we have been casual in our relationship with You and have taken prayer casually, haphazardly, undisciplined, unfocused, all of which showing that our hearts are far from You and Your grace. Lord, I have sinned. I pray, Father, that You shall work in me. Teach me to strive in prayer to see Your glory.

And now I’m going to ask that we as a congregation read this response together.

Almighty God, our heavenly Father, we have often sinned against You and others by our prayerlessness. We confess that our pride stands in the way of fervent intercession. Cleanse us that we might love You with all of our hearts and enjoy Your presence. Let us experience the delight of worship, and the satisfaction of Your companionship. Let our entire life be a prayer of gratitude for Your kindness. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

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