Getting Prayer Right

Selected highlights from this sermon.

Prayer. It shouldn’t be a last ditch effort to get what we want. It should be like oxygen: something we can’t live without. Our first concern with prayer should always be the glory of God—His faithfulness and mercy toward us.

Secondly, if our prayers don’t lead us to yield to God’s will, we haven’t really prayed. And finally, we need to be persistent.

If all of our praying consists of “I need…” there is no relationship with God. We’re not making room for Him in our lives. We need to learn to just enjoy God without coming to Him with a list of “needs.” 

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Would you join me as we pray? We just heard the words, “I Surrender All.” Would you honestly before God tell him that? No matter what he shows you, you’re willing to surrender it.

Father, help us to let go of our prejudices, our bitternesses, our preconceived notions, our defense mechanisms, and in this moment surrender all to you. May we hear your voice, we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

I have a friend who says that for many people prayer is something like an oxygen mask on a plane. You are glad that it is there but you are thankful that you’ve never had to use it. But in the case of an emergency you hope you’d be able to know how to use it. We’ve all heard flight attendants giving us the specifics as to how it can be put over our faces, and telling us to take care of our child first, but in all of the times I have flown (hundreds of thousands of miles) we have never needed an oxygen mask. One time in Russia the oxygen masks did fall but that was equipment failure. We didn’t need it.

Is that the way in which you view prayer? I have an ambitious goal today, and that is to transform forever your understanding of prayer so that you will not see it as an oxygen mask but something without which you cannot live, so that you begin to relate to God differently because you understand God differently. As a matter of fact, you cannot really understand prayer unless you properly understand God, and most of our hang-ups about prayer are as a result of the fact that we do not properly understand the Lord our God and what he’s up to.

For example, if you believe in need-based prayer (that the idea of prayer is to get something from God) I can tell you two things about you. First of all, when you don’t have any need for that oxygen mask you are going to think it’s because of the strength of your own right hand, or simply because you have it coming to you, or something that you can assume. And then if you don’t get what you want from God you’ll become bitter and angry. You’ll say like one man said to me, “God is not worth a plugged nickel to me,” after his child died. If you look at prayer that way – as need-based – you will eventually give up on God, and give up on prayer and go your own way, probably with a tinge of bitterness. Well, we’re going to solve all of that today hopefully. We’re going to help us look at prayer so differently, and for that I want you to take your Bibles. This is a series of messages entitled, “You Can’t Redo Life,” about how the parables help us to get it right the first time.

If you were not here last time to hear the message on getting conversion right (the sower and the seed), may I encourage you to listen to that message because all of these hang together and the implications are overwhelming.

But today we’re looking at Luke 11 and we’re going to speak about prayer and then we’re going to wind up by helping us to understand how prayer should be thought of and the difference that it will make in our lives.

Jesus is there with the disciples in Luke 11 and he was praying in a certain place and when he finished one of the disciples said, “Lord, teach us to pray.” Isn’t it interesting that they didn’t say, “Lord, teach us to be successful,” or “Lord, teach us how we might better relate to one another”? All of that might be important at one or another time, but they said, “Teach us to pray.”

Are you here today willing to learn from Jesus to pray? That’s the agenda. Now notice first of all, as Jesus introduces this model prayer sometimes called the Lord’s Prayer, but really Jesus could not have prayed this prayer because it involves the forgiveness of sins. But as we look at this model prayer, Jesus begins by saying, “Father, hallowed be thy name.” Now I need to tell you that there are different versions of the Lord’s Prayer in the Gospels, and the reason for this is Jesus probably gave this instruction many times. Nobody was there with a recorder. Nobody was writing it down immediately. The disciples were learning all these things, so Jesus undoubtedly went over them so some of the versions of the Lord’s Prayer are in a different language, or may even add a phrase or subtract a phrase as the case may be, but the essence is the same.

Jesus said, “Father, hallowed be your name.” First of all, in terms of characteristics of prayer, prayer is always relational. “Father, in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” It has to do with the fatherhood of God, and notice that our first concern is for what? It’s for the Father. It’s for the Father’s glory – the fame of the Father’s name throughout the whole world. Hallowed by thy name.

One of the reasons that we do evangelism is because we want more tongues giving glory to God. We want to honor God and we want to see him honored in more lives, and so we speak here about the Father’s glory, the Father’s faithfulness. “Give us this day our daily bread.” We speak about the Father’s mercy. “Forgive us our trespasses.” Everything has to do with God because prayer ultimately is relational. It’s our ability to relate to God as Father, which didn’t happen in the Old Testament. But Jesus gave us a brand new intimacy with the Father that others didn’t experience. As he said to Mary, “I ascend to my Father and your Father; to my God and your God.”

Now the fact that we relate to God as Father means that we have brothers and sisters in the family. Do you notice in this prayer that there is no such thing as a single pronoun, that is to say a pronoun that is singular? Everything is plural. “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Give us this day.” Not give me but give us this day our daily bread. “Forgive us our debts and our trespasses.” Everything is always plural because in the New Testament the whole implication and teaching is that we live the Christian life in community. We are in contact with our brothers and in contact with our sisters, and so we come unitedly. We come with needs that are united at the foot of the cross, and sometimes we pray individually but we also pray collectively. And that’s why it is so important that we learn to do that.

So, first of all, prayer is relationship. Secondly, prayer yields to the will of God. Now you’ll notice that Jesus said, for example, “Hallowed be thy name; thy kingdom come.” Other versions of the prayer say, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Is prayer easy or is it work? Have you ever heard people say that prayer is hard work? And you say, “Not for me. I mean I come before God. I lay out all of my requests. Where is the work?”

When we come before God, the work and the agony! Sometimes you hear people talking about wrestling with God. Some of you maybe have never wrestled with God. It is not so much that we are getting God to do our will, but it is submission to his will, and sometimes that is very difficult to do. The best illustration, or course, is Jesus in Gethsemane when he said, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me, but nevertheless, not as I will but as thou wilt.” We look at Jesus wrestling with God, and all the people who have accomplished something for God. All of those who have come to know God will wrestle with God at some point in yieldedness. If your prayer does not lead to yieldedness before God, if it does not have that component, you haven’t really prayed, as will become clear in a moment.

Then there is another characteristic, and that is persistence in prayer, and here we get to the parable now, a parable that has often been misunderstood, and with God’s help we hope that we will clarify what Jesus was after.

He said to them, “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him;’ and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything’? I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs. (That’s a word, by the way, that we’re going to have to comment on.) And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and the one who knocks it will be opened.” Just that far!

We don’t understand this unless we understand Middle East hospitality. In those days if a friend came to visit you and you didn’t have anything to give him that was huge social injustice. Hospitality was critical. So here’s a man, and a friend comes on a long journey, and he doesn’t know that the friend is coming. There are no e-mails, no fax machines or cell phones. The man arrives at midnight because he was delayed somewhere, and he comes to his friend and says, “I’m here to spend the night, by the way,” and the friend says, “You are welcome,” but that friend has no bread to give him. So he gets up and goes to his friend’s house because he knows that even though he doesn’t have any bread, his friend has the kind of family that always has something left over because they have quite a few children and they usually bake more bread than they need. And he goes to him and begins to knock on his door, saying, “I know it’s midnight but I need some bread for a friend who has come.”

Now, nobody goes to a friend’s home at midnight unless the reason for doing that is very critical. This is huge. “I need something to give to my friend.” And now the man is in bed and you need to understand that in those days many homes were one room. There was sort of a platform, a secondary platform on which sometimes there was a stove, and sometimes the parents slept up there and the kids downstairs, so now it’s midnight, and all the kids are sleeping and everybody in the home is asleep. And so the man thinks to himself, “How impertinent to be knocking at this hour,” but Jesus said that even though he will not get up and give it to him because of his friend’s friend, he will because of his impudence. What does that word mean?

You know, it is a puzzling word because this is the only place, I believe, in the New Testament where it occurs. Some people translate it as boldness, audacity or persistence. Another word, though, it’s translated by is shamelessness (Should the word be shamefulness? jmh). Now follow this just for a moment. If the word is shamelessness (shamefulness?) it may refer to the man who is in bed. Jesus is saying that even though he doesn’t want to get up and give him the food, because they are friends he will because he doesn’t want to be shamed the next day, because word would spread. “I asked a man at midnight for bread and he wouldn’t get up and give it to me even though he had some bread.” That would be bad. Either way, the emphasis in this passage has to do with persistence. And if we don’t notice that, Jesus clarifies it and says in verse 9, “Because of this I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.”

Then Jesus goes on and says, “What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?” I’m told that when scorpions curl themselves up they sometimes look like an egg, and sometimes a fish looks like a serpent. Jesus is saying, “This would be really mean. You know, the child asks for a fish and you give him a snake, or he asks for an egg and you give him a scorpion.” Jesus said, “No father would do that. No father in his right mind would do that.” But then Jesus said in verse 13, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

What I’d like to do now is to give you three transforming lessons as we unpack this parable and give it more clarity. And I hope that as a result of what I am going to say, you will leave here and be anxious to have an experience with the Lord, maybe tonight, maybe tomorrow morning, and it will change your prayer life forever.

I don’t think the idea in this passage is that Jesus is comparing God to the man who was asleep at midnight and was rudely awakened. God isn’t the kind of person who you say to, “Oh Lord, you are sleeping, and I have to catch a plane at O’Hare early. Is it okay if I wake you up so that I can talk with you, or are you still tired, Lord?” The idea is not comparison between God and these people who are involved in the parable. The idea is not at all comparison. It is actually contrast. Now let’s keep that in mind and see how this changes our idea of prayer.

First of all, you’ll notice that Jesus goes from friendship to son-ship. If a friend is willing to give you some bread at midnight, what about a son and a father? If the father is willing to give him good gifts then what about your Heavenly Father because you are sons and daughters, and that’s a game changer. It changes the relationship instantly. It is now a relational idea. It’s not just, “God, I’m coming to you because I want you to do this.” It is, “Oh, Father, I love you and I love to be with you.”

I hope that God forgives us as grandparents for the lies that we tell our grandchildren. I think he will. Let’s take, for example, if I were vacuuming. And by the way I often do the vacuuming in our home. I thought I’d just mention that and let that float out there and let it land wherever it’s supposed to land. All right? But let’s suppose I am vacuuming and little Samuel is there at perhaps the age of three (though he is much older now), or Owen when he was three, and I say, “Would you help Papa vacuum?” They call me Papa. “Oh yeah, sure.” So after they help Papa vacuum, I say to Rebecca, “Oh, little Owen really helped Papa vacuum today.” Helped? Are you kidding? (laughter) I mean it took fifteen minutes longer because he was “helping” me vacuum.

Why do we put up with that? It’s because we love our children and our grandchildren and we are just delighted to see them even if they make more work for us. We’re just delighted that they show up.

My friend, as a son and daughter of God, God is glad if you just show up. He loves you. He cares about you. He wants to connect with you, and if all of your praying is need-based … I shouldn’t say this but I’ll say it and then afterwards have to backtrack probably. Need-based prayer meetings are boring. Let me just throw that out there. That’s why some of you who have been connected with Moody Church for years have never come to a Wednesday night prayer meeting here because you think it’s going to boring. Boy, do we have a surprise for you, because it isn’t all just need-based. It’s relationship based.

I was speaking at a very fine institution some time ago and they had a prayer list, and a young woman (God bless her) was the one who was doing the praying, and she was given this prayer list, and she stood up there and she said, “Dear God,” and then she read the list, and it sounded like an organ recital. I mean we prayed for people who were having gall bladder surgery. We prayed for people who had lung problems. We prayed for people who had kidney difficulties. I mean we ended up praying for every organ of the body. I shouldn’t think such thoughts. No, I shouldn’t, but in that moment I thought, “Young lady, why read these requests to God? Why don’t you just say, ‘God, here are the requests. You can read them better than I can. Just take care of them,’” because there was no relationship established. It was need-based praying.

I love what Larry Crabb says. He says, “Prayer is the way in which we make room in our souls for God that he loves to fill, to clean out the rubbish I pile into my inner world so that he can fill me with his reality. It helps me realize that to experience God, I must experience him in the way that I relate to others. I must behave toward others with the divine energy and wisdom he is putting within me, and I relate to God the same way.”

Could I make a suggestion to you? Instead of coming to God with needs, change your mindset. The needs will come, but they are not the first purpose of prayer. Sit in a chair and just simply in silence come to God without any needs. All that you have is communion with him. Tell him why you love him. Quote verses of Scripture that remind you of his promises and his love for you. Just enjoy God. You are a son. You are a daughter. And God loves it when you show up – and it’s just the two of you. That’s why I love that song that we usually have difficulty finding the words to.

My God and I, we walk the fields together.
We walk and talk as good friends should and do.
We clasp our hands; our voices ring with laughter,
My God and I, we walk the meadows through.

Learn to develop your relationship with God. Jesus moved from friendship to sonship, intimacy by which we call and cry out, “Abba, Father.” Do you know what? I think that’s the meaning of that promise that we have so much difficulty with, “Delight yourself in the Lord and he’ll give you the desires of your heart.” And we say it’s not true.

If you take delight in God he will pour into you desires, yes. And you are going to have to submit to those desires, and they may not be your desires, but at the end of the day you receive the desires of your heart, and you delight in God. So I think the contrast here is between friendship and sonship.

There’s a second contrast, and that is between reluctance and willingness. You know the man who is in bed says, “I can’t get up.” Well according to Jesus he didn’t say that. He eventually, of course, did get up and disturbed his children and all, but I wouldn’t be very happy if you came to me at midnight for three loaves of bread. I would get up and give them to you because, after all, I’m the pastor of the church and you might tell others that Pastor Lutzer refused to give you three loaves of bread that he had, but you know, this wouldn’t be my happiest moment.

Now notice that Jesus is contrasting the reluctance of the man to get out of bed with God. How much more will your Heavenly Father? If a friend is willing to get out of bed, if a son asks for a fish and receives a fish, and asks for an egg and gets one, how much more will your Heavenly Father bless you? You say, “But Pastor Lutzer, this is very difficult because why then does he not answer all of my prayers? Isn’t that huge?” Think of the bitter people that there are because God didn’t answer their prayers. I don’t have an answer to all of that. Long ago I gave up on understanding all the nuances of God’s ways, but I do know this. God doesn’t answer our prayers immediately because he does say that persistence is important. “Ask and it will be given you. Seek and you will find. Keep knocking.” That’s the idea in the text. And what God is saying is, “I want to stretch your faith. I want to develop your faith. I want to give you lots of needs so that you end up coming to me and realize that you need me more than you need answers to your needs.”

George MacDonald (I love this) was asked, “If God knows all the needs that we have, why doesn’t he just meet them?” and he gave this illustration. He said, “When a child runs away from home, the child comes back because he’s hungry.” In fact, I did that at about the age of five or six. I decided I was going to run away from home (I had an argument with my brothers and sisters) and I could get along on my own. So I ran through the wheat fields, and do you know what? I got hungry and thought, “You know, maybe home isn’t that bad,” so I snuck back. But George MacDonald says that that child needs to realize that he needs his mother even more than he needs his supper.

When the Prodigal Son was hungry, if he could have prayed to his father (if we think of the father as being God) and said, “Oh, God, fill my stomach because I am hungry and I am tired of eating with the pigs,” would the father have done it? No, no. The father would have said, “I’m not going to fill your stomach. What I want you to do is to realize that that hunger is a reminder. Would you come home, please, and realize that you need me more than you need a full stomach?”

Again if I might quote Larry Crabb he says, “If you try to get things from God without first praying to get more of God himself, your petitions will sound more like the ranting of a spoiled brat than the requests of a dependent child.” If the transition (the understanding) and the contrast are between friendship and sonship, it teaches us to delight in God. If the contract is also between reluctance and willingness, it teaches us to trust God.

I don’t always know why God says no. There’s no doubt that there are people who pray with good motives for the advance of the Gospel and for the amazing extension of God’s kingdom and they don’t get their answers. All that I know are the words of Job. “Though he slay me yet will I trust him.” I’ll trust him when I get answers to prayer. I’ll trust him when I don’t get answers to prayer because, let me say it again, my friend, if you are only need-based (if that’s all) you will become bitter. You will become angry. But if we find delight in God we will say, “God, I can delight in you. I can take hope in you. I can trust in you through the Word of God even when you say no. Blessed are those who love God and his presence that much.

There is now a third and final contrast that I see in this passage and that is the contrast between good things and the best things. Notice Jesus said in verse 13, “If you are evil (and by that he means you’re a sinner; he doesn’t mean evil with a capital E when we speak of someone as evil) and you give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” Wow! God says, “It’s important for you to get bread. I understand that, but I have something better for you than bread, and that is the gift of the Spirit.” Furthermore, it’s the kind of gift that only God can give. You couldn’t go to a friend at midnight and knock on the door and say, “You know, I want you to give me the Holy Spirit.” He can’t do that. He can give you three loaves of bread, but he can’t give you the Holy Spirit. Only God can give those kinds of gifts, and those are the best gifts.

Some people have struggled and they have said, “Well, you know we don’t have to receive the Holy Spirit or pray for it because all believers are indwelt by the Holy Spirit,” and that is correct. Maybe what Jesus means is this, that we receive the Spirit’s fullness and we receive more of the Spirit. God loves to fill us with his Spirit, and when we come into his presence it’s during those times of communion that we have fellowship with him. He reveals our sin and our need to yield, but at the end of the day he’s responding to these requests, and he gives us the best gifts.

I tell you today that our greatest need is not financial, and that is not to at all downplay the needs that some of you have, and we want to help you if we can meet those needs. Our greatest need isn’t for health. Our greatest need is always for a fresh appreciation and communion with God, and he gives us the best gifts – the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Some of you are here today and you need the gift of forgiveness, don’t you? It’s hard for you to admit it to yourself because you may have come here with defense mechanisms and reasons why you do not want to receive Christ as Savior. I pray that God will break through those defenses and you’ll realize that yes, what you need is God’s forgiveness. What you need is the gift of righteousness that only God can give, and he gives these best gifts, and he promises us the best gifts if we but ask of him. The contrast is between good gifts and the very best gifts. And then we’re content with his answer, and we’re not going to abandon God because he didn’t answer our prayers. That’s because we have found delight in him that is strong, and means so much to us that we hang on to it and take delight in it (even when the world goes bad, and a child drowns, and we go through times of sorrow and agony, and all kinds of unanswered questions). At the end of the day, God is there for us, saying, “Please show up.” He loves you and that’s what prayer is all about. It’s called relational praying.

I began this message by talking about some people who look at prayer like an oxygen mask. It’s there only for crises, and you hope no crises will come because you don’t want that mask dropping on you because the flight has gone bad. Rather than think of prayer as an oxygen mask, I want you to realize instead that for those of us who are believers it actually is oxygen. You can’t live without prayer. You can’t get past a day without it. Remember that only desperate people pray, so God keeps us desperate all the time. Why? He says, “Keep coming. Keep asking. Keep knocking. Keep seeking me. And build a relationship with me that is strong enough to weather the unanswered questions of life.”

If you have never received Christ as Savior you can even do that where you are seated. Just ask him to save you. Ask him for the gift of righteousness. Ask him for the gift of forgiveness. You, being evil, are able to do these things for your kids. Think of what God will do for those who simply ask, and if you will, let us pray.

Father, we think today of the words of Jesus. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you.” Forgive us, Father, for concentrating on all these things, and forgetting to seek God.

Now I want you to pray to God. Say to him whatever you need to tell him at this moment. You talk to God. What do you need? What bitterness do you have to confess to lay it at his feet and begin a life that pursues the living God?

Hear our prayer, oh Lord, we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

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