As we continue in our new teaching series, A Fresh Start, we are examining yet another of the basic spiritual disciplines that all followers of Jesus need to be incorporating into their lives. This time it’s prayer. Like engaging with the Scriptures, prayer is basic. It is a foundation stone. It is one of those things we must get in place before we can do just about anything else. Let’s spend a few minutes thinking about why and how.
Taking a Pause
Have you ever been busy? Heh. How about, when was the last time you weren’t busy? Maybe the 13th of last Neveruary? We live in a busy world, don’t we? There’s always something to do. Even when there’s nothing to do, there’s still something to do. That’s the story of our household. Even when we don’t have any work to do, there’s still laundry to wash and laundry to fold and laundry to put away and bathrooms to clean and clothes to pick up and clutter to disperse and floors to vacuum and Nerf bullets…so…many…Nerf bullets to collect and Legos to build and the list goes on. Then there’s the list of things we actually want to do. It never stops. I don’t know about you, but some days I feel like the only real time I get to stop and breathe while I’m awake is when I’m in the shower. I’ll just about drain our hot water heater some days because that’s protected space. I can’t do anything for anybody else and I’m digitally disconnected which, for me, is even more important.
Other than retreating to the shower, though, how do we handle life when we get busy? Well, we knuckle down and get to work, right? Whether you single-task it or multi-task it, you start checking things off your list. As soon as one is done, you move to the next and the next and the next, until you catch up. That’s what most folks do anyway. But do you know what’s wrong with that approach? It all depends on us. And let’s just be honest with one another this morning: We’re not always the most dependable people in the world. We have limits. We get distracted. Our work sometimes gets shoddy. For all our efforts, we sometimes wind up busier than when we started. This morning, I want to talk with you about a better way.
This morning we are in the second part of our new teaching series for the new year, A Fresh Start. All this month we are talking about how we can take the fresh starts we sometimes get in our lives—like the fresh start of a new calendar year, for example—and let them become something more than renewed efforts that accomplish the same things we were already doing. In particular, we’re talking about how we can take a fresh start on a relationship with Jesus and see it become something more than the same old thing we always get. The secret here is found in a set of ancient practices known as the spiritual disciplines. These are intentional practices we pursue to give the Holy Spirit more space to do His incredible work in our lives. At their core, the spiritual disciplines are not about our doing anything; they’re about creating room for God to do everything.
Last week we started with the practice of engaging with the Scriptures. I gave you then an easy approach to get started that amounted to three incredibly simple ideas: read it, study it, and pray through it. But while engaging with the Scriptures is hugely important—you can’t grow in Christ without it—it’s not enough by itself. If we are going to meaningfully grow in God’s word and in our relationship with Him, we’ve got to be actively seeking His help in the process. Well, there’s a word for that. The next spiritual discipline on tap for this morning is prayer.
Now, prayer is obviously a huge subject. We can’t possibly cover everything you need to know about it in the fifteen minutes or so we have together this morning. With that limitation in mind, then, I want to give you two things today: an encouragement, and a plan.
Here’s the encouragement: Jesus prayed. Now, those two words may not seem earth-shattering on their own, but they’re really important. To see why, come with me to Mark 1 for a few minutes.
Mark is the shortest of the four Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life. It’s also the most detailed. When Matthew, Luke, and Mark all tell the same story, Mark’s is usually the longest. That’s why most scholars think Matthew and Luke used Mark as one of their sources in writing their own Gospels. It reads a bit like a newspaper and, like I mentioned last time, is a great place to start when you’re getting started in the Scriptures. It goes from action to action and there isn’t a whole lot of long dialogue breaks like you find in the other three Gospels. Mark 1 doesn’t start with Jesus’ birth like Matthew and Luke. Instead, he starts with the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus’ ministry got up and running around His hometown region of Galilee. Specifically, the town of Capernaum functioned as His home base of operations. The good folks of Nazareth weren’t very receptive to what He had to say, and Peter’s house was in Capernaum, so Jesus bunked there much of the time.
In any event, Jesus’ ministry got started with a bang when one Saturday morning He healed a man on the Sabbath in the synagogue. This didn’t sit well with the religious leaders, but the regular folks loved it. Mark writes this about their reaction in 1:27: “They were all amazed, and so they began to ask each other: ‘What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’ At once the news about him spread throughout the entire vicinity of Galilee.” By that same evening, word of His morning hijinks had spread so fast that people started to crowd into Capernaum in hopes of being healed too. Verse 32: “When evening came, after the sun had set, they brought to him all those who were sick and demon-possessed. The whole town was assembled at the door, and he healed many who were sick with various diseases and drove out many demons.”
From this point onward, the crowds became a regular feature of Jesus’ ministry. Everywhere He went, they followed. Well, do you know what happens when you have a lot of people around you all the time wanting something from you? You get busy. Really busy. Jesus was busy.
Martin Luther, the great German reformer, was a busy guy too. He was busy leading a religious revolution, pastoring a church, teaching at a seminary, being a husband and father, and trying to stay one step ahead of a Catholic Church that was determined to see him put to death for his leading role in the growing Protestant Reformation. And you thought you were busy. He once said this about how he managed his busy schedule: “If I fail to spend two hours in prayer each morning, the devil gets the victory through the day. I have so much business I cannot get on without spending three hours daily in prayer.” In other words, he understood that the best approach to accomplishing all that he hoped to accomplish in any given day was not to press forward with all the grim determination he could muster, but to submit himself more fully to his heavenly Father in prayer. This idea was not original to him. In doing this, he was simply following the example of his Leader.
The morning after Jesus spent all night healing everyone in Capernaum and beyond at Peter’s mother-in-law’s house, He probably wanted to sleep in. He was no doubt exhausted. And He knew that this new day was likely to bring more of the same. The demands on His time and schedule were immense, and they weren’t likely to ease up just because He was tired. So, what did He do? Look at v. 35 now: “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he got up, went out, and made his way to a deserted place; and there he was praying.” You see, Jesus knew something. He knew that while there was much for Him to do, He couldn’t accomplish those things without help. He Himself acknowledged on more than one occasion that He never operated under His own power, but always and only on the power of God. Well, there is but one way to access the power of God in our lives: prayer.
Prayer is nothing more—though nothing less—than intentionally engaging with the God who created the world and everything in it. It is sharing our life with Him and allowing Him to share His life with us. And just like when you build a relationship with another person you get to benefit from who they are (and the closer the relationship, the greater the benefit), when you build a relationship with God through prayer, you get to benefit from who He is. Jesus understood this and so He sought it out. He knew that He wasn’t going to be able to do what He needed to do without the benefit of the life—and power—of the Father flowing through Him. And here’s the thing: If Jesus needed that, then you and I do too. If Jesus needed prayer, so do you.
Okay, but like last week, while that may sound good, it doesn’t tell us how to do it. So, let’s talk about how to do it. Before we do that, though, let’s address why we don’t. Until we understand and address why we aren’t doing something we should be doing, our attempts to start doing it aren’t going to be very successful. I’m not really a betting man, but I’d be willing to at least guess that there aren’t too many folks in the room who would gladly and confidently raise their hand to assert their prayer life is just where it needs to be. Why is that? Well, perhaps a number of reasons, but here are four that cover the bases pretty well.
Some followers of Jesus don’t pray because of pride. They may offer up a list of any one of a number of other excuses, but the real reason is simply pride. They do not really believe they need God’s help. They feel like they’re managing just fine on their own and would call Him if they needed Him, but they just don’t really think they need Him. That’s pride. The truth is that you do need God. You’re not as capable as you think you are, and even if you’re not willing to admit it, life has a way of forcing the issue. And while God will help whenever you call on Him, it’s better to be leaning on Him before the trouble comes than clawing for Him from out of the midst of it.
A second reason we don’t pray is unbelief. The fact is, we just don’t believe prayer really makes a difference. We’ve prayed and felt like nothing happened too many times for us to really believe in it anymore. More than just a lack of belief in prayer, though, this reflects a lack of belief in God’s existence and character. If God really is who the Scriptures proclaim Him to be, then prayer is necessary and good to have as a regular practice in our lives. Maybe you don’t believe, though, because you don’t actually know who God is. That’s the third reason we don’t pray: Ignorance. You simply don’t know God well enough to have been convinced that pursuing a relationship with Him through prayer is worthwhile. Practicing the spiritual discipline of engaging with the Scriptures can help address this one. Indeed, all of these are connected.
One last reason we don’t pray: Time. We don’t think we have enough time. We hear quotes like I shared with you from Martin Luther a minute ago and think, “I can’t do that. I don’t have an extra three minutes in my day, let alone three hours!” But the truth is, building a discipline of prayer into our lives doesn’t need to take as much time as we think. Oh, we can grow in it and it can—and should—come to gradually occupy more and more of our time (something we’ll begin to do with a greater willingness as we discover from experience that the more power from God we unleash in our lives through prayer, the more productive the rest of our time becomes), but it doesn’t start there. It can start with just a few minutes a day. The bottom line here, though, is that we need prayer in our lives. We can’t make it without it nearly as well as we can with it. If Jesus needed prayer, so do you.
Understanding why we don’t pray, we can start talking about what exactly prayer entails. Prayer has five different facets to it: Confession—owning up directly and specifically to what you’ve done wrong, praise—acknowledging and celebrating who God is, thanksgiving—expressing your intentional and specific gratitude for what God’s done, petition—tapping into God’s power for your own needs, and intercession—tapping into God’s power for the needs of others. Now, every prayer you pray isn’t going to have all five of these to it. But you should make sure you are including all of them on a regular basis. One of the best ways to do that is to become more intentional about your prayer times. That’s what we see in Jesus’ life. He was intentional about His praying. This allowed Him to maximize prayer’s potential to meet His needs. And if Jesus needed prayer, so do you.
But still, how do we do it? Let’s get really practical here. Let me share with you some steps you can start taking today to get you headed off down the path toward building this discipline into your life. First, have a defined time. Part of developing a discipline in our lives is making it into a habit, of allowing it to become something we do because that’s what we do. Having a clearly defined time for prayer built into our daily routines will help us do just that.
Now, this isn’t easy. In doing this, you’re going to have to carve out time that’s probably already being used for something else. But think for a second about how much time you really waste in a given day. Think about how much time you spend doing things that aren’t really accomplishing anything meaningful. If you’re like me, there may be a whole lot more of that than you’d care to admit. My point isn’t to make you feel guilty about wasting time, it’s to help you see that you do in fact have the time for this, you just have to prioritize it above other things; things that probably aren’t the most efficient and effective uses of your time. Especially when compared with time spent in prayer.
As for when this time is, pick one that’s best for you. Not most convenient; best. Pick a time when you’re going to be able to give God your most direct and focused attention. For Jesus that was early in the morning. For you, that may not be first thing in the morning, but I will say that the earlier you can put this into your day, the better off you’ll be. That way you are tapping into the power you’ll need for what the day will bring before the day starts bringing it. That’s what Jesus did and if Jesus needed prayer, so do you.
Second, have a set place for your praying. It could be a certain chair or a certain room in the house or your car if you have a commute that’s very long. Wherever it is, though, make it your aim to be in this place when you pray as often as you can be. The reason for this is not that one place can somehow become more sacred than another place, but because building consistency like this into your prayer routine will help prepare you mentally for the task you are undertaking.
Third, have a clear plan in place. Start with a plan to pray at all. Indeed, as pastor Ronnie Floyd writes in his excellent book on prayer, “If you do not have a plan to pray, you will not pray.” Before you sit there and try to make awkward small talk with God, spend some time thinking about what exactly you want to talk about with Him. What sins do you need to confess? What good things can you thank Him for? What needs—both yours and others—can you lift up to Him? If you’re a list-maker, write these things down and check them off as you go. Yes, this can easily become something mechanical and rote, but early on in developing this discipline, having some tight guidelines in place to keep yourself on the right track is not a bad thing. If Jesus needed prayer, so do you, and if you don’t plan for it, you won’t do it. So, plan for it.
Three more guidelines and we’ll make these quick. First, like we talked about last week, incorporate Scripture into your praying. God’s words are good and right and true. He preserved them for us on purpose. Using them to guide our praying is a very good thing. God can use our doing that to teach us more about Him. They can help guide us to pray for things and in ways we would not normally do on our own. Second, document everything. Not everybody is a writer, but there is something powerful about writing down something God has said to you or that you’ve said to Him to create a record of His faithfulness. This can give you—and perhaps your children or grandchildren—a picture of your relationship with God as it grows over time that can be most encouraging when times get tough. Finally, have a clear goal to your praying. This does not preclude random and in-the-moment prayers, but in your intentional prayer time, have something toward which your efforts are aimed. Is there something in you that you want to see changed? Is there a challenge you need help to overcome? Is someone else suffering through something that you want to see eased? Is there some measure of faith to which you are trying to obtain? When we have a reason for our doing something, we are more likely to do it effectively and well. The same goes with our praying.
Do all of that…and you still may not be an expert at prayer. But you will have a good start at developing this critically important discipline into your life’s rhythm, and that can make all the difference. If Jesus needed this, so do you. If Jesus needed prayer, so do you. You and I need it because in our busy lives, if we aren’t intentional about seeking the help we need, we’ll get swept away by the rise tide. We’ll find ourselves so caught up in getting things done that we won’t ever stop to give any meaningful attention to this relationship that is so central to our lives. You need prayer. You need prayer because you need your heavenly Father and prayer is the way you get Him. So, let’s get started.