The discipline of prayer


Scripture : Luke 11:1-13  Video
Speaker : John Johnstone

Do you find it easy to pray on your own? What about in public? Talking with God is the highest activity human being can do, and yet if we’re honest, most Christians struggle to do it. In verse 1, the disciples can see that Jesus, in spite of his busyness, prioritises times of prayer on a regular basis. One of the disciples comes with a humble request ‘Lord, teach us to pray’. This disciple was struggling to communicate with God and is asking Jesus for help on what to say and how to go about this most important of tasks. In this first Sunday of 2022, it would be wise for each one of us to echo this request, and to pray along with him ‘Lord, teach us to pray’.

Most of us know the basic recipe for a relationship with God is listening to him as we read the Bible and talking to him in prayer. I’m delighted that both of these threads have emerged from our studies in Luke in successive weeks. Last week, we were reminded of the need all disciples have to sit at Jesus’ feet, listening to him. The surveys showed us many Christians don’t bother with this, and grow spiritually weak as a result. The same things can be said of prayer. Deep down, most of us know of its importance but struggle to engage regularly in prayer. Rather than admitting and addressing our struggles, we tend to stumble on into another day, missing out on communion with God.

Last week I started to read a short book called ‘Fresh pathways in Prayer’ by Julian Hardyman. I found Julian’s honesty refreshing. He assumes that so many people struggle to pray. For example, he acknowledges that many Christians feel at times like they are talking to themselves, or to nobody when they pray. Sometimes God seems distant, or we are just too exhausted, and at other times, sadness and anger get in the way. However, Julian faces up to this with much practical advice, and knows that the less you pray the harder it becomes. There is hope, as the opposite is also true, in that the more you pray the more natural it will become. It was no surprise that this book on prayer begins by considering the Lord’s Prayer.

Today, we are reminded of what and how to pray. It would be easy to spend 10 weeks looking at verses 1-13. We could take a sermon on each one of the petitions, for example. But today I want to do the opposite, and take a bird’s-eye-view of Jesus’ teaching on prayer, so that we can see the main contours of what and how to pray. I’d like us to see the big picture together. I’d like us to be honest about our struggles with praying, but only as we seek to humbly echo the disciple in this passage, and plead with God ‘teach me to pray’. May 2022 be a year where we know greater freedom praying both privately and together. Both are basic and essential in the Christian life. We do not want to stagnate. We do not want to miss out on communion with God himself.

The opening word of the prayer is crucial: ‘Father’. We often take this for granted. But it is the key which helps to unlock our prayer lives, in that if we can come to God as our heavenly Father, then we are coming in the right way. Kent Hughes puts it this way:‘Father’ – the sweetness of that name – its air of connectedness and intimacy, the sense of affection and security, the upward rush of a sense of paternity- ought to be present in every disciple’s prayer.’ Hughes reminds us that the word ‘Father’ is used only 14 times in the Old Testament, and even then, not in a personal way. What a contrast in the New Testament age, where Jesus himself uses the term personally sixty times and instructs is to do so.

Joachim Jeremias says: ‘… in the Lord’s Prayer Jesus authorises his disciples to repeat the word Abba after Him. He gives them a share of his sonship and empowers them, as His disciples, to speak with their heavenly Father in such a familiar, trusting way as a child would with his Father.’

Julian Hardyman: ‘Prayer is not writing ‘help’ on a piece of paper, putting it in a bottle, and throwing it out to sea in the hope that someone will read it and do something. Prayer is talking to a heavenly Father in the total security of being in his family. We are talking to our Father because he invites us to. We need have no fear or hesitation because the finished work of Christ means that all the barriers are removed and we are part of his family.’

If you’re not a Christian yet, then you can’t call God your Father. This is a privilege only for those who receive Jesus as their Saviour and Lord. ‘Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God — children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.’ (John 1:12-13)

Friends, it’s this Father-child relationship which is at the heart of prayer. We can come to our heavenly Father knowing that he loves us, is concerned about us, wants to hear from us, and will actually give us what is best, according to his wisdom and plan, and not ours! We need to learn to trust him as our perfect father, so that we can bring our troubles to him, ask him for help, and then leave our troubles with him. ‘Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.’ (1 Peter 5:7)

There are 5 petitions in this version of the Lord’s Prayer. Of course, it is highly significant that the first 2 are about God himself. This isn’t rushing into God’s presence with a ‘shopping list’ of things we want, like some kind of John Lewis wedding list.

1. Praying for God’s pre-eminence
The Lord’s Prayer puts God first, God at the centre, and so it prays first for his pre-eminence. Is this how you pray? Are you more concerned about the respect due to God and the Kingdom of God than your own happiness and own needs? This is the total revolution in the heart of the Christian that we return to again and again: the universe now centres around God and not us. He is King, not us. That doesn’t mean our needs are unimportant to God. But Jesus is teaching us to start at the right place- with God’s concerns as our concerns.

So, this is another contour we see in the life of prayer, and perhaps a reason why prayer is a struggle at times, because fallen, self-absorbed people like us come to God and cry out ‘you first God’. We want to live holy lives so that you will be highly thought of on the earth. We want to obey you, and live lives that are pleasing to you. And we want your Kingdom to come. We want more and more people to come to a living faith in Christ, so that his kingly rule will be on their hearts. We want to see conversions. We want Christians to accept Christ’s rule more and more. Ultimately, we want Christ to return and establish righteousness on the earth at the 2nd Coming. The Lord’s prayer is a God-centred prayer, made to our perfect heavenly Father. Let’s absorb these contours.

The next 3 petitions focus on our own needs. We’re not asked to pray for extras and luxuries. We’re not asked to pray for an easy life, or to expect our lives to be free from pain and suffering. We are to pray for God’s provision, his pardon, and his protection. These are the things Jesus stresses when asked for teaching on how to pray.

2. Pray for God’s provision
V3 We need God’s provision every single day, because whether we realise it or not, we depend upon him for everything. We depend on God for material blessings, such as food, shelter, medical supplies, and clothing. And we depend on God for spiritual strength, to be able to live a life pleasing to him. ‘Without me you can do nothing’, says Jesus, so we need to ask each day of the Holy Spirit’s power to fill our hearts with love and forgiveness and peace and kindness.

Do you pray about your work each day, asking God to help you in that work? Do you ask for God’s help raising your children and caring for loved ones? Do you ask for patience when you are running out of it? Do you ask for faith when you begin to doubt? Surely, morning by morning, we need to ask God to provide what we need. This is the right and humble thing to do. Or do you think you don’t need God’s help?

3. Pray for God’s pardon
We need God’s pardon each day. Jesus assumes here that all his followers will do and think wrong things every single day. This is certainly true of me. So, we ask for pardon each day. Do you do that? We’re not a group of believers who think we are spiritually strong, and free from mistakes. We recognise our brokenness every single day, as we say ‘sorry’ to our Father, and ask him to give us fresh impetus to confess with excuse when we let him down. And we forgive one another smaller debts, because God has forgiven us a huge debt. Failing to forgive others is a recipe for bitterness.

It also shows a lack of understanding of the gospel. ‘Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. We understand what it means to be forgiven, and so we forgive others.’ (Ephesians 4:32) This is basic Christianity.

4. Pray for God’s protection
We need God’s protection every day. Are you asking for that? Again, perhaps you think you can take on Satan on your own, and deal with your own deficiencies by yourself, and not be influenced by the world around us, which encourages to live for self and not God. Is that what we think – I don’t need any divine protection? Or, perhaps the opposite is true, and you know how weak and fragile you are. You know you are only a few bad decisions away from disaster. So, you are pleased to cry to God each day for protection.

5. Further encouragement to pray
Then Jesus encourages and motivates us to pray more by telling a story which says to us: when we ask for the kind of things outlined in the Lord’s Prayer, our Father is always open-handed and willing to help. Satan wants us to think that there is no benefit to prayer. It’s a waste of time.

In the story, Jesus thinks about the unwillingness of a grumpy neighbour, who is reluctant to help, and even says ‘don’t bother me’. However, even he helps with what is needed. In total contrast, God is the opposite of this neighbour. He is always willing and able to help. He never says to us, ‘Don’t bother me’.

I might have deep problems and go to someone for help, and they might give me 10 mins, or 30 mins or an hour if I am lucky, but ask for help the next day, that’s probably going to be a different story. They might think: ‘Why is he bothering me with his problems. I have enough on my plate’. But God never says that to me, and he’ll never say that to you. What a massive relief. So, Jesus is saying here, if pleading with a grumpy neighbour for help can be successful, how much more successful will our prayers be to a Father who loves to give good gifts to his children.

And Jesus develops this even more, saying if even fallen, evil human fathers know how to give good things for their children, how much more will our perfect heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him. And notice what he gives (verse 13); he gives the Holy Spirit. That’s what we really need. We need the Comforter, the Helper. We need him to come and blow his grace on our lives. And if we ask for that he will come and help. So, ask, seek and knock.

This is how we are to pray, assuming the goodness of God, and assuming that he will give us what is best, in his time and in his way. Trust your Father with your needs. Trust his goodness. I love these arguments Jesus uses from the lesser to the greater: if a grumpy neighbour helps, will God not help? If evil parents help their children, will God not help you. There’s pure logic in these arguments.

Here’s another wonderful piece of logic from Paul to close with from his letter to the Romans. ‘He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?’ (Romans 8:32)