Andy Stanley - Why Should We Pray?
So one day while Jesus was praying, His inner circle of disciples were watching and listening to Him pray, not for the first time, but on this occasion one of them finally mustered the courage to say, or basically to ask what they'd been wanting to ask for quite some time. So when Jesus was finished praying, one of them approached Him on behalf of the whole group and they said, "Lord, would you teach us how to pray". After watching and listening to Him pray, they concluded that, it's kinda funny, they concluded that maybe they'd been doing it wrong, that they had been praying the wrong way even though they had been praying their entire lives.
They'd been brought up praying portions of the psalms, combinations of some Old Testament writings, they'd been taught to pray by their fathers and their mothers and their religious leaders, so they were actually still praying the way they had been taught to pray as children, reciting memorized prayers, and then Jesus came along and well, if He was praying correctly, I mean if that's the way it was done they had a lot to learn. And for reasons we will never know Jesus actually waited to be asked and eventually they asked, and when they asked they said, Lord, we need you to teach us how to pray, we wanna pray the way that you pray.
Now I would imagine this is something you've never asked anyone to teach you how to do. In fact, if someone, imagine this, if someone after hearing you pray suggested that you should go learn how to pray because you weren't doing it right, well, you would be offended. I mean, hey, you know that prayer that you prayed before dinner the other night, that's not how you do it, I need to sit you down and teach you how to pray. And to that very point in about, I don't know maybe 10 minutes from now Jesus is actually gonna tell us something about prayer that might offend you, but you won't be upset with Jesus you'll be upset with me because I'll be the one telling you that according to Jesus you aren't praying correctly.
So get ready because Jesus is about to school all of us on prayer, but we should actually be happy about that. You should be happy about that because let's be really honest for a moment very few of our prayers ever really get answered anyway, right? Unless we count the prayers about things that were probably gonna happen anyway, turns out your car keys were exactly where you left them, right? Turns out you did in fact find a parking space, but so did several hundred other non prayers, they found parking spaces as well. As it turns out your team did win, but they were expected to win and when they weren't expected to win, well, they didn't.
But when it comes to those other kinds of prayers, if you ever pray for what you might consider a miracle, something big, something that if God doesn't come through it just won't come true, occasionally, occasionally you get a yes, but sometimes let's just be honest you get nothing, and perhaps it was a series of nothings that convinced you that there's nothing to prayer, that it's a waste of time, that prayer, well, it just doesn't work. And as we are about to discover, you're right, that kind of prayer, the kinds of prayers that most of us pray don't work at least not the way we want it to anyway, but in spite of that Jesus prayed and He taught His followers to pray.
And most of us will continue to pray regardless of the outcome, in some ways it's just reflexive, right? I mean, I have an acquaintance who used to be a pastor and now he's an atheist, and we were having a conversation one time I said, "Can I ask you a question"? And I said, "And this isn't a gotcha question, I'm just curious, after being a Christian and a pastor for most of your life do you ever accidentally pray? Like things aren't going well and there's sort of, you know, to whom it may concern or God help me". And he laughed, he said, "Yeah, sometimes I catch myself praying". I think we all do.
Anyway, back to our story. So Jesus 1st century followers, His 1st century followers they grew up praying, but after watching Jesus they realized there was something very different about His prayers. It was like there was something going on between Him and God that they weren't accustomed to. It wasn't just different, it was more intimate, it was less scripted, there was more passion and intensity, it was compelling, and it made them discontent with their own prayer so they finally said, "Lord, Lord, teach us to pray". To which Jesus may have thought, I thought you would never ask. And then in typical Jesus style, instead of teaching them how to pray, He tells them how not to pray.
Now if you're not a religious person or not a fan of Christians or Christianity you're gonna love this part, in fact, it may be another reason why you should at least consider becoming a Jesus follower because Jesus begins by pointing out the hypocrisy of so many people who pray the wrong way. In fact, here's how He begins His lesson on how to pray. Here's what He says, He says, "And when you pray". Again, here's the don't do. "Do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others". And this is the part about Jesus that you have to love, He had no tolerance for pretenders, He had no tolerance for pretension, people who thought they were better than other people.
And the reason He didn't is because Jesus knew men's hearts, He knew what was in there. In fact, He knew they were not better than the people around them. In fact, they were often worse because they were hiding stuff, they were hiding behind their elevated position in their pretension, they're pretending. Besides He says, "Truly I tell you those people they have their reward in full". They have received their reward in full. In other words, God won't reward them because God isn't moved by or impressed with the perfect scripted public prayers of inauthentic people. They wanted attention and they got it from the people watching, but not from God. Their reward was the attention they received from the people who saw them pray and were impressed by their amazing prayers.
Then He continues He says this, He says, "But when you pray, but when you pray". And this raises several questions, when do you pray, and why do you pray? And as we're gonna find out in a minute, this is an important question, where do you pray? These were the questions Jesus was actually interested in, and His disciples knew the answer to these questions well, they were gonna be different than their answers to those same questions. And as it turns out God had not answered their prayers either. In fact God had not answered their parents' prayers. Just like us they prayed the same prayers over and over in many cases and they got generally no response. They were living in the shadow of Rome just like their parents and their grandparents. They knew their own tragic history.
In fact, you may not know this, but about 90 years earlier their own rulers in Jerusalem had been so divided they actually invited Rome to Judea to help them solve their internal political conflict and the Romans, well, they never left. Before the Romans it was the Greeks, it was the Persians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians. If prayer moved God, and if God cared for His nation, for their nation, clearly they were not praying correctly because things were not getting any better. So maybe they were right, maybe they were doing it wrong.
Now their religious leaders had a completely different take on why God didn't answer their prayers. They assured the people that, well, know God does answer prayer, but God can't hear your prayers because you're not holy enough, you're not obedient enough. It was their fault that God didn't answer their prayers, and perhaps somebody has told you the same thing or some version of the same thing. Maybe somebody at some points said, you need more faith and less sin, more faith less sin. Before long in your case, God was reduced to basically the equivalent of an instant cash machine. And you found yourself scrambling to find the correct pin number to get from God what you wanted, but then at the same time, isn't this true? At the same time you looked around and there were a whole lot of people who weren't praying anything and well, they were doing just fine, life seemed to just workout for them.
Anyway, back to Jesus. "But when you pray, He says, but when you pray". This is so interesting. "Go into your room". Now again, if I were to suggest to you that you can't just pray while you're driving to work, walking the dog, sitting on the bus, you may respond, who are you to tell me when and where I can pray? Or you may say because of your religious tradition, hey, the way I was raised I don't really feel like I can pray correctly, I don't feel like I can connect with God unless I'm in church. So I want you to hear these words coming not from my lips, I want you to hear these words coming from the lips of Jesus because He's telling us something very, very important, something that I think we like His 1st century audience may have missed.
Here's what He said, "But when you pray, when you pray go into your room and close the door". Close the door. Why? Isolate myself, why in my room not at church, not in traffic, not just before a meal, why is that even necessary I thought we could pray whatever we wanted to pray anywhere we wanted to pray? And then later on He tells us why it's so important for you to find a place and to find a time and to isolate yourself from everything and everybody else around you. So back to the question I asked just a minute ago, when do you pray? Where do you pray? Jesus says that's important and He'll explain why in just a minute, but first this, this next part, He says this. He says, "When you pray, go into your room and close the door and pray to your Father who is unseen".
Now, this is where I would like to step out of the way and let Jesus come in and elaborate on what He said here, but He doesn't really need to because, well, His words are extraordinarily clear, Jesus instructs us to pray to God our unseen Father. Jesus instructs us to pray to God not Him, not His mama, not the saints, not the Falcons and not even the Cowboys, sorry, I just could not resist, but maybe I should have because this really is important. Jesus instructs us to address our prayers directly to God, but He's even more specific than that, Jesus instructed them, He instructs us to address our unseen God in relational terms. He says, I want you to pray to your Father who is unseen, our heavenly Father, our Father in heaven.
And again, maybe it was His casual, conversational, relational approach to prayer that had caught their attention to begin with. Gentlemen, He was saying, look, I want you to find a place where you can have a private conversation with your heavenly Father. I want you to find a place where you can say what needs to be said in whatever tone you need to use, whatever words you feel are appropriate, I want you to pray in private so you're not distracted. I want you to pray in private so you can pour out your heart. And then your Father, your Father who sees what is done in secret. This is amazing. According to Jesus, according to Jesus, God sees you praying alone with the door closed. Your heavenly Father who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. There's that word again, right? Reward. Secret prayer according to Jesus is rewarded.
Now remember at the beginning the religious folks who prayed publicly, what was their reward? Well, they were seen by the public. Those who pray in secret, what is their reward? What's our reward? What's your reward? You're seen, you're seen by your Father in heaven. What if that's true? What if God sees you pray? What if you knew with certainty God saw and heard your prayers? What would you pray if you were absolutely confident that God sees you when you're praying and He hears your prayers? That's what Jesus says. Then Jesus gives us another not to, but He shifts His attention away from their religious leaders to the Romans and their pagan priests, He says, now here's something else not to do when you pray.
"And when you pray do not keep on babbling like the pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words". That Greek term babbling actually sounds like babbling. The Greek term there is... He says, don't keep, don't say the same thing over and over and over. Repetition doesn't move God, link their style doesn't impress God, He's not looking for the right word or even the right words. In fact, on another occasion Jesus makes this point through a very interesting parable, in fact, He creates an entire parable to make this point. It was directed at some of the professional prayers that He mentioned earlier, men specifically who were confident in their own righteousness and just pretty much looked down on everybody else.
So here's what He said in the parable. He said, one day a Pharisee and a tax collector both went to pray in the temple. And the Pharisee's prayer was eloquent, but it was pretty much all about him. He kept reminding God how good He was, how good the Pharisee was. But the tax collector, the tax collector's prayer was very different. In fact, it's interesting when Jesus said the tax collector went up to pray because everyone in Jesus' audience would assume that God wouldn't even hear the prayer of a tax collector, that God would ignore the prayer of a tax collector.
Here's what He said, "But the tax collector stood at a distance". That is he stood up against the wall, he stood as far away as he could from the Holy of Holies there on the Temple Mount. "He stood at a distance and he would not even look up to heaven, and he beat his breast and he said, 'God have mercy on me a sinner'". Not really an academy award winning prayer performance, right? "Have mercy on me a sinner Amen". But Jesus in the parable gives the tax collector two thumbs up. Basically He was saying, folks, that's what I'm talking about. We're like, really, have mercy on me a sinner? Is that even a prayer?
Now in my experience and this is just my experience, in my experience the men whose prayers I found to be most impressive, usually long and loud and dramatic, the men in my experience who prayed the most impressive prayers, they often live less than impressive lives behind the scenes. So if you hesitate to pray because you don't know what to say, this should be comforting. What you say when you pray, what you say when you pray is far less consequential than if you pray. Back to Jesus, He goes on and He says, "And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like the pagans for they think they will be heard because of their many words, because of their many words". Then He says this, "Do not be like them". People who equate length with merit.
And then He says something really interesting, "For, for"... Now what Jesus says next, what Jesus says next actually explains why we don't need a lot of words or the correct words. In fact, what Jesus says next kinda pulls the rug out from underneath why most of us even pray. And I think He did this on purpose. He said, the reason you don't need to go on and on and on and on and on is because, "Your Father knows what you need before you ask Him". So what did you say? Wait a minute, will you? Okay, He already knows? Yeah, He already knows. Well, if He already knows then what's the next question that comes out of our mouth? If He already knows, then why ask or why pray? Have you ever wondered that?
I think that that's exactly the question that Jesus wanted them to ask. I think He's got them right where He wants them, He's got us right where He wants us, this is the question He wants us to look up and ask, well, if God already knows me, and if God knows what I need, why in the world should I even pray? It's why the disciples wanted to be taught, He just prayed so differently. But we shouldn't be surprised that God already knows what we need, right? I mean, if God is God, if God is omniscient, then all that shouldn't He know? I mean, if you have to inform God, is that really even God? And this brings us to the tension Jesus wants us to address. He was so wise to start, He was so wise to begin with.
You wanna know how to pray, Here's how not to pray. Because now we're confronted with the issue that many of us wrestle with when it comes to prayer, right? Because many of us if we're honest, many of us have reduced prayer to informing God about our needs, our wants, and our wishes, or about the needs, wants and wishes of other people, people we care about, but mostly, mostly ours. But if God already knows why tell Him? If God already knows why inform Him? If God already knows knows why pray? But again, Jesus prayed and Jesus encouraged His followers to pray. So what are we missing? And I think it's at this point in the dialogue that the disciples stand back and realize, okay, we were right, we have not been doing this correctly, we haven't even been praying for the right reason perhaps that's why God doesn't answer our prayer. He certainly had their attention, I think He probably has ours, maybe we've been doing it wrong, maybe that's why you quit doing it at all.
And if you're still offended by the suggestion that perhaps you don't pray correctly, then you're exactly where Jesus wants you. He's pretty much telling everybody in His audience and probably most of us that we don't know what we're doing. So they're listening, they're watching, nobody in Jesus' audience moves and here's why, they don't say anything, they don't interrupt Him because they'd been around Jesus long enough to know that He may actually teach them how to pray, He may actually resolve this tension, or He's just deconstructed their entire prayer paradigm, right?
What He reconstructed or what He launched into a parable where they're trying to figure out which character in the parable is God and which character in the parable is me, well, He just leave us hanging because sometimes, you know, Jesus would leave the question in the air and just walk off. But fortunately for them, and I think fortunately for us, He speaks directly in to the tension that He's created. "This then, this then, He says, is how you should pray". You ask for it guys, here it is. "Our Father in heaven, our Father in heaven". Not dear Jesus, your heavenly Father, your perfect heavenly Father.
Now this raises a really important question, does this mean that God is male? Does this mean that God is masculine? What about heavenly mother? What about heavenly being? What about heavenly deity? And you know what? Those are valid questions. In fact, Jesus Himself says that God is not a person, Jesus on another occasion said that God is actually spirit. John who knew Jesus intimately said, no, God is love. But when we pray and this is so important and I really don't want you to get hung up over the terminology because Jesus is telling us something so important. Jesus is inviting us into something more intimate than spirit or concept or being or deity or even ruler or judge, He's inviting us into something relational, personal, non formulaic.
In fact, Peter who knew Jesus intimately, who was standing, he was a part of this conversation, maybe he's the one who even asked the question, later Peter would write, "Cast your cares on Him". Him being God, "Cast your cares on Him knowing, knowing He cares for you". It was intimate, it was personal, it was relational, and Jesus I think is accommodating to our capacity. So He says, look, the best way, the best way for us mere mortals to approach, understand, and relate to an otherwise incomprehensible God whose image we bear, but whose ways are oftentimes not our ways, the best way to approach God is to approach Him as a perfect Father.
Now for some of us that is not a problem at all. For me, that's just not a problem, I am a father and I was raised by a really, really good father. For me, it's the perfect picture, but your experience may be very, very different. In fact, your experience may make this imagery or this terminology challenging and here's some good news, your heavenly Father knows that, your heavenly Father appreciates that, your heavenly Father is willing to enter into that tension with you. So here's my advice. Just bring all that with you when you pray because if Jesus is correct, and I think He is, to opt for any other image, or to opt for any other concept other than heavenly Father, it may mean that you miss something. Perhaps it means you'll miss out on something.
He continues, "Our Father in heaven". And then here's the part we oftentimes skip. "Hallowed be your name". His point is this, that when we pray, remember He says, this is how you should pray. When we pray, we should pause and acknowledge who we are addressing. The great God who has no equal, no rival, the uncreated Creator who by the way has invited you to address Him as Father. Think about it, infinite and intimate, infinite and intimate. When we pray we should pause right there. We don't, but we should. "Heavenly Father, hallowed, hallowed be your name". What an honor it is to address you directly, to know I'm known, to know that I'm heard, to know that you've considered me in relationship with you.
Now let's be honest, it's difficult to do that in traffic, right? This is why Jesus began the way He did. You wanna know how to pray, He says, you gotta get alone, you gotta get quiet, you need to create some space to appreciate what's taking place, don't just say your prayers, don't just say your prayers. Here's the bottom line. When we pause, this is so important, when we pause to reflect on who God is, we gain a better understanding of who we are and why we're here. We gain a better understanding of the relationship between the Creator and the created. This is the place in prayer where we recenter, this is where we regain our bearings, this is where we remember the broader context of our lives, our little lives that are, well, they're only made significant not because of what we accomplish or how long we live, they're made significant because of whose image bear, and whose children we are.
And if you skip over, a rush by that, you will be tempted to skip over and rush by what follows. In fact, you'll resist what follows and what follows is why we pray, what follows is the purpose of prayer. It explains why you need a place and a time, why you need to close your door or walk outside to get away from the things that distract you, the pressures and the responsibilities that leave us with the impression that this is all there is, and that we are all that matters. When we rush by addressing who God is, basically prayer reduces God to a good luck charm, prayer becomes a reflex, sort of a last glance in the mirror before leaving home, a wish me luck before a presentation or an exam.
If we don't begin by experiencing some sense of awe, our Father in heaven, Creator of all things, great is your name, skip that and what He says next will be lost on you. It's why what follows rarely ever shows up in our prayers, it's why our prayers I think are so predictable and oftentimes so ineffectual. Dear heavenly Father, thank you for this day, now here's my list, gotta run. Back to Jesus and the disciples. Jesus teach us how to pray, teach us how to pray like you pray. Okay, He says, this then is how you should pray. "Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name". Got it, love it, so we won't pray show off prayers, we won't keep repeating the same thing over and over as if God doesn't already know what we need, we're gonna pray to God and not to you, and we're gonna address God as Father, so what's next is, is this when we ask for staff?
"Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven". Wait, your kingdom, your will? I mean, what about my kingdom? What about my will? What about my family, my job, my lack of a job, my health? What about my fear? What about my bills? What about my daughter who won't talk to me? I mean, what about me? To which I think Jesus would smile and say, I've already covered that. "For your Father, for your heavenly Father knows what you need before you even ask". Oh yeah, I already forgot that part. So I don't need to start with all that? Jesus would say no. You see, when we pause to think about who we're addressing, when we pause and acknowledge who we're talking to, what else is there to say other than, you first, your agenda first, your kingdom come, my kingdom can wait.
This is what Jesus was talking about in the Sermon on the Mount when He said, "Seek first the kingdom of God". His point is the point of prayer. The point or the purpose of prayer is to align or realign ourselves with God's will, with God's purpose. The purpose of prayer, the purpose of prayer is to surrender our will not to impose it. Heavenly Father, before I ask anything I want you to know that what I want, I want what you want, your will be done. Prayer is not about moving God, but being moved by God, it's not about convincing Him to do our bidding, but allowing Him to get us to the place where we are willing to do His. In fact, this was the very thing, the very thing we find Jesus wrestling with in the Garden of Gethsemane right before He was arrested, you're familiar with this story I'm sure.
Father, He prays, I dread this, I don't wanna go through with this, there's nothing about this I'm looking forward to, yet, remember this? Not my will, but yours be done. And here's something interesting, do you know what hung in the balance of His willingness to submit to the agenda of His heavenly Father? More to the point, do you know who hung in the balance? You did, I did, we all did, the world did. Jesus in this moment teaching His disciples to pray, teaching us to pray, Jesus is inviting us to pray and to live as He prayed, and to live as He lived, submitted to the will of our heavenly Father. To be blunt and to be maybe a little personal, according to Jesus if we pray with any other posture than a posture of submission to His will, His agenda, we aren't doing it right. This is why I like to pray on my knees when I can, and my dad taught me this.
Now in our culture we don't bow our knee to anyone, right? I mean we're Americans, but Jesus says you should bow out of gratitude, out of gratitude that you can address your King as your Father, we should bow out of recognition that His will should be done even when it conflicts with ours. And isn't it true, we usually skip that part in prayer, don't we? And I'm like you, I get this, I've got my own little kingdom, I've got my will for my life, I have an agenda of my own, and Jesus assures us that our heavenly Father knows all about our fragile temporary little kingdoms, so we don't have to start there.
In fact, we shouldn't start there. Heavenly Father, your agenda before mine, your kingdom, a kingdom of conscience, a kingdom fueled by a new command, a kingdom where what's best for people is what's best because they are your image bearer as well, "Your kingdom come, your will be done". Now, how can I help? And where am I possibly getting in the way? "Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth". Right here, right now, right here, right now in my life, in my family, in my relationships with my resources, and my community on earth as it is in heaven.
Here's the thing, this is His point, until we get there, until our wills are surrendered to His, come on, what's the point of continuing until our wills to the best of our knowledge are surrender to His, aren't we just users, consumers? Doesn't it basically reduce God to a cosmic vending machine, an app? I mean, consider this, if you quit praying because God didn't answer your prayer as legitimate as your prayer was maybe the healing of a friend or a parent, so you quit praying because God didn't answer your prayer and then you just gave up on God altogether, what does that say about your view of God? You assumed unanswered prayer said something about God, but really it says something about your view of God.
If there is a God, God should answer my prayer, God didn't answer my prayer, my very legitimate prayer, so clearly God doesn't answer prayer, God doesn't care, I'm not even sure God is there. And you know what? That's understandable. It's understandable if God is simply a favor distributor, if God is simply a divine healer waiting to be summoned, or a lifeguard waiting to be called into action, but what if Jesus was correct? What if God your heavenly Father is more than that? What if He's none of that? What if His plan includes you, but it's bigger than you? Include you, but it doesn't center on you? What if prayer does it begin with asking? What if prayer begins with recognizing and submitting? What if we're to begin by remembering who God is and who we aren't? So His will takes precedent over ours.
To press this just a bit further, the reason and I know this is personal and you might be right in the middle of a situation like this, the reason you find yourself from time to time praying or trying to pray your way out of a situation that you behaved your way into, the reason you find yourself in that situation from time to time is because you don't begin your day this way, you don't begin your prayers this way, you don't begin surrendered to your Father's will.
So you, and we, and I, we get our unsurrendered selves into situations we can't get ourselves out of, situations we would have avoided if we had begun the day and continued the day in, thy will be done, posture, right? And then even when you find yourself in a mess that you created yourself, how do you pray? It's still about you, right? Help me, save me, rescue me, you know. And does God hear those prayers? I think so, but here's the thing and here's Jesus' point, your heavenly Father would like to help you avoid those prayers and you avoid those prayers by beginning your day surrendered to His will. This is why we pray.
So I have a suggestion, between now and next time, and next time we'll get to the us part, the give us part, the part that we usually begin with, right? But anyway, between now and next time I want you to try praying this way, the Jesus way, alone, undistracted, informal, short, begin by addressing God as Father, take a moment to reflect on His greatness and His goodness to you, His closeness, the fact that He's infinite and yet intimate, and then tell Him that His deal, His agenda, His kingdom is gonna be your priority all day long.
In fact, use Jesus' words, your kingdom come, your will be done right now, your kingdom come, your will be done right now, right here, I am happy to participate. And if that is a sticking point for you, if you're not quite ready to say thy will be done in my life before you even know what His will is, that is okay, you just learned something so important, so pause there and identify what's keeping you, come on, what's keeping you from praying, thy will be done. And I'll give you a clue, it's usually fear, fear of losing something, fear of having to give something up, fear of having to give somebody up, fear of being left out.
But you know what? Discovering that is progress, you've just identified where God wants to work in your life. Perhaps you've just identified, think about this, you've just identified where God is trying to rescue you from a God helped me prayer later on. If you can't honestly pray, thy will be done in my life, pay attention to that tension because that's why we pray. So does prayer work? Well, this kinda prayer always works. It always works on us, and ultimately it always works for us because it puts us in our place.
Praying like Jesus will determine the length of your prayers because the length of our prayers are often determined by the condition of our hearts. Think about this, Jesus prayed for maybe 20 seconds before giving Lazarus back his life, but He prayed all night before laying down His own, and in both cases Jesus already knew what God's will was, but in one case He needed more time to get there, and He did, and of course we're glad that He did. So this week, this week, when you pray, pray like Jesus instructed us to pray. Start with your heavenly Father not you, start with your heavenly Father and declare His greatness, and then surrender your will. Declare His greatness and then surrender your will. And we will pick it up right there next time in part two of grown up prayers.