[July 12, 2009] In Luke 10:25-37 Jesus taught us that we, because we try to justify ourselves, are the man who has fallen into the hands of robbers and was left half dead, and who desperately needs a neighbor. Jesus tells us that He—despised as He is—is the neighbor we need. He is the Good Samaritan who binds our wounds and pours on them oil and wine and bears us on His own beast and takes us to the inn where He continues to care for us and also leaves us in the care of the innkeeper. The inn is the church (with the Holy Spirit).
Finding ourselves in the house with Jesus, next (in Luke 10:38-42) we learn to sit at His feet and listen to His word, like Mary. In these two stories we are introduced to the life of the disciple, the life of the Christian. First, we know Jesus as our Savior, and then we become students of His word. We sit at His feet, a picture of humility; and we listen to Him, that is, we give Him our full attention.
In the thirteen verses that follow, we learn the other component of discipleship, prayer. Not only must we be students of His Word, we need to pray. Three things characterize Christians and set them apart from others. 1) They gather, 2) they hear the Word, and 3) they pray. We must also be characterized by good works. We do not earn our salvation with good works, but if salvation, if the Holy Spirit, is at work within us, we ought to be characterized by good works. Nevertheless, this does not mark us out as Christians. All religious people, and even ethical atheists, try to have good works. What distinguishes Christians from others is that we gather with each other, we sit at the feet of Jesus (we are students of the Word), and we pray in the way that Jesus taught us.
What to Pray For (Luke 11:1-4)
In verse one Jesus is praying. In Luke Jesus is always the example we are to follow, and very frequently we find Jesus at prayer. As a human being, He is utterly dependent on the Father expresses that dependence in prayer. He always prays before He acts, even though He understands the Father’s will better than anyone else.
The disciples see Him praying and say to Him, “Teach us to pray.” Jesus immediately responds with the words to pray: when you pray, say this. We find this teaching more fully in Matthew 6:5-15. This is what we know as “The Lord’s Prayer,” though the version in Luke is shorter and substitutes “sins” in verse 4 for “debts” in Matthew 6:12. Luke’s Gentile audience would understand “sins” easier.
Obviously we can simply say these words, since Jesus says, “Say this.” There is nothing wrong with formal prayers. There were (and are) count-less such prayers among the Jews that Jesus also said. However, it is mean-ingless to simply mutter them. “Do not babble empty words as the Gen-tiles do, for they suppose that in their multiplicity of words they will be heard” (Matthew 6:7). Paul says, “I will pray with the spirit, but I will pray also with the mind” (1 Corinthians 14:15). This means we need to pray with understanding. Paul goes on to say: “Do not be children in your under-standing; in malice be babes but in your understanding be full-grown” (verse 20). Along with understanding, we must pray with attention.
If you cannot pray a formal prayer this way, you are better off using your own words. Indeed, Jesus does not give us a formula to simply repeat. He is telling us what to pray for, what kind of prayer is acceptable to God. So, we should say words meaningfully, expressing how we understand what we ask for, and speaking from our hearts.
We sometimes think like pagans: God is merely a “higher power” and we can simply ask Him for what we want or think we need. We are in charge of our own lives and God is at our beck and call. Or we think God is like a department store with the goods and when we pray we are going shopping. Or God is like Santa Claus. If we are good, He will reward us by giving us what we want. Or He is a parent and if we whine and beg enough, He will give us what we want. These are all pagan ideas. Because we pray like this, we wonder why our prayers are not answered.
Jesus, however, shows us WHAT we should pray for. Others have pointed out that all the examples of acceptable prayer in the Scriptures are simply variations of the petitions in the Lord’s Prayer. The prayers in the Bible all have this content. Interpret the Psalms this way. We do not use God like a candy machine. Jesus tells us what we can pray for. He also gives us a pattern of prayer. Pray like this.
When it comes to prayer, God has no interest in our private agendas. The first thing to understand is that we approach God as Lord. He is our Master and we serve His will, not our own. This means that in order to pray properly, we need to understand what God wants, what God’s purpose is, what is God’s agenda. We want many things in life, and maybe God will grant them, but in prayer we are at God’s disposal and we pray for God’s own purpose.
We approach God as His children. God is the Father of Jesus Christ. For us to call God our Father, we must pray with Jesus, as belonging to Jesus. It is only in relationship to the Son, it is only “in” the Son, that we can address God as Father. But if we are there, we must address God as our Father. In prayer we do not address a nameless far off deity, but we approach our Father as dear children. This is why in our service of worship the church’s prayers follow the Lord’s Supper, for in the Supper we seal our faith and are brought into the presence of the Father through the shed blood of Christ, “all distance gone, our souls by grace set free.” Set free: this means, when we pray, we love the Father—our Father—as His own children.
What then do we pray for? We pray for the name of God and the kingdom of God. The name of God is the revelation of God and the glorification of the revealed God. The Father reveals Himself in the Son, through the Gospel, and therefore by the faithfulness of the church and the maturity of its members. The kingdom of God is that God would overcome all opposition to His rule, that all His enemies would be put under the feet of Christ (1 Corinthians 15:25) and all things would know Christ as head (Ephesians 1:10). Do we pray for God’s purpose? This is the first and most important thing we should pray for, and it is the basis on which we ask for everything else.
The next three petitions are for ourselves. They express our dependency on the Father so we can be at the Father’s disposal. If we depend on God for our daily bread, then we cannot act like our daily bread depends entirely on us. It depends upon our labor, yes, and if we do not know this lesson, we need to learn it. But we do not live for our bread. It cannot be our first priority. We should not be overly concerned with it. “Cast all your anxiety on Him because it matters to Him concerning you” (1 Peter 5:7). Seek first the kingdom, and all these things—food and clothing—will be added to you, added to the kingdom.
We also need forgiveness. We are under the Father’s discipline and we all sin often, so we need to release others from their indebtedness to us and pray the Father that He would release us from His heavy hand on us for our debt to Him. If we boast about how good we are, we do not need this prayer. Peter says, “Be humbled under the mighty hand of God that He may exalt you in due time” (1 Peter 5:6). If we know our own failure, we can be very patient with others.
“Lead us not into temptation.” We are weak and prone to temptation. A temptation is a test of our loyalty and faithfulness. We should pray for the Lord’s protection by asking Him to steer us away from things and situations that might lure us away from Him.
James says, “You ask and do not receive because you ask evilly that you may spend it on your pleasures. Adulteresses, do you not know that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever determines to be a friend of the world is constituted an enemy of God” (4:3-4). Whoa! The world here is the collective soul of humanity that organizes itself culturally to be independent of God. Take heed to these words. They have to do with prayer.
Pray Persistently (11:5-8)
In the story of the man who goes to his friend at night and has to ask persistently, we are not to conclude that God is in any way reluctant to give us what we need, as this “friend” is. The point is that if persistence works with someone such as this, how much more will it pay off with your Father in heaven who is not at all reluctant.
God is not reluctant, but He often requires that we be persistent and not give up. Jesus prayed three times in the Garden of Gethsemane, and Paul prayed persistently for the churches. Often this means praying with tears, and praying night and day. The purpose of prayer is not to inform God of what He does not know, nor is it to persuade God to do what He does not want to do. The purpose of prayer is to align our will with His and to represent His will on earth with our own will. There needs to be a union of our will with God’s will, a union that persists. We must really want what we pray for, and we must continue to want and seek it from God until God’s time is right. It is like holding a place on earth for God. God’s timing may wait for many things, but often God is waiting for us.
Pray Optimistically (11:9-13)
Jesus tells us that the Father wants to answer our prayers. Ask and it shall be given to you! God would not give us a snake if we ask for a fish. The first thing, however, is to remember that this does not mean God will give us whatever we ask for. Where in Matthew 7:11 Jesus says “things,” here Jesus says, “How much more will the Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him.” The Holy Spirit is given so that we can know God’s will and have the ability to do it. “Asking” is general, but it has to do with the prayer that Jesus just taught His disciples. “Seeking” has to do with the kingdom. “Knocking” has to do with the narrow gate (Matthew 7:13). We ask for the things we want instead of the things God wants and wonder why our prayers are not answered.
If we ask for the things with which our Father is concerned, we can ask with absolute confidence and faith, even if we have to ask persistently. God wants to answer our prayers more than we want them answered. We should not pray as though we have to twist God’s arm or persuade Him in any way. We should pray optimistically.
When we are suffering under God’s hand, we can put ourselves at God’s mercy, but we do not need to do this as though we have to persuade God to care for us. He cares! We do it to let go of our own despair, to humble ourselves, to leave our situation up to Him. We can offer it up to Him that He may accomplish His will through us. We pray in the darkness, often, but we trust the One to whom we pray.
The Prayer of the Holy Spirit within Us (Romans 8:23-28)
The Acts of the Apostles, the Epistles and the Book of Revelation are full of examples of prayer. Prayer is the life and work of the church. Traditionally it is called the “work” of the church. Do not neglect it. Pray day and night.
Paul says that we often do not know how to pray. We pray anyway, and the Holy Spirit who groans deep within us prays with us. We may not understand this groaning in our spirit. Nevertheless, Paul tells us that all of our real prayer is simply the imperfect expression of this groaning. Real prayer is simply the Holy Spirit within us praying to the Father. Prayer is God talking to Himself! The Holy Spirit within us prays as the Son to the Father. So in prayer, we enter the communion of the Holy Trinity. Is our prayer like this? If we pray this way, “we know that all things work together for good to those who love God and are called according to His purpose.” We need to define what is good in terms of God’s purpose.
When we pray together, we pray as one person and the same principles apply. We do not pray as individuals but it is the Holy Spirit Him/Herself working through all of us as one. Together we do the work of God, applying everything we learned today. We pray loud enough so that others can share our prayer, but we do not use prayer to preach to others or to spill gossip. Our prayer is directed to the Father, not to each other. Nor do we need to explain to God what He already knows (though a little information may help others share our prayer). Nor does each prayer need its own introduction and conclusion. The purpose of prayer is to express our desire and our will according to God’s will. A person can repeat what others have already prayed for. But we do not pray for a long list of things, especially personal things. We concentrate our prayers on concerns that are shared by the church and that reflect what Jesus taught us.