Prayer – Part 1
Essential Disciplines – Session 4 – Prayer – Part 1
1 What Is Prayer?
Welcome to the second of our four Essential Disciplines: Prayer. Prayer is perhaps the most misunderstood and underused tool that God has provided for us. So, before we go any further, we need a definition. According to the Bible, what is prayer?
If we were to examine the hundreds of references to prayer throughout scripture, we would see a rich and diverse picture. Many different perspectives, forms and nuances of prayer appear in the long story of God’s people. Running throughout this rich tapestry, however, we would see a common thread. At its root, prayer is dialog with God, a conversation with Him about His ways in the world. In this dialog, we may express a whole range of human emotions: joy and sadness, peace and anxiety, thankfulness and anger, hope and despair. As we wade through these emotions, we seek to reconcile what God says with our daily experience, with what we see in real life. Our goal in this conversation should be to reconcile our will with God’s will, our ways with His ways.
To fully realize the power of this ongoing dialog with God, we must understand three fundamental dynamics of prayer:
- The Role of the Spirit
- The Role of Faith
- The Role of Community
Let’s briefly describe each of these dynamics.
2 The Role of the Spirit
2.1 The Spirit with Us
First let’s look at the role of the Spirit. Before Jesus returns to the Father, He says something that confuses His closest disciples. He says:
“…[V]ery truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.” John 16:7
And then he explains further, saying:
“…[W]hen he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” John 16:13
Jesus promises the presence of the Holy Spirit to guide those who follow Him. But why is this better for us than having Jesus Himself here in the flesh, talking to us and teaching us as He did His early disciples?
While Jesus was here in the flesh, He, like all human beings, could only be in one place at a time, but the Spirit can be everywhere all at once. When Jesus ascended to the Father, the Holy Spirit came in power at Pentecost, and launched a Kingdom that would one day spread throughout the world, into all places for all time. (See Acts 2) Now, the triune God Himself — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — is is revealed as being constantly with us. In 1 John we read that:
“This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God.” 1 John 4:13-15
2.2 The Spirit Speaking for Us
Because we are communicating, then, with the one God who is always and everywhere present with us, prayer truly is a spiritual experience. The Apostle Paul says:
“In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.” Romans 8:26-27
The Holy Spirit acts as our mediator in prayer. He listens to our innermost thoughts and feelings, which we ourselves are sometimes not even able to express. Then, in ways we cannot imagine, the Spirit Himself intercedes with the Father on our behalf, reconciling our will with His will.
2.3 The Spirit Speaking to Us
At the same time, while the Spirit speaks for us, He also speaks directly to us, to our hearts and our minds, confirming God’s truth to us. Earlier in the same chapter of Romans, Paul says:
“The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.” Romans 8:16
Jesus had earlier explained to His disciples that:
“He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you.” John 16:13-14
The Holy Spirit confirms and seals within us the will of the Father and the work of the Son. This is not something we have to worry about or try to manipulate. As we come before God in prayer, Father, Son and Spirit are already at work, ready to listen and ready to speak.
3 The Role of Faith
3.1 A Powerful Faith
If, then, the Spirit is at work in our prayer, speaking for us and to us, what is our role? How do we fully participate in this powerful dialog with God? This is where faith comes in. On one occasion, Jesus assures His disciples with these words:
“Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” John 14:12-14
And, on another occasion, He says:
“Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” Matthew 17:20
From these two statements alone, we can clearly see that faith plays a central role in a powerful prayer life.
Faith is powerful because it knows things that are otherwise hidden. The writer to the Hebrews says:
“Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” Hebrews 11:1
And Paul tells the church at Corinth:
“For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” 2 Corinthians 4:17-18
In faith, we understand that mountains cannot stand in the way of God’s will. As we dialog with God in prayer regarding His will and His ways, we will begin to see the world how He sees it. We will no longer focus on the obstacles or the challenges, but on the work that He is doing to change us and the world around us.
3.2 A Trusting Faith
Sometimes, however, God’s ways remain a mystery to us, but we are nevertheless called to trust Him. At some point in our lives, most of us have prayed for things that did not come to pass. Perhaps in those cases we ask what we did wrong. Did we lack enough faith? Did we not have the right kind of faith?
One answer to this question has to do with the fact that God’s ways are not necessarily our ways. Through the prophet, Isaiah, God says:
“’For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the LORD. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.’” Isaiah 55:8-9
Genuine faith accepts the fact that God’s ways are the best ways even if we do not understand them. The Apostle Paul learned this lesson when, after asking God three times to remove the “thorn in my flesh” (whatever that may have been), he received this message from the LORD:
“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’” 2 Corinthians 12:9
Faith allows us to trust God’s ways, even when we cannot explain them. Our faith is based upon the powerful, consistent and loving character of God, not on His compliance with our will and our ways. We fully trust Him, even when He chooses a different way.
3.3 A Righteous Faith
There is yet one more aspect of faith that effects our prayer life. Powerful prayer requires a righteous faith. The Apostle James says:
“The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” James 5:16
Earlier in the same letter, he addresses those who are not getting what they want, whose desires are not being fulfilled. He says:
“You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” James 4:2-3
The man whom Jesus heals expresses a similar idea when he says:
“We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly person who does his will.” John 9:33
And, finally, the Apostle Peter says:
“Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.” 1 Peter 3:7
Taken together, these verses tell us that moral choices will affect our prayer life. We cannot have meaningful, intimate, result-producing conversations with God if we are living in open rebellion against His ways. Powerful prayer requires a faithful lifestyle. While none of us are perfect, and all fall short, we must nevertheless come to God in prayer with open hearts and open minds, ready to change and be changed in accordance with His will. And we are not coming with this kind of humility if in fact we have no intention of accepting or living in obedience to His ways.
4 The Role of Community
So, then, both the Spirit and our faith play important roles in our prayer life. But the scriptures also assign an important role to community in this dialog with God. After Jesus ascends to be with the Father, we see His early disciples frequently gathered for prayer. Their example demonstrates several ways that prayer unites us as God’s people.
- By seeking God’s will together, we can agree on our next course of action, like when the apostles decided who would replace Judas as one of the twelve (Acts 1:24), or when the church in Antioch commissioned Paul and Silas for mission work. (Acts 13:1-3)
- By praying for those among us who are hurting or in danger, we express our true love for one another, like those who prayed for Peter while he was in prison (Acts 12:5), or when James urges those who are sick to call for the leaders of the church to pray for them. (James 5:14)
- By praying for one another’s ministry, we share together the common mission of disciple-making, as when Paul so frequently asks the churches to pray for him in his mission, while he continually prays for them where they serve. (Romans 15:30-31, Ephesians 3:16-17, etc.)
- By praying for one another we build one another up, rather than tearing them down, just as Paul prayed for the Ephesian church, when he says:
“For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” Ephesians 3:14-19
These then are important dynamics in a powerful prayer life: The role of the Spirit, the role of faith and the role of community. In our next session, we will build on this foundation and talk specifically about how to pray. But, in the meantime, we pray that God will lead you even deeper in your relationship with Jesus.
Note: Unless otherwise indicated, all English translations of the Bible in this document are taken from The New International Version. (2011); Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.