Thursday, 1 October 2015

No messing!

Pray continually.  1 Thessalonians 5:17

I remember somebody, just converted to Christ, who was so excited about her new-found faith that she described herself as "a one-woman non-stop prayer-meeting". Obviously she took Paul's words in a very literal sense. Pray continually.

Most Christians find that prayer is both a great joy and a real problem. A joy because it opens up the whole world of our relationship with God, our heavenly Father. And a problem because, once the initial novelty has worn off, it becomes a discipline which can be hard to maintain.

We are good at finding reasons not to pray. Here are perhaps the three most common. I wonder if they strike a chord with you?

First: I don't have time.

There is only one answer to that, and I'll put it as gently and kindly as I can: Rubbish! Utter, total rubbish! The fact is that all of us find time for things we feel are important to us. I bet we all make time for our favourite television programme, time to have our meals, time to brush our teeth. Yes? So let's not allow ourselves any nonsense about not having time to pray. Don't find time; make time.

Second: I don't feel like it.

That, perhaps, is more understandable. As human beings we tend to be very much prey to our moods. Somebody might tell a wonderful joke - but we are having a bit of an off day, so we can't summon up a smile. Somebody is really enthusiastic about a job that needs doing - but we feel tired and would rather put our feet up. And that's how it often is with prayer.

Fair enough. But we need to grasp that the Bible doesn't urge us to pray only when we feel like it. Because we are still very "fleshly" in our natures - in other words, not really very "spiritual" at all - the chances are that on that basis we would hardly ever pray at all. So we may very well need to take ourselves in hand and make ourselves. 

Sometimes people tell us to pray "as you feel led" - led, that is, by the Holy Spirit. That is bad advice because it means you will give in to the mood of the moment. Hasn’t the Spirit has already spoken very clearly to us, through verses like this and others in the Bible? What clearer “leading” do we need? Pray continually, mood or no mood.

Third: it just doesn't work.

If we are to be perfectly honest, isn’t this the little voice that slithers into our minds like a snake? "I'm wasting my time... why bother?... I've tried it and nothing happens..." And yes, it's a fact that there are many things we have prayed for perhaps over many years, and nothing yet seems to have happened.

How should we counter this voice?

Well, perhaps we might start simply by saying: "If prayer doesn't work, then why would God have asked me to do it? Has God got it wrong?" Remember, we don't pray mainly in order to get what we want from God, but in order to deepen our relationship with him. Often it's in the barren times that that relationship grows stronger.

And then we might go on to remind ourselves: "But over the course of the years I have known many answers to prayer! It just isn't true to say that it 'doesn’t work' ".

We can't get a real idea of the value of prayer until we try to imagine a life without it. What would that be like? Answer: unthinkable. From the beginning of time God's people have been a praying people - read both the Old Testament and the New. We can never measure or calculate the unknown effects even of all those "unanswered" prayers.

And then - for me the clinching thing - we surely ought to go on to say to ourselves: "Jesus prayed." End of! Jesus is our model and our ideal. If he needed to pray, can we seriously suggest we don't? Are we superior to him? Do we know better than him?

Learning to pray can be like learning to ride a bike. All right, you can take a bit of advice and accept a bit of help. Fine. But ultimately you've just got to get on and do it. The Bible says "Pray continually." And you know what? It actually means it. So... no excuses, no messing. Why not, like that woman, turn yourself into a one-person non-stop prayer meeting?

Father, thank you for the beautiful gift of prayer - actually talking to you. Help me to take it seriously, even if mainly as a duty, in the faith that the duty will become a joy. Amen.

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