Saturday, 20 August 2016

Questions about prayer

We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you... since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you ... Colossians 1: 3,9

With this in mind, we constantly pray for you... 2 Thessalonians 1:11

Whatever else he may have been, Paul was certainly a great pray-er. 

I’ve plucked just a couple of examples out of his letters which make clear how committed he was to praying for the churches on his heart. (It reminds me of something my wife-to-be said shortly after her conversion: she intended to be a “non-stop, walking, one-woman prayer meeting”.)

Well, the Bible regularly urges us to pray. Jesus set us a challenging example of commitment to prayer, and taught his disciples to pray. Nothing is more basic to biblical faith, Old Testament as well as New, than prayer.

But this is one of those areas where I would love to be able to question Paul a bit... 

What does praying “constantly” actually mean in practice? 

All right, you pray day by day for the Christians of Thessalonica, but how long does that take - an hour? five minutes? one minute? After all, I’m sure you’re praying too for the Galatians, and the Romans, and the Colossians, and the Corinthians (yes, especially those Corinthians, I suspect!), the Ephesians, the Philippians (no doubt the Athenians too, though you never got round to writing them a letter)...

And quite apart from all that praying, you seem to have been quite a busy chap in other ways too - what with preaching, evangelising, church-planting, fund-raising, letter-writing, mentoring younger pastors...

To be fair, there are one or two places where Paul gives an idea of the content of his prayers - look up the rest of those verses from 2 Thessalonians 1, for example, or Ephesians 3:14-21. 

But the fact remains - wouldn’t it be wonderful to know a little more about precisely how a man such as Paul exercised this vital ministry of prayer? Were his prayers for the various churches always detailed, or did he sometimes simply name them before God?

And one question especially I would love to ask: Paul, given that you pray so much, how do you manage to maintain a spirit of expectation in your prayers?

It’s not so long since I clocked up half-a-century as a Christian. Hardly a day has gone by since then without me praying in some form or other. And so there are people and situations which I must have prayed for hundreds if not thousands of times. And, let’s be honest about it, in many cases I seem to have little to show for it.

How easy it is for such prayers to become a mere routine, almost a ritual. Praying, but not really expecting. Having enough faith to keep going in prayer, but not enough to actually expect anything to happen as a result. Praying, yes, but subconsciously settling for the status quo.

You share my problem? If you’ve been a Christian any length of time at all, I suspect you do.

Well, I don’t know what Paul would say to me in reply, but here are a few things I say to myself...

1. The alternative to praying is - well, not praying. And that surely is unthinkable if you take your faith seriously. So don’t give up!

2. Remember Jesus’s words about faith like a grain of mustard-seed moving mountains (Matthew 17:20). What matters is not so much great faith (good though that of course is) as faith in a great God. The very fact that you are serious about prayer at all indicates that you do have at least that kind of minimal faith.

3. Remember that you have simply no idea, as you pray, what is going on in the courts of heaven. I once heard a preacher say: “I have never been to China. I know nobody in China. China is in every sense a far-off land. But I believe that when I pray for China, something happens in China!” I’ve never forgotten that. Perhaps one day we will know the effect of even our feeblest, most routine prayers.

4. Don’t worry about length. Long prayers are fine if the Spirit really moves you so. But have you ever thought that the Lord’s Prayer - yes, the very prayer Jesus himself taught us to pray - can be said, without rushing, in thirty seconds flat.

5. Don’t worry about emotion, or the lack of it. Again, if the Spirit moves your heart in such a way, perhaps even to the point of tears, great. But the prayers recorded in the Bible suggest that prayer can also be - how shall I put this? - quite a matter-of-fact, sleeves-rolled-up business. As long as it comes from the heart...

6. Don’t worry about being repetitive. It’s “vain repetition” that Jesus condemns in Mathew 6, not determined perseverance.

7. Don’t be afraid to use “set” prayers - prayers written by others (there are plenty of good books available). Many such prayers are beautiful, deep and powerful. They can have the effect of “priming the pump” of our own prayers.

8. Use the prayer material published by missionary societies and other Christian organisations. (Who knows, soon you’ll be able to pray for China with real knowledge!)

I could go on. There’s so much more that could be said. But perhaps I could encourage you to say it. I would love to hear from you.

Lord Jesus, teach me to pray! Amen, amen!

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