Prayer #2: Can You Really Talk To God?
In the midst of the sermon on the Mount, this is in the sixth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus delivers some very simple, but very helpful instruction to His disciples and consequently to us on the subject of prayer. Matthew 6, beginning to read at the fifth verse. “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you pray, go into your own room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do for, they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” Soli Deo Gloria. To God alone be the glory.
Let us pray. Now, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, oh God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
I love the story about an incident which occurred after a shipwreck. One of the lifeboats from the ship crammed with frightened passengers was desperately struggling to get away from the ship as it was sinking. And the first mate of the ship was in command of that particular lifeboat. Suddenly one of these frightened passengers called out to the first mate, “You’re in charge here. You’re supposed to be working for our safety. So for heaven sakes, say a prayer, man. Say a prayer.” And the first mate, obviously uncomfortable with this thing, very quickly bowed his head. And he said, “Lord, you know I’ve never talked to you before, but I promise you, if you get us out of this mess, I’ll never bother you again.” Well, clearly the first mate had no real understanding of the nature and the value and the power of prayer. But you know, he’s not alone in that. There are many people today, many, many people both inside and outside the church, who operate under the same kinds of misunderstandings about prayer. And therefore, I think it just might be worth a little of our time today to take a look at some of these mistaken notions about prayer and see if we can try to respond to them.
Here’s the first mistaken notion. Some people say prayer is an escape from life’s realities; a cop-out in the face of life’s hard times.
Now, I would have to be the first one to admit to you today that, yes, there are some Christians at least who do seem to regard prayer as a means of trying to escape from life’s hard realities as one wag puts it, “There are some people in the church who are so heavenly minded, they are just no earthly good.” And that’s true, but the fact of the matter is that right from its very beginnings, Christianity has been a commitment not to escape from life, but rather to transform it.
I remember hearing a college student say on one occasion that he felt that the essence of Christianity could be summed up in the words of the hymn, “Drop thy still dews of quietness till all our strivings cease.” He then went on to say, “That’s what Christians do. They try to lose themselves in quietness.” Now that’s a foolish statement on the face of it. Because are you aware of the fact that the man who wrote the words for that hymn, the man who wrote the very words that student quoted, was a man named John Greenleaf Whittier. He was a committed Christian, a man who gave himself regularly to the discipline of prayer, and a man who out of the power received from the exercise of prayer, set himself to helping to change the society in which he lived. And he became one of the strongest, most influential figures in removing the blight of slavery from the society of America. Yes, he was a man of prayer. Yes, he could say, “Drop thy still dews of quietness till all our strivings cease.” But out of the power that came from that prayer, he plunged himself right into the midst of life, even at a terrible cost. And in his case, it came through verbal abuse and even physical abuse.
That’s the message of the Bible. You see this book, this Bible, which serves as the basis, the foundation stone for our faith is a book which does not seek to gloss over life as it really is. This book speaks of life in plain unvarnished terms. I mean, this book talks about kings who murdered children, about governors who shy away from the truth, about religious leaders who twist the faith for their own personal gain. This book speaks about life as it really is; the darkest, the foulest, the most rotten aspects of human behavior. All are clearly dealt with on the pages of Scripture. And yet this book says in the midst of that kind of life, that those who have faith, those who give themselves to the exercise of prayer, those people do not run from life, rather they plunge into life and seek to transform it. It was the great Danish theologian, Søren Kierkegaard, who said, “Prayer doesn’t change God, it changes us.” When we talk to God, we make ourselves available to the invasion of God’s Spirit, which transforms us. And then on the power of prayer, God sends us out to transform the world.
That’s a bit of what Jesus was driving at here in the sixth chapter of Matthew, when He says, “Pray to your Father in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” The original manuscript adds the word openly. Pray to God in secret, and God will reward you openly. We as Christians on the power of prayer, do not try to escape from life, we seek to transform it.
But there’s a second mistaken notion. Some people say, “God cannot possibly pay attention to the prayers of every individual.”
It’s rather like the old nursery rhyme. There was an old woman who lived in a shoe. She had so many children. She didn’t know what to do. And the implication here is that, “Well, God may be great enough to have all of these children, but He’s not great enough to know what to do with them all.” But you know, that’s not logical because if you stop to think about it for a moment, you are going to realize what is true. Namely, that when knowledge expands, it also deepens. That’s a crucial point; when knowledge expands, it also deepens.
Let me try to illustrate that this way. Let’s suppose that we had a room which was lined with bookshelves and on those shelves were law books. Now, if we took a little nine-year-old boy into that room, and asked him what he saw; with his limited knowledge, he would say, “Just a room full of books.” But if we took into that room an individual who was presently enrolled in law school and asked that person what they saw, that person would respond, “Well, it’s a law library because I see some titles that I recognize.” But then if we took into that room, the distinguished lawyer, who in fact had amassed that collection of books, that person would not simply say, “It is a law library.” No, that person would immediately go to the shelves and begin to pull down books that had influenced his thinking or books that he used to prepare his cases. And he would flip through the pages and show us where he’d marked the pages in his own hand. You see, he would not only understand the library as a whole, he would understand every single book within it.
Do you get the point? When knowledge expands, it also deepens. Yes, God created everything that is, but God also knows the number of hairs on our heads. Yes, God understands the whole order of creation, but God also knows and understands every single individual within that creation. It’s no accident, I think, that the Bible rarely, if ever, speaks of God as the God of all the host of humanity. No, how does the Bible speak of God? The Bible speaks of God as, what, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He is the God of the individual. Charles Allen says, “He is the God who knows our names.” So please remember that. Remember that you, as a single individual, are of infinite worth to God. You are to God worth more than all of the gold and diamonds in South Africa’s mines, you are worth more than all of the oil under Alaska’s North slope or under Arabia’s Persian Gulf. You are worth more than all of the trees that cover all of the mountainsides. You. Yes, you. Every single one of you, you are worth more than the stars and the sun and the moon and the planets and all of the heavenly bodies. You are priceless in the eyes of Almighty God.
And so if today you feel that you’re living on the edge of hell in your life; if today, you know that you’re yielding to some things in life that you know are far below what God would have you to be, just remember that you are worth so much to God that He was willing to let His only begotten Son die for the love of you. I think that’s what Jesus was trying to tell us here in Matthew 6 when He says that even our tiniest little prayer whispered in our closet is heard by God. As if that single prayer were the only thing in all of creation for God to listen to.
But there’s another mistaken notion. Some people say, “If God knows the things we need, then why bother to pray.”
And of course, that’s precisely what Jesus says right here in the sixth chapter of Matthew. Jesus says, “Your Father knows what you need before you ask.” But of course, the fact that God knows what we need before we ask does not remove the necessity for asking. You see, God makes us free. He creates us with a freedom of will of our own, and God will not violate that freedom. He has all things to give us. He knows the things we need and he’s ready to give us those things, but he will not give them to us until we are ready to receive them until we’re ready to ask for them. And have you ever stopped to think about how it must break God’s heart to have marvelous gifts ready to bestow upon us? And yet, because we do not ask, He cannot give them; because we do not seek, He cannot help us find; because we do not knock, He will not violate our freedom by opening the door for us.
Two teenage girls, on one occasion, were talking about prayer and one of them said, “Prayer never has worked for me. I’m not going to pray anymore.” And you know what the other girl said? She said, “Poor God.” Huh. Yes, that’s right. Poor God. I mean, here’s God who has made us and who loves us beyond our imagining, and He has to watch us as we stumble and fall through life and all the while, He’s there with His hand, extended to us, waiting for us to reach out and take hold of that hand. And we don’t do it. You parents, you know how it is. You have some great gift for your child. Maybe it’s even the gift of your own love and your child simply will not receive it. Or you know how it is. You have a good friend and you offer that friend advice in how to avoid some particular difficulty in life. And then you have to stand and watch as that friend ignores your advice and plunges headlong into the difficulty anyway. You know how that is. God has all of these gifts to give us, and He’s waiting only for us to ask.
But there’s another mistaken notion. Some people say, “I don’t believe in prayer because my prayers weren’t answered.”
Now, there may be some reasons why they say that. Maybe the prayer was answered in a way they didn’t expect, and so they missed it. Or maybe their prayer was answered in a way they can’t accept, and so they denied it. But the fact is the prayer was answered. God always answers prayers. Oh, sometimes He says “yes,” and sometimes He says “no,” and sometimes He says “wait.” He wants us, you see, to keep on praying.
Jesus calls us to pray and not lose heart. Jesus wants us to understand that prayer is not like flicking on the light switch on the wall. You can’t just flick the switch and receive the power. Prayer is a life of intimacy with God through personal communion. It’s not a conversation. It’s a whole way of life. And it is when we commit ourselves to that whole way of life; it is when we commit ourselves to a deep, continuing intimate relationship with Almighty God; it is when we pray and pray and keep on praying; it is then that the power of prayer is made manifest in our lives. “Pray,” Jesus says, “and not lose heart.” Keep on praying.
The man is a very fine, a very devoted Christian. He has cancer. I say to his daughter, “Pray that he might be made well.” She does, the cancer spreads. I say to the daughter, “Keep on praying, never give up.” She does and still, the cancer spreads. There is no remission and he may die. And I say to the daughter, keep on praying. Why?
I don’t know why these things happen in life. I don’t know why there are things like cancer, and war, and automobile accidents. I don’t know why tragedy strikes. I don’t know why homes are torn apart and people hate each other. I don’t know why these things happen, but what I do know is this, that God in Jesus Christ works in all things to bring good to those who love Him. All things are not good, no. Some things are incredibly bad, but God in Jesus Christ is working in all things to bring good to those who love him. That’s why we have to keep on praying.
I remember reading the journal of Adoniram Judson, the great missionary. Near the end of his life, he wrote this sentence, please listen to it, “I never sincerely prayed for anything in life, but that at some time, somehow, in some way, it came.” What an affirmation. And yet I read those words, and I began to think of how the greatest desire in Judson’s life was to serve Jesus Christ in India, and he never made it there because he was sent instead to Burma. And I remember how Judson on one occasion was locked away in prison for his faith, and he prayed desperately that he might be released. And he languished there in chains month after month after month after month. And I remember how Judson prayed that his wife might be delivered from some dreaded disease and she died in his arms. And after all that, after all that, this man could write, “I never sincerely prayed for anything in life, but that some time, somehow, in some way, it came.” That’s what it means to keep on praying.
Well, as we talk here about the true nature and value and power of prayer, I want to try to bring it together like this. I want to share with you an incident. I shared this incident with some of you just a few nights ago, but I think it’s worth repeating. Back in 1959, the premier of Russia, Mr. Nikita Khrushchev, was in the United States on a state visit. As a part of that visit, he was to be the guest of honor at a luncheon at the University of Pittsburgh. Our government officials warned the chancellor of the university that a prayer on that occasion would offend the Russian leader. The chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh said in reply, “I would rather offend Mr. Khrushchev than to offend God.” And so on that state occasion, there was a prayer. It was delivered by a man named Dr. Scharf, the pastor of one of the churches in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. And as Dr. Scharf delivered that prayer, Mr. Khrushchev’s interpreter was whispering every translated word to both Mr. and Mrs. Khrushchev, so that when the prayer had finished the premier of Russia thanked Dr. Scharf for his words. And Mrs. Khrushchev asked the minister for a copy of that prayer that she might take it with her back to Russia and he gave it to her.
Just a few years later, it was 1964, Nikita Khrushchev at the peak of his power was suddenly and mysteriously deposed as the leader of Russia. Only recently have we begun to learn the real reason why. It seems that after that visit, Mrs. Khrushchev embraced Christianity and began to exercise an ameliorating influence on her husband. So that in October of 1964, Nikita Khrushchev was brought to stand before the Soviet Politburo, and there he was ordered to denounce his wife and her beliefs and he refused to do it. And he was driven from office and into public disgrace.
Can we really talk to God? Yes. And He will really listen and he will really answer. When and where and how, we may not know, but He will answer. Jesus said, “Pray to your Father and He will reward you.” My friends in Christ, in your life, try it, if you dare.
Let us pray. Almighty and most gracious God, enable us to tap the awesome power of prayer in our lives. We know we can come to you, we know you will hear, and we know you will answer. We claim that promise and that power for our own. Amen.