Moving Prayer

Psalm 139  

There is no single thing that will affect your walk with God more than prayer – not reading your Bible, not coming to church, not sacrificial giving, not selfless serving – as important as all of those are to your walk with God. Prayer is the single most important thing. And I say that because what God has invited us into is a relationship with him, and communication is at the heart of that relationship.

I wish I could tell you that prayer is easy and give you three simple steps to integrate prayer into your daily life. It isn’t and I can’t. I have never found prayer to be easy – and that probably says more about me than it does about prayer. But I want to be honest with you, prayer is hard for me, and I don’t know that I can really put my finger on why.

In Richard Foster’s book entitled, Prayer, he writes, “We yearn for prayer and hide from prayer. We are attracted to it and repelled by it. We believe prayer is something we should do, even something we want to do, but it seems like a chasm stands between us and actually praying. We experience the agony of prayerlessness.

We are not quite sure what holds us back. Of course we are busy with work and family obligations, but that is only a smoke screen. Our busyness seldom keeps us from eating or sleeping. No, there is something deeper, more profound keeping us in check. In reality, there are any number of “somethings” preventing us, but for now there is one “something” that needs immediate attention. It is the notion – almost universal among us modern high achievers – that we have to have everything “just right” in order to pray.”

The truth is, we will never have pure enough motives, or be good enough, or know enough, or be wise enough in order to pray, if our goal is to “get it right.” And the truth is, that isn’t what God wants. He wants our hearts.

Prayer that pleases God is when ordinary people bring ordinary concerns to a loving and compassionate Father. There is no pretense in prayer. We do not pretend to be more holy, more pure, or more saintly than we actually are. We do not try to conceal our conflicting and contradictory motives from God or ourselves. And in this posture we pour out our hearts to God who is greater than our hearts and who knows all things. In prayer, we bring ourselves before God just as we are, warts and all.

So, where do we begin? Right where we are: in our families, on our jobs, with our neighbors and friends. To believe that God can reach us and bless us in the ordinary events of daily life is the stuff of prayer.

Prayer recognizes that wherever we are is holy ground – there is nothing in our lives that is too course or inappropriate for prayer, nothing too mundane or trivial that God is not interested, no feelings or emotions that God cannot understand. God is perfectly capable of handling our anger and frustration and disappointment.

C.S. Lewis wrote: “Lay before Him what is in us, not what ought to be in us.”  We offer up who we are – not who we want to be or wish we were. We give God not just our strengths but also our weaknesses, not just our giftedness, but also our brokenness – our duplicity, our lust, our selfishness, our laziness – we lay them all on the altar of prayer.

And the truth is, until we do that – acknowledge to God who we really are, instead of offering up a few trite phrases that keep the real us hidden – we aren’t really praying.

David gives us such an amazing example of this in the Psalms. Listen to Psalm 32:

Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the LORD does not count against him and in whose spirit is no deceit. When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer. Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD”—and you forgave the guilt of my sin. Therefore let everyone who is godly pray to you while you may be found; surely when the mighty waters rise, they will not reach him. You are my hiding place; you will protect me from trouble and surround me with songs of deliverance. (Ps 32:1-7)

David wrote this during one of the darkest periods of his life – after his adultery with Bathsheba, his murder of her husband Uriah and the cover up that followed. For months he lived with this secret that ate away at him and made him miserable, until that moment when the prophet Nathan looked him in the face and said, “You are the man” and he confessed and repented and let God back into his life.

And out of this experience he writes, Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD”—and you forgave the guilt of my sin.” And so he counsels us: “Therefore let everyone who is godly pray to you while you may be found”

Later in life he wrote Psalm 139:

O LORD, you have searched me and you know me.

You know when I sit and when I rise;

you perceive my thoughts from afar.

You discern my going out and my lying down;

you are familiar with all my ways.

Before a word is on my tongue

you know it completely, O LORD….

Search me, O God, and know my heart;

test me and know my anxious thoughts.

See if there is any offensive way in me,

and lead me in the way everlasting. (Ps 139:1-4,23-24)

The only way to have a genuine and meaningful prayer life is to be absolutely transparent before God. It isn’t that he doesn’t already know you and everything about you, it’s that he needs you to invite him into all of those places where there is darkness and shame so that he can bring forgiveness and healing into your life.

Yes, sin separates us from God – but it is our refusal to acknowledge and confess our sin which makes God unable to bless us. Listen to the apostle John’s words: If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives. My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 1:8-2:2)

So, prayer begins with a deep realization that while I am not worthy to be in any kind of relationship with God, it is my unworthiness that draws me to God. Peter wrote, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. (1 Peter 5:5-7)

Pride, or our refusal to acknowledge our sinfulness, will absolutely quench our prayer life. Transparency and humility are what opens the door to God’s throne of grace and mercy.

Now, let’s not stop there and think that prayer should leave us wallowing in a pool of self-pity and self-contempt. Because while we are sinful and unworthy before God, his grace is more than adequate to wash us clean and make us pure and holy in his sight. He doesn’t invite us into prayer to make us feel worse about ourselves, but to remind us of how precious we are. We are his children with whom he desires the closest and most intimate of relationships.

I told you when I began this morning that I don’t have an easy three step solution to prayer, but in trying to understand prayer, it helps to look at it through the lens of three movements. Each of these three movements looks at a different focus of prayer and how those three movements draw us deeper into prayer:

The first movement is inward as we take assessment of who we are in honest self-examination, in genuine repentance, in relinquishing control of our lives (we follow Christ’s model as we pray “not my will, but thy will be done”), and in asking God to remake us and mold us more into his image.

The second movement is upward as we give God the adoration and praise he deserves.

This is the language of Psalm 8 where David sings:

O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise because of your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger. When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. (Psalm 8:1-5)

Only when we acknowledge God’s rightful place as King of kings and Lord of lords will we really begin to see ourselves as he sees us.

It is in our movement upward in prayer that we give thanks to God for the blessings that he has poured into our life and take inventory of what God is doing in our life. And I think this is part of the reason for our prayerlessness – we haven’t been paying attention to what God is doing. We have become so self-centered and myopic to our needs that we don’t see or acknowledge what God is doing.

In the early 1980s, before the days of traffic cams and eye in the sky helicoptors, transit officials in Washington DC couldn’t figure out why Beltway traffic congested every day around the exact same time. It was later discovered that a single driver was to blame. Every day on his drive to work, this driver moved to the left lane, set his cruise control at 55 mph, and jammed up Beltway traffic. After many complaints in the Washington Post, this driver came forward in a letter to the editor. His name was John O. Nestor. He defended his actions as convenient—cruising in the left lane meant less traffic, less merging, therefore justifying his refusal to move for faster traffic. Besides, he wrote, “Why should I inconvenience myself for someone who wants to speed?” He achieved infamy, even creating a new term — “Nestoring.”  It became a synonym for focusing on self to the point of not seeing or caring about others around us.

When we don’t see or ignore the activity of God, we become inward centered.

If I were to ask you right now to write down one thing that God did in your life this past week, what would you write? You see, part of our motivation for prayer comes from that constant awareness that God is at work in and connected with us. And out of that awareness, we see his goodness and proclaim his glory.

The third movement of prayer is outward in petition and intercession. Yes, God wants to know the needs in our lives, but not as the first and only words out of our mouths. If your children only spoke with you when they wanted something, and every sentence began with “I want this” or “Give me that” you would realize something was very wrong with how they saw their relationship with you. But you do want to know your children’s needs and it’s not inappropriate for them to ask for what they want.

And in the same way, God wants to hear our requests. As Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.  “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matt 7:7-11)

Also, in this movement outward we are to pray for others. The Bible calls this “intercessory prayer.” We have both the privilege and the obligation to pray for each other, and when we pray we see amazing results. Our little prayers of intercession are backed up and reinforced by the eternal intercessor, Jesus Christ. Paul assures us, “Christ Jesus, who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.” (Rom 8:34)

If we truly love people, we will desire for them far more than it is within our power to give them, and this will lead us to prayer. Intercession is a way of loving them. It is within your power to bring about the changed heart of God. Throughout the Bible, God has changed the course of history in response to the faithful prayers of his people. James reminds us that “the prayer of a righteous man is both powerful and effective.”

The most amazing effect of prayer is that it changes us. It is our invitation to God to come in and bring about a change of our heart and a change in our life. When we pray, we are letting God have his way with us, and while that might not always be pleasant, it is always a good thing.

When we talk about something being moving, we usually think of being moved emotionally – that it makes us feel closer to God – and prayer does that. But this morning as we talk about moving prayer, my intention is to move us spiritually toward God – to draw us closer to him.

The movement of prayer inward brings about a transformation of self, the movement of prayer upward seeks intimacy with God and the movement outward is prayer in ministry to others.

Prayer is God’s gift to us – an invitation to talk with him as friend to friend, and know that he listens and cares deeply about our lives.