MORE ABOUT JESUS PART 7 — WHAT PRAYER IS
by Pastor Mike Fortune
April 18, 2007
There are 3 things that separate Christianity from all other world religions. And I hope you don’t think I’m arrogant for pointing these three things out. The first is: grace. When I was in Cambodia a few years ago, in Angkor Wat, an ancient temple dedicated to the local gods of Buddism, we climbed a series of stone levels, each one going higher and higher, surrounded by a courtyard and more steps, until I reached the top of that temple. And at the top of that temple was an old lady, burning incense, before a statue of Buddha. She was there burning incense because karma was all she had. But if she got to the very top of Angkor Wat and got as close to that special statue of Buddha, maybe her karma would be better than not. What she needed was grace. But no other world religion besides Christianity has grace.
The second is: the end of all things. One day, there will be no more school shootings. And senseless violence. And loss. So we’ll talk sometime about issues related to these things and the goodness of a loving God who refuses to allow suffering and hardship to endure forever. As Christians, we believe that one day in His perfect will and timing, the Great Controversy between Christ and satan will be over. And the Bible says in Nahum 1:9 (NKJV), “He will make an utter end of it. Affliction will not rise up a second time.” Not so in Hinduism for example and in many of the world’s religions that teach reincarnation. The end is never the end. You come back as a cockroach or a cow or maybe another god if you’re good.
Prayer is a dialogue
But the third thing that separates Christianity from all other world religions is prayer. Sure, these other religions have prayer too. But not the same way. Prayer is more than a monologue from believer to being. It is a dialogue between Creator and Creature. Between Father and Son. Father and Daughter. Believing we can communicate with our maker and that He communicates back to us is unique to the Christian faith and what we’ll be talking about during our next 2 sessions. No wonder Jesus said in Luke 18:1 (NKJV). “Then He spoke a parable to them, that men always ought to pray and not lose heart.” Or not to faint. He is interested in us praying. He wants us to ask and He wants to answer our prayers. If He didn’t, why would he invite in Matthew 7:7 “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” You see, He is interested in answering our prayers. But He is also just as interested in the relationship that results. For you cannot pray without growing closer to Jesus! We don’t pray so He can hear us. We pray so we can hear Him! So He can change us! Jesus couldn’t pray without growing closer to the Father! Same thing. So, we’re going to look at prayer as something that we need, just like air to breathe, in order to live.”
But before we go there, let’s take some time to get the big picture of prayer. Some of you, like I was, may be surprised to know there are basically 2 types of prayers in the Bible. Conditional prayers and unconditional prayers. And after that, it appears there are 4 types of conditional prayers and at least 4 types of unconditional prayers. And if we don”t keep these straight, whether we’re talking about answers to prayer or praying for a relationship with Jesus, we can really get confused. For example, Isaiah 59:2 (NKJV) says, “But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that He will not hear.”And Psalm 66:18 (NKJV) says the same thing. “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear.”
Any sinner who seeks God is always heard
Well, if I’m looking to live, and prayer is the air we breathe, if I’m reading the Bible for relationship, confessing my daily need of Him, coming to Christ but still falling and failing from my perspective, and He doesn’t hear me, I’m in a whole heap of trouble! Right? So this isn’t what these verses are talking about. These verses are talking about special requests for special blessings. And it’s true that those are conditional. But the sinner seeking God is always heard. You don’t need to climb to the top of a temple. It makes no difference who I am. Jonah did so from the belly of a whale! Any sinner who seeks God is always heard. That is the first of four unconditional prayers.
So the sinners prayers are unconditional. Psalm 34:4 (NKJV) says, “I sought the LORD, and He heard me, and delivered me from all my fears.” Good news! We can all seek God and know that He hears.
Another second kind of unconditional prayer is the prayer of repentance and confession. Psalm 51:1‑3 (NKJV), “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to Your loving kindness; According to the multitude of Your tender mercies, Blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, And cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions, And my sin is always before me.” Could be the first time. Or the millionth time. Prayers of repentance and confession are always heard.
A third kind of unconditional prayer is the prayer of thanksgiving and praise. Revelation 5:12 (NKJV) says, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom, and strength and honor and glory and blessing!” Isn”t it cool to think that even angels pray this kind of prayer?
And finally, one of God”s favorite kinds of unconditional prayers, is intercessory sinners prayer. When we intercede on behalf of someone else and pray for their salvation, repentance, or confession. Moses did this for the children of Israel in Exodus 32:31‑32, “Then Moses returned to the LORD and said, ‘Oh, these people have committed a great sin, and have made for themselves a god of gold! Yet now, forgive their sin, I pray, but if not blot me out of Your book which You have written.” This was a tremendous seismic quake of Calvary long before Calvary came. Someone being willing to die and give up their eternal destiny in behalf of someone else. And this moved God”s heart deeply. And He spared the people. So this is one of God’s favorite kinds of prayers. It is unconditional.
Conditional types of prayer depend on a relationship
Now, let’s look at 4 conditional types of prayer. First up, special requests for special blessings. 1 John 5:14B15 (NKJV), “Now this is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us, whatever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we have asked of Him.” Jesus healed a blind man as told in John 9 and after He did, that man had a heated conversation with the Pharisees over the source of his healing. And in John 9:31 (NKJV) the man accurately describes the conditional nature of special requests for special blessings. The healed blind man told the Pharisees, “Now we know that God does not hear sinners; but if anyone is a worshiper of God and does His will, He hears him.” Because we’ve already established that God always hears the sinners prayers of confession and repentance, we know he meant something else in this verse when he says God does not hear sinners. What he meant was a prayer for healing is based on a previously existing relationship with God. A prayer for healing is a special request by those with special faith. James talks about this too. When he talks about gathering the elders to pray. Elders are people with special faith.
A second conditional prayer is for guidance. Psalm 32:8 (NKJV) says, “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will guide you with My eye.” But you may be thinking, how is that conditional? Well, it’s a promise from God but it is also a conditional prayer because the devil can guide us if we don’t have a relationship with God. Right? And God is not going to force His guidance upon us if we’re not seeking Him. Right? So this is a conditional prayer. It’s based on the assumption that spiritual things are spiritually discerned. So it’s very important we have a relationship with Him so we are not misled.
A third conditional prayer is arguing with God. Some of the greatest believers in God have argued with Him. Joel 2:17 (NKJV) says, “Spare Your people, O LORD, And do not give Your heritage to reproach, That the nations should rule over them. Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’” In other words, God’s reputation is at stake. When we make requests, we can base our requests on evidence of God’s mighty acts. We can argue with Him! Isaiah 1:18 (NLT) says, “‘Come now, let us argue this out says the LORD.”
So we can argue with Him, but there are many more. Because of what we already know about Him, we can present Him with other reasons about why He should intervene. For example, you have promised! You’ve done it for others, why can’t you do it for me? You’ve done it for me before in the past, why can’t you do it now? You have invited us to ask, so I’m asking! I’m praying not for myself. I’m praying for someone else. God loves that argument. There are many reasons why we can even argue with God.
And then finally, the fourth and most important, is dialogue prayer. Such as Abraham talking with God and God talking with Him. Moses experienced dialogue prayer. And Jacob as he was wrestling with the angel. The Bible records examples of dialogue prayer, but it is rare in the sense that you actually hear voices back. But it is real and it has happened. But that’s not the only type of dialogue prayer. The other kind of dialogue prayer more common is the way Jesus prayed and then listened. Was still. And knew God. And we’ll talk more about how that works next time. But for now, let’s just notice that Jesus used dialogue prayer. And taught his disciples to do likewise. Instead of just talking, he listened too. Proving that spending time with God is just as important from God’s perspective as is getting answers to our prayers from ours.
Matthew 14:21–23 (NKJV) says, “Now those who had eaten were about five thousand men, besides women and children. Immediately Jesus made His disciples get into the boat and go before Him to the other side, while He sent the multitudes away. And when He had sent the multitudes away, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray. Now when evening came, He was alone there.” Jesus spent time with the Father in the evening.
Matthew 26:36 (NKJV) says, “Then Jesus came with them to a place called Gethsemane, and said to the disciples, ‘Sit here while I go and pray over there.’” Jesus spent time with Father at night.
Mark 1:33‑35 (NKJV) says, “And the whole city was gathered together at the door. Then He healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and He did not allow the demons to speak, because they knew Him. Now in the morning, having risen a long while before daylight, He went out and departed to a solitary place; and there He prayed.” Jesus spent time with the Father in the very early morning.
Luke 5:16 (NKJV) says, “So He Himself often withdrew into the wilderness and prayed.” Jesus spent time with the Father often.
Luke 6:12 (NKJV) says, “Now it came to pass in those days that He went out to the mountain to pray, and continued all night in prayer to God.” Sometimes, Jesus stayed up all night with the Father.
Jesus prayed before He entered into important events (choosing the disciples, raising Lazarus, crucifixion) and after great successes (baptism, feeding the 5000) and regularly in between. Prayer was an important part of Jesus’ life. He even prayed for you! John 17:20 (NKJV), says, “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word.”
Jesus "practiced the presence of God"
Now it’s true none of these texts specifically say that Jesus was listening twice as much as He talked and was doing so just to spend time with the Father, but what else can we conclude? That Jesus was advising the Father instead the entire time? Doing all the talking? Instead of asking and waiting and listening for His reply? I don’t buy that. I think the reason He prayed in all those places all those ways all those times is to teach us that prayer is not about talking nearly as much as it is about practicing the presence of God whatever you’re doing wherever you are. Yes, it can also be isolated. And special. And conversational. And conditional. Full of special requests. But I think we miss the forest for the trees when we limit prayer to these things. Because prayer has more to do with staying alive, spiritually breathing, being humble, and staying connected to the Father than it does with advising the Almighty.
I remember one summer in Maryland, my brother Mark and I were eating lunch at the Columbia Union College cafeteria and we were pretty hungry so we weren’t talking a whole lot. We were bent over our plates shoveling our food into our mouths. Well, eventually I came up for air and when I did, I noticed Mark was turning blue. He was flapping his arms like a wounded duck and gasping for air. So I jumped up out of my chair and ran around to his side of the table. I put my arms around his belly and pulled with all my might. Then I punched him in the stomach for good measure. And all of a sudden, a large Dorito flew out of his mouth and landed on the table. He had been choking on that nacho chip and couldn’t breathe. And when you can’t breathe, you have difficulty communicating. Unless something miraculous occurs. Same thing with prayer and our relationships with Jesus.
Kimberlei Wilkins always includes in her emails this phrase. “Stop what you’re doing right now and take a breath. Now take two.” It’s a good reminder that we must breathe and keep breathing if we’re going to make it through the day. With its fair share of crises. When you wake up in the morning, you don’t take a deep breath of air and then not breathe again until evening. It’s not enough to breathe once in the morning. We have to continue to take breaths throughout day. One followed by two. If we don’t, we’ll start choking. And then we’ll die.
Pray throughout the day to maintain a relationship
It’s not enough to pray once in the morning. Like Jesus, who had a dialogue with His Father, we have to pray throughout the day to maintain a relationship with Him. And if we don’t, we’ll start choking. Maybe not physically, but spiritually. Which is why 1 Thessalonians 5:17 (KJV) says, “Pray without ceasing.” It’s a dialogue. You say something. Listen. He says something. An emergency occurs. You pray. He says something. Eventually, it becomes normal. And you don’t even notice you’re living moment by moment by faith in Jesus Christ. Prayer is the air we breathe. There’s a great little book called Practicing the Presence of God.
But some people say, if that’s true Pastor Mike, and I need prayer to spiritually breathe, how can I with all my faults and failings? Well, we just talked about that. The last 2 weeks. So pick up the handouts on that and listen to the audio on the website. But doesn’t Psalm 66:18 (NKJV) say, “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear”? Well, yes, that’s what it says. But what does “regards” mean? To some people, it means if we are still falling and failing from our perspective, even after we’ve come to Christ, been converted, and are continuing to look to live, by developing starting or rekindling a relationship with God, that God won’t hear our prayers even though we need to breathe! But think about it. That doesn’t make any sense! If that’s what Psalm 66:18 means, the disciples were out of luck. Because the disciples had a relationship with Jesus. And they also had continuing faults and failures. Peter even denied and cursed Jesus with words we’d have to bleep today. Obviously, they had things in their life they regarded and knew were wrong but they continued to regard and harbor and do them. And the source of all that behavioral stuff is pride. Peter said, “I don’t know Him.” It’s all about me. Right? But Jesus didn’t abandon them. He didn’t ask for another 12 disciples. He forgave Peter and called him to “Feed His sheep.” He continued walking with them. Eating with them. Working with them. If you’ve come to Christ, cursing is not your problem. Gossip is not your problem. Road rage is not your problem. God is the one bragging about fixing these things so let Him! Whatever Psalm 66:18 means, it doesn’t mean that it is impossible to have a relationship with God and simultaneously have known sin in your life and still be heard by Jesus. The sincerely seeking God are always heard by God. Even after a curse word has left its lips. Why? Because even after conversion while we’re still falling and failing, we’re still heard by God. And if that’s true, the flip side is also true.
Sooner or later, one of these things we regard has got to go. If I continue my relationship with God, if as little children we continue to abide in Him (1 John 2:28 NKJV), sooner or later that cherished sin is going to go. Sooner or later, the tongue will be tamed. How? Because of our strength and power to overcome? No! But because of God’s! 1 John 4:4 (KJV) says, “Greater is He that is in you, than he that is in the world.” Matthew 6:24 says, “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.” 2 Corinthians 3:18, by beholding, we become changed! He that began a good work in you will complete it in you on that day! [Philippians 1:6]. Maybe not right away. As fast as we’d like. But eventually on that day. Which is why I tell teenagers not to burn their CDs.
Back in the day, I can remember youth leaders inviting others to bring their evil unchristian music to the bonfire and burn it. But I never did. For a few reasons. One, it seems like a big waste of money. You spend all that money building your music library and then just throw it all away? How is that a good stewardship of your resources? It seems to me, if you don’t like a CD anymore, you should sell it and give the money to the church at least. Make something good come out of it. Isn’t that what Jesus meant in that parable when he criticized the guy who simply buried the talent?
But the second reason I never burned all my CDs is I learned God sees everything as capable of singing his praises. What does the Bible say? “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!” 1 Corinthians 10 says something similar about what you eat.
I think I told you I was listening to a favorite artist of mine, Bruce Springsteen, the other day. And while I was listening to his song called “Into the Fire” on his “The Rising” album, I was reminded of how God”s hope, faith, and love becomes our own when we abide in Him. I’ll play that for you on your way out if you’d like to stay and listen to the lyrics. To see if you can hear God speaking to you too through some surprising sources. But God communicates with us through every ordinary normal day in our life—if we’re abiding in Him. If His presence is the air we breathe. And the more we hang out with Jesus, the more often those 3‑D spiritual images will appear before our very eyes. Which leads me to the 3rd reason I kept my CDs.
God removes the desire for things not good for us
Sooner or later, God will get rid of the ones not fit for me. And He has! I’ve discovered that I’ve developed a taste aversion to some of the music I used to like. I find the lyrics offensive. The message discouraging. The feeling I get from listening to them not salubrious. Not healthful. So without even realizing it, those CDs have stayed in my plastic coverings for years. And then, when I need room for more new music, I trade in my old ones or just throw them away instead of making a big deal about how righteous I am by burning them. But I confess to you that I didn’t do that the day I was converted. Or the following day. Or the following week. Month. Or even year. It’s been a matter of time. And I still love quite a few 80's tunes. And I admire like crazy Bono the lead singer of U2 for his honesty in grappling with the truths of Christianity and Christ’s call found in Luke 4 to relieve suffering and debt and captives. I see God at work in some of those lyrics. And enjoy using Bono as an example of how God could speak through a jackass in the old testament and a rock star after the new.
Long story short. It is possible to have a colossal known fault or failure in your Christian life you regard and still be heard by Jesus because sooner or later one of these is going to go. And if you’re abiding in Christ, Jesus won’t be the one to go! It will be whatever is preventing you from abiding in Him, beholding Him, seeking Him. This is how I think it works day by day all the way up to that day. And when changes occur, it won’t be a struggle. It will be obvious. Most of the time, you won’t even realize it’s occurred until someone else tells you. And whatever the lifestyle or behavior change will be, it will not be accomplished for public display of approval, but quietly and joyfully for God’s.
Judas chose the cherished sin of greed over the relationship with Jesus. The other 11 didn’t. They continued falling and failing, but their relationship with Jesus grew. He still heard them. And eventually, they quit arguing about who would be the greatest in the kingdom. That’s how it works.
But what about the time when prayer doesn’t make things any better? Have you ever had that happen to you? You’re breathing fine. Not spiritually choking. In fact, you’re learning to breathe moment by moment, praying for more and more of God’s daily bread. Beholding and becoming changed. Enjoying the quiet time listening to what God says through his Prayer, Reading, and Sharing and even through some surprising mediums like art or music that you thought had nothing to do with God. But then, things in your Christian life just start going from good to bad and from bad to worse. Are you aware that often, things can get worse when we pray? This has been a mystery to some people. Why is that?
Studying the book of Job is a solution to this question. The devil sees me praying and seeking a relationship with God. And he wants to prove that I am only doing it for selfish reasons. So he gets permission from God to attack me and I give up the relationship with God proving the devil was right. God is love but his people aren’t. They only serve God because of the benefit package. But if the devil comes to me and attacks me trying to prove that I’m only serving God for selfish reasons and causes me to fall and fail but I keep right on seeking God anyway, then this proves that God is right. That I still love God. And still want to worship Him and serve Him. And then, once this has been proven, then God can tell the devil to get lost as He did in the case of Job.
So, let’s never get discouraged when things get worse when we pray. Jesus didn’t. Even though the argument could be made that things only got worse for Him when he prayed. The Pharisees intensified their attacks against Him. Others hardened their hearts. One minute they were cheering for Him. The next they were shouting for Barabbas. And then crucify Him. But if Jesus, our example and friend, kept praying shouldn’t we? And when we do, we’ll discover that prayer is the breath of the soul. It is the air we breathe. And it is as important to our spiritual lives as breathing is to our physical lives.