“The greatest tragedy of life is not unanswered prayer, but unoffered prayer.” While Pastor F. B. Meyer penned these words many years ago, I find them still very true in my own life today. This past week, I was stressing over a schedule conflict and hoping I could rearrange my commitments when it suddenly dawned on me that I had yet to pray about the issue.
While we believe in prayer, many of us struggle to find the time to pray. While we believe God answers prayer, we hesitate to “bother” him with our concerns. We talk about prayer, but we find it difficult to pray.
As we begin a fall sermon series on the subject of prayer, I think it is helpful to review some basic principles offered by Jesus in Matthew 6:5-8.
When you pray, you need …
The right motive (5). Some people love to pray while others love to be seen praying. Jesus warns us to examine our hearts before we pray. Prayer is a conversation with God, not a chance to impress people. As John Bunyan stated, “In prayer, it is better to have a heart without words than words without a heart.”
A time (6a). Jews would pray three times a day at the 3rd, 6th, and 9th hours. Sometimes we go to the other extreme and make prayer a “when-I-get-to-it” affair. If we do not make prayer a priority, if we do not build it into our schedules, we will not pray. James Hudson Taylor once said, “Do not have your concert first, and then tune your instrument afterwards. Begin the day with the Word of God and prayer, and get first of all into harmony with Him.” If you are a morning person, schedule your prayer time in the morning. If you are a night person, pray in the evening. If you function best at midday, do it then. Build the best part of your day around the habit of prayer.
A place (6b). A Jewish home was typically one large room. The only room with a door was a storage closet. Jesus is saying that we need to have a prayer closet where we can close ourselves off from the distractions of the world and close ourselves in with God. Your prayer closet could be your car as you commute to work, a park where you walk and talk with God, a living room chair with your Bible and a prayer list, or a closet where you hide from your family in order to pray.
An expectation (6c). Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “The right way to pray is to stretch out our hands and ask of One who we know has the heart of a Father.” In order to pray effectively, we need to believe that God not only hears, but he also answers our prayers. He is a father who cares for his children.
A method (7). The challenge of prayer is to avoid falling into ruts and rituals. It is easy to criticize a Buddhist prayer wheel or a Roman Catholic rosary, but evangelicals can fall into the same trap of offering prayer #27—“God bless the missionaries.” Or we can play word association games so that our prayers resemble Billy in the Family Circus; we do everything but pray. I have found that I need a detailed prayer list in order to pray intelligently and intentionally.
A Perspective (8). We need to know that God cares for us and knows our needs. Only then can we have the confidence that he will meet our needs.
A model. Over the next several weeks, we will examine prayers offered by Abraham, Daniel, Jacob, Elijah, Jesus, and Paul. They will serve to illustrate what we should pray for and how we can pray.
This is the synopsis of a message preached at First Central Bible Church in Chicopee, MA. It is the opening message in a series on Prayer: Moving Heaven for Earth. Please click on the link to download a copy of the sermon notes.