Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 04/09/1995
Luke 11:1 And it came about that while he was praying in a certain place, after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, "Lord, teach us to pray, just as John also taught his disciples." 2 And he said to them, "When you pray, say: Father, hallowed by thy name. Thy kingdom come. 3 Give us each day our daily bread. 4 And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves also forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation." 5 And he said to them, "Suppose one of you shall have a friend and shall go to him at midnight and say to him, 'Friend, lend me three loaves, 6 for a friend of mine has come to me on a journey and I have nothing to set before him.' 7 And from the inside he shall answer and say, 'Do not bother me. The door has already been shut and my children and I are in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.' 8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his persistence he will get up and give him as much as he needs. 9 And I say to you, ask, and it shall be given to you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it shall be opened. 11 Now suppose one of you fathers is asked by his son for a fish. He will not give him a snake instead of a fish, will he? 12 Or if he is asked for an egg, he will not give him a scorpion, will he? 13 If you, then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?"
There is probably nothing in the Christian life that is more advocated and less attempted, more urged and less understood, more recommended and less resorted to, or more praised and less practiced than prayer. That this should be so is a serious danger sign in the spiritual life. But one more exhortation--"You ought not to be so carnal; you ought to pray more"--probably would not do much good. Part of the reason for that is that many sincere Christians simply have not found prayer to be the meaningful experience it is cracked up to be. We assume meaningful prayer should come naturally, like talking to a friend, and we get frustrated and discouraged when it does not. But think about the differences between prayer and human conversation. In a conversation with a friend I get immediate feedback. Through words, tone of voice, facial expression, and body language I have objective evidence of how my friend feels about what I have said--or whether she is even listening. With the invisible God there is none of that. To believe that prayer is more than a monologue requires a constant exercise of faith. Prayer starts sounding an awful lot like work. And what do you say to the high king of the universe? It is little wonder that we can end up feeling tongue-tied.
In short, we need instruction in prayer. If you feel that frustration, if you feel that need, then rejoice, and be of good cheer! For the disciples felt the same way. And so they asked, "Lord, teach us to pray." And more importantly, Jesus approved of their request. It seems it may have been their most intelligent question in the whole three years! For if you have been following these studies in the Gospel of Luke, you should realize by now how radically unusual the Lord's response was. He did not answer their question with a question. He did not say, "Well, let me tell you a story." For once, he gave a plain, simple, and straightforward answer. He approved of that request. And if it is your request today, he approves of yours too.
The answer Jesus gave is a condensation of the model prayer that we find in its full form in Matthew's account of the Sermon on the Mount. I have expounded that passage elsewhere (Donald T. Williams, The Disciple's Prayer, Camp Hill, PA: Christian Publications, 1999; reprinted, Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2005). Today we want to see how Luke's condensation of that more familiar material focuses our thoughts. It leads us to the following thesis: Effective prayer is rooted in an understanding of who God is. Two of his attributes are especially brought into focus here.
Jesus' model prayer begins with a focus, not on ourselves and our needs, but on God, both as Father and as King. His name is to be treated as holy; his kingdom is to be sought above all else. "Thy kingdom come" is a Greek idiom for "May you reign, may you exercise your sovereignty, in heaven and on earth, in the world and in my own life." The longer version uses Old Testament Hebrew poetic parallelism to "rhyme" a similar idea: Thy will be done. Effective prayer is prayer that is focused on the will of God.
Obviously, one cannot really pray at all until one has accepted Christ as Savior and as Lord. What we call "The Sinner's Prayer" is often presented as the only exception to this principle, but that is not really an accurate way to understand it. Rather, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner" is simply and logically the first thing one says after one has accepted Christ as Lord and Savior, or as one is accepting this. It is because Christ is Lord that his death puts him in a position to be able to do something about our sins, so his sovereignty is entailed in his saviorhood. The model prayer begins the way it does to remind us of this fact. When we follow Christ's instructions for prayer, then, we begin by orienting ourselves properly to the God who is the Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and to the Christ who is both Lord and Savior.
If effective prayer is focused on the will of God, then it becomes a powerful re-shaper of our priorities. And as that happens, it becomes a powerful promoter of our peace. We train ourselves in prayer to concern ourselves with the honor due to God's name and the allegiance due to his rule and kingdom before we finally concern ourselves with our own felt needs--though such is his grace that we are indeed encouraged to bring in those needs in their proper place. In other words, every time we pray this way we are reminded to "Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness" so that " all these things may be added to us" (Mat. 6:33). That means that every time we pray in accordance with the Lord's instructions we are reminded not to be anxious about what we shall eat or drink or what we shall put on, for our heavenly Father knows that we need such things, and if he feeds the birds of the air and clothes the lilies of the field, will he not also take care of us, despite our little faith? Do you need to be reminded of such things as I do? Then make it a practice to pray as the Lord has taught us--not by reciting the model prayer as a formula (though there is nothing wrong with reciting it), but by using it as an outline. We take each petition and make it personal and specific in accordance with our needs and our situation. The path to peace then is not to focus on your needs, but on the sovereign God who is able to meet them. Effective prayer is focused on the will of God as the expression of the sovereignty of God.
Effective prayer is not only focused on the will of God; it is submissive to the will of God. Submission flows inevitably from the focus; without it, we would be rebellious, which is hardly an attitude conducive to prayer! In this as in everything, Christ himself is our great example. "Nevertheless, not my will but thine be done" (Mat. 26:39). Practically, this means that we are prepared to accept a possible "No" or "Wait" or "Yes, but not the way you are thinking" as God's sovereign answer to our prayer. It also explains the apparent "blank checks" that Scripture sometimes seems to promise us. If we ask in faith, we will get whatever we ask for. (Verses 8-9 imply that kind of thing here.) This is a rather strange promise, when even Jesus himself had to say, "not my will but thine be done." But of course these are prayers of faith, and faith involves bowing to God's will, coming to want what he does. Prayer that is truly submissive to the will of God will always get what it really wants, though not necessarily what it thought it wanted. Finally, this perspective drives us to the Scriptures. If effective prayer is focused on the will of God, where is that will revealed? Effective prayer flows from a heart that reads the Bible not just for information but to know and do the will of God; to know the will of God so we can pray in accordance with it.
In summary, until the purposes of God are more important to us than our petitions, until the demands of discipleship are more important to us than our desires, until the Law of God is more important to us than our lusts, until the will of God is more important to us than our wishes, we have not really begun to pray.
If we believe that God is sovereign and therefore able to answer prayers that are in accordance with his will, and yet we do not pray, it must be because we fear what that will might be! We wouldn't like to admit it, but it is true. Therefore, in the parables that follow the prayer, Jesus emphasized the goodness of God as an encouragement to prayer. First we see his readiness to hear us in the story of The Friend at Midnight (vs. 5-8). It seems to me that this parable is often misapplied. It's point is not that we should be persistent, as if God were like the lazy friend. The point is the contrast between God and the friend. If even a sorry friend like the one in the story would give you what you need, how much more will our Father? God is good, full of mercy and compassion, and he wants to give you what you really need. You don't have to bang on the door to rouse him; you don't have to beg and plead and wheedle. His ear is already turned toward us. We just have to ask.
Second, we see God's benevolent kindness toward us (vs. 11-13). Why don't we earnestly pray "thy will be done" in our lives, even when we understand that this is the foundation for all effective prayer? It is because we are afraid of what it might cost us. We might have to go to the mission field, we might have to give up our money or our time, we might have to forgive an enemy or love the unlovely. Well, yes, we might. Oh, horrors! But the truth is that God only asks us to do any of those things because he knows they are the best thing for us to do. Yet we treat him as if we thought he were a Father who would give us a snake instead of a fish or a scorpion instead of an egg. How ludicrous! God is good. He is not an ogre. He is our loving Father who longs to give us the very best gift of all: the Holy Spirit (vs. 13). In other words, he longs to give us all the benefits and all the blessings of salvation in Christ Jesus! In prayer as in every part of the Christian life, the key to all is faith. Do we trust him? Are we willing to trust him? Apart from faith it is impossible to please him. With it, we experience him as our loving Father, who will give us a fish or an egg, not a snake or a scorpion.
Effective prayer is like an arch with two foundations: the sovereignty of God and the goodness of God. In meaningful prayer, these two columns grow together into a gothic arch pointing to heaven. So meditate on these truths, as they come to us in the stories Jesus told, until you are saturated with them. And from them in your heart will flow effective and fervent and meaningful worship, praise, adoration, confession, intercession--and yes, petition too--until God becomes to you in your experience all that the Bible says he is in reality: your heavenly Father.
For further teaching on the theology and practice of prayer, see my book The Disciple's Prayer. To order, click on "Publications" on the home page.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams