Prayer in and of itself is a fascinating phenomena.... Since every world religion has prayer as a core tenant, most of the world’s 7 billion inhabitants pray. It’s interesting, but almost all religions have some type of ritual that accompanies prayer:
And while most everyone engages in some kind of prayer life, have you ever noticed that the majority of people struggle to actually define what it is they’re doing, who they’re praying to, or what exactly prayer seeks to accomplish?
While Wiki defines prayer as “communication directed towards a deity, spirit, deceased person, or lofty idea, for the purpose of worshipping, requesting guidance, requesting assistance, confessing sins, or to express one's thoughts and emotions.” The most common definition yields more confusion than anything else.
Merriam-Webster defines prayer as “a petition to God.”
Google defines prayer as “an earnest hope or wish.”
The Oxford Dictionary defines prayer as “a solemn request for help.”
While it is true Scripture encourages people to bring their requests to God, the act of relegating prayer as only being the mechanism by which a person petitions God has tragically fostered more skepticism in God than it has yielded faith in His existence!
Let me give you two examples as to how this common misconception concerning prayer has produced confusion and skepticism within our society: Comedian George Carlin made this interesting observation in one of his stand-ups, “Suppose your prayers aren't answered. What do you say? "Well, it's God's will." "Thy Will Be Done." Fine, but if it's God's will, and He's going to do what He wants anyway, why bother praying in the first place? Seems like a big waste of time to me! Couldn't you just skip the praying part and go right to His Will? It's all very confusing.”
In his book “Mortality” atheist Christopher Hitches points out the silliness of human beings petitioning a divine God through the mechanism of prayer. He writes, “The man who prays is the one who thinks that god has arranged matters all wrong, but who also thinks that he can instruct god in how to put them right.”
I think the confusion people have can be summed up with a simple theorem:
(A). God doesn’t exist.... and thus prayer is worthless. (Christopher Hitches)
(B). God exists but doesn’t care.... and thus prayer is pointless. (George Carlin)
(C). Prayer is more than making requests.... and thus I should change the way I pray.
Acts 4:23-24, “And being let go, they went to their own companions and reported all that the chief priests and elders had said to them. So when they heard that, they raised their voice to God with one accord and said: “Lord, You are God, who made heaven and earth and the sea, and all that is in them....”
Consider the motivation behind their prayer: “When they heard that...” It would appear from the context provided by our author Luke the main motivator for this group to collectively “raise their voice to God with one accord” was the report that had been given to them by Peter and John of “all that the chief priests had said to them.”
Recap Events: One can imagine the threat “they speak to no man in Jesus name” or face certain punishment contributed to this Spirit-led prayer meeting. This group of believers might have been young in their faith, but they were not stupid. They knew whatever anonymity they might have previously enjoyed had just been lost by stirring up the hornets nest! They knew they had just pitted themselves against some of the most powerful and politically connected men in Israel.
Though they had been commanded “not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus,” Peter and John had refused to capitulate stating they “could not but speak the things they had heard and seen.” Therefore, opposition would be unavoidable! And it is with this heavy reality hanging over their heads that they decide to pray!
Before we look at the substance of their prayer, I think it’s important we first establish a complete Biblical picture as to what Scripture says concerning prayer....
1. Prayer is the mechanism by which human beings “communicate to God.”
According to Scripture, in addition to being the apparatus by which we make known our requests to God (Philippians 4:6), it is through prayer that a person....
According to Scripture, there are only 3 requirements essential for prayer:
Contrary to Catholic doctrine it should be pointed out that the Bible only encourages us to pray to God the Father and never to another human being! As Christians we pray in the name of Jesus because Scripture tells us it is through Him alone that we have access to the Father. (As we’ll see the church prayed, not to Jesus, but to the Father.)
Because this communication to God is spiritual in nature, the Bible presents no mandated physical posturing or uniform for prayer. You will find examples of people.....
Note: Scripture never says we’re to pray with our eyes closed! And contrary to Southern tradition the Jews viewed wearing a hat to be a sign of respect.
2. Aside from prayer being the way humanity “communicates to God,” prayer is important because it’s one of the principle ways humanity “communes with God.”
In 1 Thessalonians 5:17 the Apostle Paul exhorts believers to “pray without ceasing.” It would seem prayer (as the way we communicate with God) was not to be a scheduled activity, but instead a continuous lifestyle. An attitude more than an action! A mechanism by which we explore a relationship and interact with our heavenly Father. Martyn Lloyd-Jones described prayer as “the highest activity of the human soul.”
You see prayer (as a lifestyle) was designed to enable the follower of God to stay in a perpetual state of community with God. Is it any wonder Jesus spent more time in prayer than any other person in Scripture?
This might be a good time to explain what prayer is not!
Prayer is not the mechanism by which God receives status updates on what’s happening in your life! As if the all-seeing God of the universe needs you to keep Him posted on what’s going on. As if “amen” was some kind of cosmic hashtag where the more people we got “lifting up a request” the more likely it was that need would start trending in the Twitter feed of heaven and therefore grab God’s attention.
Note: Prayer doesn’t give you a pass to gossip to God about others!
Prayer is not the mechanism by which you seek to influence God’s plan for your life! As if the all-wise God of the universe who “knew you before the foundations of the world” doesn’t know what’s best for your life. Sadly, for many people prayer is nothing more than a well crafted business proposal designed to convince God to buy into your plan!
C.S. Lewis made this powerful observation, “In Gethsemane the holiest of all petitioners prayed three times that a certain cup might pass from Him. It did not.”
Friends, as Jesus Himself exhorted and practiced, prayer should focus on seeing God’s will done on earth, not my will accomplished in heaven!
Mother Teresa said, “Prayer is not asking. Prayer is putting oneself in the hands of God, at His disposition, to listen to His voice in the depth of our hearts.”
If you pray to a God you see as being nothing more than a genie whose job it is to make your every wish come true, you are due for a crisis of faith because....
That God does not exist! The God of the Bible is not a “genie you can rub the right way.” He’s completely sovereign and serves at the will of no other!
And that’s not how the God of the Bible rolls! Please realize.... God is more interested in providing you the things you really need as opposed to giving you the things you really want. The sad irony is that small, finite people (yea you and I) sometimes believe we know what’s better over the God who knows best!
Looking back over my 30 years I have made some requests of God convinced I knew what would be best for my life; and yet, today, in retrospect, I find myself more grateful for the requests He didn’t grant than the ones He did!
That said.... If you pray seeing this communication to God and this communion with God as a way you can align your heart with His - your will with His - your desires with His - your plans to His.... Then you’re in for the most radicle experience of your life!
R.C. Sproul said, “Prayer does change things, all kinds of things. But the most important thing it changes is us. As we engage in this communion with God more deeply and come to know the One with whom we are speaking more intimately, that growing knowledge of God reveals to us all the more brilliantly who we are and our need to change in conformity to Him. Prayer changes us profoundly.”
Søren Kierkegaard correctly stated that “the function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.”
Not to mention.... This doesn’t even begin to factor in the purifying effect the lifestyle of prayer has on the spiritual life of the believer! John Bunyan aptly stated, “Prayer will make a man cease from sin, or sin will entice a man to cease from prayer.”
With all this in mind let’s get back to how their prayer began.... “Lord, You are God, who made heaven and earth and the sea, and all that is in them....”
The word we translate in the New Testament as “Lord” is actually two similar Greek masculine nouns that both mean “master,” but in two radically different ways.
The majority of the time the word we read in the New Testament as “Lord” is actually the Greek noun “kyrios.” This title was common in the Greek language and referenced the way in which a wife/child would refer to a husband/father.
“Kyrios” (used most often for God and Jesus) was a title of honor and endearment, because, while acknowledging God’s authority, it emphasized the benevolence He showed towards those under His authority.
In this instance, however, we find the word “Lord” to actually be a different Greek noun altogether. “Despotês” was used less frequently in the Greek language because it referenced the way in which a slave would refer to his master.
“Despotês” (used only 6 times in describing God the Father and never for Jesus) was a title of reverence because it recognized that by the very nature of God’s role as Master there were intrinsically no limitations or restraints in how He might choose to exercise that power towards those under His authority.
Think of the difference this way.... In referring to God as “Kyrios - Lord” you’re processing your interactions with Him through the prism of a relationship with God. However, in referring to God as “Despotês - Dictator” you’re now processing your interactions with Him through the prism of the raw power He has over you!
One Greek scholar commented that “despotês did no doubt express on the lips of the faithful who used it, their sense of God’s absolute disposal of His creatures, of His autocratic power more strongly than kyrios would have done. Using the title despotês implied a more entire prostration of self before the might and majesty of God than kyrios would have done.”
Though it’s significant this is how they begin their prayer, they continue by proclaiming, “You are God” which acknowledged their “Despotês” was “theos” or the “one true God.”
“Who made the heavens.... earth.... sea, and all that is in them” - They literally open their prayer by saying, “We recognize the majestic power You, as our Dictator and God, have over us for it was by this same awesome power You created the sky, the earth, the sea, and all the animals that live in them.”
It’s interesting their prayer affirms one of the most basic, fundamental Biblical truths concerning God.... “In the beginning God created!” Note: They were reminding themselves of this truth not because they had somehow forgotten it, but that in proportion to this mounting opposition they needed to remember how big and powerful the God they served really was!
This is why we’re instructed to begin our prayers with “Our Father who art in heaven! Hallowed be thy name.” Even Jesus modeled this when He prayed in Matthew 11:25, “I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and have revealed them to babes.”
You see reminding myself who God really is (my Despotês and Creator) helps me contextualize what God actually does, and in turn these two realities help me place my present circumstances, situation, concerns, requests, fears into a proper perspective.
Though I might see no solution to my pressing problem, I have the powerful Creator on my side who spoke all things into existence from nothing!
Though I might be facing the fiercest storm, I have the powerful Creator on my side who by this same Word holds together all things that were made!
Though I might not know what the future holds, I have the powerful Creator on my side who transcends time and space and knows my beginning from my end!
Acts 4:25-26, “Who by the mouth of Your servant David have said: ‘Why did the nations rage, and the people plot vain things? The kings of the earth took their stand, and the rulers were gathered together against the Lord and against His Christ.”
Notice the progression of their prayer.... They go from reminding themselves who God is to now focusing on what God has said! The phrase we find here “Who by the mouth of Your servant David have said” can be literally translated, “Using the mouth of Your servant David You have said....” Then they quote directly from Psalms 2:1-2.
I think these believers took great solace in this passage for it clearly affirms this opposition to Jesus and His followers was something God had long predicted. Which meant the persecution they were now facing was not an indicator things were spiraling out of His control, but that things were actually working according to His plan!
If you read the rest of Psalms 2 you will also see why else they were encouraged.... The rest of the chapter directly speaks of the judgment God would reign down on those that would persecute Jesus and His followers!
Psalms 2:4-5, “He who sits in the heavens shall laugh; the Lord shall hold them in derision. Then He shall speak to them in His wrath, and distress them in His deep displeasure.”
Note: Keeping your eyes on the person and Word of God is critical to enduring the tough spots of life because it helps keep your emotions grounded to reality!
I also find it interesting that in quoting from Psalms 2 these early Christians translated the Hebrew word “LORD” which was “Yahweh - the unspoken name of God” into the Greek using “kyrios” and not “despotês.”
Though they had a healthy reverence and respect for God, these believers also recognized that God was tender, loving, and merciful. They understood that as His children (the God the Jews only feared) was approachable and knowable.
Note: Prayer should always balance our approachability to God with a healthy reverence of God! So often I fear we’re sometimes a little cavalier in the way we pray!
Acts 4:27-28, “For truly against Your holy Servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were gathered together to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose determined before to be done.”
For these believers two realities quickly came into focus:
1. If Jesus was persecuted, why should they expect anything different?
2. If everything that had taken place was under God’s control, then why should they see their current state of affairs any differently?
Acts 4:29-30, “Now, Lord, look on their threats, and grant to Your servants that with all boldness they may speak Your word, by stretching out Your hand to heal, and that signs and wonders may be done through the name of Your holy Servant Jesus.”
Check out how their prayer worked.... After taking time to consider who God was and what He had to say.... They were able to look at the big picture and gain perspective on their situation.... So that when they finally got around to their petition, they ask that God would “grant Your servants boldness that we may speak Your Word.”
You see because they prayed correctly and in the process of doing so were able to align their hearts to God’s, when they finally got around to a petition these early believers didn’t ask that God grant them escape from opposition, instead they asked that God might grant them the strength to stand in boldness in the face of opposition!
Instead of asking God to remove the storm brewing on the horizon, this story should encourage you to pray that God might instead grant you the strength to endure!
Acts 4:31, “And when they had prayed, the place where they were assembled together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and they spoke the word of God with boldness.”
Wow! As we’re told in James 5, “The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” Coming before God in prayer, in the manner Jesus had instructed, had successfully tuned their hearts to the will of God so that they now knew exactly what to ask for! Because they asked for “boldness,” what did God do? He granted their request!
“They were all filled with the Holy Spirit” and it was this fresh filling that would provide them the strength to stand and the power to boldly speak!
So you feel as though your prayers aren’t being answered? Some might say it’s proof that God doesn’t exist - others that God doesn’t care - but could it be that the requests that dominate your prayers aren’t being answer because you’re not asking for the right thing?
If you want to see your “prayers avail much” may I encourage you to first re-think why it is you’re praying in the first place. God wants to be your heavenly Father, not your heavenly genie! He desires to have children who are more interested in a relationship with Him than what they might be able to get out of Him!
Yes, prayer might be the mechanism by which we communicate to God, but it is not the mechanism by which we make demands or assimilate information!
Prayer as “the highest activity of the human soul” is the mechanism by which we commune with the Living God. It’s the way we surrender our will to His - the mechanism by which we seek to gain a heavenly perspective on our earthly circumstance!
Which is why you should re-think the way in which you pray. When you spend more time in prayer worshipping God for who He is and contemplating the truth of His Word.... When you allow this communion with Him to help set your present situations into a heavenly context.... Then and only then will you actually know what to ask for and begin to see God work in a way you’ve never seen before!
Matthew 7:7-11, "Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.... If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!”
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