Why Pray?

Original Date: 
Sunday, January 11, 2015

Psalm 65:2 and others Prayer Questions: Why Pray?

The God Who Hears
On the Plains of San Agustin, between the towns of Magdalena and Datil, New Mexico is a very large array of satellite receivers. Consisting of 27 different satellite disks on thirty-eight miles of railway, the disks can be positioned to function as a single telescope the size of Washington, D.C. You’ve probably seen images of it in the movies or on television, it’s become rather iconic. Airplane pilots call it “the mushroom patch.” Its official name, quite imaginatively, is: the Very Large Array.

The point of the Very Large Array is to receive radio signals from space which can be converted into optical images of “what’s out there.” According to Wikipedia: “Astronomers using the VLA have made key observations of black holes and protoplanetary disks around young stars, discovered magnetic filaments and traced complex gas motions at the Milky Way's center, probed the Universe's cosmological parameters, and provided new knowledge about the physical mechanisms that produce radio emission.”

In other words, if E.T. phones home, and home dials him back, he would probably want to go to the Very Large Array to take the call. I read that the total energy of all radio waves ever recorded by the Very Large Array barely equal the force of a single snowflake hitting the ground, but this satellite field can pick them up. That’s why it is a Very Large Array.

This image—of all those satellite receivers sensitive to even the slightest radio wave—occurs to me as I think about God listening to all our prayers. Author Donald Whitney says: God “has a Very Large Ear continuously open to us. He hears every prayer of His children, even when our prayers are weaker than a snowflake.” (Donald Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, p. 61)

One of the more memorable scenes in Bruce Almighty—the movie where God (played by Morgan Freeman) gives Bruce (Jim Carrey) the opportunity to be God for a time—occurs shortly after Bruce gets his powers. One of the first things he notices is that there are all these voices in his head constantly making prayer requests. He doesn’t know how to handle the constant noise, so he imagines a filing system to store all the prayers. It works, but there are so many filing cabinets he can’t move around his house. So he switches to post-it notes, only to have every square inch of his house (including his dog) plastered with a blizzard of post-its. So he switches to email (hosted by Yahweh), only to find he has millions upon millions of messages. Not knowing how to handle it all, he decides to automate the system to say “yes” to every request, only to find later in the movie that this has disastrous consequences.

But I like the scene because it is seeking to portray something the Bible affirms as true: God hears our prayers. All of them. He has a Very Large Ear. Here’s what it says in Psalm 65:2:

2O you who hear prayer, to you all men will come.

Our God hears prayer. Our God is the kind of God who listens.

For those of us who have spent time in church, this might not seem like news. We’ve heard that we’re supposed to pray. We’ve heard that God is interested in what we have to say. You know:
O what peace we often forfeit
O what needless pain we bear,
All because we do not carry
Everything to God in prayer!

But think about it for a little bit…

Our theology says that God has always existed. That there has never been a point in time when God wasn’t there. Plus, we believe that God is everywhere. That He is omnipresent. And, we believe that He is omniscient. That He knows everything. He’s never, ever caught by surprise.

So when He comes out in scripture and says that He hears us—that is, that He is actually interested in what we have to say—that’s really a rather remarkable thing. The God of the universe wants us to pray. He wants us to talk to Him. He wants us to make requests and confess our faults and say thank you and so on. Even if He already knows it all anyway, He’s still interested in our prayers.

Our God is a God who hears.

So that begs the question: why? Why does God listen to us? Why is God interested in our prayers?

And, more to the point: if He already knows everything anyway, why should any of us bother to pray?

That’s the question we’re going to try to answer today. Why pray?

I have at least three Biblical reasons we should pray.

The Bible Says So…
First, Prayer is an Expectation. Prayer is assumed in the Bible. It’s also commanded.

Jesus assumes that we will pray. In the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus shows that He expects us to pray. Matthew 6:5:

“And when you pray…”

Then, one verse later:

“But when you pray…”

And then, again:

“And when you pray…”

I don’t want to say that Jesus takes it for granted that we will pray, but it certainly sounds like something He expects us to do. He tells us how to pray because He presupposes that we will. Two verses later, He introduces the Lord’s Prayer by saying:

“This, then, is how you should pray:...”

In addition, Jesus teaches in Luke 11:9:

9"So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”

And Luke introduces the parable of the persistent widow like this:

1Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.

Donald Whitney writes:

Suppose Jesus appeared to you personally, much as He did to the Apostle John on the Isle of Patmos in Revelation 1, and said that He expected you to pray. Wouldn’t you become more faithful in prayer, knowing specifically that Jesus expected that of you? Well, the words of Jesus [just] quoted…are as much His will for you as if He spoke your name and said them to your face. (p. 63)

Moreover, the Bible not only assumes that we will pray, it also commands it. Colossians 4:2:

2Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.

The word “devote” is an imperative there. That means we are being told to do it. It’s not given as a choice.

To be devoted to something is to be committed to it. Everybody is devoted to something, probably several things. I’m devoted to my wife. I’m devoted to UNI basketball. I’m devoted to this church. (One of those things is not like the others…) If you are devoted to something, that means you make it a priority. It means you will sacrifice for it. It means you give time for it.

God expects Christians to be devoted to prayer.

Or, one more passage on this, one we looked at a couple of weeks ago, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18:

16Be joyful always; 17pray continually; 18give thanks in all circumstances, for
this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus.

A couple of weeks ago we talked about how it is possible to be joyful always and give thanks in all circumstances. It doesn’t mean we are thankful for every bad thing that happens to us, or that we rejoice because of our pain; but because we know Jesus and what He has done for us and what He promises to do for us we can be grateful even in the midst of the toughest circumstances.

Now we can consider what it means to “pray continually.” This doesn’t mean that we do nothing but pray, “but it does mean that if talking with and thinking of God can’t be in the forefront of your mind, it should always be peeking over and ready to take the place of what you are concentrating on.” (Whitney, p. 64)

This isn’t talking about prayer as a specific activity so much (which is what Jesus was talking about when He taught us to pray) as it is getting at maintaining a constant relationship with God. This is like always having a channel of communication with God open. Not so much having God on speed dial, but more like you call Him up first thing in the morning and then never really hang up throughout your day.

Whitney again: “Praying without ceasing means you never really stop conversing with God; you simply have frequent interruptions.” (p. 64)

And in this verse, like the last one, “pray continually” is an imperative. That means it is a command. It’s not optional. Too little time or too many responsibilities or not knowing what to say or not really feeling comfortable praying or not having any talent for it or not feeling very spiritual or whatever are not excuses that exempt us from this command. If you are a Christian, The Bible expects you to pray.

Martin Luther, the great reformer, said:

As it is the business of tailors to make clothes and of cobblers to mend shoes, so it is the business of Christians to pray. (quoted by Whitney, p. 64)

So the simplest and most straightforward answer to the question: why pray? Is, “because the Bible tells us to.” That should be reason enough. But there’s more:

As Children
Prayer is an Invitation. God commands us to pray because it is a way to get closer to Him.

I mentioned this last week, and need to reemphasize it this week: Prayer is not primarily about getting more things from God, it is about getting more of God Himself. And so, we shouldn’t see prayer only as a divine summons, but also as a royal invitation. Hebrews 4:16 says:

16Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

The thing about being a Christian is that we have been granted access to God. We can approach Him with confidence.

Think of what it takes to get access to the President of the United States. Several of you have probably shaken hands with presidential candidates. Living here in Iowa means we see plenty of them, and they often come through the fair or make stump speeches at different venues around town. So, some of you have probably shaken hands with a man that has gone on to become President. That’s not too unusual.

But think about how much harder it is to get access to someone once they become President. Suddenly there are all these layers of protection, Secret Service, secretaries and so on. You don’t just walk into the Oval Office and sit down to shoot the breeze.

But if you are the President’s child—if you are Malea or Sasha—then you have the kind of access average citizens don’t have. If you are the President’s child, then you have a direct line—you know Dad’s private cell phone number—and chances are good he’s going to take your call.

Well, the Bible says that when we become Christians we become children of God. And that means we can approach the throne of grace with confidence. It means God is attentive to us and eager to take our calls. He wants to pour out His mercy and grace upon us.

One of the most influential books I’ve read—a book that is almost as old as I am but one which continues to be relevant today—is Knowing God by J.I. Packer. It’s a book of theology. One that explores the Biblical revelation about the attributes of God. It’s the kind of book that’s good for people who like to grow their intellectual knowledge about God. But Packer says:

Knowing God is a matter of personal dealing…Knowing God is more than knowing about him; it is a matter of dealing with him as he opens up to you, and being dealt with by him…To get to know another person, you have to commit yourself to his company and interests, and be ready to identify yourself with his concerns…We must not lose sight of the fact that knowing God is an emotional relationship, as well as an intellectual and volitional one. (p. 34-35)

In other words, it’s not enough to know things about God. It’s not enough to be able to describe what He is like or to quote from His Word. To really say that you know God means to have a relationship with Him. To spend time with Him. Prayer is His invitation to you to build that relationship.

James 4:8 says:

8Come near to God and he will come near to you.

This is an incredible promise. It’s not that our prayers physically change God’s location. Like I said at the beginning of the message, one of the things we believe to be true about God is that He is omnipresent. There is nowhere in all of creation where you can go to escape His presence. So your prayers are not going to draw God any nearer, physically.

But what happens as we pray—that is, “draw near to God”—is that we open ourselves up more to Him and He, likewise, opens Himself up to us. He makes us more aware of His presence in our lives.

The opposite is also implied in this verse. If we do not draw near to God, then God is going to seem distant from us. In fact, in context, this verse is in a section of scripture talking about evil desires and wrong motives. When we cherish little sins and bad habits we are actually creating a wedge between us and God. One where our relationship will feel strained and weak. Again, not because God is physically moving away from us, but because we are closing ourselves off from Him.

Prayer is an invitation to us to experience God’s presence in our lives. Prayer is the way that we get more of God in our lives.

Wartime Footing
Third, Prayer is an Opportunity. The Bible calls us to pray because God loves to work through our prayers.

It goes without saying that God can accomplish whatever He wants in this world with or without our prayers. And yet, God loves to work in response to our prayers so that when things happen, we have no doubt that it is God at work. Prayer, then, is an opportunity to ask God to put His power to work.

I almost finished that sentence with “on our behalf.” As in: “Prayer is an opportunity to ask God to put His power to work on our behalf.” But that wouldn’t be entirely accurate. Prayer is not a magic formula for getting whatever we want. It’s not like rubbing a bottle and getting a genie that will grant you three wishes. John Piper has written:

Prayer is a walkie-talkie for warfare, not a domestic intercom for increasing our conveniences.

The point is that God wants us to recognize the spiritual battle we are engaged in and pray our prayers accordingly. If you are a follower of Christ, you are engaged in a war. And it can be incredibly difficult at times. But God is the great general who has air cover available if we will call it in.

The point is: no prayer, no power. If we are not praying, then God’s power is not available for helping us to follow him.

In Mark 9 one of my favorite stories about Jesus is told. Jesus has been on the Mount of Transfiguration with three of His followers. When He returns to the rest of the disciples He finds them surrounded by a crowd and engaged in an argument. It seems that while Jesus was away a man came with his demon-possessed son and asked the disciples to drive out the evil spirit. This they tried to do, but without any success.

So now the man pleads with Jesus: “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” Jesus’ response is: “If you can? Everything is possible for him who believes.” I love the story because of what the father says next: “I do believe, help me overcome my unbelief.” I love the story as an example of how to pray in the midst of doubt.

But I tell the story now for what happens after Jesus heals the boy and the crowds disperse. The disciples who had tried so valiantly to drive the spirit away come to Jesus and ask: “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” Jesus’ answer is found in Mark 9:29:

29He replied, “This kind can come out only by prayer.”

The disciples were not prayed up, and thus they didn’t have power. They were neglecting their prayer lives and thus they were weak in the face of evil.

But if they had lived in prayer, if—like Jesus—they had been consistent and persistent in their relationship with God; then the implication is that they would have been able to cast the demon out. Prayer is how we gain access to the power of God. Prayer is how we go on offense, taking the fight to Satan and invading and plundering the strongholds of evil in the world.

The same goes for defense. Prayer is how we gain God’s power to resist temptation. Later in the book of Mark, when Jesus is praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, this is what He tells His tired disciples:

38Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.” (Mark 14:37)

If we are not vigilant in prayer we are vulnerable to Satan’s attacks. Prayer is how we gain access to God’s power. Our defense and our offense as Christians is an active, persistent, earnest, believing prayer life.

The 4:08 Challenge
So, why pray? Because we are expected to. Because it is an invitation to draw closer to God. And because it is an opportunity to have His power at work in us.

God’s will. God’s presence. And God’s power.

Those are three pretty powerful incentives for prayer.

As I think about my own life, I know I could use more of God’s power and more of His presence. And I want to be obedient to Him.

And, more than that, as your pastor, I want these things for our church. God’s will. God’s power. And God’s presence.

So here’s what we’re going to do. About seven years ago I did a series on prayer and issued something I called the 4:08 Challenge. It went pretty well, and it seems appropriate to run it back during this series. It’s something practical that we can all do to help us grow in our prayer lives.

So I want to ask you all to get your cell phones out. I want you to get out your cell phones and find the alarm app. And then I want you to set your alarms to go off at 4:08 every day. Probably, 4:08 in the afternoon. But if you really want to make this a challenge, set it for 4:08 in the morning too. I picked 4:08 because of the verse in James, James 4:8, that says: “Come near to God and he will come near to you.”

And we’re all going to set our alarms to go off at 4:08 for the next six weeks, as long as we’re doing this prayer series. If you don’t have a cell phone, you can set your watch alarm or an alarm at home. Or you can just agree to remember to do this at 4:08 each day.

And when your alarm goes off, what I’m asking you to do is pray. It can be for 30 seconds or 3 minutes or for 10 minutes or whatever. But I’m asking us all to pray at 4:08 for the next six weeks.

And what I’m asking you to pray is very simple. Ask God to show His power in your life. And ask Him to be present in your life. Those two, simple but vital requests. And, if you would, pray the same thing for Hope Church. That God’s power would be at work among us, and that He would be present with us.

If you already have a good prayer practice, keep going. But do this in addition to what you are already doing. And, if you haven’t been in touch with God for awhile, then maybe this will be a good place to start.

Like I said, you don’t have to pray long. You might be driving—keep your eyes open—or you might be with somebody—maybe you’ll get an opportunity to explain what our church is doing. Or, maybe, you’ll have the time to pray a little longer—if you have God on the line, maybe you’d like to talk to Him about some other things. But at the very least, please pray for God’s power and presence in your life and in your church for the next six weeks. And let’s see what happens.

We have a God who hears. A God with a Very Large Ear who has commanded us to pray. A God who invites us to talk to Him because He wants to be present with us. A God who gives us the opportunity to talk to Him so that His power can flow through us. So let’s talk to Him.