Five Keys to Spiritual Growth: Prayer | Various Passages
Phil Krause | December 29, 2019
God, you are our God, and we want to seek you this morning right now and thank you for your word. We ask that you would be glorified even as I speak, that it would not be me speaking but that you, through your Spirit and through your word, would speak to each of us. We commit this time to you, in Jesus’ name, Amen.
When I was an elementary student, I did a science project that had to do with studying the effects of light on plants. Maybe you did something like this. It took several weeks, of course, to do, but I had three different containers and I planted a bean plant in each container. They all had the same kind of soil, they all had the same amount of water, so those variables were supposed to be about the same. Then one of them was put out in the full sun; one of them was put in a room in a house, on a table across the room from the window, so it didn’t get as much light; and one of them I put in a box, a cardboard box, and it just had a little hole, about one inch in diameter, cut up in the top of it. That was the only source of light that it got.
Well, you can imagine what happened, right? I kind of knew what was going to happen, and sure enough, it was true. They all sprouted, they all got larger, but of course, only one of those was healthy and able to bear fruit, able to produce beans, when all was said and done.
It’s the same with us spiritual speaking. It’s no different with spiritual growth. If we’re going to be spiritually healthy, if we’re going to produce spiritual fruit, we need to develop the kinds of habits that will position us to better receive the nourishment that we need.
Today we’re starting a short series, five keys to spiritual growth. I want to qualify this by saying when we talk about spiritual disciplines, this is not keys to impressing God or keys to earning God’s favor. This is not a formula that when we combine all the right ingredients in the right proportions or something you’re going to get this guaranteed result. You can pray faithfully, you can read your Bible every day, and still be a complete Pharisee.
So it’s about motives, it’s about relationships, and these are not so much boxes to check off on our to-do list as much as ways to get to know God better, to get closer to him.
Don Whitney defines spiritual disciplines as “those practices found in Scripture that promote spiritual growth among believers in the gospel of Jesus Christ; they’re habits of devotion, habits of experiential Christianity that had been practiced by God’s people since biblical times.”
So, today, and for the next four weeks, we’re going to be taking a closer look at some of those habits, those disciplines we can develop to better position ourselves for spiritual growth. Today we’re talking about prayer.
Now, I have to say, I’m preaching to myself on this. I’ve not at all arrived in the area of prayer. So I need these reminders, we all need to be reminded of these really basic truths from God’s word about prayer.
We’re going to spend about half of our time just looking at the who, what, when, where, why, how of prayer; and then toward the end of time we’ll have a little more extended time of prayer corporately and individually, putting into practice what we’ve actually heard this morning.
So fasten your seatbelts. We’re going to look at various passages, but if you want to be turning somewhere, I would say go to 1 Timothy 2, because we will camp out there in a bit.
In answer to the question, “What is prayer?” we see, first of all, that prayer is not a show. Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6), “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.”
Nor is prayer meaningless repetition. Matthew 6 again, just a few verses later, “When you pray,” Jesus said, “do not heap up empty phrases, as the Gentiles do, for they think they will be heard for their many words.” So, I ask myself right off the bat, “What are my motives?” Why do I pray?
If that’s what prayer is not, then what is prayer? Well, what prayer is, simply put, is speaking to God. In the context of spiritual disciplines it would be the habit of talking to God on a regular basis.
The Puritan John Bunyan gave a more fleshed-out definition of prayer. He said that prayer is “a sincere, sensible, affectionate pouring out of the heart or soul to God through Christ in the strength and assistance of the Holy Spirit, for such things as God has promised,” or according to his word, “for the good of the church, with submission in faith to the will of God.” Then, in true Puritan form, he broke that definition down into its seven components and explained each one.
But, back to that simple definition of prayer, just talking to God, speaking to God. Over and over in the Scriptures God invites us to pray to him.
Jeremiah 33, “Call to me,” he says, “and I will answer you.”
1 Thessalonians 5, “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing.”
Philippians 4, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
Now, there’s a beautiful implication in this. It seems obvious, but God hears! God cares! He’s not far-off and aloof. Let the beauty of that just sink in for a minute. God cares. We can be like children crawling into the lap of our heavenly Father, our tender, loving, heavenly Father, asking him for help.
Now let’s look at the who of prayer. Who prays? Well, only those who have needs, and only those who want to get to know God better. In other words, only human beings. We all do. We all pray. Everybody should pray. It’s natural for the child of God to pray.
You’ve probably heard it said before; prayer is often compared to breathing. Jonathan Edwards said it, C.S. Lewis said it. I saw a meme on Facebook the other day that was attributed to Spurgeon. It said, “When asked, ‘What is more important, praying or reading the Bible?’ I asked, “What is more important, breathing in or breathing out?’”
Who is it that prays? Well, in his days on earth, Jesus prayed. John 17 records one of his lengthier prayers. It’s often called his high priestly prayer. Incidentally, in that prayer Jesus—did you know this?—he prayed for you and me. In John 17:20 he said, “I do not ask for these [talking about the disciples that were there in the room with him] only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word.” Isn’t that incredible? Jesus prayed for you and me on that very night he was betrayed!
Later that same evening, in the garden of Gethsemane, he had a famous prayer, right? He was saying, “Lord, let this cup pass from me.” He didn’t want to die. He didn’t want to go to the cross if at all possible. “If it is possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless,” what? “Not my will, but your will be done.”
Has it ever occurred to you that the very fact that we can come to God in prayer hinges on the fact that God the Father did not grant that request to his Son? Jesus prayed, “Lord, could I please not have to go to the cross,” and God answered, “No.” That’s a huge comfort to us, because sometimes God does answer no, in the negative, to us, doesn’t he? So even his own Son, but what a blessing that he did, because if it weren’t for the cross we would not be able to be heard by God at all.
So Jesus prayed also; also, Jesus currently intercedes for us. In Romans 8 we see that Jesus Christ “is the one who died; more than that, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.” So Jesus prayed while he was on earth, Jesus is currently praying, and also the Bible tells us the Holy Spirit prays for us. In that same chapter, Romans 8, “The Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”
Do you ever find yourself unable to exactly put into words what it is you want or need, or, “I don’t know how to pray, Lord! I don’t know what the right way to pray is!”? Well, there’s comfort in knowing the Holy Spirit is actually interpreting our prayers for us to the Father.
Now, to whom do we pray? Well, we pray to God the Father, in the name of the Son, through the power of the Spirit.
One passage that brings those three persons of the Trinity together all in one place, talking about prayer, is Ephesians 5. Just after the apostle Paul has said, “Be filled with the Spirit,” he says that one evidece of that is you’re going to be “giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Next, for whom do we pray? The answer to that is for all people. Here’s where we will look at 1 Timothy 2.
When the apostle Paul wrote this letter to his young protege, Timothy, he wanted to encourage Timothy and give him some instructions about how to conduct corporate worship. So, after warning Timothy in chapter 1 about false teachers, he gave him some specific instructions, and at the top of Paul’s list are some things about prayer.
He says this in 1 Timothy 2:1. “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made” for whom? “...for all people.” Let me just pause for a minute and note a couple things about this verse. We’ll continue on in just a second.
Note the urgency. Paul says, “I urge. I exhort.” He says, “I don’t want it to slip past. It’s important. Don’t let it slip by.” It’s urgent.
Secondly, note that there are different kinds of prayer. Paul here uses four different words to describe different kinds of prayer; this is not an exhaustive list, of course, but it’s four of many. The English Standard Version translates them as “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings.”
Supplication would be the concept of making a request. It’s an expression of a need, an entreaty. One commentator explains it as “a humble appeal to somebody who has the power to grant a request.”
Then the word “prayers” is just a general term for prayers directed toward deity, and that would carry with it this idea of reverence and worship in our praying.
“Intercessions” would be similar to petitions or supplications, but on behalf of someone else. Actually, the specific Greek word here in this verse is only used in the New Testament twice: once here and once in 1 Timothy 4. It actually could be translated as approaching God with childlike confidence, or drawing near to converse familiarly with him. So that’s intercessions.
Then fourthly, thanksgivings would be the fact that our requests need to be accompanied by a heart of gratitude, a heart that recognizes, “Lord, whatever you decide to give me, I know I deserve far worse, so thank you. Thank you. In the midst of whatever it is I’m going through, thank you.”
Let’s move on. For whom do we pray? First of all, for all people, but secondly, Paul goes on in this passage to say this (verse 2), “...for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior.”
Now, you and I know there are people in political office now that we might have trouble praying for. You might say, “How can I pray for someone I didn’t even want to get into office, and now they’re there, and now I feel like I’m stuck with this person? How do I pray for someone like that?”
Well, keep in mind, Paul was writing this to Timothy probably in the days of Caesar Nero. Nero was not a nice guy. He was the one who would light Christians on fire to light his garden with, you know, torch them. He was an insecure, lunatic, megalomaniac; he made life truly miserable for Christians. Here Paul is saying, “Pray for the king.” Pray for him.
We don’t have a king or a Caesar in this country. We have plenty of people in high positions over us. We have our local municipalities; our mayors, our city council, the federal government, the state government. We need to pray for them all.
So again, I ask myself, “When’s the last time I prayed for the mayor of Niles, Nick Shelton, or the mayor of South Bend, Pete Buttigieg, or our city council members, or Governor Whittmer, or Governor Holcomb, our state representatives, our congressmen, President Trump?” These people are daily making decisions that can hugely impact and affect the course of our everyday lives.
Paul says pray for them, it’s good, it’s pleasing to God; and pray that they will make the kinds of decisions that lead to a more peaceful life for us.
III. When and Where?
Third, when and where should we pray? Well, anytime, anywhere.
Think about this for a minute. What has been your most crazy, desperate situation in which you were praying? I bet it does not compete with Jonah. That guy, he prayed from the belly of a great fish in the bottom of the ocean. He thought he was going to die.
Moses’s sister, Miriam, led a great worship service in the wilderness, on the Arabian side of the Red Sea, praising God for delivering them from Pharaoh’s army. Jesus prayed in the desert, he prayed in the garden. Moses spoke with God in the midst of fire and smoke on Mount Sinai, and later in the tent of meeting. It says about Moses that God spoke to him and he spoke to God as a man speaks with his friend. That’s beautiful intimacy.
But various locations, right? Elijah called down fire from heaven in this epic showdown on Mount Carmel. Daniel prayed from the lions’ den. Now, the Bible doesn’t actually say that Daniel prayed, but—come on, right? You and I know he had to have been praying! Nehemiah, the cupbearer to the king, he prayed a quick prayer standing right there, in front of the king.
You can pray here, at church; you can pray at home, you can pray in your car. You can pray when you’re disciplining your child. In fact, I highly recommend that. You can pray when you’re going for a walk. David prayed in his bed, it says in Psalm 63. King Hezekiah was sick on his death-bed. It says he turned his face to the wall and he prayed, and God answered his prayer, gave him 15 more years to live. Solomon prayed a grand and beautiful prayer publicly at the dedication of the temple, and Jesus encouraged secret prayer, in the privacy of your inner room.
The point is, pray anywhere, anytime.
What about time of day? Well, Jesus prayed, it says, in the morning. Mark 1, “Rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed.” Jesus also prayed in the evening. On the day he fed 5,000 people, after a long, hard day, it says in Matthew 14, “After he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. And when evening came he was there alone.”
In the Old Testament, the Levites, the priests, were to stand every morning, thanking and praising the Lord; and likewise at evening, regularly before the Lord. Daniel, it tells us, prayed three times per day. In that incident right before the lions’ den, they were trying to catch him in doing something illegal, so they had to make a law that made it wrong for him to pray, right?
Daniel 6:10, “When Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he went to his house, where he had windows in his upper chamber open toward Jerusalem. He got down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously.” This was a habit for Daniel; in fact, he was eager to disobey the law in that case.
We’re told to pray constantly. Romans 12:12, in this grocery list of commands, says, “...be constant in prayer…” or some translations say, “Be devoted to prayer.” We’ve already seen 1 Thessalonians 5, “Pray without ceasing,” and then verse 18, “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
Colossians 4:2, “Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it, with thanksgiving.”
You maybe have heard of Brother Lawrence. He was a 17th-century monk who kept up as a habit of his life, he just kept this running conversation going with God all day. No matter what he was doing, working in the kitchen or whatever, he was talking to God all day long. He called it the “practice of the presence of God.”
Number four: why pray? Well, first of all, because it’s commanded. We’ve already seen several of those passages. God wants us to pray.
Secondly, we’re needy and God is able. Of course, that doesn’t mean he’ll always give us what we ask for, but it would be foolish for us not to ask him.
Thirdly, why pray? To avoid or resist temptation. Jesus said to his disciples just moments before he was arrested, in the garden of Gethsemane, “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. For the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
The fourth reason to pray: because God uses our prayers to accomplish his purposes. Listen to this little passage from James 5. “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. If he has committed sins he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.”
Hudson Taylor, the missionary to China in the 19th century, said, “When we work, we work. When we pray, God works.”
Number five: a reason to pray is that it brings glory to God. In Psalm 50:15 God says, “Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you and you shall glorify me.”
I don’t have a slide for this, but number six, another reason to pray is that it’s a weapon in spiritual battle. Ephesians 6:17 talks about taking the “sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God,” and then, “praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication…”
My family I were just driving back from Minnesota for our Christmas break the other day, and we were listening to an audio version of Pilgrim’s Progress. In there, Christian is battling the foul fiend Apollyon, and what does he use as his weapon to finally make Apollyon leave? It’s a weapon called “all prayer.”
Fifth, let’s look at how to pray. Sometimes we need to pray loudly. Psalm 47 says, “Clap your hands, all peoples; shout to God with loud songs of joy.”
Sometimes we pray quietly. Think of Hannah in her desperate prayer. She was crying out to God for a son or daughter, a child. In 1 Samuel 1:12 it says, “As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli [that’s the priest] observed her mouth. Hannah was speaking in her heart. Only her lips moved, and her voice was not heard. Therefore Eli took her to be a drunken woman. Eli said to her, ‘How long will you go on being drunk? Put your wine away from you.’ But Hannah said, ‘No, my lord. I am a woman troubled in spirit. I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for all along I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation.’”
Do you ever feel anxious? Do you ever feel vexed in your spirit? Pray! Be like Hannah! Pour out your heart to the Lord. It doesn’t have to be loud.
“Then Eli answered, ‘Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant your petition that you have made to him.’”
Let’s talk really briefly about posture. The Bible mentions kneeling to pray, standing to pray, even lying face down to pray—Moses did that, it says, for 40 days and 40 nights. He lay on his face before the Lord—and lifting hands in prayer. These are just some of the ways. We don’t really see sitting mentioned in the Bible as a posture for prayer.
In closing, thinking of how to pray, I find this acronym from John Piper extremely helpful. It spells the word FADES. He said that without these pairs, if you will, prayer fades.
First of all, the pair for F is Free and Formed, meaning both unstructured prayer and structured prayer. By forms he explained and said you can pray using the Bible as a guide; that would be a form. You could pray using lists, like lists of people to pray for, lists of needs to pray about. That would be another form.
Another form might be using books, like Operation World. How many of you have ever prayed using Operation World? Can I see a show of hands? Yes. This is a book that has listed in it each country of the world and the different people groups represented there and how many Christians there are in that country, and so on. Excellent tool to say, “Lord…!” You can pick a certain people group and start praying that God would help those people to turn to him. It’s a wonderful thing, Operation World.
Or The Valley of Vision is another book that’s a collection Puritan prayers. Another form that Piper mentioned would be patterns. By this he means praying—you may have heard of this—in concentric circles, where you say, “Lord, I’m reading here in your word and you tell me this; I want to apply that to myself, so, Lord, help that to be true in me.” So you begin with just praying for yourself; then you expand that circle a little bit and you pray for your spouse and your family, or those that are close to you, around you.
Then you might expand that more and pray for your church, your community, your neighborhood, your city, your country. Now, you don’t necessarily pray for every ring, every circle, so to speak, every time, but having that kind of structure, that kind of form, is helpful in prayer.
That’s the first pair, free and formed. Piper says it’s unstructured, with free-flowing needs and thanks and praise; and structured, with helps like the Bible, lists, books, and patterns.
A stands for praying both Alone and Assembled. We need both. We need to pray on our own, alone, like Susannah Wesley. It is said that she would take her apron and put it over her head, and she had a houseful of kids (I think there were 16 of them) in her house, and they knew, “When Mom has her apron over head, that means she’s praying; we’d better be quiet.” You may want to throw an apron over your head or try something else; but the point is she prayed alone.
We can pray assembled, like we are here now, today, assembled like we do in small groups.
D stands for Desperate and Delighted. Piper went on to say this, “Prayer is a place for meeting God with your deepest heartaches and fears, and prayer is a place for meeting God with your highest joys and thanks. The pillow you use for your elbows when you kneel daily before the Lord will be a tear-stained pillow; and yet, because God is prayer-hearing God, you will say with the apostle Paul, ‘I’m sorrowful, yet always rejoicing’ (2 Corinthians 6). Often,” he said, “that joy will overwhelm the burdens of this fallen world, as it should, and make you want to leap for joy. The Father wants to meet you at those times, too. Be devoted to prayer in desperation and delight, in fasting and feasting. Not either/or, but both/and.”
For E, he said, is Explosive and Extended. Piper said, “All I mean here is short and long.” It has to do with the duration. “I would have said short and long, but then the letters would not match and the acronym would not spell anything.” He said, “Explosive is more a vivid word, and that’s exactly what prayers can be from time to time.”
S stands for Spontaneous and Scheduled. This gets back to when we pray. I would note that the habit of spontaneous prayer is going to grow more in the garden of scheduled prayer. In other words, we are less likely to suddenly say, “I have to pray about that,” if we haven’t also been disciplining ourselves to pray on our own.
So, let me pray for us now, and then we’re going to have a time of prayer.
Father, thank you for your word. Help us to be better pray-ers. Thank you for the many examples you’ve given to us in people, people who were not perfect, people who did not have it down pat, but yet they prayed, and you answered. May we learn from them, may we grow in this spiritual discipline, we pray in the name of your precious Son, Jesus, in the strength of the Spirit we pray, Amen.