Description / Transcription
Let’s ask for the help of the Lord one more time. We give thanks, O God, for Your Word and we pray now that You would give us ears to hear what You want to say, a heart to feel what You want us to feel, a mind to understand what You want us to understand, and a will to do whatever You want us to do. We pray for Your help. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Last week our focus was on the Word of God and this week our focus is on prayer. As I said last week, I think it’s good from time to time, especially at the beginning of the year, to be reminded of the basics of the Christian life and there are no two disciplines more fundamental than these disciplines of the Word and prayer.
We’re going to look at one text from Colossians in just a moment that deals with prayer, but unlike most of my sermons, this is going to have something of a topical flavor to it. We are going to look at these couple of verses, but beyond that, what I hope to do, and our time is short this morning, is give you a mini theology of prayer.
I’ll start with this from Martyn Lloyd-Jones. “There is nothing that tells the truth about us as Christian people so much as our prayer life. Everything we do in the Christian life is easier than prayer.” I find those two very challenging and humbling sentences. “There is nothing that tells the truth about Christians so much as their prayer life.”
Do you believe that? Prayer tells the truth about your faith in the power of God. It tells the truth about your relationship with God. Prayer tells the truth about our own sense of inadequacy or our feeling sense of competence before God. Prayer tells the truth about your love, your compassion, your fruitfulness, and your fight. We cannot rise much higher than our prayers.
Robert Murray M’Cheyne famously said, “What a man is on his knees before God, that he is. Nothing more.”
And I might add to it, nothing less.
Prayer tells the truth about us as Christians. Yes, we want to have and must have the right doctrinal truth. That’s exceedingly important. Yes, we must have the right sort of attitude and actions toward one another, but isn’t that humbling to consider, that prayer, almost more than anything, speaks to what we really believe, what we really love and cherish.
And Lloyd-Jones is also right when he says, “Everything we do in the Christian life is easier in prayer.”
So, in case that first sentence has you feeling like “I’m not even sure I am a Christian,” something always good to consider, but remember, this second statement: “Everything we do in the Christian life is easier than prayer.” I can tell you, as your pastor, I agree with that. Reading is easier than praying; it certainly is for me. Leading a Bible study for an hour is much easier than praying for an hour. Writing a sermon, at least for me, is much easier than it is to pray about a sermon on prayer. It’s easier to preach the sermon about prayer than to pray over the sermon that’s about prayer. Exercise is easier than prayer. Giving is easier than prayer. Singing worship songs is easier than prayer. Coming to church and Sunday school and youth group is easier than prayer. Prayer is hard. It’s frustrating, it can be humiliating; maybe that’s why there are so many commands that we ought to not give up in prayer.
There is nothing that tells the truth about us quite like our prayer lives.
I want you to turn your attention, if you’re not there already, to Colossians, chapter 4. Just two verses this morning, verses 12 and 13 of Colossians chapter 4: “Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you, always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God. For I bear him witness that he has worked hard for you and for those in Laodicea and in Hierapolis.”
Here’s what I find amazing about verse 12: Epaphras was a very important guy. If you turn back to chapter 1 in your Bibles you can read in verse 7, it’s speaking of the Gospel and the grace of God and truth, and verse 7 says “just as you learned it” (that is, the grade of God) “from Epaphras our beloved fellow servant. He is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf and has made known to us your love in the Spirit.”
So this man Epaphras is a fellow servant, a faithful minister. They learned about the Gospel through Epaphras. Philippians 1:23, Paul says he is a fellow prisoner with him at that point in his ministry. So think about Epaphras: He’s a Gospel teacher, he’s a servant, he’s been in prison for his faith. This is not sort of an also-ran, “well, here’s kind of a D+ worker in the kingdom, he’s not really good at very much, but he’s got a lot of times on his hands,” the sort of people, you know, you, we would say in the South, we’d start by saying “you know, God bless him,” and then we’d go on to say what we really think about Epaphras. You know, “God bless him, he really, he really tries hard.”
Like one of my cousins once said that the motto over their family crest was “We Mean Well.” [laughter] You know, that sort of “God bless him, Epaphras.”
No, this is a gifted leader/teacher/preacher/evangelist/missionary/trusted companion of the Apostle Paul. In other words, he is a busy, important guy and we read yet in chapter 4 he’s always struggling for the Colossians in prayer.
Not just praying for them here and there, not just tossing up quick “bless you” prayers, but those are fine, but struggling. The Greek word “agonizomenoi.” You can hear, we get our English word from there, “agonize” or “agony.”
Like Colossians 1:29 where Paul says “for this I toil, struggling, agonizing, wrestling with Christ’s energy that He powerfully works within me.”
Elsewhere in the New Testament the verb is translated as “striving” or “fighting” or “competing.” The noun form can refer to a race, a fight, a conflict. And so the NIV puts it, perhaps colloquially but truthfully, “Epaphras is always wrestling, wrestling in prayer for you.” Working hard in prayer.
You see verse 13 in chapter 4. It says he’s wrestling or struggling in prayer, and then verse 13: “I bear him witness that he has worked hard for you, and for those in Laodicea and in Hierapolis.”
And one of the implications here is that prayer is not just a precursor to some great work, prayer is itself a great work. Sometimes we think of it as if we pray, then great stuff might happen, and maybe God would bring His blessing and people would get converted and churches would grow and planted and missions would go out, and that’s all wonderful and we ought to pray for those things. But we think of prayer as just a means to an end when prayer is itself not only a means, but an end. And any of you wondering what you’re doing with your life, or perhaps not having the health or the strength that you once had, thinking, “What can I do to serve Christ? I can’t get out as much anymore. It’s difficult.” You say, “Well, I guess I can pray.”
Noooo, you can pray. And to pray is not just lifting up our hands to do the really important work and I just pray. No. Prayer is the work.
I’m always sobered as a pastor to think of Acts, chapter 6. You remember that they appoint some of these proto deacons to wait on tables because they say “we as the apostles need to devote ourselves to the Word of God in prayer,” and as a pastor I think many times, and you’ve probably heard it said before, that’s why your pastors need to be able to devote themselves to study, and why I as your senior pastor may not be able to do everything that is asked of me or be everywhere that it might want me to be because I need to be devoted to prayer. And you would probably be gracious and understand and say “Well, pastor’s got to work on his sermons, pastor’s gotta preach.”
But I’m sobered and humbled and challenged to think if the Word of God is something that ought to make me too busy to do other things, so is prayer. And it ought to be that you would hear and you would understand, if you talked to one of your pastors and you said “Well, I’m sorry, I just can’t make that meeting tonight” or “I can’t be involved in that right now because I really need to pray.” And you’d probably say “oh, brother, now he’s gotten really spiritual on us here.”
Why is that if we said “no, I have a lot of study and preparation for my sermon to do,” you say “okay, I can kind of get that.” But what if we said “no, I need to really pray over the congregation.”
That’s what they committed themselves to doing. And it’s the work, of course, just for pastors or apostles or elders, but for all of us. This wrestling prayer where you go to the mat for someone. Like Jacob wrestling with the angel saying “I will not let you go until you bless me.” Do you ever pray like that? For your kids? If for anyone, you do for your kids. What about for your husband? What about for your wife? What about for your President? Governor? Your unsaved neighbors? Your church? Your pastors?
Perhaps we actually need a little less quiet time in the morning and we need a little more wrestle-mania. [laughter] We have that euphemism, “Did you have your quiet time?” And I get that, because I like it to be quiet, too, but’s it’s also active time.
You know, and I think of my kids, what I, what I’d like to show if you came over was just a row of DeYoung children just quietly reading, you reading, their Bibles and turning over to Herman Bavinck after that and, you know, just singing hymns together, just quietly reading, and that would be the great picture of, of spirit-filled children.
But more than likely if you were to come over, especially unannounced, you would find them probably tumbling on the floor and pulling and punching and doing something very active and parents telling them “go outside!”
Now, it’s not a comment on how your children should behave, but rather it is which do you think is more a picture of the spiritual life. We’d like to think it’s quietly there, just in a moment of solitude. Hmm, there’s that, but it’s here, this wrestling, fighting, struggling, pulling, pushing prodding, tumbling on the trampoline, wresting in prayer is this Epaphras. It’s active, it’s passionate, it’s involved. You put some people in a headlock; not in real life, but in your prayers. God, would you get this… The things you want to say to people, say ‘me in your prayers. [laughter]
There’s a great line that D. A. Carson wrote about his father: “I never heard my father put anyone down except on his prayer list.” [laughter]
Write ’em down. Wrestle. Plead with God for the salvation of the lost. Come to Him day after day to break through into your children’s hearts, or your heart. Grab hold of God through Christ. Beg Him for revival. You know, think of yourself in the morning putting on one of those nice unitards, don’t picture it too much [laughter], and getting ready to go to the mat and wrestle in prayer for the people in your life.
Now I said we were going to explore a mini theology of prayer and we are and it is going to be a rapid-fire mini theology. Each of these points could be expanded in greater detail, but I want to look, and we’ll spend just a few minutes on each, at why, how, what, and to whom.
So why we wrestle in prayer, how we wrestle in prayer, what we wrestle for in prayer, and to whom, four, to whom we wrestle.
So first the why. Why would God have us struggle, strive, fight, in prayer?
You know, you think, God, why would you, are you reluctant? Why would you have us to do this struggling and, you know, shouldn’t it be that we just come and say “God, I love you and I want this blessing and give it and would somebody be better and would the church be filled and would my child be saved” and God would just do it. Why does He ordain that we wrestle and we struggle and we have to strive over it? It’s not because we’re changing His mind. So why?
Well, God does it, for starters, so that we would be more attuned to our need for blessing. If everything came easy for us, we would not learn to depend upon God. We would not learn humility. We would not learn patience. We would not need faith.
The second reason God ordains struggling, wrestling prayer is so that when He does bless us, we recognize He’s the author of that blessing. If we just got what we wanted, whenever we wanted it, we would not see clearly that God is the giver of the blessing. But when we struggle and strive, we’re better able to remember “God did this. I had no other way of seeing through this sorrow, except that God was with me.” We’re better able to receive the blessing joyfully. Just like after a hard day’s work, food is somehow better, tastier when you’re so hungry. There’s things that you wouldn’t eat on a full stomach that you’ll gladly thrown down and scarf down when you’re famished. And so wrestling prayer makes us more attuned to God as the author of our blessings.
And in so doing, it then accentuates the glory of God. So if you’re taking notes, I gave you there three “A” words: Attuned, author, accentuate. Aha. God ordains for us to wrestle in prayer for the same reason He ordains prayer at all.
It’s a great mystery of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. Why prayer? Well, why anything? God’s sovereign. He doesn’t need our prayers. He doesn’t need to know. He’s not up there, you know, telling Michael and Gabriel “Hey, take notes, there’s a lot of things coming My way! I can’t get them all at once. It’s a long list.” God doesn’t need to know. We’re not changing His mind, and yet God has ordained that His purposes would come to us and that some blessings would only come through prayer.
Because He’s glorified. He’s glorified when He is seen clearly to be the giver of what we ask for in prayer.
Have you ever considered, perhaps, that’s why He’s put you in the situation of some deep need, or grief, or trial, or sorrow, to bring you to the end of yourself, so that you turn to God and you say “If anything good is going to come of this, if I’m ever going to see sunshine in my life, it has to be you, O God.” So then when it happens, you say “God, I give you the glory.”
He’s glorified when we learn that we are unworthy of blessing, and He’s glorified when we then come to Him and say “every good and perfect gift comes from You, the Father of light.”
God ordained prayer, and especially wrestling prayer, so that we might learn humility and patience and so that He might be glorified. Why.
Second, then, how? How we wrestle in prayer.
Here’s a quotation from Paul Miller in A Praying Life, a very good book. It’s one of those books on prayer… There are books on prayer that make you feel like “oh, boy, I ought to pray more,” and then there are the books on prayer that you make feel like “oh, I want to pray more.” This is one of those books. He says the most common frustration with prayer is the activity of praying itself.
See if you can resonate with this: “We last for about 15 seconds, and then out of nowhere the day’s to-do list pops up and our minds are off on a tangent. We catch ourselves and by sheer force of the will go back to praying. Before we know it, it has happened again. Instead of praying we’re doing a confused mix of wandering and worrying. Then the guilt sets in. Something must be wrong with me, other Christians don’t seem to have trouble praying. After five minutes, we give up, saying ‘I’m no good at this, I might as well get some work done.”‘
Have you ever felt that? Does that seem like he’s spying on my prayer life? I can tell you in my life I’ve had plenty of five minutes like that, sometimes five minutes, that’s a long time. Sometimes you do that and you sit down and you’re all ready to have a great prayer time and you pray through a few things on your list and you look, three minutes. And then you think I better check my phone, just checking, just better see, maybe something happened in the world, better see what’s going on. [laughter] And all of a sudden, how come you can spend 45 minutes on your phone without blinking, and three minutes on prayer feels like an eternity?
So how? Well, first, we must wrestle in prayer with discipline. This is the most obvious ingredient. We won’t pray much if we don’t set aside time to pray much. We need to guard time for prayer. Sometimes we think prayer is so spiritual it ought to just happen. Well, it doesn’t just hppen. No, you need to set aside time. For most of us, that’s early in the morning, before the rest of the day starts attacking you. For others, it may be that you have to do it when the kid is down for a nap or find what time you can at the end of the day. We must guard it.
Now, yes, short, split-second prayers throughout the day are wonderful. But if we are to really wrestle in prayer, we need to set aside some unhurried time where we can be quiet, undistracted from the internet or the highway, and pour out our hearts to God. I can tell you for me one of the most important things in the discipline of prayer, it doesn’t start in the morning when I’m supposed to pray, does it? It starts in the evening when I’m supposed to go to bed. If I’m up late then I sleep late then I pray little.
The other thing that’s important is some sort of organization. I’m not good enough at prayer to just pop out of bed and brush my teeth and get dressed and sit down and just [sound effect] pray. I need to have, I need to have a list. I need to have a sense. I need to have a direction. I need to have a verse. I need to have some prayer cards. I need to have something or I’ll just have that wandering, worrying sort of prayer. So we need some structure, some discipline.
We must wrestle in prayer with love. You ever consider prayer is an expression, not just of discipline, get the will to do it, but of love. If you never pray for someone, how much do you love them? And conversely, if you love someone deeply, you pray for them often. When you care about people’s hurts and their struggles and their griefs and their souls, you pray.
And don’t forget that love moves in a vertical direction, too. We pray because we love to talk to God.
The Word is where we hear from God, prayer is where we talk to God.
One of our problems with prayer is we focus too much on trying to be better at prayer instead of focusing on the One to whom we are praying. So stop worrying about how you’re praying. If you’re praying enough, prayer is not just about getting a discipline right, it’s about talking to God because He loves us and we love to be with Him.
So we wrestle in prayer with discipline, we wrestle with love, and we wrestle in prayer with faith.
This is going to cut some of us to the heart, but I think the real reason many of us don’t pray is frankly we don’t believe in prayer. We don’t think it actually does things. We think it’s a good discipline and we know as Christians we’re supposed to do it and maybe I’ll feel guilty if I don’t, but when it comes to what you really have to get, the really important things for tomorrow, the things that really matter, are the e-mails you have write, the people you have to call, the reports that have to get done, the lunches that need to be packed… Those are the really important things that people will notice. People won’t notice if you don’t pray tomorrow, and they might not notice tomorrow, or the next day, but they’ll notice in weeks and months and years.
Prayerlessness is unbelief. Prayer for many of us seems like a nice, but relatively pointless, thing to do because, well, Christians are supposed to do it. But we don’t expect anything to really be different, we don’t expect the world to be different, we don’t expect people to be different, we don’t expect our lives to be different because we pray, and at its root, we don’t pray because we don’t believe.
We either don’t believe God listens, or we don’t believe that He cares, or we don’t believe that He’ll ever do anything.
So it’s a matter of discipline, yes, but it’s a matter of love and it’s a matter of faith. That’s the how.
Why, how, what. What do we pray for? Prayer is not just an exercise in being spiritual. It’s the same as mindfulness. I don’t know when this popped up, two three years ago, but you can’t stand in the checkout line of any grocery store without seeing some little pocket book or some magazine touting “mindfulness” or “wakefulness,” this sort of vague spirituality of just being in tune with yourself and ideas. Listen, that’s not prayer, at least not by itself.
You know, in the last five or ten years I’ve read a ton of books on exercise because you know what? I’m better at reading books on exercise than, well, but I’ve read all sorts of books on running in particular. And in the last few years I’ve noticed they start talking a lot about meditation, or before a race, positive visualization, or centering yourself.
Brothers and sisters, this is not what we mean by prayer. We aren’t talking about a vague spirituality of positive thoughts and deep breathing. For prayer to be Christian, we must have, among other things, Christian content.
So what are we praying for? Well, notice here in Colossians chapter 4, three things. Look at verse 2: “Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.” So that’s one thing to pray for—tell God what you’re thankful for, the people, the opportunities, the things He has done, the fact that it’s not snowing and icing today. You, you give Him praise and you thank Him.
Second, look at verse 3: “At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison.” So we pray for open doors. We want people to hear the Gospel. So you pray for missionaries, you pray for the worship service, you pray for your pastor’s preaching. If you don’t think your pastors preach very well, here’s the best way to get them to preach better. Pray for them. And the second best way, pray for yourself.
So you pray for open doors, not only for missionaries and pastors, but for yourself. Are you praying? Is that part of your regular prayer routine—God, would you give me an opportunity today to speak of Christ, to give a reason for the hope that I have? That’s where evangelism starts—not with the force of will, but it starts on your knees.
Praying for open doors, and praying for maturity. Look at verse 12: “Epaphras… always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature.” It is much more important for your children that they be mature in Christ than that they be good athletes, than that they be good-looking, even that they be successful students, that they be good at music, even more important than that they find a nice job and they have a wonderful spouse and they have children and they have a financial future… All of those things you want for your kids and for your grandkids, but are you praying this most of all, that they would be formed mature in Christ, and fully assured in all the will of God? Assured of who God is, assured in what it means to walk in His footsteps.
So if you can’t think of anything to pray for in the morning, here’s a little acronym just in these three verses. It makes the word “TOM,” so all of the Toms out here, you’re feeling good about this. Thanksgiving, Open doors, Maturity. If you can’t think of anything else and you don’t remember anything else from this sermon, you’ll wake up tomorrow, “I don’t know what to pray for, I’ll pray for TOM,” and all the Toms here are just getting lots of extra prayers throughout the week. Thanksgiving, Open doors, Maturity.
And after that, if you don’t what to pray for, pray through Scripture. Pray the fruit of the Spirit for someone. Pray through the Lord’s prayer. Pray through the 10 commandments. Use the prayers of Paul or the high priestly prayer of John 17. Pray through the Psalms; the Psalms are wrestling prayers.
Psalm 3, for example: “O Lord, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me.” My thoughts, my sins, the world, the flesh, the devil…. They’re against me, that’s what he’s saying. “But you, O Lord, are a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head.” He’s saying I went to bed, I slept, I awoke again because You have sustained me. Help me not be afraid, save me from the deeds of evil men and evil thoughts. Strike all the enemies on the cheek, salvation belongs to the Lord. That summary of Psalm 3 is a wrestling prayer, a fighting prayer, not a weak prayer. A struggling prayer. There’s thought, there’s content, there’s guts to it. Pray Scripture.
So what we wrestle with in prayer.
And then finally the why, the how, the what, and perhaps this is what makes prayer most Christian of all: The to whom.
We must always remember when we pray we are not just chanting mantras. In fact, we are not doing that at all. We’re not just speaking positive self-talk into the universe. We are communicating with the God of the universe.
I have to remind myself of this all the time, because I sit down to pray, or even in a group when I’m praying, or even when I’m praying before you, it’s so easy to just slip into sort of Christian language and feel like I’m doing a nice spiritual soliloquy sometimes before many, sometimes in a small group, sometimes in our knees.. A nice spiritual speech. And we forget you’re talking to someone. Not just someone, not just anyone, you’re talking to our triune God, the God who made you, the God who loves you. You’re talking to Him. I have to remind myself all the time I’m actually speaking to the God of the universe, and He’s listening.
Remember to whom you will be praying.
If you’ve paid attention, each of these four points had three subpoints, and so does this one. It’s very simple: Father, Son, Holy Spirit. Your heavenly Father loves to hear you pray. He’s waiting for you, eager for you, ready to receive even your wandering, bumbling prayers, because in Christ He loves you.
Now, we’re earthly fathers and mothers. I’m grossly imperfect and sinful as a parent, sometimes impatient with my kids, but on good days, when they come “Dad, can I talk?” Which father among us would not say “yes, son, daughter, what do you want to talk about?” “Well, something that’s really been bothering me.”
And you know what? If our son or daughter came to us and they didn’t have their words quite right and they stumbled a bit and maybe even they got distracted halfway through, “squirrel!” and you know just, [laughter] focus, child, but we’d, we’d stick with them. Because we love them. They’re our children, and they want to talk to us, they want to tell us what they’re… “Dad, I just wanted to tell you some things I’m thankful for.” “Oh, I got all day.” “Dad, I wonder if you could help me with something.” “Of course.”
So how much more does our heavenly Father love when we come to Him, even with our stumbling, bumbling prayers. Remember the Father, remember the Holy Spirit, He promises to help you when you don’t know how to pray. He will come along side of us. The great comforter, the advocate, to lift up our prayers to heaven when they seem to barely get off the ground. Most of my prayers, they don’t feel like rockets just blasting into heaven, bombarding God with all these great… They feel.. You know what they feel like? Drool. [laughter] Just… They’re not shooting up, they’re just sort of [sound effect] and they just fall to the ground.
But the Holy Spirit helps us. By the time they get to God they’re better prayers than you prayed.
Remember the Father, remember the Spirit, remember the Son. He ever lives to make intercession for us. Prays for us, even when we go slack in praying for ourselves. And because of His death and resurrection, God the Father loves to hear our prayers. His blood speaks a better word than even the most eloquent prayers we could ever conceive. His grace covers our sins, including the sins of prayerlessness. His torn flesh makes a way for us to enter into the holiest place and draw near to the throne of grace with confidence, not in ourselves, but in Him.
So let us always, for each other, for our people, for your pastors, for the ones you love, for the sake of the nations, be wrestling in prayer. May 2019 be a year by God’s grace you look back and you say that was a year where God taught me and shaped me to wrestle and struggle in prayer. Not just so that word could get done, but because it is the great and glorious work.
Let’s pray. Our Father in heaven, we have many things that we are good at as the church in America. We have many resources. We are creative, innovative. We work hard. We have more theological resources than anywhere else on the globe at our disposal in our language, and yet surely one of our great weaknesses is we are not known around the world as a praying church, and we have much to learn from brothers and sisters in other parts of the world in this regard. Would You help us? Not that we may think better of ourselves, but that we may know You better. So lead us, Lord. Cover over a multitude of sins and failures and weaknesses, and make us as a people always wrestling in prayer. We pray in Jesus, who prays for us. Amen.