FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions About The Christian Life - Chapter 6
How can I learn to pray?
This chapter is for anyone who would like to know how to pray more effectively. I suppose on one level that includes everyone, because if you pray at all, you probably wish you knew more about it. The paradox of prayer is that it is a joyful burden for most of us. Like the disciples, we want to say, “Lord, teach us to pray.” Those are words we would say even if we have been praying for many years.
Many Christians feel guilty because we know deep inside that we do almost every part of the Christian life better than we pray. We give our money and our time, we go to church, we support missionaries, we witness for Christ, we read good books, and we try to be obedient to the Lord. And still prayer is difficult even after years of practice and dozens of sermons telling us how to pray. I have no desire to add to your guilt. It won’t help you for me to add to your burden. My goal is to increase your joy by showing you the boundless possibilities of prayer.
Not long ago my wife and I ate supper with another couple at a steak house in New Port Richey, Florida. The husband directs a Bible conference center where I was speaking that week. During our conversation he mentioned that prayer was the one area of the spiritual life where he struggles the most. Even though he gets up at 5:30 A.M. every day to pray and read his Bible, he still feels this is an area where he needs more growth. As I reflected on his words, it occurred to me that my friend is one of the most godly men I know. He has a walk with God that is obvious to all who know him, and his integrity is beyond reproach. Yet he said what I would say and what most Christian leaders would say. We all wish we were stronger in the area of prayer.
There are at least three things that hinder us from going deeper in prayer. The first is the sneaking suspicion that prayer doesn’t matter. It’s easy to fall into a kind of fatalism that says, “God’s gonna do what God’s gonna do.” So we stop praying because we think nothing will change. Then there is the fear that we won’t pray in the “right” way, that we won’t use the correct words or we won’t use the right formula and that God therefore won’t even bother to hear what we say. And most of us struggle with the little voice inside that tells us we’ve got more important things to do. Prayer is good, but we need to get on with the “real business” of the day. (And it doesn’t necessarily help when we hear that story about Martin Luther saying he had to get up at 4:00 A.M so he could pray two extra hours because he was facing an extra-busy day. That’s just one more way we’re not like Luther.) So we don’t pray as we ought or as we would like.
Keep On Asking!
Rather than deal with those hindrances, let me simply share some very good news: God welcomes prayer. He wants us to pray, he begs us to pray, he exhorts us to pray, and he pleads with us to pray. Prayer is God’s appointed means for us to receive what we need from him.
As Jesus was coming to the end of the Sermon on the Mount, he laid out the most basic teaching on prayer in the New Testament. In the familiar words of Matthew 7:7, Jesus tells us to ask, seek, and knock. “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” Those three verbs are in the present tense in the Greek language. You could legitimately translate them this way: Keep on asking, keep on seeking, and keep on knocking at the door. This means that prayer requires persistence. Few prayers are answered the first time we pray them. But God’s delays do not mean he doesn’t care. We are to ask, ask, and keep on asking. We are to seek, seek, and keep on seeking. We are to knock, knock, and keep on knocking. If we do, we will receive, find, and the door will be opened to us.
What Jesus is teaching us about prayer can be summarized in three statements:
1. God wants to answer our prayers.
2. Our prayers will be answered but not immediately.
3. We should lay aside our doubts and continue to pray because of who God is.
The words of Walt Gerber are a great encouragement at this point: “Remember, when praying for others, we are not overcoming God’s reluctance, but laying hold of his highest willingness.”7
Three Levels of Prayer
These famous words of Jesus describe three levels of prayer. Not all prayer is alike in its basic nature. Sometimes we are asking, sometimes we are seeking, and sometimes our prayers are like knocking at the door of heaven.8
Level 1: Asking
“Ask and it will be given to you. . . . For everyone who asks receives” (Matt. 7:7-8). Go to Africa or India and you will understand what this means. Asking is what beggars do. In poor countries, beggars unashamedly stand by the road with their hands held out, asking alms for the poor. Sometimes they can be quite bold about it and even irritating to passersby. In those moments it helps to remember that you would be bold too if you were in their position. Jesus tells us that prayer begins with the posture of a beggar coming before a benevolent heavenly Father. We are to ask God for what we need, knowing that he is able to help us. The promise is very simple: Ask and you shall receive.
Level-one praying involves the basic needs of life. If you need food, ask God for it. If you need money to pay the bills, ask God for it. If you need wisdom, if you need guidance, if you are confused, if you are in need of physical healing, do not be ashamed or embarrassed to bring your needs to the Lord in your prayers. This is what it means to ask God for “daily bread.” Asking involves laying all of life before the Lord in order that you might receive from him whatever you need.
Notice how broad the promise is. It extends to “everyone who asks.” And see how definite the promise is. Everyone who asks “receives.” Not “shall receive” or “might receive” or “may receive” but simply “receives.”
Prayer begins with asking God for what we need, knowing that when we ask, we will receive an answer from heaven.
Level 2: Seeking
“Seek and you will find. . . . He who seeks finds” (Matt. 7:7—8). Seeking implies a desire for something of great value. It reminds us of Jesus’ story of the woman searching for a lost coin or the shepherd with one hundred sheep who, having lost one, left the ninety-nine and went searching for the one sheep that had gone astray. It is like a man seeking a pearl of great price who, having found it, gives all that he has in order to purchase it.
When you seek something, you rearrange your priorities so that you can search for what you desire until you find it. This kind of prayer is usually tied up with the search for deeper understanding, particularly as it applies to the trials of life. In 2 Corinthians 12 we learn about Paul’s “thorn in the flesh.” We don’t know what it was because Paul doesn’t tell us. It might have been a physical ailment or it could have been fierce opposition from his Jewish critics. Three times he asked the Lord to remove it, and three times the Lord said no. That’s the first level of prayer—asking. But he kept on praying for insight, and God eventually said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).
This is level-two praying—seeking wisdom from the Lord. While the thorn was not removed (and evidently was never removed), Paul gained important spiritual insight that helps us see why his first prayers were not answered. This kind of answer comes only as we repeatedly seek the Lord.
Level 3: Knocking
“Knock and the door will be opened to you. . . . And to him who knocks, the door will be opened” (Matt. 7:7—8). The word knock means to stand at a door and repeatedly rap it with your knuckles. You knock and wait, then you knock again, then you say, “I know you’re in there,” then you knock again and say, “I can hear your voice. Come on, open the door.” Then you knock again. If you’re on the other side, you know how annoying it can be to listen as someone knocks and knocks and keeps on knocking. But that’s precisely the picture behind these words. They imply praying in the face of difficulty and even resistance. If you knock like this, your desire for entrance must be very great indeed. In the New Testament, the picture of “open doors” often deals with seeking God’s will and praying for new opportunities to spread the gospel. It also applies to praying when the object desired involves changing the heart of another person.
Not long ago a young couple came to see me with the good news that they plan to be missionaries. They are eminently qualified and will do a wonderful job. There is only one small problem. After months of prayer, they have no idea where they would like to go. And they can’t start raising support until they at least know what country they are going to. As we talked, I said something like this: “The reason you don’t know now is because you don’t need to know now. If you needed to know now, God would have shown you. Since you don’t know now, it must be true that you don’t need to know because when you do need to know, you’ll know, and not one minute sooner. If God is God, that must be true.” I more or less said that off the top of my head, but looking back I decided that it was good advice because it is based on the truth that God gives us guidance when we need it, and generally that guidance comes just in the nick of time.
A few days later I happened to talk with someone whose job is ending soon. This person had been praying for guidance, but no direction was coming from heaven. So I shared what I had said to the young couple. The next week I got an E-mail message telling me that she had chatted with another friend who asked, “Have you ever thought about serving overseas?” No, but she was open to the idea. Then came a “chance” meeting with a missionary representative who spoke about all the open doors in other countries. A few days later she found what seemed to be a perfect opportunity in Africa. That led to an E-mail application, references by E-mail, and a phone interview. I eventually received a message telling me that she is moving to Kenya to start a new job at a school for the children of missionaries. It’s a perfect fit, and all the pieces came together at just the right time. That’s how God works. We do the knocking, and in due season the door opens up for us.
Sometimes the answer is years in coming. One Sunday I was greeting people between services when a couple came up to me with their arms around each other and tears in their eyes. They asked me to pray for them because God had worked a miracle in their relationship and right now they were going through a fiery trial. I didn’t know the details, but I put my arms around them and committed their marriage to God. The next Sunday the wife came up with wonderful news about how God had answered that prayer in a most remarkable way. Later I reflected on the fact that nearly eight years ago the wife had come to see me several times, asking prayer for a marriage that seemed hopeless. And now the answer had finally come from heaven.
Why do some prayers take years to be answered and others are answered immediately? I do not know the answer and find it useless to speculate. But this much is clear: if we keep on knocking at heaven’s door, sooner or later the door will be opened to us.
As I look at these three levels of prayer, it strikes me that there are no limits. Anyone may pray to God about anything. And the emphasis falls not on our prayers but on the certainty of answers from God. Three times Jesus mentions our part. We are to ask, seek, and knock. But six times he tells us that we will receive, we will find, and the door will be opened to us. It is as if God is pleading and begging with us to dare to come to him in prayer. This brings to mind Billy Graham’s remark that there are rooms in heaven filled with answers to prayer for which no one has thought to ask.
God’s Character and Our Prayers
How can we be so sure that when we ask, seek, and knock that we will receive, find, and the door will be opened to us? Jesus says that our hope in prayer rests not with ourselves or in the power of positive thinking, but in the very character of God who is our great Father in heaven.
“Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?” (Matt. 7:9-10). Good fathers are eager to help their children. This is what fathers do. They give “good” gifts to their children. If your child asks for a stone or a snake, will you give it to him? No. What if he begs? No. What if he pleads? No. If he says, “I can’t live without that snake,” you still say no. Children often ask for foolish things, which are withheld. The same is true with God. Often we plead for things that to us seem like bread but to God are like a poisonous snake. Our heavenly Father says no, not because he hates us but because he loves us. Sometimes God’s no is the surest sign of his love for us. Suppose your five-year-old asks to play with a sharp knife. What will you do? You say no and let him cry and even pout. His tears show his immaturity. If you give him the knife when you know it could hurt him, you don’t really love him at all.
We often ask for things that would harm us. It might be a new job or a bigger salary or a new husband or a new wife. But God sees through to the end and knows that what we have asked for would harm us more than help us. So in love he says no.
“If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matt. 7:11). The argument is from the lesser to the greater, from the human to the divine. My father was not a perfect man, but I never doubted his love for me. I am not a perfect father, but I hope my boys never doubt my love for them. There is One who is much greater than I am, whose heart is pure and good, and whose love knows no limits. He is my heavenly Father, and he bids me come to him in prayer. That is the real meaning of the phrase “how much more.”
• God knows much more than we do.
• God cares much more than we do.
He is richer than we are and he is far more willing to answer our prayers than we are to have them answered. But how can we be sure that God cares for us so deeply? Go with me to a hill outside Jerusalem, not far from the Damascus Gate. Look closely at the three men who are dying on bloody Roman crosses. Study that awful scene closely. Listen to the jeering crowd. Ponder the meaning of the words spoken by the man hanging on the middle cross. There you will have your answer.
We know that God loves us because he gave his own Son to die for us. And he did it unasked. He sent his Son to the earth while we were in rebellion against him, knowing that we would put him to death. Will he now refuse us any good thing we ask of him? The cross proves that the heart of God is good. And we come to that same good heart every time we pray.
The final phrase of verse 11 tells us that all the blessings of heaven are promised “to those who ask him.” We should expect God to answer our prayers, and we can expect nothing without prayer. In the deepest, most profound sense Gods blessings are “limited” to those who ask for them. He will not give if we do not ask. The gates of heaven open to those who pray. Those same gates are closed to everyone else.
Steve Meyer’s Testimony
Let’s wrap up this chapter with three simple statements:
1. The invitation to pray comes from God’s heart.
2. Our doubts come from our hearts.
3. Will we believe God or ourselves?
We doubt God’s goodness so we don’t pray. When hard times come, we give in to worry and despair because we have forgotten how good God has been to us. A good memory of God’s blessings will fortify us in the time of trouble and give us the courage to pray with thanksgiving.
At the age of forty-four, Steve Meyer was diagnosed with stage 4 mantle cell lymphoma. That’s a form of cancer that eventually takes the life of almost everyone who has it. Not many people live more than five or six years after their diagnosis. For many months Steve was given heavy-duty chemotherapy in a desperate attempt to beat back the cancer and save his life. Even though his hair fell out, week after week he faithfully came to church, sometimes battling great pain. The initial results from the chemotherapy were encouraging. Many of the tumors disappeared, and others shrank dramatically.
The next step in the treatment cycle called for Steve to undergo a very difficult bone marrow transplant in which the doctors harvested his stem cells, radiated his whole body to destroy all his bone marrow, then reinserted the stem cells, all the while hoping his body could fight off infection while his immune system was temporarily disabled. Steve knew the risks and knew that he could undergo this kind of treatment only once because his body could not endure it twice. The doctors made no guarantees. The cancer could come back even after the bone marrow transplant, but that was still the best chance for a cure.
A few days before he went into the hospital, I spoke with Steve on the phone and found him to be incredibly cheerful and filled with optimism about the future. He had committed his life into God’s hands and was content to leave everything with the Lord. He had also joined an E-mail list of six hundred patients around the world who have his kind of cancer. Someone wrote Steve saying they had just been diagnosed with mantle cell lymphoma and they wondered what to expect. Steve wrote back an answer that is an eloquent statement of faith. With his permission I am reproducing it here:
I am not happy to have this disease, nor is anyone who has it. Chemotherapy is not a refreshment, bone marrow transplants are less fun than going to the lake in the summer. And having one’s life ripped apart by a disease that has historically killed all its victims is not my first choice.
On the other hand, when you are surrounded by people who love you, people who pray for you, people who bring you meals, send you cards, rake your leaves, cry with you, laugh with you, do your chores for you, shovel your snow all winter, cut your grass all summer, come over on Sunday to watch football with you, call you on the phone, pick up your medicine for you, drive you places when you can’t, offer you their homes, offer support to your husband or wife, offer support to your kids, offer support to your healthy parents, offer support to your brothers and sisters, come over to keep you company, take you out to dinner, bring you books, CDs, tapes, loan you their laptop computer, offer their friendship and love . . .
When your kids tell you they love you again and again and again and cry at the thought of losing you, when your wife or husband tells you they love you even when you act like an idiot and they cry themselves to sleep at the thought of losing you, when you see tears in your parents’ eyes at the thought of losing a child to this disease and they say “I wish it were me” and they mean it . . .
When people you’ve never met pray for you, send you mail, encourage you, meet you for dinner, when the doctor weeps for you because he wishes he could do more, when the pain gets so bad it takes away your breath, or you get so sick you think you’re gonna die . . .
I’ll tell you what I do. I thank God for my life just the way it is! I have had a good life, and I intend to live for many years to come. I plan on seeing my Becky grow up. Today she was the happiest little girl in the third grade, and so proud to read her grades one by one to her dad, who she has no doubt loves her with all of his heart. I plan to see my twelve-year-old son’s penmanship improve even if it takes forever, and someday he will beat me in chess. I plan to see my sophomore-in-college daughter someday grow up the rest of the way and get married and give me grandkids. I plan to see my parents finish their lives with their son alive, and I’ll bury them when they die. I plan to see my beautiful wife grow old, get gray hair, and sag, so I can love her more then than I do now, and we can retire to Florida.
Did we all get a bad break? Yes.
Do we have a right to complain? A little.
Would I change my life if I could? Never.
I’m glad you asked the question, and I pray that you and everyone else with this disease gets cured, and those who have died from this disease I plan to see them again. The quality of my life has never been better!!!
May God bless all those with mantle cell lymphoma and the loving caregivers and families.
Oak Park, Illinois
“If You Know the Lord”
Over the phone Steve told me the secret of his strong faith. It consists of a simple statement that goes right to the heart of the Christian faith: “If you know the Lord, you don’t need to fear dying, because if you know the Lord, you’re never really dead.” What an amazing statement that is. It’s exactly what Jesus meant when he said, “Whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:26).
What can you do with a man like that? You can’t stop him. His faith is indestructible. The devil can’t touch a man like that because the devil’s ultimate weapon is the fear of death. If you aren’t afraid to die, then the devil has no power over you.
Herein lies a powerful secret for a dynamic prayer life. Count your blessings instead of your problems. Focus on what God has done for you instead of on how you wished things had turned out. Think of all the good things that have come into your life in the midst of your difficulties. When you remember the goodness of God, you will have no trouble asking, seeking, and knocking.
The application is simple. Keep on praying. Do not be dismayed by delay or defeated by your circumstances. Let the words of Jesus fill your heart. Ask, ask, and keep on asking and you will receive. Seek, seek, and keep on seeking, and you will find. Knock, knock, and keep on knocking, and by God’s grace the door will be opened to you. This is the promise of the Lord Jesus Christ.
A Truth to Remember:
Prayer is God’s appointed means for us to receive what we need from him.
1. “Many Christians feel guilty because we know deep inside that we do almost every part of the Christian life better than we pray.” Do you agree or disagree? How would you evaluate the level of your own prayer life?
2. What difference has prayer made in your life? Can you name a time when prayer changed your life?
3. What things fall into the “asking” category for you? What are you “seeking” from the Lord? And what doors are you praying will be opened for you?
4. The Scriptures speak often of waiting on the Lord. What spiritual benefits do we gain as we wait on the Lord for the answer to our prayers?
5. What do we gain from praying with others?
6. Why is it important to count our blessings instead of our problems when we pray? Stop right now and name five blessings you have received from the Lord in the last seven days.
We all need practical ideas to help us pray more effectively. Here’s a simple one. Try “Alphabet Praying” for a week. You start by praying for something or someone with the letter A, the letter B, then the letter C, and so on through the alphabet. Don’t do it from a written list. Ask the Lord to bring to your mind who or what you should pray for as you come to each letter. Do this for a week and you may be surprised at the freshness that comes to your prayer life.
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