Practicing Prayer

Matthew 6:5-15

5 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

9 “This, then, is how you should pray: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, 10 your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 11 Give us today our daily bread. 12 And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.’

14 For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

            I want to ask you all a very simple, yet deep question. Why do we pray? Perhaps you have never given it any thought, and that’s probably okay. Maybe you would say that we pray because it is something that we are supposed to do. Jesus says things like, “When you pray…” not “If you pray…” That’s probably okay, too. But when we start to consider this simple question, we realize just how confusing it can be. Do we pray because we think we are going to change God or change God’s plans? Or do we pray because we think we can change ourselves? Like so many of the things we consider this is not an either/or question. Prayer is a multifaceted thing, and I want to look today at some of the reasons why we can or should pray to better understand this practice. But I first want to spend some time looking at what prayer isn’t.

            Your understanding of prayer is going to grow out of your understanding of God. There are some people who believe that everything that happens only occurs because God directly causes it to happen. There are passages of scripture that can be interpreted in this way, and I get that. But when we start to consider this way of viewing God I believe that this soon breaks down to the point where prayer doesn’t make any sense.

            Some people believe that nothing happens without God willing it to happen, as if God has our lives laid out like the script to a play and we are just actors going through the motions. And it would be really easy to critique this perspective by noting some of the atrocities that have happened throughout the history of the world, things like the Holocaust, the attack on the Twin Towers or Pearl Harbor, and various natural disasters and question those who believe God causes all things to happen as to why God would cause these things to happen. Because a God who causes the Holocaust or an earthquake that kills thousands is really no god that I want to worship.

            But our focus today is on prayer. And I simply want to ask If God has already preordained everything that is going to happen, why pray? Because if God has already preordained everything, your prayer isn’t going to change anything.

            Most every student becomes a praying person just before test time, “God, please give me an A.” And as the old saying goes, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” Hospitals often employ professionals called chaplains who will come to your room when you are going in for surgery or are sick to pray for you. But if God already had determined what grade you would get, who would win the war, and whether or not you would get better, why bother praying and asking God for a favorable outcome (favorable to you, that is)?

            Let’s go one step further. If our eternal salvation or damnation is already predetermined by God, why bother praying?

            In the passage that we commonly call “The Lord’s Prayer,” Jesus instructs his disciples to pray, “Give us today our daily bread.” If God had already determined that day whether we were going to eat or go hungry, this prayer makes no sense. Jesus did not believe that God had already predetermined everything or else he would not have trained his disciples to pray for their basic needs to be met.

            It is probably clear to you all by now that I do not believe that God has predetermined everything that happens in this world. That was the easy one. But does prayer change God or does prayer change us?

            I think that a lot of people are uncomfortable with the idea that God might actually change. Malachi 3:6a says it clearly: “I the Lord do not change.” And you have heard me say a time or two that if you want to know what God is like, you must look at Jesus. So what about Hebrews 13:8, which reminds us that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”

            When I ask if prayer changes God, I am not suggesting that prayer changes the essence of God or Jesus. No, God is always just, God is always righteous, and God is always love. We don’t change God’s nature or God’s personality. But God’s decisions can be influenced by our prayers. If they couldn’t, why pray? Since God has not preordained everything that is going to happen, can we influence God through our prayers to change a future event? I believe the answer is yes.

            The most obvious example of this is found in Genesis 18 where Abraham pleads for God to spare Sodom. Abraham asks God to spare Sodom if 50 righteous men are found in the city. And God agrees to do just that. Abraham then asks for God to spare the city if 40 righteous men are found. Again, God agrees. Abraham suggests 30 men, then 20, and finally settles at 10 righteous men being the minimum amount needed to be found in order for Sodom to be spared. And each time God agrees to Abraham’s request.

            That sounds a lot like God changing his mind.

            Some people have suggested that the only reason God agreed to this is because God already knew that there were not even 10 righteous men in Sodom. But that seems a little tricky and misleading on God’s part to me. So if you would rather believe in a tricky and misleading God than a God who can be influenced by our requests and change his mind, go for it. But I would rather believe in a God who listens to our requests (and processes those requests in a more complicated way that we can imagine).

            If you want a few more examples that are even clearer that God’s decisions can be influenced, check out Exodus 32:14, “So the Lord changed His mind about the harm which He said He would do to His people.” And Jeremiah 26:19b, “Did he not fear the Lord and entreat the favor of the Lord, and the Lord changed His mind…” (both NASB). The NIV uses the word “relent,” which seems to be just an easier-to-accept version of the word “change.”

            Now don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that we can change God’s essence or God’s big plan for the redemption of the world. But there are biblical examples of how prayer can influence God, and that is one reason why we pray.

            But prayer does not just change God, it changes us as well. Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” This isn’t just a prayer about God’s kingdom coming to help clean up those other people who have not yet come to know him. This isn’t Jesus teaching his disciples to pray for a conversion in the lives of others. This is a prayer for a reorienting of everything, including ourselves. This concept of God’s kingdom coming, God’s will being done starts in each one of us.

            If you want to see God’s kingdom come and God’s will to be done, you need to be open to God’s kingdom coming into your life and God’s will being done through you. This is a part of the gift of free will that God has given to us. God isn’t going to force us to do anything because that is not love. Love compels us, love invites us, love moves us, loves draws us in, but love does not force us to do anything. Love does not even force us to do God’s will. Prayer has the ability to change us because it is an invitation from us to God to enter our lives and align our will with God’s will, so his kingdom may come, his will may be done, in my life as it is in heaven.

            A friend of mine shared a video this week that I think helps to explain a part of what prayer is. This video is of a group of Amish men in Ohio participating in what is commonly called a barn raising. The video was shot with a camera taking snap shots every 20 seconds from 7 am until 5 pm, for a total of 10 hours. These pictures were then displayed one after another to squeeze 10 hours of work into 3 minutes and 30 seconds. Check out the video here: http://youtu.be/AsTB0HnM6WM

            The reason that this video reminds me of prayer is because when we pray we are not, or should not, simply be asking God for things. Prayer isn’t about you, it is about partnering with God to build his kingdom. Prayer is aligning your will with God’s will. The men in the video are working together to build something. There is surely a person that is in charge of the entire process. That person is probably called a foreman, or something like that in Pennsylvania Dutch. The foreman has a plan in mind, a vision for what he would like to see built. And he invites the other men to participate in the process. As free agents, they are welcome to participate or not; these men are there by their own free will.

            If you have ever worked with anyone else to build anything in your life, you know that every person comes to the job with their own idea of how to get the job done. And everyone thinks that their ideas and plans are the best.

            But imagine what would happen if each of the thirty men in the video decided that they were going to build the barn the way they thought it should be. One guy thinks there should be a door here, another thinks that door should be a window. One person wants the roof sloped this amount, another wants to put a domed roof on it, and yet another wants a flat roof. And what about the color?

            Each of those men has their own idea of how to build a barn, but each of them has agreed to follow the plans of the foreman and to work together as a team.

            Now you may notice that each man in the video is not holding a set of blueprints. And I guarantee you that they don’t all have the plans memorized. So if you were standing at the site of this barn raising, you would hear a lot of conversation going on. “Cut it at 18’6”, Abe.” “Set it at a 45 degree angle, Eli.” “Get me some more nails, Josiah.” “What should I do next, Shamus?” (I threw in an Irish guy to make sure you are paying attention). Conversation is constantly taking place because these men need to know how to build this barn. They all have a vague idea of how it should look when the job is complete, they all have their own idea of how it should be done, but they need to be in conversation with one another and the foreman to make the project come out as the foreman had planned.

            That conversation that goes on in the middle of the building process is a part of prayer. This conversation where we ask “What should I do next,” and “Where does this go?” is a part of God’s kingdom coming, God’s will being done, on earth as it is in heaven.

            Obviously, there is a lot more to prayer than I have mentioned here. Prayer is a time to give thanks to God for all that we have, and a time to be in the presence of God in a special way. But prayer is also our opportunity to influence God’s decisions and therefore the world around us. And prayer is a chance to listen to God’s instructions on how his kingdom will come and his will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

            Prayer changes God, and prayer changes us.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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