Sobering Up: The Prerequisite to a Good Prayer Life

I struggle with prayer. It’s some comfort, I suppose, to understand that others do as well. A recent story about renowned preacher Sinclair Ferguson illustrates that even those who seem to be mature Christian leaders feel that they have lots to learn when it comes to prayer.

When it comes to praying more, I wonder if we start at the wrong end of the problem. We want to pray more. Good! That is admirable. But we shouldn’t begin there. Our efforts to pray more fall flat, and it isn’t long before we are just as discouraged as before. The cycle of good intentions leading to failure and guilt is not one that leads to the prayer life we desire.

What if there is a prerequisite to prayer? That seems to be what Peter teaches in 1 Peter 4:7:

The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers. (1 Peter 4:7)

Peter could have said, “The end of all things is at hand; pray more!” but he doesn’t. He instead instructs us to develop a self-controlled and sober-minded mindset that leads to prayer. Before we can pray, we need a mindset that leads us to prayer. We need to sober up. It's the prerequisite to a good prayer life.

Sobering up means that we see reality as it really is; that we recognize that time is short; that we give up any thoughts of trying to live or serve apart from the enablement that only God can offer. I confessed to our church last weekend that I am in the process of “sobering up” when it comes to prayer. Rather than beginning with a deeper resolve to pray, I’m beginning with thinking in a self-controlled and sober-minded way that should cultivate a life of prayer.

It’s time to sober up and deal with the prerequisite to a good prayer life. Will you join me

The Freedom that Comes from Grace

I read recently of an actor (Meryl Streep?) who said she no longer cares what people think. It’s a perk, she said, of getting older. I can relate. I’m old enough to have stopped caring (at least as much) about what other people think. This article, while a little crude, puts it well: “You don’t care about being cool anymore and therefore you become the coolest you have ever been in your life” (cool being a relative term).

But it’s not just age that frees you from what other people think. Grace does this too. As Scotty Smith puts it, grace is the end of all posturing and pretending.

  • Because of grace, I no longer have to pretend to be someone different than I am. Grace meets me right where I am.
  • Because of grace, I don’t have to measure up, because I couldn’t anyway. Jesus has measured up on my behalf, and it is enough.
  • Because of grace, I can accept the harshest criticism, knowing that even worse is true of me than they know, but it’s all been dealt with by Jesus.
  • Because of grace, I can be free from needing the approval of others, knowing that I already have the only approval that really matters.
  • Because of grace, I can lean into honest relationships with others, knowing that I don’t have to fear being exposed when I’m dressed in the righteousness of Christ.

I love how Jared Wilson puts it in The Pastor's Justification, especially (as the title suggests) as it relates to pastors:

Pastor, will we seek justification in our reputations? In our church’s numbers and figures? In our retweets and links? In our podcast downloads? In a book deal or speaking engagement? In our own sense of a job well done? This is sand.

Or will we look up and out, away from ourselves, away from the fickle fellowship, away from Satan’s right hand of the Father, where our righteousness sits, firmly fixed eternal? There is your justification, pastor, perfect and big, bigger than you and better than you but bled and bought for you and birthed in you, yours irrevocably, sealed and guaranteed through both your successes and your failures, through the pats on your back or the knives in your back. There is your justification, there in Christ, and because in him there is no shadow of turning, you are utterly, totally, undeniably justified.

Brother, you are free.

The freedom that comes from grace is much better than the freedom that comes from aging.

This Church Opens Wide Her Doors

When people walk into church, according to Ray Ortlund, they have been beaten up all week. We live in a social environment in which we never measure up. We are soaked in an environment of criticism and comparisons, so much so that it feels normal. We are made to feel small at work, in advertising, and in almost every area of life.

We swim in an ocean of criticism all week, and then we walk into church.

That’s why Ortlund gives a little speech at the beginning of the worship services at Immaneul Nashville that he adapted from James Boice from Tenth Presbyterian Church:

Ray Ortlund's notes

Ray Ortlund's notes

To all who are weary and need rest;
To all who mourn and long for comfort;
To all who feel worthless and wonder if God even cares;
To all who are weak and fail and desire strength;
To all who sin and need a Savior —
This church opens wide her doors with a welcome from Jesus,
the mighty friend of sinners,
the ally of his enemies,
the defender of the indefensible,
the justifier of those who have no excuses left...

Ortlund says, “I just want people to know, it’s going to be different now. You just walked into grace. We can relax. We can own up. We can be honest. We can face the living God through the blood of Christ and let him speak to us.”

Sign at Redeemer Church, Bellingham, Washington

Sign at Redeemer Church, Bellingham, Washington

In the next hour, he wants the souls of the people to be re-oxygenated, so that when they walk out of the service they feel alive again.

I love this! As you can see from the picture, others have borrowed it from Ortlund as well.

Check out Ray Ortlund’s excellent message at The Gospel Coalition Atlantic Conferences — this post is based on his comments at the 19 minute mark — as well as the other messages. I felt my soul re-oxygenated as I soaked in grace under the teaching at this conference.

Applying God's Presence to My Distraction

A Confession

I confess: I sometimes struggle to be present. My wife knows. The person on the other end of the phone knows. I think I’m fooling others, but I’m only fooling myself.

I (and maybe you too) are distracted by thoughts of what you should be doing next. I am distracted by how I’m going to respond to what you’re saying when I should be listening to what you’re saying. I have recorded events on my camera that I never recorded in my brain because I was more focused on the camera than what was right in front of me. Even in ministry, I have only been half-present at times because I have resisted the limitations and messiness of my own context.

But God is rich in mercy. He gives grace to the distracted as we long to be present where we are. We can learn about him, and his presence everywhere, along with the implications for us who are not, and who are often frustrated because of this.

The Omnipresence of God

In contrast to us, God is fully present. In Concise Theology J.I. Packer writes:

He is present everywhere in the fullness of all that he is and all the powers that he has, and needy souls praying to him anywhere in the world receive the same fullness of his undivided attention. Because God is omnipresent he is able to give his entire attention to millions of individuals at the same time.

This knowledge, Packer writes, produces great faith and great praise.

Applying God's Presence to My Distraction

It’s not enough to believe in the omnipresence of God. We need to apply it, especially given the frustration we often feel about being so limited to one time and place with all of its messiness.

In his excellent book Sensing Jesus, Zack Eswine advises us to learn our limits. He wants us to embrace our physicality (“our lives, in contrast to God’s, are necessarily physical and local”) and immediacy (we are often in more of a rush than God is). We learn to attend to our place differently:

In Jesus we learn that we are never the first to arrive on the scene. We enter the moment quieted to learn what has transpired there before we arrived. What has God been doing prior to our arrival? Once there, what is his intention for our presence?

We learn to be patient. Eswine quotes an Jack Miller’s advice to a missionary:

Give it your heart out of gratitude for a tender, seeking and patient savior. Make every common task shine with the radiance of Christ. Then every event becomes a shiny glory moment to be cherished— whether you drink tea or try to get the verb forms of the new language. . . . Always try to be daring but don’t be in a hurry. . . . If you don’t like what is going on in Uganda, wait a week. It’ll be the opposite.

Sounds a lot like missionary Jim Elliott’s advice: “Wherever you are, be all there! Live to the hilt every situation you believe to be the will of God.”

In other words, God’s presence everywhere means we can be present right where we are. His presence in all of time means that we can be present not just in this space, but also in this moment.

This is what God’s presence means for my distracted heart. It means that I embrace the limits of where I am, believing that God is fully present there. It means that I learn to live every moment in the richness of God’s presence, believing that he was at work long before I got here. It means that I put aside my impatience and take up ordinary tasks for his glory, living in this space and time as an apprentice of Jesus.

It means that I’m learning to be present.

Ministry and Presence

I’ve been thinking about the story of Jimmy Carter, who was so free from having to worry about where else he should be and what else he should be doing that he was able to focus fully on the person in front of him.

He spoke as though we had all the time in the world. At one point, an aide came to take him off to the next person he needed to meet. Free from having to decide when the meeting would end, or any other mundane care, really, President Carter could let go of those inner nagging voices and be there. (The Organized Mind)

Is it possible to be this present in our lives and ministries? Not only is it possible; it’s essential.

Here are some thoughts on being present in ministry.

It’s hard. In his excellent book Sensing Jesus, Zack Eswine traces the desire to be present everywhere to the Garden of Eden. We try to act as if we have no limits in space and time. The desire to avoid being present in one place is an age-old temptation that goes as far back as the original sin.

There’s no alternative. There really is no other ministry than ministry right here, with these people, and in this place. Again, Eswine writes:

Our lives, in contrast to God’s, are necessarily physical and local…While spiritual wars rage about and while angels fly, I remain grounded. Battles all at once and everywhere outpace me. Here (and not everywhere) is where I must fight.

The people here are always messy, and this place is by definition limiting. But the only one who is not limited to ministry in a particular location is God, although even He is also working with messy people.

They can tell.  A few years ago, I visited a pastor that I know through his blog. I told him that I appreciated his online sermons. His response surprised me. “I’m glad you enjoyed them, but they’re not for you. I pastor these people in this place, and those sermons are meant for them. Whether or not you appreciate them is irrelevant.”

I like that. I believe that people can tell if we are trying to serve and impress a general audience out there, or if we are rooted in a particular place, committed to a particular people. I can tell when people are half-listening to me. People can tell if we’re half-present while dreaming of a better place that doesn’t actually exist.

It’s at the heart of effective ministry. There is certainly a place for large, regional ministries. But as books like The New Parish teach us, there is a need to locate ourselves in a single community, to be attentive to what God is doing there, and to commit over the long haul to be present and faithful. Like a farmer committed to a plot of land, staying long enough to put down roots, clear the rocks, and pull out the tree roots, we must be committed to one place. I think I remember David Fitch saying that we should generally look at a ten-year commitment to a single place. While not canonical, it’s an idea that makes a lot of sense for most of us.

We are in what could be termed a hard-soil plant. We have moved in the neighborhood, and we are learning the joy and power of being as present as possible in one place, knowing and being known (both equally scary). There is something powerful about being present in one place, as if we have all the time in the world, letting go of the inner nagging voices that we would be better off somewhere else. Again, as Eswine writes, “Here (and not everywhere) is where I must fight.”