We're on Day 36 of our 50-Day Adventure. Around Day 36, some Adventure fatigue sets in. We're two-thirds of the way to the finish line, but we're not there yet. To encourage you today, I'd like to ask how many people have kept up their Journal reading. You might not have done every day, but you've generally kept up and followed your Journal up to now. Raise your hands. Let's give these people some applause.
We've been talking about how our lives change when we sense the presence of Jesus in our lives. We've been looking at all the ways that our lives would change if Jesus were present with us physically. During periods of history in which the presence of Jesus has been especially felt, one thing has always been true - that closeness has been preceded and sustained by a spirit of prayer. Whenever communities throughout history have been transformed, crime rates have gone down, and churches packed, it's always been as a result of prayer. Prayer and the presence of God just seem to go together.
If you're like most people, you know you should pray, but you find prayer difficult. A recent survey showed that 42% of Christians don't have a regular quiet time, and even out of the 58% that do, I suspect that sometimes it's hard to pray. Why? Prayer can sometimes seem like a one-way conversation. We find it hard to concentrate. Sometimes we have preconceived ideas of what our prayers should be like, and how long we should be praying. A majority of people that I talk to seem to be struggling with their prayer lives.
Somebody has said that prayer is the gymnasium of the soul. I think they're on to something. What they meant is that prayer stretches and grows and strengthens the soul, but I think there's a double meaning there. A lot of people belong to gyms but never go to gyms. They know they should. They're aware of the benefits. But many people don't like to exercise. It's like that way with prayer. We all know that we should pray. We feel guilty when we don't pray. But the reality is that we struggle to keep up an active prayer life.
God doesn't want you to feel guilty about your prayer life. Prayer is not a guilt thing. But God does want you to experience the benefits of being connected to him in prayer. John 15:7 says, "If you stay joined to me and my words remain in you, you may ask any request you like, and it will be granted!" That's an incredible promise. If we stay connected with God, we will experience tremendous benefits. Last week we looked at the second part - how to let the words of Jesus remain in you. We talked about how to build your life on the Bible through prayer, meditation, and obedience. But how do you do the first part? How do you stay joined to God? How do you get connected?
People try all sorts of ways to get connected to God. If you go to certain parts of the world, you will see people using rituals and incense. You will see ointments and lights. In some parts of the world they sell prayer gongs. They think that before you pray, you have to wake God up.
But there are some Christian ways of connecting to God that can seem just as bizarre. When I grew up, I had this desire to be a prayer warrior like some of the older men and women of my church. I started to pray like they did - using King James English. There's nothing wrong with praying that way, and I actually became pretty good at it. I would talk to humans one way, but when it came to talking to God I would use an entirely different language. I thought that God wanted us to pray using the language of 1611.
Then I began to hear about how people prayed at home. I heard of people that got up at 5:00 in the morning to pray, or who stayed up until the early hours of the morning to pray. If you were really spiritual, you did both. I heard all these techniques of prayer, but at the end of it all I was still frustrated in my prayer life. Prayer still wasn't something that I enjoyed.
Why is prayer so hard? Did God mean it to be hard? I don't think so. God designed prayer to be like the best sort of relationship. He meant it to be de-stressing rather than to be depressing. Why do we struggle with our prayer lives? I believe we struggle in our prayer lives because Satan knows the power of prayer. If he can keep us from connecting with God - if he can keep us from enjoying the relationship that God designed prayer to be - he knows that we will lack power. Satan knows that we can tithe and read and share our faith and everything. But if we don't pray, it won't matter. If we don't pray, we will lack power.
Prayer isn't meant to be complicated. Prayer isn't an activity for the spiritual elite. It's an action that you can take. What are some practical steps that I can take to develop my prayer life? How can I enjoy the blessings that God intends me to experience in my prayer life? Four steps:
1. SLOW YOUR PACE
The first reason people don't pray is because they don't have the time. They're too busy. That's why the first step in connecting with God is two slow your pace. Psalm 46:10 says, "Be silent, and know that I am God!" Another translation says, "Step out of the traffic! Take a long, loving look at me, your High God, above politics, above everything." If we're going to connect with God, the first step that we need to take that we need to slow our pace. Busyness is the enemy of our prayer life.
We're busier than ever. I don't know anyone who's not busy. I know seniors who have retired and say that they're busier than ever. Sometimes we find ourselves rushing and we don't even know why. We don't need to be anywhere but we're so used to rushing that we don't know how to slow down. But if we're always rushing, it's guaranteed that we'll never pray. Praying and rushing just don't go together.
Why do we find it so hard to slow down enough to pray? Jesus identified three reasons in Luke 8:14. He was talking about the reasons that some people originally accept God's Word and don't follow through. He said, "All too quickly the message is crowded out by the cares and riches and pleasures of this life" (Luke 8:14). There are three reasons why we find it hard to slow down enough to pray. The first of these reasons is the CARES of this life. Does anyone here have things they need to take care of? Sure. We all have dishes to wash, bills to be paid, and jobs to complete. These cares make us think that we don't have time to pray. I've learned that even if you don't have these cares, you will as soon as you decide it's time to pray.
This past Monday I set aside part of the day to pray and reflect. I wanted to get away from all my normal responsibilities and quiet myself to meet with God. That morning, our Internet server went down. We had five websites down as well as up to forty emails. Have you ever noticed that as soon as you set apart time to pray, the phone rings, the baby cries, or the washer begins to thump on the spin cycle? The cares of this world can prevent us from praying.
Jesus identified another reason why we don't pray. He called it RICHES. How can money keep us from God? We're always thinking of schemes to make money. We dream about advancing in our careers. We can be so consumed with buying and accumulating nice things that we don't have time to pray. Riches can keep us from prayer.
The third reason we don't pray is because of PLEASURES. We live in a society that has more pleasures available than any previous society in history. There are probably more pleasures to keep us from prayer than anyone has ever experienced before. Do you remember when radio and television stations used to sign off at night and sign on again in the morning? Now you can get entertained 24 hours a day. You can go see movies in the middle of the day or at midnight. You can go shopping day or night. There's always something to do. Cares, riches, and the pleasures of this life can keep us from praying. We get so focused on our to-do lists, on making a living, and keeping ourselves entertained that we don't think that we have any time left to pray.
What keeps you from praying? Some of us think that we'll pray when there isn't anything left to do, when work isn't as demanding, and when we've reached our fill of entertainment. That day will never come. If you wait until your to-do list is empty, until you have enough money and you don't have to go to work, and when you've been entertained, you will never have time to pray. We need to learn to pray no matter what's going on in our lives. We need to slow down every day.
What's keeping you from praying? One action I would suggest is that you set a 15-minute period every day to pray. If you don't schedule it, it won't happen. Schedule this time, and tell yourself no matter what's going on at work, no matter how many dishes are in the sink, no matter how many times the phone rings - that will be your time with God. You will take that time to slow down enough to pray. You need to slow down enough to pray.
Some people have found that even when they take the time to pray, their minds are racing ahead to what they have to do. They're physically still but their mind is still racing. If that's you, you may find that the best way for you to pray is to write your prayers. The process of writing helps them to slow down enough to really pray. Some of us need this tool to slow our minds enough to enjoy the presence of God.
A pastor phoned a friend for spiritual direction. He described the pace of his life. He told him about the state of his heart, all about what was going one. He asked, "What must I do to be spiritually healthy?" There was a long pause. Finally, the man replied: "You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life." After another long pause, the pastor said, "Okay, what else?" "There is nothing else," the man replied. You can't grow spiritually if you're not taking the time. Hurry is the great enemy of spiritual life. Hurry can destroy your soul.
Luke 5:16 says, "Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed." If you buy a multivitamin, you see a label showing you the Minimum Daily Requirements for each of the vitamins and minerals it contains. You need a Minimum Daily Requirement of time that is alone with God; time that is quiet. You need some hours in your week in which there are no sounds, no noises, nothing to do. You need time alone with God to connect with him. The key: don't rush, be still. That's the first step to connecting with God.
The second step to connecting with God is:
2. SIMPLIFY YOUR PRAYERS
The first reason people don't pray is because they're too busy. The antidote to that is to slow your pace. The second reason that people don't pray is because they think that prayer is too complicated. They believe that they don't know enough to pray. They get tongue-tied and frustrated when it's time to pray. I've noticed a few mistakes that people make when they pray that keeps them from being simple.
The first mistake that people make to complicate their prayers is that they TRY TO IMPRESS OTHER PEOPLE. Have you ever prayed a prayer that had more to do with the people listening than God? It's like a recent movie in which a man tries to impress his future parents-in-law by saying grace at Thanksgiving dinner. Bad things happen when we try to impress other people through our prayers.
In Jesus' day, there was a group of prayer professionals. They loved to pray in public, three times a day - 9 AM, noon, and 3 PM. They always prayed in the most public spots they could find so that everyone would know how pious they were. They prayed very articulate prayers. The only problem was that their prayers became too complicated. They were trying to impress others rather than God. Jesus said, "When you come before God, don't turn that into a theatrical production either. All these people making a regular show out of their prayers, hoping for stardom! Do you think God sits in a box seat?" (Matthew 6:5-6 The Message)
When you're trying to impress others with the way you pray, there's no way that you can connect with God because you can't focus on God and other people at the same time. You have a choice when you pray. You can pray with other people in mind. When you're done praying, they may hold up signs like in the Olympics: "9.4, 9.6, 9.8." Or you can pray with God in mind. You can connect with God by praying simply to him.
The second mistake that people make that complicates their prayers is that they TRY TO IMPRESS GOD. We do this unconsciously. Many times we tell God what we think he wants to hear rather than what's really on our mind. I'll never forget my first few dates with Charlene. A basic rule of first dates is that you're never yourself. You're never completely honest. You try to say what you think the other person wants to hear. We make fools of ourselves. Many of us are on permanent first dates with God. We're not honest with him. We only say what we think God wants to hear.
The world is full of so-called prayer warriors who are prayer-ignorant. They're full of formulas and programs and advice, peddling techniques for getting what you want from God. Don't fall for that nonsense. This is your Father you are dealing with, and he knows better than you what you need. With a God like this loving you, you can pray very simply. (Matthew 6:7-8 The Message)
You don't need to try and impress God. "With a God like this loving you, you can pray very simply." Matthew 6:6 says, "Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage" (The Message). Don't posture. Don't pretend. Just tell God exactly what's on your mind.
Some of us think that God can't handle our honesty. We think that if we tell God how we feel, God will become angry and strike us down. God already knows how you feel. God already knows what you're thinking. If you read the Psalms, if you read the prayers of God's people, you discover that God can handle honest prayers. God can handle your honesty. You can be honest in your prayers to God. Tell him what's on your mind.
Another way that we complicate our prayers is that we TRY TO USE JARGON. We talk to God in a way that we would never talk to anyone else. It's as if we hear other people pray, and we say, "That's a good one. I think I'll add that one to my repertoire." Our prayers become repetitious and mindless. But they sound great.
It's possible to use the most flowery, religious language out there and to say nothing. We have these Christian code words. A lot of us fall into the trap of stringing them together. When we take a look at them, we begin to realize that we've strung together a bunch of words that mean nothing. You know you're falling into this trap when you start using language with God that you wouldn't think of using with anyone else. Cut out words that you wouldn't use in a conversation with anyone else. Be honest with God.
I have to be honest. There are a lot of model prayers out there. There are books that say, "If you pray this prayer, God will bless your life. Repeat these words day after day." There's a tendency in my life to look for a formula, to look for words, to look for a certain way to pray that will make all the difference. You already know how to pray. Just get alone with God and tell him what's on your mind. Jesus gave us a very simple example of how to pray. He was giving us a model, an example of how we can pray. His prayer reads like this:
Our Father in heaven, Reveal who you are. Set the world right; Do what's bestas above, so below. Keep us alive with three square meals. Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others. Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil. You're in charge! You can do anything you want! You're ablaze in beauty! Yes. Yes. Yes. (Matthew 6:9-13 The Message)
We don't have to use this prayer word for word. What does his prayer teach? It teaches us to come to God as our Father. Approach him as a child would his dad. Then surrender your plans, your agenda to him. Ask God to meet your needs. God cares about your finances, whether or not you have enough food and clothing. You can ask God to provide for your needs. Spend some time asking God for forgiveness, and ask God to soften your heart toward the people who have offended you. Ask for God's protection from yourself and the devil. And praise God. Acknowledge his beauty. It's not complex. It's very simple. Simplify your prayer life by being honest with God.
If you've never given your life to God - if you think that it's all too complicated - it really isn't. Some people have never become Christians because they don't know the formula. They think that there's a right approach that you have to take to God. You don't need to pray certain words. All you need to do is to come to God and admit that you're a sinner - admit that you've messed up in your life. You've made bad decisions that you regret. Acknowledge that Jesus died for your sins. He came to pay for all the wrongs that you've committed. Tell God that you're turning away from doing what God wants, and that you're putting God in charge of your life. It's not about the words. It's about your hearts. You can take this step today and become a new person.
Why don't people pray? They think that they don't have time. They think that prayer is too complicated. The antidote to these two problems is to slow your pace, and then to simplify your prayers. The third step we can take to connect with God is:
3. STICK WITH IT
I'd be lying if I told you that prayer is always easy. It isn't. There are times when the most committed Christian doubts that her prayers are making a difference. That's another reason why we don't pray. We think that our prayers aren't making a difference. We get discouraged and ultimately we give up.
Ephesians 6:18 says, "Stay alert and be persistent in your prayers for all Christians everywhere." Prayer takes persistence. Sometimes the only thing that keeps us praying is persistence. I have things I've been praying about for thirty years. There are times that I want to give up. But we need to stick with it. Whenever we want to give up, we need to be reminded that our prayers are making a difference.
Why doesn't God answer our prayers right away? Sometimes God doesn't answer because he wants us to focus on him. He wants us to see him as bigger than our request. He doesn't want us to take him for granted. Sometimes he doesn't answer right away because we're too vague. We're not really committed to the prayer. We ask God for a lot of things that we're not really committed to. Sometimes God doesn't answer prayer because we're not ready yet. God has something better in mind. Many times what we're praying for is smaller than God wants to give.
But the Bible is clear about one thing. God's timing is perfect. It's God's job to handle the timing. It's our job to keep on praying. Never fall for the lie that your prayers aren't making a difference. Be persistent in your prayers. Jesus said in Matthew 7:
Keep on asking, and you will be given what you ask for. Keep on looking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened. For everyone who asks, receives. Everyone who seeks, finds. And the door is opened to everyone who knocks. (Matthew 7:7-8)
I used to think that you just had to knock once. You just had to ask God for something once. You only had to look once. But Jesus said, "Keep on asking...keep on looking...keep on seeking." If God doesn't answer right away, it's only because he wants to teach us courtesy, persistence, and diligence. But the best gifts are available to those who persistently pray and never give up. Luke 18:1 says, "Jesus told his disciples a story to illustrate their need for constant prayer and to show them that they must never give up." Stick with it. Refuse to give up in your prayers.
How can I connect with God? Slow your pace. Simplify your prayers. Stick with it. The fourth step we can take to connect with God is:
4. STRENGTHEN YOUR FAITH
A fourth reason why we struggle in our prayer life is because we doubt that God will answer our prayers. Sometimes we doubt God's willingness. We think that God is a tight-fisted God who may once in a while, with great reluctance, hear and answer prayer. But that's not at all what God is like. God is ready and willing to answer. Jesus said, "If you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him?" (Matthew 7:11) God wants to give his children good gifts. We should never doubt God's willingness.
Sometimes we just doubt that God is going to answer. We lack the faith to believe that God can do miracles in our lives. Our expectations become far lower than God would ever want them to be. I heard a pastor talk about his dreams for the next five years. He said something like this, "My dream is that we would just keep hanging on in the next five years." Sometimes I wonder if our vision is too small. Somebody's compared it to the buckets of blessing that God wants to pour out, while we're holding up our little thimbles. Ephesians 3:20 says, "By his mighty power at work within us, he is able to accomplish infinitely more than we would ever dare to ask or hope."
It's like the story in the book of Acts. The early Christians were praying that Peter would be released from jail. All of a sudden they hear a knock at the door. It's Peter. A girl goes and tells everyone that Peter's standing outside. "You're out of your mind," they replied (Acts 12:15). They're inside arguing while Peter is still standing outside knocking. It took them a while to figure out that God could actually answer prayer. Pray with expectation. Believe that God can answer your prayers.
Hebrews 11:6 says, "Anyone who wants to come to him must believe that there is a God and that he rewards those who sincerely seek him." Another passage puts it this way: "So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it" (Hebrews 4:16). Come to God with boldness. Ask with expectation.
There's a story about Mr. Jones, who died and went to heaven. Peter was waiting at the gates to give him a tour. Amid the splendor of golden streets, beautiful mansions, and choirs of angels, Mr. Jones saw an odd-looking building. It looked like an enormous warehouse, with no windows and only one door. So Mr. Jones asked Peter to see it, but Peter hesitated. "You really don't want to see what's in there," Peter told him.
"Why would there be any secrets in heaven?" Mr. Jones wondered. "What incredible surprise could be waiting for me in there?" When the official tour ended, Mr. Jones was still thinking about what's inside the structure. So finally Peter relented. When Peter opens the door, Mr. Jones rushed in and sees row after row of shelves, floor to ceiling, all stacked with white boxes and tied with red ribbons.
"These boxes all have names on them," Mr. Jones mused aloud. Then turning to Peter, he asked, "Do I have one?" "Yes, you do." Peter tried to guide Mr. Jones outside. "Frankly," he said, "if I were you..." But it was too late. Mr. Jones was already running toward the "J" aisle to find his box.
Peter followed, shaking his head. He caught up with Mr. Jones just as he was slipping the red ribbon off his box and popping the lid. Looking inside, Jones had a moment of instant recognition, and he let out a sigh like the ones Peter had heard many times before.
Inside Mr. Jones's white box were all the blessings that God wanted to give him while he was on earth. But Mr. Jones never asked. Mr. Jones never believed.
What's keeping you from praying? Are you too busy? You think prayer is too complicated? That it requires too much persistence? Too much faith? Slow your pace. Simplify your prayers. Strengthen your faith. And stick with it. Never give up. Because God wants you to be connected with you. God wants you to enjoy the blessings of prayer.
< p>James 4:2 says, "The reason you don't have what you want is that you don't ask God for it." You and I have no idea of the blessings we're missing out on because we're not connected with God in prayer. What's keeping you from this? Pray this today: "Lord, I'm going to slow my pace. I'm going to take the time every day no matter what to stay connected with you. I need my Minimum Daily Requirement of time with you."
"Lord, give me the simplicity to pray with you sincerely and honestly. Give me the persistence that I never give up. And give me the faith that I will pray great things, and expect great things, because you are a great God."
If you want to be connected with God, you need to give your life to God. If you've never done that before, today is the day. You can pray, "Father, I want to be connected with you. Thank you that Jesus came to re-establish the relationship that was broken by my sin. Today I accept the gift of forgiveness, and I put you in charge of my life. Give me a fresh start today, in Jesus' name I pray, Amen."