A Game-Changing Way to Pray

A Brief Review

Two weeks ago, we started a summer series of posts using the metaphor of a computer that needs to be shut down in order to be rebooted to its original system settings. That really is the opportunity for local churches in 2020. Having been shut down, we have a chance to revisit God’s original design—or system settings—for how the church should function in order to maximize its effectiveness in the world as a lighthouse of grace for the world.  

The six essential system settings we want to reboot are found in Acts 2:42-47.  

42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

As we pursue our Church Reboot in the wake of the shutdown, our focus in this post is on the third system setting we find in Acts 2:42. The first is a devotion to the sound doctrine found in the apostles’ teaching and the second is a devotion to the fellowship in a local church. While it is possible to understand “the breaking of bread” in verse 42 as a separate system setting, I plan to include “the breaking of bread” under a later setting and focus this message on the early Christian community’s devotion to prayer as the third system setting. 

In the first post in our series, we noted that the form of the verb “devoted” in verse 42 indicates a continual action. Meaning, they didn’t just talk about praying, they continually devoted themselves to prayer by actually praying. 

But what is prayer? 

A Simple Definition

When our first child was a toddler I began to teach her the Children’s Catechism. When we arrived at the subject of prayer, my desire was not that she merely give the right answer to the question. I wanted Ann Ferris to be equipped not to just talk about prayer intellectually, but to actually pray. To relate to God relationally and personally.

The definition I came up with in trying to communicate the essence of prayer to a young child with a limited vocabulary is a definition I think works for any believer, regardless of age or theological training. Are you ready? It is really simple. 

“Prayer is talking to God like a child talks with a father.” 

This is what Jesus taught us, isn’t it? In the Lord’s Prayer, the form of address we are invited to use when approaching the Creator of the universe is, “Our Father.” When we approach the throne of God, we are not to be like the Cowardly Lion before the Wizard of Oz, shaking with fear and trepidation. We may approach freely and confidently as children of the King. We are not just subjects under his reign. We are sons and daughters in his family. 

The word the apostle Paul specifies that we use in prayer is the Aramaic term, Abba, which when property translated is not the formal, Father, but is a very intimate expression. In Romans 8:15, Paul writes, “The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’” In this context, crying is an expression of prayer by a child in need to the one he or she knows is able to help. 

In the same way a baby today calls a Father, dada, and a mother, mama, a Jewish child would call his or her Father, abba, and mother, imma. Children do not use formal expressions but intimate, informal ones. They don’t call their parents Father and Mother but mama and dada.

That is how we are to talk to God. As dependent children with a strong Father whose unrelenting love for us has been proved with blood, where our elder brother, Jesus, gave his life to bring us home. In prayer, we have nothing to prove or sustain. There is no time clock to fulfill or any expectations of the right words to use. 

“Prayer is talking to God like a child talks with a father.” 

By the way, I think you will find it profitable to pray out loud whenever possible. God is able to hear us in our heads, but praying out loud helps us connect to God. I mean, how many of us talk to other people telepathically? Not many. We use real, spoken, out loud words. If you’ll try it, I guarantee it will change your prayer life.

Unlearning What We’ve Believed About Prayer

One of my favorite books on prayer is A Praying Life by Paul Miller. In the introduction, he makes it clear that his purpose in writing a book on prayer is not that we learn to pray per se but that through prayer we get to know God as our Abba, Father. Prayer is about submitting my will to my Father, learning his ways, enjoying his presence, and trusting him.

Psychologists tell us that much of our human dysfunction can be tied to “father issues.” The same thing may very well be true spiritually. Those of us who profess Jesus as Savior and Lord have a heavenly Father, but we may not really know him. And since we don’t know him, we may not trust him. The result is that we end up living like spiritual orphans full of fear and insecurities as if we had no Abba. 

It is to this danger Paul Miller makes a dramatic statement when he writes, “In order to pray like a child, you might need to unlearn the non-personal, nonreal praying that you’ve been taught.”

My guess is that you are like me and feel really guilty when we talk about prayer. It is something you know you should do but don’t do very much. Like flossing my teeth. I know I should.  

When I go to the dentist, the tech who cleans my teeth always asks, “Have you been flossing.” Of course, she can tell that I haven’t. It shows around my gums.

In the same way, my life will show whether or not I’m living with a conscious connection with the Father in prayer. But the reason I don’t pray is the lack of motivation. Duty rarely inspires action. It may get me flossing a few days before my dentist appointment. I have to be convinced that it really is good for me.

It may help if I were convinced that prayer is not a law to fulfill; it is a gift to enjoy. It is not an obligation; it is an invitation. It is not a should; it is a get to. It is not the work of a servant; it is the privilege of a son or daughter. 

When we finally let go of our legalistic, duty-bound notions of prayer and learn to talk to God as children, our prayers probably will not be as formal.  Paul Miller says, “Don’t try to get prayer right; just tell [him] where you are and what’s on your mind. That’s what little children do. They come as they are, runny noses and all.” In prayer, we are drawn to the welcoming heart of God as Abba, the God who “cheers when we come to him (like toddlers) with our wobbly, unsteady prayers.”

What Does Prayer Actually Do?

Once we reorient our hearts in prayer from a legalistic duty to a family privilege, we may inquire about the efficacy of prayer. What does prayer actually do? Does prayer really change things? Some folks ask it this way, “If God already knows, why pray?”

When I ask the question that way, it tips my hand a bit, as if the only reason to pray is utilitarian and useful, as if it were a tool that either works or it doesn’t. If the magic Genie lamp doesn’t work, why use it? But God is not our Genie, he is our Father, and prayer is not merely about asking for things on a prayer list as we ask for things on a Christmas list. Remember, for the child of God, prayer is about knowing, submitting, trusting, and enjoying God. It is talking to God like a child talks with a father.

But does it change things? 

Yes. Prayer changes things because just as God has ordained the ends he has ordained the means. For example, if I want to send a letter from Georgia to California, I use the post office as the means for carrying the letter to its intended destination. In the same way, when our Father plans to accomplish some purpose on earth, he doesn’t use the post office but the prayers of his children to facilitate the fulfillment of his plan. 

Does he need our prayers? Of course not. But in his wisdom, he gives us the privilege of partnering in the unfolding plans of his Kingdom on earth. One way we partner is with prayer. 

Somehow, the early believers knew this and were uncommonly devoted to dependent prayer. We see this before the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost. As they waited for God to act, we read in Acts 1:14, “They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.” In just days, the promised Holy Spirit would be poured out upon the church, unleashing a power for mission that had to that point never been known. Continual, dependent prayer is the means God used to ignite the missional movement of the church in the world.

So, yes, prayer changes things, according to the sovereign providential purpose of God. But more than change things, prayer is intended to change us. We can say that prayer shapes us. 

We see this in the life of Jesus. 

The Example of Jesus

In the first chapter of Mark’s gospel, there is a scene depicting the earliest days of Jesus’ ministry where he teaches in the Jewish synagogue in Capernaum, casts out a demon, and heals Peter’s mother-in-law, only to have the entire city show up outside of Peter’s house looking for Jesus to continuing healing the sick. So, he heals and does battle with demonic spirits into the evening. 

It was a long, exhausting day. Remember, Jesus is God but he also is man with physical limitations. He needed food, sleep, physical rest, and spiritual recharging like the rest of us.

What we read next in the narrative is telling. In verse 35, after such a tiring day, we read, “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.”

We learn several important lessons from watching Jesus pray. 

Lesson #1: Prayer isn’t a Rule; It is a Lifeline

One lesson is that prayer isn’t a rule; it is a lifeline. Prayer is a gift that connects us to the Father. You don’t need a pastor to pray for you in order to be heard by God. In prayer, you, as a disciple of Jesus and child of God,  have a direct line to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. You have his ear whenever you just talk to God like a child speaks to a Father.

Jesus knew that if he, in his humanity, would have the endurance to fulfill his mission, he would need a lifeline to his Father. That lifeline was prayer, where he was filled with a renewed assurance, confidence, and hope, knowing that he was not alone but filled with the Spirit, having the love of the Father poured out into his heart—a love that was the fuel for his life and ministry.

This is why prayer is such a gift. It gives us the opportunity to respond to the love and grace of God with practical expressions of thanksgiving, renewing our own assurance,  confidence, and hope. 

Lesson #2: Prayer Was the Source of Jesus’ Power

A second lesson is that prayer was the source of Jesus’ power. On numerous occasions, he makes this clear. Listen to several passages from the gospel of John.

  • “The son can do nothing of his own accord.” (John 5:19)
  • “I can do nothing on my own.” (John 5:30)
  • “I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me.” (John 8:28)
  • “The Father who sent me has himself given me… what to say and what to speak.” (John 12:49)

Our ability to produce good fruit is only possible as we abide in our union with God through Jesus. After all of those sayings about the source of his authority and power, Jesus says to us in John 15:5, “Apart from me, you can do nothing.” Just as prayer enabled Jesus to abide in the Father, prayer enables me to express faith by consciously abiding in Jesus as the source of my spiritual life, whereby I receive the supernatural ability to manifest spiritual fruit as a child of God.

Lesson #3: Prayer Centered Jesus’ Identity

A third lesson is that prayer centered Jesus’ identity. He was the Father’s Son, beloved and accepted, validated at the very onset of his ministry when the Father stated publicly, “This is my son, whom I love.”  Jesus didn’t have to earn his Father’s approval. He already had it by nature of his sonship.

The same is true for any adopted child of God. When we pray, Abba, we are reminded who we are. I am not an orphan. I’m a son. I’m not alone. My life is not in the hands of chance or fate but is held by the hands—the nail-scarred hands—of Jesus, whose cross is the exclamation point on divine devotion to the Father’s adopted children. 

Opening the Jelly Jar

When my youngest child was four years old, she loved doing everything herself. From getting dressed to making her own peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. On one occasion, I observed her trying to open a new jar of jelly. The seal on the peanut butter jar had been broken already. But not the jelly. 

Oh, how she strained and strained to pop the top to that sugar-infused strawberry sweetness. Eventually, she gave out. Defeated. 

Then, at the very moment of defeat, something glorious happened. 

She brought the jelly jar to me. Finally, Sarah Wynn had succumbed to her weakness, which compelled her to ask her Daddy to open the jar for her. While I’m not Dr. Buff by any means, I can open a jar of jelly. 

What was impossible for her was nothing for me. The same is true when we finally get defeated, have to give up, and take our need to our Abba. Whether it is a personal sin issue, marital junk or some other family dysfunction, a work-related problem, or a deep desire to see someone you love come to know Jesus as Savior. 

Paul said that it wasn’t until he became weak that he experienced the power of God. This of course, is one of the great secrets of spiritual life. Need and dependency are the dusty paths that lead us to the riches of grace and mercy. 

From this perspective, we see that prayer works just like the gospel. 

To experience the complete forgiveness of God, we simply confess our need. We can’t save ourselves. We can’t make ourselves righteous before the law. But God can.

Then, as his child, I experience the powerful intervention of God as I continue to confess my need, or the needs of my children, or the needs of our community. Whatever it is, prayer is believing Ephesians 3:20, that our Abba “is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.”

Arise, My Soul, Arise

Pastor and missionary Charles Wesley wrote a hymn in the 18th century that is as helpful today as it was then. The title is Arise, My Soul, Arise. As we unlearn prayer as a duty for servants and lean into prayer as a gift for sons and daughters, let me close by reading three stanzas of Wesley’s hymn, which I pray will enable our souls to rise and come alive to the wonder, beauty, and transforming power of God’s grace to sinners in Jesus.

Arise, my soul, arise! Shake off thy guilty fears;

Thy bleeding Sacrifice, in my behalf appears.

Before the throne my Surety stands; My name is written on His hands.

Five bleeding wounds He bears, Received on Calvary;

They pour effectual prayers; They strongly plead for me.

Forgive him, O forgive, they cry, Nor let that ransomed sinner die!

To God I’m reconciled, His pardoning voice I hear;

He owns me for his child, I can no longer fear. 

With confidence I now draw nigh, and Abba, Father, I cry.

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  • Mckay, well said. “Need and dependency are the dusty paths that lead us to the riches of grace and mercy.”