Prayer List or Wish List?
There is a story about American pastor, D. L. Moody, making a visit to Scotland in the 1800's and opening one of his talks at a local grade school with the rhetorical question, What is prayer?
To his amazement, hundreds of children's hands went up. So D.L. Moody decided to call on a lad near the front, who promptly stood up and said, "Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, in the name of Christ, by the help of his Spirit, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of his mercies."
The answer the child gave was the answer to question 78 in the Westminster Catechism. To this Moody responded, "Be thankful, son, that you were born in Scotland."
There was a time when even children in grade school understood the subject of prayer. There was a time when most every Christian knew that the grand purpose of prayer was to glorify God. That time, unfortunately, has past.
We are not living in 19th Century Scotland, but in 21st Century Canada. And every indication is that the church's understanding of prayer has deteriorated. We have forgotten its chief aim.
What many Christians would call a prayer list, I would argue, more closely resembles a wish list. The way some people approach God in prayer, you would think they were submitting a wish list to a celestial Santa Claus, as opposed to praying to the Holy God of the Universe.
As I say this, I am perfectly aware that there are verses in Scripture that seem to indicate that any kind of prayer request is fine. Paul tells the Philippians, "Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God"(Phil. 4:6). In the same vein, our Lord encourages us to pray saying, "Ask, and it shall be given to you; seek and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you"(Mt. 7:7).
Take these verses away from the context they were written in, and one might wrongly conclude that we are free to ask for anything. The Lord's Prayer, however, reminds us to pray "Thy kingdom come", not "my kingdom come". It reminds us to pray "Thy will be done", not "my will be done"(Mt. 6:10). 1John 5:14 reminds us that our basis for confidence in answered prayer is that "if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us."
There is such a thing as inappropriate prayer. There is such a thing as prayer that dishonours God. The apostle James teaches us this in chapter 4, verse 3, of his letter, "You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures."
Human nature is such that we are constantly steered by our pleasures. And friends, is it not safe to say that not all of our pleasures are good for us? Is it not safe to say that some of the things we desire to obtain have little, or nothing, to do with the glory of God?
James goes on to tell us that "friendship with the world is hostility toward God", and that those who befriend the world are like "adulteresses"(4:4). It should not surprise us to learn then, that if the aim of our prayers is to be immersed in the things of this world, we should not expect any answer from God.
What then, shall we pray for? Last Sunday, I directed your prayers generally by exhorting you to pray for the glory of God. This Sunday, I would like to direct your prayers specifically. As I surveyed the New Testament instruction on prayer, I quickly discerned a pattern. That is, there are a number of things that are repeatedly prayed for. One of those things is prayer for the mission.
Jesus instructs us in this manner when He says, "The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Therefore, pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into the harvest"(Mt. 9:38).
The apostle Paul, after telling the Ephesians to put on "the full armour of God", instructs them to "pray for all the saints", and to pray for him that he might "make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel"(Eph. 6:18, 19).
In the same way, Paul instructs the Colossians to pray so that "God may open up (for him) a door for the word, so that (he might) speak forth the mystery of Christ"(Col. 4:3).
And again, in our text in 2Thessalonians 3, Paul writes, "pray for us that the word of the Lord may spread rapidly and be glorified, just as it did also with you"(2Thess. 3:1).
Let's take a few minutes to unpack 2Thessalonians 3:1, a verse that is loaded with meaning and application for our Christian life. The chapter begins with Paul writing, "Pray for us".
Was there ever a more effective communicator of the Gospel than Paul? And though Paul likely surpassed all of these people in the discipline of prayer, even still, he recognized his own need to be prayed for. Paul understood that his preaching of the Gospel needed to be energized by the prayers of the people.
You have heard me tell the story of when Charles Spurgeon was asked what the key to his success in ministry was. Spurgeon's answer was, "My people pray for me."
It is imperative that we all commit ourselves to pray for those individuals who are teaching the Gospel. That means praying for me before I get behind this pulpit. That means praying for the Sunday School teachers. That means, praying for any Christian who is committed to proclaiming the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
What do we want to happen when the Gospel is proclaimed? We want lives to be transformed. We want the Word of God to convince people of their sin in order that they might repent and believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and that He has secured atonement for all those who turn to Him.
The apostle Paul often talks about the need to have doors opened for the Gospel. John Piper likens these doors to people's hearts and so he says that our task is to "Pray the locks off people's hearts". And as we pray, the locks come off the people's hearts, the door swings open, and the Gospel enters in.
This is Paul's passion--that "the Word of the Lord may spread rapidly and be glorified, just as it did also with you". A more literal translation of the Greek reads, "pray for us that the Word of the Lord may run". What an interesting way to talk the spread of a message! The Gospel message, Paul writes, has the ability to run. What does this mean?
Allow to explain what it means by way of example. On Tuesday evening, I got a call from the clerk of our Presbytery. She had evidently received an e-mail from me that contained a virus.
(Now, for those of you who might not be familiar with computer viruses, it may be helpful for you to know that they are not totally unlike viruses that you or I might get in our body. There is a sense, where you could say that a computer can get "sick". And if your computer gets "sick", and it talks to another computer through e-mail, it can infect the other computer with the virus.)
The Clerk of Presbytery informed me that the virus I had sent to her had caused her computer to seize up. So I turned on my computer and soon learned that she was right. My computer did indeed have a virus and it was causing my computer to malfunction. Thankfully, I was able to acquire an antidote for the virus and the problem was eventually solved.
During that process, I learned quite a bit about this computer virus. I learned that this particular virus not only hampers the performance of your computer, but what makes this virus so dangerous is that it has the ability to send itself by e-mail to every person in your address list. Do you see the potential for harm here?
I get the virus and send it to 20 people. Then, potentially, each of the 20 people I send the virus to send it out to 20 people on their list, and so on. You could certainly say that this computer virus had the ability to run! And what I find amazing is that it didn't even need me to physically e-mail the virus. I was simply a conduit in the process.
I share this example with you because there is a sense where the Gospel message runs in this manner. Once the Gospel message has transformed your life, you become a conduit for the Gospel. The Gospel message is meant to run from you to those who you are in a relationship with. And, if it transforms some of them, then they become conduits of the Gospel, and so on.
But, of course, the running of the Gospel is not always as smooth as that. When the Gospel runs, it meets obstacles, it meets closed doors, it meets personal security measures, it meets hardened hearts. And this is where prayer comes in. Our prayers help the Gospel run its course.
The New Testament is clear on this issue. One of the primary tasks of prayer is to support the mission. Our General, Jesus Christ, has assigned us to a mission, but He has not left us on our own. He has equipped us with walkie-talkies. Through prayer, we communicate with the General and we gain support for the mission.
Speaking about prayer in these terms, John Piper states that "the number one reason my prayer malfunctions in the hands of Christians is because they try to turn a wartime walkie-talkie into a domestic intercom."
Prayer offered for the sole purpose of increasing your earthly comfort will surely malfunction. Prayer is meant for the mission. It is meant for the advancement of Christ's kingdom, not our kingdom. And, even as we pray for daily bread and for the forgiveness of our sins, we do so in order to be strengthened for the mission.
Friends, I implore you in the name of Jesus Christ to pray for the mission entrusted to us. Pray that the Gospel may run from you to those who do not know Christ. Pray that the Gospel may run and bring glory to God. Amen.