Two Kinds of Prayer

There are essentially two kinds of prayer that we pray.  This is true for us as preachers, as it is for us as sheep in Christ’s flock.  They seem so similar.  But they are radically different.

My Great Plan – In Mark 10:35, James and John come to Jesus with their big request, “do for us whatever we ask of you…”  What was their request?  It was to sit at Jesus’ right and left hand when he came into his glory.  It is easy to sit here now and read that with a judging tone.  Perhaps like the other disciples our indignance might reveal something about us (it takes one to know one!)

In reality James and John had probably pondered their request for a while.  Their gradually dawning awareness of Jesus’ identity perhaps stirring a request that reflected a craving for position and power, but also perhaps felt justified out of a desire to stay close to Jesus.  Whatever their thinking, in their minds it seemed like a good plan.  Now they just needed Jesus to sanctify the request with his blessing and all would be well.

How easily we can come to Jesus with our great plans. Jesus, I know how revival should spark from this next sermon.  Jesus, I have an idea for who should be hit the hardest by this message.  Jesus, I know the next step in the development of my ministry.  Our motives are always mixed, so we can usually add the veneer of humble service over any grandiose self-promotion.  It seems that Jesus is not in the habit of fanning the flames of our egos as we pray.

My Great Need – Fast forward to verse 51 and Jesus is using the same words as he speaks to Bartimaeus.  This man had been crying out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” until he had Jesus’ attention.  Then Jesus asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?”  Bartimaeus was blind, but he could see some truths about who Jesus was.  He knew his need was great.

It seems to me that Jesus is very discerning when it comes to telling the difference between “Great Plan” prayers and “Great Need” prayers.  We may fool ourselves with the veneer we add, but Jesus knows our hearts, and he knows what is best for us.  The reality for you and I, as individuals and as preachers, is that we have plenty of need to bring to Jesus in prayer.

Maybe we would do well to ask him to help us discern the difference, and perhaps to invest more of our time bringing great needs to a merciful Saviour, instead of just bringing our great plans to someone who knows better than to grant everything we ask!

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Expectation and Preaching

Somebody has said that we tend to over-estimate what can be achieved by our next sermon, but we under-estimate what can be achieved through the next five years of faithful preaching.

Here are some thoughts on expectation and preaching:

1. If our confidence is in anything other than Jesus, then our expectations are too high.  It doesn’t matter how well you have prepared, how well you know the passage, how on target the message feels for people in the congregation, etc.  We all have to fight the perennial temptation to trust in something other than Christ for the fruit in our ministry.

2. High expectation tends to lead to disappointment, but maybe it is better to have high expectations anyway. There are nuances to these things, but generally speaking it seems to take a toll to preach with high expectations.  Gradually preachers settle into a safer zone of not expecting too much so that they don’t feel too drained by regular disappointment.  But if having high expectation comes from, or leads to, more prayer for the people and for the occasion, then maybe it is worth the negative cost involved.  Maybe climbing back up again each week and choosing to trust Christ and preach again is worth it.

3. Other factors will influence your internal levels of expectation.  You may be drained from interrupted nights, or pastoral crises, or criticsm, or spiritual warfare, etc.  And there will be seasons where you struggle to expect much at all.  At these times it may be the best you can offer to simply keep going by faith.  (Of course, there may also be a need to seek help, be vulnerable, take a sabbatical, adjust your diet, start exercising or whatever might be needed – simply plodding on is not always the faithful next step – ask God and others for wisdom.)

4. Praise God that it is his ministry and not yours.  There will be times when you are fired up to launch a revival and instead your sermon falls as flat as a paper plane in torrential rain.  God knows what he is doing when he humbles us.  There will also be times when we feel like we have nothing to give and are shocked to find out that God uses us mightily in those meager moments.  God is God and we are not, let’s be sure to be good with that!

What do you experience when it comes to levels of expectation relating to your preaching ministry?

Ears to Hear – Parable Reflections part 3

In Luke 18:1-8 we have the first of a pair of parables about prayer.  In this case it is the persistent widow and the unjust judge. I am not going to talk about how to preach it, but rather think about some of the implications of the passage on us as preachers.

Here are three things that matter:

1. Prayer.  This was a parable Jesus told to encourage people to pray and not give up.  Simple enough.  We know that persistence in prayer is a biblical idea.  But for many of us, we don’t live with the pressures of survival and injustice that might nudge us to more persistent prayer.  To be honest many of us live in the top 5-10 percent of the world’s wealthiest and the danger is that our comfort undermines our awareness of our need to pray.  What’s more, as those involved in leadership and ministry we can easily let our prayer lives drift because of the constant demands on our time, ever-beeping technology, etc.  Remember Acts 6:4 – church leadership, like the apostles, is primarily about the Word and prayer.  We need to pray persistently.

2. View of God.  This matters massively.  Jesus used a totally ungodly judge to prove his point, then amplified his point with the character of God.  Sadly, though, many think God is a lot like the judge in the story, only less persuadable.  Our view of God is the most important thing that can be said about us.  And the pressures of ministry, the struggles of interpersonal conflict, or even apparently unanswered prayer can secretly sour our view of God, even while we still preach good truth on Sundays.  This parable says that your view of God really matters.

3. View of time.  Following on from point 2, many of us can easily get so caught up in the present that we lose the eschatological edge that should cut through every situation we face.  Jesus is coming back.  Through busy lives, unhelpful “baby out with bathwater” theological reactions to sensational teaching, and a lack of attention to Scripture, we can easily start to think that today is as predictable as yesterday, and that there is no radically different tomorrow to influence how we live and how we pray.  But there is a different today that comes from living in light of that tomorrow that will come when Jesus returns.  Will we remain faithful: trusting and praying for situations that seem so unjust, and looking for his coming?

There’s plenty more that could be added, please do so in the comments below!

 

Why We Pray

PrayingHands5The church is the greatest news story, even though it is never reported.  Lives are changed, peoples are united, society is helped, and preaching is at the heart of all of it.  But preaching is not inherently powerful.

The church is not a society generated by, united through, and stirred to give of itself by human social engineering.  It is possible to produce something by the skill of natural man as we exhort, encourage, celebrate and direct from the front.  But ultimately preaching is not the true story because the church is not about sales technique, social engineering, or motivational speech.

The true church is supernatural and therefore the true story of the church is the story of God at work. God opens blind hearts to see the glory of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  God unites believers as the Spirit unites their spirits with Christ and with each other.  God’s love spills over from churches that are loved by Him so that His love can make a mark in society through social care and moral influence.

Preaching the Word of God is at the heart of the life of the church, but preaching in and of itself is not powerful.  And that is why we pray.

How Do You Pray for Fellow Believers?

PrayingHands2There is a strange phenomena in the church when it comes to praying for people.  Obviously this is a generalisation, but I have observed it enough to suggest that it may be a pattern.

When people become followers of Jesus our prayers for them seem to change.  Before they are saved we pray for God to work in their lives and circumstances, for their hearts to be drawn to Christ, for the spiritual blindness to be taken away, etc.  Once they trust Christ and are in the family, then what do we pray for? Often it seems to shift to the more mundane matters of health and career.

This is not just the case in church prayer meetings, but also among leaders too.  I know that I am tempted to pray more fervently and more “spiritually” for those who are outside God’s family, or for those who are on the fringes.  But for those who seem to be doing well in human terms?  It is tempting to assume all is well.

Take a look at Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians in 1:15-23.  He begins by referencing how thankful he is for their faith in Christ and love for the saints.  These are healthy believers – they have a vertical relationship that is spilling into their horizontal relationships.  These are the kind of people I am tempted to bypass as I pray.  Not so for Paul!

The One Thing – He goes on to make clear the one thing that he prays for them: that the Father might give them the Spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him!  That is, Paul prays for these believers to know God.  Simple.  Or is it profound?

Clearly he doesn’t mean that he wants them to “come to know” God, but to grow in their knowing Him.  He wants their relationship with God to go deeper, that the union they have with Christ should become more vibrant and developed.  (Remember that “in Christ” occurs almost forty times in Ephesians – union with Christ is a massive theme in the letter.)

I suspect many of us who have a passion to see the lost brought to salvation may fall into the trap of then missing the growth potential that exists for a believer.  There is so much more than just getting saved and then telling others, there is massive potential for spiritual growth and maturity.

The Three Things – Paul spells out this one prayer request with three specifics.  He wants God to enlighten the eyes of their hearts to know three things.

First, he wants them to know the absolute certainty of their calling in Christ.  We have churches filled with people who carry the label of Christian, and yet have all manner of uncertainty and confusion over God’s calling on their lives.

Second, he wants them to know that they are God’s inheritance – an inheritance He considers to be gloriously rich!  This is not something new believers readily grasp.  Just as it takes a wife many years to truly believe that her husband really loves her, so it is with God’s people.

Third, he wants them to know how much power there is toward them as they trust God for it.  That is, is there enough power for a life like mine to be truly transformed by the gospel?  Is there enough power for me to be raised from my sinful state of death to do the works God has prepared for me to do?  There is if that power is the same power that raised Christ from the dead, seated him in glory, put all enemies under his feet and made him head over the church!

Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians is incredibly encouraging for us to read.  More than that, it is deeply challenging to recognize that this prayer was prayed for those who were already faithful and loving.  Let’s not bypass those that seem healthy and established in our churches and in our ministry spheres.  Let’s pray for them, and for ourselves too, to be growing in our relationship with God, knowing more profoundly the reality of our hope, his inheritance and the abundance of power available!

The Four Places of Preaching – 2

After spending significant time in the study, without company, yet not alone, the preacher needs to move to the second location.  What comes out of the study is a deep awareness of the passage, its meaning, its intent, its contours and details, all summed up in a single sentence summary, and all held as a treasure in the heart because of the work of God during the time in the study.  Now to the next place:

Place 2 – Stop and Pray (The Prayer Closet)

In his very helpful book, Deep Preaching, J. Kent Edwards urges the preacher to take God’s Big Idea into the closet and allow the Spirit to work there for the sake of deeper preaching.  So true.

This place doesn’t need to be a closet (it’s hard to find one humans can fit in in some cultures!)  It does need to be a place without study resources and Bible software and shelves of books, not to mention phones and email and satellite whatevers.  It might be an extended walk in the woods, or a chair in the lounge, or even, one of my favourites, the empty church where the message will be preached.

What is the goal here?  The goal is to spend focused time in fellowship with God concerning the preacher, God, the passage and the listeners, in order to be able to then prepare a targeted message for them from that passage.

Where is the focus?  God was certainly involved in the study, at least, He should have been.  But it is important to recognize that the preacher is not primarily a purveyor of ancient wisdom.  The preacher is, or should be, in fellowship with the Living God.  So the step isn’t from commentary to outline, but from study to focused prayer.

1.  Preaching should involve enthusiasm for the text and what you have discovered, but it should be driven by who, rather than what.  Prayer closet time allows that personal connection and responsiveness to the God who reveals Himself in the Word to develop and drive the preaching.

2. Preaching should involve awareness of the meaning and impact of the text, but it should be sealed on the heart and experience of the preacher, not just held at arms length as new discovery.  Time in prayer allows God’s Word to be driven deep into our hearts.

3. Preaching should involve a message carefully crafted to communicate effectively to a specific audience, but for that to be an act of real love, then God’s heart for the people needs to be our heart for the people.  Bringing the people before God, alongside the passage, is thus critical to forming and delivering a message as an overflow of God’s love for them.

More could be written, but let’s leave it there.  Study.  Then stop and pray.  Then?  Some people will be very excited by the next location!

Private Prayer

I would never claim to be an expert in prayer.  I wish I was.  In fact, I repeatedly feel the urge to become one.  However, personal inadequacies in prayer do not mean that I dismiss it as unimportant in ministry.  I really appreciate this brief quote from Calvin Miller:

Preaching, in one sense, merely discharges the firearm that God has loaded in the silent place.

Yesterday I wrote about the concept of seeking prayer support and prayer cover for the ministry that we are involved in.  As vital as that is, it can never be a substitute for personal, private prayer.  I am a little sad at the changing of the season, because this summer I have grown to love an outdoor location nearby where I can go and pray, and dream, and think, and pray some more.  Perhaps it will still work without leaves and with rain, we’ll see.

It is important to find a way, a place, a time, for regular uninterrupted communing with the Lord.  A time to dream together about the future, to think together about the present, to weep together, to worship together, to be together with Him.  I remember the comment of one faculty member at the seminary I attended concerning another – he is a real man of prayer.  I’m not sure how that could be known, but actually it does show, doesn’t it?

In three or four decades time I hope people might say that about me . . . but for that to happen I need to be a man of prayer now.  What can we give up to free up time for prayer?  What else has the same sense of weightiness as fellowship with our Lord? Personal, private prayer.  Nothing else comes close.

Covered in Prayer?

“It is no marvel that the pulpit is so powerless and ministers so often disheartened when there are so few who hold up their hands …. O, you blood bought churches, your ministers need your prayers!” (Gardiner Spring)

Is there any inconsistency between what we say and what we practice in regard to prayer and preaching?  If we, as preachers, genuinely believe that our preaching is dependent for its power not on technique, ability, skill, etc., but rather on the power of God Himself.  If we, as preachers, are aware of the spiritual battle that rages among believers and not-yet-believers during the weekly routine of church life.  If we, as preachers, are aware of our own struggles and weaknesses in the complex experience of life and ministry.  Well . . . shouldn’t the pursuit of prayer for the ministry be paramount in our many lists of priorities?

Do we diligently seek out prayer partners and ask them to stand with us?  Not because we are somehow special individuals, but because the ministry we are involved in is itself a special task for which we are inadequate?  Do we express to our listeners our need for prayer, or do we give the impression, even inadvertently, that we have it all together?

And finally, what about intercessory prayer meetings before and during and after the preaching of the Word?  In some circles this is standard practice.  In others it is unheard of.  Why?  If it is a spiritual battle, if it is by God’s strength alone, if it is a task too great for us to handle in our strength, then why not?  As I look back on last Sunday’s ministry, perhaps my greatest regret is that I didn’t request a simultaneous prayer gathering – even just two or three people praying for those listening, for the one speaking, for God’s power in it all.

(And just to be consistent with what I have written, here’s a link to our last couple of mini-updates . . . if you can spare a couple of minutes, I’d really value your prayers – http://pouredout.org/?page_id=580 – let me know if you’d like to receive our prayer letter regularly.)

Short Cuts to Nowhere Good

There are a couple of short-cuts taken by many preachers that need to be highlighted for the sake of Biblical Preaching.  Please be sure to read the explanation as well as the heading (it’s amazing how people miss the point of what’s written sometimes!)

1. Prayer. Prayer is not a short-cut.  It is a necessity.  It is critical.  However, it is not a short-cut.  In fact, praying in preparation will probably make the preparation take longer, but it is worth the longer journey.  Many preachers think that all they need to do is pray and then preach their impressions.  This is neither pleasing to the Lord nor helpful for the listeners.  Why do some preachers think God is so pleased when they essentially dismiss the Bible by skirting around the study process in preparation?  I suspect that if we pray “Lord, please show me what I should say from this text!” that His answer would include “I want you to say what the text says.” God takes His Word very seriously, so should we, and prayer is not short-cut around the blessing of spending significant time and effort wrestling with the true and exact meaning of the passage.

Tomorrow I will add another short-cut that is not worth taking if we are to be Biblical Preachers!

Sacred Substitutes

Just following up on Monday’s post on prayer . . . I appreciate the next chapter in Piper’s Brothers We Are Not Professionals – Beware of Sacred Substitutes.  What is the greatest threat to genuine prayer and true meditation on the Word?  It is ministry activity.  “Ministry is its own worst enemy.”  (p59)

How true this is!  Turning to Acts 6:2-4, Piper exhorts the reader to guard against the many sacred substitutes, the real needs, the pressing concerns of ministry.  “Without extended, concentrated prayer, the ministry of the Word withers.” (p60)

Consider what must be sacrificed in order to take genuinely focused time in prayer this week.  Don’t leave prayer until your message is prepared.  Don’t leave prayer until the unplanned needs are addressed.  Don’t leave prayer until your next day off.  Don’t even leave prayer until it can be used to “redeem the time” in the car journey between appointments.

There are many sacred substitutes that come our way.  Even apart from the flesh, laziness, entertainment, and the enemy himself.  Just in the good and the right and the needy and the appropriate – there are many substitutes that will steal us away from the real priority.  “Without extended, concentrated prayer, the ministry of the Word withers.”