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The Purpose of Prayer

Well, here we are two weeks into the new year. That means that 27% of all the New Years Resolutions have now been broken! I don’t know if any of you have made any new year resolutions this year (If I remember right – I don’t know that any of us did last year when I asked.) But if you did, I sure hope you’re able to stick with it longer than two weeks.

This week I was reading an article about the business model of gyms and fitness centres. And the article said that these businesses bank on people to sign up for gym memberships in January and then never show up. That’s a key part of their business model. The article said that…

If gyms operate at more than 5% of their membership at any given time, no one can use the gym. They want them to sign up, but they know that after the 15th of January, they won’t see 95% of them again.

That’s pretty incredible! But not too surprising, because I think a lot of us can relate.

I think all of us recognize the value of staying healthy and fit. Now certainly there can be those factors out of our control that prevent that, but generally speaking, all of would like to see ourselves healthy and fit and physically able to do all the things that we’d like to do.

And so most people would agree that it would be good for them to exercise more. Going to the gym would be beneficial. It would be a good habit to get into to. But yet, despite the knowledge in our head of how valuable physical activity and fitness is, very few people actually make it a priority to exercise or go to the gym or do all those things that are required if we want to stay healthy and fit.

Many of us have really good intentions – and we may go through short bursts of time of making the effort – but in the long run, very few people actually stick with it and make it a part of their lifestyle.

And I think we have a similar experience when it comes to the spiritual disciplines.

Over the past several weeks we have been looking at the spiritual disciplines (or the healthy habits) that Christians have been practicing over the centuries in order to cultivate a deep, meaningful relationship with God. We’ve spent a lot of time focusing on the Bible (because that really is the foundation for everything we believe – we have to know and understand and apply this book to our lives), but today I want to look at another healthy habit – and that is prayer.

And prayer, I think, is very much like exercise. Everyone knows that it’s important, and everyone agrees that they really should do it more often, but yet, very few people make it a priority so that it becomes a central part of their life.

And so I spent some time this week trying to figure out why that is. Because every Christian I know agrees that prayer is important. They have the head knowledge that prayer should be central to every Christian’s life! But yet, almost every Christian will tell you, “I really don’t pray like I should. Maybe I pray some, but I really should pray more.”

Now of course, there are some exceptions. There are some people out there that just have amazing prayer lives – and usually, you know exactly who those folks are. They just seem to be so in-tune with God. Even in the midst of great struggles and trials, these folks aren’t shaken at all. It’s like they have this unwavering trust in God. And these folks tend to be so wise and patient and loving and kind. It’s like they’ve been mentored by God Himself! That’s the result of a lifetime and a lifestyle of prayer.

So why aren’t there more of those folks? Why isn’t every Christian like that? What is it about prayer that makes it so difficult to adopt as a lifetime habit? We know how important prayer is, and yet we struggle to make it a central part of our lives! Why is that?

Well, part of the problem could be that, in our minds, prayer doesn’t always seem to work!

We live in a results-driving world. When we do something, we expect to see certain results. When we go to work – we expect to get paid. When we discipline our kids, we expect them to change their behaviour. When we shovel the walk for our neighbor, we expect some kind of appreciation or kindness in response.

And if we don’t get the results we’re expecting, we’ll probably change what we’re doing.

If you no longer got paid, you’d probably stop going to work. If your kids behaviour grows worst, you’d probably change your discipline strategy. If your neighbour got mad at you for shovelling his walk, you’d probably not do that again.

We do certain things because we expect to see certain results. If we don’t see the results we’re looking for, we’ll probably change what we’re doing.

So to go back to our example of exercising, most of those people who sign up for those gym memberships and fitness classes, they go into it expecting certain results. They expect to lose some weight or to gain some muscle or to have more energy and endurance. But after the first couple times at the gym – what results do they see? Chances are they haven’t lost any noticeable weight yet – they certainly don’t feel any stronger (in fact, their muscles probably feel sore and tired and strained) And that’s not the results they were looking for – so they stop going to the gym.

And I think the same thing happens with prayer. I think most Christians go into prayer expecting certain results (specifically, they expect answered prayers) – and if they don’t see the results that they are expecting, then that really lowers the motivation to pray, doesn’t it?

  • Sometimes we pray that God would change a certain situation – but the situation doesn’t seem to change.
  • Sometimes we pray that God would provide some particular thing for us – but that particular thing never shows up.
  • Or to use the example of Paul in the Bible, sometimes we pray that God would remove a certain thorn in our flesh, but God says, “No, my grace is sufficient for you.”

Do we conclude then, that prayer doesn’t work because we’re not seeing the results we’re expecting? I think in some ways, we do.

Now of course, as Christians, no one is going to say that they don’t believe that prayer works. That’s just heretical! We know prayer works. If fact, many of us can tell stories about how God has answered our prayers in the past. We can quote verses like James 5:16 that tells us that the prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.

Yet despite that head knowledge, when you look at our actual practice, when you see how little we pray and what little priority we give to spending time in prayer, can we honestly say that we believe in the power of prayer?

So I do think that our unmet expectations of prayer tend to discourage us from praying.

But what if our expectations are wrong?

You know, if we’re just praying so that God can answer our prayers – I wonder if we’re missing the point of praying? What if we’ve mis-understood God’s purpose for praying in the first place? What if praying isn’t just about getting answers to our prayers? What if praying is supposed to accomplish something more?

Because if God has designed prayer to accomplish one thing – and we’re expecting it to accomplish something different – then of course, we’re not going to see the results that we are expecting, we’re not going to see the value of prayer, and as a result, we’re not going to pray.

If those guys who signed up for their gym membership had a better understanding of what to expect of their gym experience, I wonder how many more of them would stick with it? How many more of them would push through the short-term pain to eventually get that long-term gain that they were hoping for?

So this morning I want to look at the question: What is the purpose of prayer? And what results should we expect when we pray? Are we just looking for answers to our prayers? Or does prayer result in something much more significant?

And I want to start off by looking at the passage that has been the theme for this series… John 15:4-5 has been our theme verse, but I want to keep reading just a little beyond that today – so we’ll start at verse 4 and read all the way to verse 7…

4 Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me. 5 “Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing. 6 Anyone who does not remain in me is thrown away like a useless branch and withers. Such branches are gathered into a pile to be burned. 7 But if you remain in me and my words remain in you, you may ask for anything you want, and it will be granted!  John 15:4-7

Now it’s pretty easy to get stuck on that part where it says “You may ask for anything you want, and it will be granted!” Cuz frankly, that seems pretty cool. Isn’t that everyone’s dream? The genie in the bottle granting anything you ever wanted? Riches, a huge house (of course, the house-cleaning services to go with it), swimming pool, fast cars, private jets, vacations…

Is that what this verse is saying? Now certainly our experience say, “No, it is not.” Cuz we’ve tried. I’m sure all of us have asked God for things and the answer was “no”. So how we do reconcile our experiences with what the Bible says here?

And this isn’t the only place in Scripture that this idea comes up.

“You can pray for anything, and if you have faith, you will receive it.”

Matthew 21:22

“You can ask for anything in my name, and I will do it, so that the Son can bring glory to the Father. 14 Yes, ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it!”

John 14:13-14

So you can certainly understand how we get this idea that prayer is the means for us to ask God for stuff. But the problem comes when we try it. We decided to try this prayer thing out and ask God for things and lo, and behold, we don’t get what we ask for!

So what’s the issue? Does prayer not work? Do we not have enough faith – like many tv preachers might have us believe? Is the Bible wrong? Was Jesus lying to us?

Or perhaps we’ve misunderstood what Jesus is trying to tell us? (You’ll remember how we talked about last week how important it is to accurately understand what the Bible actually says – not just what we think it says.)

Perhaps we’ve misunderstood the purpose of prayer? And if that’s the case – well, what did we miss?

Well, let’s put into practice those principles that we learned last week about how to accurately understand the Bible and let’s see. The first principle was to read the Bible as a whole book, right? So let’s see what the other parts of the Bible have to say about this. Let’s start with James 4:2…

You don’t have what you want because you don’t ask God for it. 3 And even when you ask, you don’t get it because your motives are all wrong—you want only what will give you pleasure. James 4:2b-3

Well, there’s a bit of clarity right there. Motives are clearly important. It seems God is not interested in giving us things when we ask for them simply out of selfishness. So that kinda takes care of the whole “genie in a bottle” idea of prayer. But again, that’s not to say that God doesn’t give us good things to enjoy. God is a generous God who loves providing good things for us. Jesus says in Matthew 7:9…

9 “You parents—if your children ask for a loaf of bread, do you give them a stone instead? 10 Or if they ask for a fish, do you give them a snake? Of course not! 11 So 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 7:9-11

We didn’t come up with the idea of generosity and giving good gifts – that was all God’s idea. That’s God’s character! The only reason we can be generous is because we are a reflection of God’s amazing generosity.

And if that’s the case, then clearly prayer isn’t meant to be our tool pry the things we need from God’s clenched fists. God is eager to give us what we need. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 9:8.

“And God will generously provide all you need. Then you will always have everything you need and plenty left over to share with others.” 2 Corinthians 9:8

So God’s not interested in answering our greedy, selfish prayers, but at the same time, He has promised to provide for us everything we need and then some!

So does that mean that the purpose of our prayers is just to let God know what we need? Is it like our grocery list that we send with our spouse to the store? Well, when you look at Matthew 6:7, even that doesn’t seem to be necessary. Jesus says here…

7 “When you pray, don’t babble on and on as the Gentiles do. They think their prayers are answered merely by repeating their words again and again. 8 Don’t be like them, for your Father knows exactly what you need even before you ask him! Matthew 6:7-8

So prayer doesn’t even seem to be necessary in communicating our needs to God. He already knows everything we need! So why pray?

Why does Paul tell us in 1 Thessalonians 5:16 to “Pray Continually.” God knows what we need. He’s promised to provide it. So what’s the purpose of prayer then?

Well, let’s go back to our passage in John 15.

4 Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me. 5 “Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing. 6 Anyone who does not remain in me is thrown away like a useless branch and withers. Such branches are gathered into a pile to be burned. 7 But if you remain in me and my words remain in you, you may ask for anything you want, and it will be granted!

John 15:4-7

Now when you look at this passage as a whole, you quickly see that this passage isn’t about getting the things we want. This passage is about remaining in Jesus.  And that’s what prayer is about too. It’s not about getting the things we want – it’s about remaining in Jesus. Prayer isn’t so much about changing our situation, but rather, it’s about changing us.

Richard Foster writes:

“To pray is to change. Prayer is the central avenue that God uses to transform us…. In prayer we learn to think God’s thoughts after Him: to desire the things He desires, to love the things He loves, to do the things He wills.”

Richard Foster ~ Celebration of Disciplines.

That’s what prayer is about. Prayer is about spending time with God – getting to know Him, learning to trust Him, seeing things from His perspective – and in doing so, we become more like Him.

And certainly part of that is talking to God about the concerns and issues and the needs we have. But we don’t do that with a vending machine mentality – where we put in the prayer and get back the answer. We do it as if we’re talking to friend, a loving Father, who cares deeply about us, who can see far beyond our limited scope of understanding, and is well able to adjust our situation, and will do so only if it’s in our best interest.

When we go into prayer like that, suddenly it’s not the answer to our prayer that’s important – what’s important is the One who answers our prayers.

If, after we pray, God changes our situation – great! We can praise Him for his kindness and mercy to us. If God doesn’t change our situation – great! We can praise Him for his wisdom and understanding and love for us. It’s not the answer to our prayers that matter! Either way, through prayer, we’ve acknowledged His sovereignty and his goodness and his love for us – and we know that however He answers, it’s ultimately for our good and his glory!

And I think that’s why Paul writes in Philippians 4:6-7

Do not be anxious about anything. Instead, in every situation, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, tell your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4:6-7

Paul doesn’t guarantee that God will change your situation – he guarantees that God will change you. He guarantees that God will give you an amazing peace in your heart and mind.

God has given us this tool of prayer – not because He needs it – but because we need it. Prayer is for our benefit. It’s how we access the “peace of God that surpasses all understanding”. It’s how we grow in our faith and our trust in God. It gives us the opportunity to take all of our concerns and all of our cares and all of our issues – and to entrust them all to God.

And then over time, as we see how God handles all of our stuff, we see His character, we see his sovereignty, we see glimpses of his plan, and we see our part in that plan.

And that whole process just strengthens our trust and faith in God. It draws us close and closer to Him. It deepens the relationship we have with Him. Though prayer we remain in Him and He remains in us. Through prayer, we learn to think God’s thoughts after Him: to desire the things He desires, to love the things He loves, to do the things He wills.”

And it should be no surprise then, that as our character mimics the character of Jesus, that we can ask for anything we want and God will grant it to us – because we will want the exact same things that Jesus wants.

And that’s the purpose of prayer. It transforms us to be more and more like our Saviour, Jesus Christ.

So the question that I’d leave you with today is, “How’s that transformation coming?” Are you making use of this powerful tool called prayer?

And are you using it for it’s intended purpose? I think lots of people use prayer like a cosmic vending machine, but they’re pretty sure to be disappointed in the results, because that’s not what God intended prayer to be used for.

Prayer isn’t about the answers – it’s about the One who answers those prayers and our transformation to become more like Him.

The most Godly people I know are the ones who pray well. They pray continually. In every situation, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, they tell their requests to God. They abide in Him and He abides in them.

Is that you? Are you one of those people? If you’re not, you can be. You can start today to develop this very healthy habit of prayer. You can consistently experience the peace of God that surpasses all understanding as you grow in faith and trust in Him.

We’re going to talk a little bit more about the practical side of prayer and how we can develop that habit in a future message, but for today, I just want you to start seeing how your prayer times can become one of the most important parts of your day – not because of how God’s going to change your situation, but because of how God is going to change you.

If you want to learn to think God’s thoughts after Him: to desire the things He desires, to love the things He loves, to do the things He wills, then prayer is exactly how you do that. And when you couple that with reading and accurately understanding God’s Word – seeing Who God is and what He’s like and how He works in the world – that is a recipe for absolute transformation! Doing those things well will change your life!

Just try it and see. If a regular prayer time is something new for you, maybe this week take just 5 minutes a day – maybe 10 – and just talk to God. Tell him about your concerns. Tell him about your issues. Give him your requests. And then let Him handle all those things. Let the sovereign God of the universe (who loves you like crazy by the way) Let Him be responsible for everything that happens.

Maybe He’ll change your situation immediately. Maybe He won’t. But either way, I guarantee that over time you’ll see how wise and how good and how kind and how trustworthy our God is – and as a result, your faith in Him and your love for Him will grow and grow and grow.

Which is exactly the point.

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