Sunday, January 22, 2017

Why Pray?

Over the last several months I’ve been doing some thinking and reading and praying about the topic of prayer. So, today I’m going to tell you some of what I’ve discovered. I expect that there will be other sermons on this topic from time to time.

My goal for this sermon is to give a partial answer to a question, and the question is, ‘Why pray?’ As you know, there are many, many answers to this question. But not all of them are good answers. Some people pray because it’s a duty they feel obligated to fulfill. If they don’t, they feel guilty. And they don’t want to feel guilty. So, they pray. Other people actually don’t pray, that is, not unless there’s some crisis or emergency. Then, they pray. And there are other bad reasons to pray.

But what we want are some good reasons to pray. So, I’m going to offer you one this morning. It comes in two parts.

Here’s the first part. We need to pray because life is dangerous.

Consider this trinity of threats: the world, the flesh and the devil. We’re going to look at each in turn.

When the Bible talks about the world, there are many things that might be included. Here’s one. The world is the collection of people who are determined to live independently of the God who created them and who keeps them alive. So, think Cain, King Saul, the Pharisees, those chief priests, and the pre-Christian Paul. It would be bad enough that such a group exists. But it’s worse. The world isn’t content just being itself. It wants us to join it. So, it won’t leave us alone. It pulls at us, calls to us. It wants us to adopt its ways. It wants us to also live independently of the God who created us and who keeps us alive.

Listen to what the Scriptures have to say about the world.

We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one. 1 John 5.19

Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you. 1 John 3.13

Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 1 John 2.15

That last warning is important. The world calls to us. And sad to say, there are times when we listen to its call and imitate its ways. That’s a problem. Listen to how James responded - in his blunt style - to that problem in the church he was writing to.
You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. James 4.4

That’s the world.

Now, the flesh. One translation has rendered this as ‘sinful nature’, and I can see why. Sin still remains in us, and it continues to trip us up. Actually, all too often, it does more than just trip us up. Listen.

For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. Galatians 5.17

The flesh, that remaining sin, is fighting against us so that we will not heed the Spirit and follow Jesus faithfully. And let’s be honest. It wins too many battles.

Paul expresses from his own life what we all deal with.

For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Rom 7:18-19

There is this continual war within us because of the flesh.

Then, there is the devil. It is all too easy to misunderstand and thus to underestimate the devil. Something John wrote will help us to see reality a bit more clearly.

Then the dragon became furious with the woman and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus. Revelation 12.17

The dragon is John’s symbol for the devil. And ‘the rest of her offspring’ - well, that’s us. The devil is furious, and he is waging a vicious war against us. So, it is no wonder that Peter offers this warning.

Be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. 1 Peter 5.8

Please notice that Peter didn’t write, ‘seeking someone to tempt’, even though that’s certainly something that the devil does. Peter wrote ‘devour’. The devil wants to destroy you. And he’s looking for an opportunity to pounce. Let’s not underestimate the rage of our enemy.

So, do you see what I mean when I tell you that life is dangerous? We are under attack. We are confronted by the world, the flesh and the devil. They are out to get us. And what adds to the difficulty of our situation is that this trinity of enemies is so very subtle. It’s one thing to fight an enemy who’s standing right in front of you. It’s quite another when he is quietly stalking you from the shadows, waiting for that opportune time when you drop your guard. And these are enemies that can do us great harm. If that weren’t the case, why does the Spirit include those warnings that I read to you, not to mention all the warnings that I didn’t read?

We are surrounded by the world and its allure. Our flesh goes wherever we go, trying to drag us down. And Satan is always working on some scheme to attack and destroy us.

It is pure foolishness for any of us to think that we can handle this situation on our own.

Life is dangerous.

That’s the first part of my answer to our question, ‘Why pray?’ And I think that you can see why I think that it’s a good answer to that question.

Here’s the second part. We have been included in a family led by a Father who cares deeply for His children, who cares deeply for us. Here’s a bit of Scripture that has become quite dear to me over the last few months.

Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. 1 Peter 5.6-7

This is tremendous. We have a Father who cares.

In that sentence, Peter describes how we are to pray so that we can enjoy that fatherly care.

Prayer starts with humility. Or to translate, prayer starts with us being honest with ourselves and then with the Father. It’s an honesty that recognizes its own weakness, its inability to be able stand before our enemies. It’s an honesty that says, ‘Unless You do something, Father, I am not going to make it.’ The praying Christian prays that because he really believes it. An absence of prayer in a Christian’s life is simply the admission that he doesn’t believe that life is all that dangerous. That person thinks that he can make it just fine on his own. What pride. What foolishness! Prayer begins with being humbled by reality. 

An honest look at our situation will result in our seeing how dangerous life is. And that won’t remain just some generalized awareness. We will see how, in particular ways, life is dangerous for us. We will see how the world exercising its pull on us, how our flesh is battling away to keep us from faithful living, how the devil is, again, mounting an attack in order to take another bite out of us. As we see our enemies doing their evil work, we will have reasons to become anxious.

But Peter tells us what to do with those anxieties. He tells us to cast our anxieties on God. In its clearest terms, our prayer is simply this, ‘Father, help me.’ That’s humility in action.

But all of that - the call to humility and the directions on how to deal with our anxieties - does not give us hope as we face our trinity of enemies. And Peter knows that - which is why he includes that most encouraging little phrase, ‘because he cares for you’.

We do not appeal to a deity that we have to persuade to listen and who, we hope, just might consider our plight. No! Our Father cares. So, aware of what confronts us, aware of the dangers, we go to Him. And we are comforted. We know that He will watch over us. We know that He will keep us safe. We know that He cares.

So, here we have what I believe to be one really good answer to our question, ‘Why pray?’ It’s not because it’s what we’re supposed to do. It’s not because we want to avoid feeling guilty. It’s not because it’s a good religious habit. We pray because we are convinced that life is dangerous. And we pray because we are convinced that the Father will hear our pleas and protect us because He cares.

Let me offer a few suggestions for you to consider as you reflect on your praying.

Maybe one thing to do is to pray that you would see the danger more clearly: the world, the flesh and the devil. When the danger becomes more real, our prayers also become more real.

Another thing you might want to pray about is for the Father’s care to also become more real to you. While the danger pushes you to prayer, a deep sense of the Father’s care pulls you into prayer. It draws you to Him.

And then, you might want to evaluate the things that you regularly pray about and filter them through this idea that life is dangerous. One result of that might be to pray more for the well-being of your children’s souls. After all, they also daily face the world, the flesh and the devil.

Last thought. Why is this important? I’m sure that you have at hand some good answers to that question. But let me offer two here. I take those Scripture warnings about falling away very seriously. I think that you should, too. Life really is dangerous. But then, there’s also this. How will we change the world if we are all tied up by that trinity of evil? It is as we conquer these enemies that we will conquer the world.

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