Several years ago my wife and I had the privilege of renting a little house in the middle part of France around Tours. We arrived on a Friday, and after we unpacked and became familiar with the house, we realized we needed to get a traveler’s check cashed because no one there accepted American dollars. But we couldn’t find a place in this small village where we could get cash. Finally, the proprietor at an inn suggested we go to the next village where an ATM was located on the village square.
I’m from a different generation. We are accustomed to cashing checks, not punching buttons on an ATM machine. But it was either that or starve to death. We drove to the village and found the ATM machine in an unlighted area on the village square. So here are two Americans, jet lagged, never having used an ATM machine in their lives, bent over this machine trying to get money in French. Of course the machine has a language selection button, and I pushed the English button, but what came through was Frenglish — not good English and probably bad French.
Carolyn and I both tried to punch the right buttons, and we finally received our money. We were elated! We had learned to program the money machine! The next morning we went to the grocery store and stocked up on groceries. Occasionally, I suggested we go play with the money machine again. I had decided it was fun getting money out of the metal box on the square. We had learned to program the money machine.
We are living in a culture that talks a lot about prayer these days. I have bought several books on prayer and realized that prayer has become a cottage industry in the religious life of America. There are more books, spiritual aids, and quick-and-easy devotionals about prayer on the Internet than you can imagine. One book which hit the market and was on the New York Times bestseller list is The Prayer of Jabez. At the time I bought mine, Eight million copies of this 100-page book had been sold. It’s OK, but it is to eating as McDonald’s is to gourmet dining. It’s food that you can start on, but you couldn’t live on it all the time. I have bought other books, and I found out the prayer market industry is like programming God. I felt they were teaching me how to program the God machine — punch this, punch that; pray this way, not that way. I’ve never seen a father who sits back and says, “No, you didn’t bring the question right. Come in and say the words this way.”
Our church has had a seminar on Jabez. Some of you may have a copy of the book. If it has been some help to you, that’s fine. You are not going to lose your soul from reading it, but your soul won’t grow much if that’s the only thing you ever read. It’s rent-a-God, or rent-a-church, because it sounds as if you read the words a certain way, God will do what you have asked. Lest we misunderstand each other, I realize I may be dealing out of a great deal of jealousy. That book has sold millions of copies, and my last book sold 800 copies. I am cursed with a good theological education, and I want us to go beyond that. It’s like trying to write a dissertation after having studied Reader’s Digest. You can’t do it all at that level. In fact, if the Jabez book is right, there is an issue my wife and I have been praying about ardently, fervently for 35 years, and it still hasn’t changed. Somewhere The Prayer of Jabez did not address the hard issues of life.
I want us to learn how to pray. If we were going to learn about leadership, we would study Winston Churchill. If we were going to learn about heart surgery, we would probably study Dr. Michael DeBakey. If I wanted to learn about evangelism, I would go to Billy Graham. If I want to learn about prayer, I want to go to Jesus, whose life was a living prayer, who prayed incessantly, unceasingly. Jesus, the man of prayer, has something to teach us, not an obscure character in the back channels of the Old Testament in only two or three verses. Jabez never appears anywhere else.
Sigmond Freud said, “The problem of the world is repressed sexuality.” I believe in America there is a repressed spiritually. I think the secular media and secular nature of our culture has so suppressed our spiritually that it has to run out somewhere because it’s jammed up inside us. Because it has not been trained, it runs out in all kinds of immature channels.
I believe Jesus has something to teach us about prayer. The first thing Jesus has to tell us is that our goal in prayer is not to feel good but to do good. Doing good is the goal of Jesus. We need to understand that we have this turned around. Shallow Jabez pray-ers become spiritual couch potatoes, summoning God to run their errands while the world moves on toward hell. If you understand the prayers of Jesus, Jesus brings us in, gives us strength in season and out of season to do His work and His will. The only thing the disciples ever asked Jesus to teach them was to pray, “Lord, teach us to pray.” I wonder why they did that.
First of all, I think it’s because Jesus knew the transcending power of prayer. Jesus knew you could transcend whatever happened in life with prayer, and He knew that was the only way to know the power of God in your life. He prayed at every crisis in His life. There are 10 recorded prayers of Jesus in the Bible. You don’t find that of any other person. Actually, it is more of an insight into His life rather than just the words of prayer. He prayed at His baptism. He prayed at His temptation. He prayed early in the morning. He prayed before He fed the multitude. He prayed all night before He selected the Twelve. He prayed before Peter denied Him. He prayed in the upper room. He prayed in the garden. He prayed before Lazarus was raised from the tomb. He prayed on the cross. Every significant place in the life of Jesus was surrounded and immersed in prayer, not just a quick in-and-out prayer but a deep and abiding prayer from His heart. Some have said, and I think it is absolutely accurate, His life was a prayer.
I think it is interesting that Jesus never asks us to understand prayer. Nowhere in the Bible do I see where Jesus says, “You should understand prayer.” When you make prayer as something to understand, you make prayer a problem. It is a syllogism to be understood. It is a knotty, thorny problem to be unraveled. Jesus never said that. Jesus didn’t say, “Go out and understand prayer.” If you do that, you have seminars about prayers where you try to understand the dynamics of prayer; that’s not what Jesus said. He said simply, “Pray,” and I think in that is a powerful incentive. Pray, and when you pray, the Father hears.
I have a problem saying this but I have to be honest with you. Jesus said that His house is to be a house of prayer. I would have been satisfied if He had said, “My house is to be a house of preaching.” But He didn’t say that — I’ve looked. He didn’t say His house should be a house of music, or of Christian education, or of missions. He said, “My house is to be a house of prayer.” To put this right, prayer drives preaching, music, education and missions. In the modern church, we have it backwards. We think if we do our programs right and put a little prayer around to decorate it, we’ll make it. According to Jesus, you pray, connect with the father, then the things we do as the people of God take on the countenance and power of God.
The second thing Jesus teaches us about prayer is the transfusing power of prayer. I love summer, and think it is the greatest of all seasons. Growing up in Florida, we had nine months of summer and a few months of spring. We never had winter. Summer is special for many reasons, especially for the flowers. We recently bought some hanging baskets with cascading flowers to hang on our deck. We were having dinner outside when I noticed the flowers were wilting because they needed water. The morning after watering the flowers, they were as bright and beautiful as they could be because we had transfused them with water.
The Regency Hyatt in Atlanta was the first building John Portman built with a multi-storied atrium. It is common architecture now but when it opened, it was revolutionary. I met a friend for lunch there one day, and as I was waiting, I noticed that at each balcony, the plants at the upper stories were longer than the plants on the lower stories. I then noticed a glass top on the building and the plants at the top were getting more sunlight than those at the bottom. You can’t have any kind of greenery without sunlight or water. But those of us in the modern church think that we go through life without ever having to water or nourish our spirits. I watch church people burn out all the time because church work is hard work. They burn out because they never nourish their spirits. They get off message because they don’t nourish themselves.
In the text I read, Jesus had been teaching and healing. It had been a tough day. They had gone through all the villages in the middle and northern parts of Israel. Then in the morning the disciples got up, ready to go again, and they couldn’t find Jesus. There was panic. If you read under the text, Simon Peter was panicked; he probably thought Jesus had deserted them or had been kidnaped by the scribes and Pharisees or by the Roman government. They went outside and found Jesus in a quiet place praying. Simon Peter had the audacity to chastise Jesus. Jesus’ response to Simon Peter was simple, “We’re going to the other villages where I must preach also. I’m out here praying to get the power I need to do the work of God. We are going to continue to do the work God called us to do because out of this prayer experience, I will know where I am to go next.”
Jesus knew the transfusing power of prayer. If you want to have the joy of your salvation, the joy of Christian forgiveness, and the courage to battle on, let God transfuse you through a time of prayer. If you want to have light for your way, let God transfuse you with prayer. If you want to have power to rescue a soul from darkness, let God transfuse you in your time of prayer. If you want to accomplish something, just pray. Then you realize you must humble yourself before God, call on God, and hold on with faith and prayer. Jesus teaches us that we must pay a spiritual price to do the work of God. When we pay the price, the power of God comes. When we do not pay the price, the power of God does not come. Love, faith and prayer become a cause for drawing the light of God into our lives from heaven itself. That is why I have some impatience with trying to program the God machine. There is no price paid for that kind of prayer. I am talking a continual, constant openness to the presence of God, publicly and silently. I’m talking about a continual openness to God, paying the price spiritually. God gives the reward temporally. He said, “Come to me secretly, and I’ll reward you openly.”
Jesus also knew the transfiguring power of prayer. I was flipping through a magazine recently, and was impressed with the number of articles and ads advising both men and women how to look good. They always use good-looking models. “Try this, and it will grow hair on your head. Try that, and your skin will glow. Try this, and the fat will fall off.” We all want to look better. You’ve seen people who have spent their time hanging around bad company. They’ve been in trouble. You’ve seen people who have lingered long at the wine. You’ve seen people who have spent their lives in debauchery. About middle years and beyond, they are dogeared, wrinkled, and battered.
The evidence of the Bible is that if you pray a lot you’ll look better. That ought to drive you to the prayer room quickly. Moses came down off Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments, and the biblical writers tell us that his face shone. He looked better because he had been with God. Stephen the deacon that preached was the first Christian martyr. While they were stoning him, they said he had the face like an angel. The evidence of the Bible is that when you spend time with God, you look different. On the Mount of Transfiguration with Jesus, there was a sense of God’s presence and countenance of Jesus in the inner group that was with Him.
The point is that there is a transfiguring power of prayer. You will look better, but there will be a tone about your life that will be different, and that is infinitely more important. I have a clipping in my file of four former Miss Americas who said that they spend regular time in Bible study and prayer. I don’t guarantee that you will be a Miss America but you will look better. It will show.
The fourth thing is that Jesus knew the transforming power of prayer. If you will learn about prayer from Jesus, you must understand that prayer becomes a lifestyle. It is a habit. When Paul was in the city of Lystra in his first missionary journey, he was beaten, battered, and stoned at the edge of the city. But he got up and went back into the city to start over because a life of prayer had transformed him into a man who did not look to either side or find discouragement. He went ahead. I want to guarantee you that a life of prayer will bring transformation in other people.
I don’t think we intercede enough. Intercession is incredibly important. You need to pray for others, and for your church. I sense when my church has been praying for me. Carolyn and I recently returned from the Preaching Conference in Scotland, and I had asked a few of you to pray for me. When I got up to preach, I had a sense of God’s presence in the room. When I finished, I said to my wife, “I can tell they have been praying for us. I felt like a man being prayed for as I preached.”
I want you to know the power of what it means to learn to pray from Jesus. I don’t want us ever to forget that Jesus gives us an example of the transcending, the transfusing, the transfiguring, and the transforming power of prayer. I don’t want us ever to be satisfied with short-circuiting prayer into thinking we are programming the God machine, but I want us to learn that prayer is developing a deep relationship. It is a walk with God, and instead of programming Him, we have Him imbedded in us. “Let this mind be in you which was in Christ Jesus,” the apostle said. Let’s not program a machine. Let’s walk with God.