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1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
Prayer to the believer is the most powerful force on earth. Ian MacPherson tells the following true story:
“The person concerned is a scientist, a man who had been almost a devout atheist. Doing research work in a pathological laboratory, along with the other doctors, he attempted to find the wavelength of the human brain. They discovered a whole channel of wavelengths — and each channel had so much room that the different wavelength of each individual’s brain is further separated in identity than the fingerprints on each individual’s hands.
“This scientist wanted to experiment, to discover what took place in the human brain at the moment of transition from life to death. A lady was selected who had a disease of the brain. This disease affected the balance of the body only. In every other way she was exceptionally brilliant. But her family did not want the trouble of caring for her, and being on the point of death she was accepted as a patient in this research hospital.
“The necessary wires were connected to her room, to ascertain what would take place; also a small microphone, about the size of a penny, was installed, in case she had anything to say. Five scientists were grouped in an adjoining room — five tough, hardened men, from a religious point of view. One of the instruments they watched had a needle pointing to “0” in the center. To the right the scale registered five hundred points positive; to the left, five hundred points negative. Previously this same instrument had registered the power used by a fifty kilowatt broadcasting station in sending a message around the world. The needle had registered nine points positive.
“As the last moments of this woman’s earthly life arrived, she began to pray aloud and praise God. She asked Him to be merciful to those who had spitefully used her. Then she told God how much she loved Him, and was looking forward to seeing Him face to face.
“The scientists had been so engrossed in this prayer — an unexpected situation — that they had forgotten their experiment. They looked at each other, tears streaming down their faces. The particular scientist we are thinking about said afterwards: ‘I had not shed tears since I was a child.’
“Suddenly, they heard a clicking sound, and turning to their instruments found that this particular instrument was registering a positive five hundred, and desperately trying to go higher! By actual instrumentation these scientists had recorded that the brain of a woman, alone and dying, in communication with God, had registered more than fifty-five times the power used by a fifty kilowatt station in sending a message around the world! If ever we needed proof of the power of prayer, surely this is it!”1
The power of prayer! Jesus says that this power can be ours. “If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you” (John 15:7). If we “abide” — take up continual residence in Christ – an unlimited channel of spiritual blessings becomes ours!
What is prayer? What is this lifeline to God? What is this channel of spiritual power? We want to consider prayer under three headings: prayer as speaking; prayer as listening; and prayer as a way of life.
I. Prayer is Speaking!
Our prayers must be pointed and specific. If we are praising God, let us praise Him for specific characteristics of His loving and divine nature. If we are giving thanks, we should thank Him specifically for answered prayers and for pointed movements of His Spirit in our lives.
If we are interceding for others; we should pray for them one by one by name and for specific needs in their lives. If we are praying for ourselves, we should pray for the specific needs and problem areas for which He has led us to pray. If true prayer really does begin with God, will He not lead us in the very things for which we should pray?
We should remember, however, that our prayers should be progressive. Some prayers seem to be unanswered because we ask Him to do what He had already guided us to do for ourselves. Why should He give us new guidance when we have not acted upon what He has told us to do? We cannot expect a “yes” to today’s prayer when we have said “no” to yesterday’s answer. Real prayer is progressive. We receive fresh and new guidance when we act upon His past guidance. Explanations come after obedience, not before.
In praying, we have to be patient. The Psalmist urges us to “be still and know,” indicating that answers often come to the still and patient. In my self-centeredness, I have to remind myself that I am not as smart as God. He is God and He will answer my prayers according to His schedule, His time-table, and His perfect will.
God taught me this fact during the second revival meeting I preached. It began on Easter Sunday in my home church and the morning service was a wonderful outpouring of God’s Spirit. Prayers were answered and souls were saved.
With evangelistic fervor, I prepared that afternoon for the evening sermon. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, I felt God’s leadership toward another evangelistic message.
Before I was to preach that evening, I surveyed the congregation and my heart sank! “God, did I read you wrong? I know everyone here. They are all saved with the possible exception of our music director’s new girl friend. Here I have an evangelistic message and it is too late to change!” With no other option, I preached my message as prepared. Not one soul moved during the invitation. “I was wrong, God. I am sorry.”
Not only was I the associate pastor and revival evangelist, I was also the church janitor. As she often did, Sharon, my wife, played the piano while I turned out the lights and locked up. Trying to ease my dejection, I sat with her at the piano and we sang for awhile.
A knock came at the church door. It was Dolly, our music director’s new girl friend. “I saw the lights on and thought you might still be here. I want to be saved.” That prayer required patience for a few hours. One other prayer required fifteen years. In prayer, we must wait on His timing.
Our prayers must be persistent. Jesus said, “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you” (Matthew 7:7). The tense of the verbs indicate that we should persevere, keep on and on asking, seeking, and knocking. Does that mean we must beg God over and over and over? I like Lloyd Ogilvie’s comment here. He says that we should ask God once for something and thank Him one thousand times for answering our prayer in accordance with His will.2
In speaking about prayer, the two words Paul most often used were “always” (1 Timothy 1:3) and “without interruption” or “unceasingly” (1 Thessalonians 5:17-18). What does it mean to “pray without ceasing”?
Henry Nouwen reminds us of the medieval peasant who sought such an answer. In seeking to pray without ceasing, he repeated the simple prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,” hundreds, thousands of times each day. With every step and every breath, he prayed until it became not only the prayer of his lips but the prayer of his heart!3
I think this is close to what Paul meant. To pray without ceasing is to pray constantly, being open to Him so that we literally think and live in the presence of God. Everything we are and do is surrounded by an attitude of prayer. Prayer is talking to God — pointedly, progressively, patiently, and persistently! But prayer is also listening.
II. Prayer is Listening!
In listening to God, we assume the posture of solitude and silence! Charles Swindoll says, “That still small voice will never shout.”4 How true! To hear that “still small voice” we must seek solitude and silence to listen. Jesus was not only an example of this need (Mark 1:35), but also reminded us of this need for solitude. “But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret, and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly” (Matthew 6:6).
Assuming the posture of solitude, however, is not enough; we must also seek the position of silence — to listen to God. Again, Ogilvie is helpful. He relates that as a young Christian, he would pray to God 90% of the time and listen only 10%. The years have brought a maturity where that is now reversed. At present, he talks 10% and 90% of the time he listens to God.5 To listen we must seek solitude and silence.
Out of this posture of solitude and silence we find the perspective of the things that matter. But how rare are solitude and silence! How hard it is to find these twin friends of the praying Christian! Ours is a wordy world. Every day and from all directions, we are bombarded by words, commands, exhortation, advertisements …. “use me, try me, buy me” …. and everything will be fine, okay, and as you always wished it could be!
When unaware, these messages create in us false expectations and contrived needs. To quote the infamous Rev. Ike, it’s a “You can’t lose with the stuff I use!” approach. Well, we use their stuff! We use their deodorants, we try their razors, and we buy their perfumes — but we do lose. Their products will never live up to their false expectations and our contrived needs. And we are just as noisy, busy, resentful, and depressed as ever.
It is in solitude and silence that we empty ourselves of false hopes and contrived needs and create a holy center where we find the perspective of the things that matter. But we are filled with this perspective only as we empty ourselves.
There is a story about a university professor who came to a Zen master to ask him about Zen. Nanin, the Zen master, served him tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he could no longer restrain himself. “It is over-full. No more will go in!”
“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “You are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I teach you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”6
We must empty ourselves in solitude and silence of the things that don’t matter so that He can fill us with the things that do! With this proper perspective, we are now able to arrange our lives according to a proper priority. The priority is that for us prayer will become a way of life.
III. Prayer is a Way of Life
When we have prayed properly and from solitude and silence procured a proper perspective, we are able to pursue His Priority of prayer as a way of life. The model prayer that Jesus gave to the disciples was not so much a prayer to be memorized but a way of life to be given priority. When this becomes a reality, and prayer becomes a way of life, we see through the eyes of prayer.
When we see through the eyes of prayer it influences our relationship to the world. All of creation is seen as a gift of God to be treasured and appreciated, never to be used or misused for selfish ends or desires. The world becomes our teacher. “The Heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth His handywork” (Psalms 19:1).
Did not Jesus use the mustard seed to show the greatness of faith? Did He not use the lilies to show the folly of worry? Were not the vine and branches object lessons in the need for prayer? When we see through the eyes of prayer, all of creation is seen as God’s gift, teaching and directing us to Him.
When we see through the eyes of prayer it influences our relationship with time. We are all too busy. Crowded schedules and multi-marked calendars rob us of life’s vitality. As one writer has said, “Hurry is not of the devil! It is the devil.” From real prayer we gain the proper perspective to see time not as something to be endured or rushed through. Every moment becomes kairos time, a moment to be seized, an adventure to be lived, a meaning to be found, and a joy to behold. In prayer we slow down enough to enjoy!
Naturally, when we see through the eyes of prayer, it influences our relationship with people. We often tend to take note of only the people with special or interesting qualities. We idolize movie stars, political figures, and sports heroes.
Several months ago, we got excited at our house because Sharon’s sister had dated a real TV star. Wow! He was on one of those soap operas. He played Zipper on “The Young and the Witless” — or was it Stuper on “The Edge of Town”? I don’t know! Well, anyway, we got excited. Another case in point! Why is it that gossip has almost become our national pastime? What about all these magazines! We that are ashamed to buy them sure sneak a peek while checking out at the supermarket. We tend to take note of the interesting and famous people.
Also, we often relate to people through our own preconceived ideas and images of how they ought to be or behave. We judge or pre-judge them according to how we feel a rich or poor, sinner or saint, liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat ought to behave. We have such a preconceived idea of what they should be, we never see them as they are.
When we see through the eyes of prayer we see people as persons. The word person comes from the Latin words per and sonare which mean “sounding through.” When we see people as persons we “sound through” that outward appearance and see them through the eyes of prayer. All persons are interesting, not just the famous! No one has to fit into a preconceived mold and each is allowed to be the person God created him or her to be! We sound through the outward appearance and see the real and unique person — the climax of God’s creation — another individual for whom Christ died. Real prayer gives us eyes to see and change our relationship to the world, time and people.
Elizabeth O’Connor shares this story about a man who went each day to sit in a darkened church. One day as he came out, a perplexed friend inquired what he did during the long time he spent inside the church. “I just look at Him,” he answered, “and He looks at me.”7
When I look at Him, I see Him for what He is. When He looks at me, I see not only what I am but what I can be through Him! That’s the power of prayer!
1. Ian MacPherson. The Act of Illustrating Sermons (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1964), p. 91-93.
2. Lloyd John Ogilvie. Ask Him Anything (Waco: Word Books, 1981), p. 81.
3. Henri J. M. Nouwen. The Way of the Heart (New York: The Seabury Press, 1981), p. 82.
4. Charles Swindoll. Crowing Strong in the Seasons of Life (Portland: Multnomah Press, 1983), p. 83.
5. Lloyd John Ogilvie. When God First Thought of You (Waco: Word Books, 1978), p. 156.
6. Henri J. M. Nouwen. Out of Solitude (Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 1974), p. 42.
7. Elizabeth O’Connor. Search for Silence (Waco: Word Books, 1972), p. 120.