How to Pray, pt. 1 (Matt 6:9a)

Prayer is a difficult thing to do. It may seem to be easy, and we can form words and make statements that seem to be prayers easily enough, but if we stop and consider a few things, we will see that true prayer is difficult.

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Consider this quote from Dr. Lloyd-Jones:

Man is at his greatest and highest when, upon his knees, he comes face-to-face with God….It is the highest activity of the human soul, and therefore it is at the same time the ultimate test of a man’s true spiritual condition. There is nothing that tells the truth about us as Christian people so much as our prayer life. Everything we do in the Christian life is easier than prayer….Prayer is undoubtedly the ultimate test, because a man can speak to others with greater ease than he can speak to God. Ultimately, therefore, a man discovers the real condition of his spiritual life when he examines himself in private, when he is alone with God….So that it is when we have left the realm of activities and outward dealings with other people, and are alone with God, that we really know where we stand in a spiritual sense. It is not only the highest activity of the soul, it is the ultimate test of our true spiritual condition. [Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, 322]

Obviously, the disciples sensed the difficulty of prayer themselves. In Luke 11:1 it says,“Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” After watching Jesus pray, and seeing their own lack-luster attempts, they ask Jesus to teach them. So, we have in Matthew 6:9-13 not only an answer to the negative idea of not praying like the hypocrites (see Matt 6:5), but the Lord’s model prayer was for teaching the Lord’s disciples, then and now, how to pray.

This prayer has a preface followed by six petitions. We will look at each one in turn and see what Jesus meant to teach us about prayer. Let’s begin by looking at the preface, or opening words of this prayer, “Our Father in heaven” or “Our Father who art in heaven.”

 

1. The Preface teaches us to draw near to God with holy reverence.

We are about to speak to the One who is “in heaven.” This is not an earthly conversation with another man, but a holy conversation in which the lowly creature is about to speak to his heavenly Creator. The hypocrite of our context has forgotten this. He speaks for his own pleasure and self-promotion forgetting that he is standing before the Lord’s presence.

Psalm 95:6: Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!

When you come before the Lord in prayer, is it like you are John in Rev. 1:12-17? We are addressing this same Lord and God whom John fell dead at his feet. How can we rush flippantly and irreverently into his presence?

2. The Preface teaches us to draw near to God with confidence.

He is “our” Father. Luke’s version of this prayer (given on a different occasion) doesn’t include this word, but I am so glad that it is here. This prayer is not for the pagans and the unbelieving world. He is not their Father. Their father is Satan, the father of lies (John 8:44). But, because he is our Father we can have confidence as we draw near to Him. This confidence is based upon the finished work of our Savior Jesus Christ. The cross is the doorway by which we enter into the throne room of God with confidence.

Eph 3:12: [Christ Jesus] in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him.

3. The Preface teaches us to draw near to God as Children to a Father.

This is closely related to the last point, but it is more intimate. Matt 7:9-11 says, “Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”

Rom. 8:15 comforts and confirms this for us when it says, “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!”

Gal. 4:4-5 also calls all believers God’s adopted sons, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law,to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.

Listen to Thomas Watson regarding this incredible reality:

See the amazing goodness of God, that he is pleased to enter into the sweet relation of a Father to us. He needed not to adopt us, he did not want [for] a Son, but we wanted [for] a Father. He showed power in being our Maker, but mercy in being our Father. That when we were enemies, and our hearts stood out as garrisons against God, he should conquer our stubbornness, and of enemies make us children, and write his name, and put his image upon us, and bestow a kingdom of glory; what a miracle of mercy is this! [A Body of Divinity]

4. The Preface teaches us to draw near to God, who is able and ready to help us.

Jesus assumes this by his own personal practice of prayer and his willingness to teach the disciples how to pray. He didn’t say to them, “Well, I’ll teach you, but remember, God helps those who help themselves.” Wrong. He is able and ready to help us. He is the same Father whom Jesus said he could call out to and who could easily send 72,000 angels to come to his side to deliver him from the cross.

Eph 3:20-21: Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us [that is, the Holy Spirit (v. 16)], to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

God’s children need to recognize that prayer is not a duty, but a privilege. When we come to times of need, our Father ought to be our first resource that we go to.

We need to think about how each of these lessons impact our current way of praying. Do you draw near to God with holy reverence or with a flippant casual attitude? How does this show up in our choice of words and our hastiness to pray? Do we ever take the time to collect our thoughts before we enter his throne? Boldness does not mean rashness!

Do you draw near to God with confidence because He is our Father who is in heaven? There may be some who don’t have confidence when they approach God in prayer because He is a stranger, not a Father. Confidence comes in the relationship that we gain through our Savior. If you haven’t received Jesus Christ as your substitute, as your Savior, then you can do so today.

Do you draw near to God as children draw near to their loving Father? Put aside all twisted ideas of poor and evil fathers. We are speaking of our loving heavenly Father who drew near to us first. Do you seek His face, not merely to ask for your needs (although that is important), but also just to adore Him as Abba, Father?

Finally, do you draw near to God confident that he is able and ready to help you? This can be seen in the amount of time, effort and energy you spend in prayer as compared to your striving to achieve what you secretly believe God cannot or will not do.

How will your prayer change? Hopefully it will. Hopefully, as you think about these four lessons, you will be challenged to pray more fervently and actively in faith than you ever have before.

Biblical Prayer and Fasting

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In his book on fasting entitled A Hunger for God, John Piper wrote, “What we hunger for most, we worship.” I put that quote up on Facebook, and some of you wrote that it made you think of food. You hunger most for food. We laugh, but that is too true, isn’t it? “What we hunger for most, we worship.”

Some hunger for sexual desires, like Amnon in 2Sam 13, who longed so much for his beautiful half-sister Tamar that he became physically ill until he fulfilled his lustful desire. Some hunger for possessions, like King Ahab in 1Kings 21, who longed for Naboth’s vineyard, but he wouldn’t sell it to him. So his wicked wife Jezebel had him murdered and Ahab was fulfilled. Some hunger for marriage, like King Solomon, who according to 1Kings 11:3, gathered for himself 700 wives and 300 concubines or secondary wives not caring about the fact that they were pagans who led his heart astray from the Lord.

So Piper is describing what the Bible so clearly describes, “What we hunger for most, we worship.”

But we need to be careful here, don’t we? Paul tells us in 1Corinthians 8:8, “Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.” So the issue is never what we eat or what we do not eat or whether we fast or whether we do not fast. The issue for Jesus always is our heart, is it not? So then, why should we even entertain fasting? Why have we set aside food to dedicate ourselves to prayer instead of eating? It is because fasting moves our attention off of the gift of food and on to the Giver.

Again, John Piper states for us the danger of forgetting this distinction and the danger for our souls if we do not stop and examine ourselves and our hungers:

The greatest enemy of hunger for God is not poison but apple pie. It is not the banquet of the wicked that dulls our appetite for heaven, but endless nibbling at the table of the world. It is not the X-rated video, but the prime-time dribble of triviality we drink in every night. For all the ill that Satan can do, when God describes what keeps us from the banquet table of his love, it is a piece of land, a yoke of oxen, and a wife (Luke 14:18–20). The greatest adversary of love to God is not his enemies but his gifts. And the most deadly appetites are not for the poison of evil, but for the simple pleasures of earth. For when these replace an appetite for God himself, the idolatry is scarcely recognizable, and almost incurable.

Jesus said some people hear the word of God, and a desire for God is awakened in their hearts. But then, “as they go on their way they are choked with worries and riches and pleasures of this life” (Luke 8:14). In another place he said, “The desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful” (Mark 4:19). “The pleasures of this life” and “the desires for other things”—these are not evil in themselves. These are not vices. These are gifts of God. They are your basic meat and potatoes and coffee and gardening and reading and decorating and traveling and investing and TV-watching and Internet-surfing and shopping and exercising and collecting and talking. And all of them can become deadly substitutes for God.

You see, fasting doesn’t commend us to God. But it is a tool for us to test our heart attitudes about God. It does test our love and our hunger for God to see if we love Him more than these other things. I want us to look at the proper setting and definition of fasting.

Jesus’ general principle is found in Matthew 6:1, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.”

Previously in his great Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6, Jesus gives us three examples of ways that we can be found guilty of practicing our faith for others to see us and admire us:

Giving (vv. 2-4) or our outward conduct

Praying (vv. 5-15) or our upward conversations

Fasting (vv. 16-18) or our inward cravings

Matt 6:16-18:“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

So, What Is Biblical Fasting?

Simply out, fasting is to refrain for food for a period of time. Biblical fasting is always accompanied with prayer. Now, I mean biblical fasting here, because several religions practice fasting, and people fast for medical and other purely non-religious reasons. Fasting in the Bible is required only in the Old Testament, for the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:29-34; 23:26-32). This “self-affliction” was to accompany the offering of sacrifices for the nation of Israel. It was a national day of mourning for their sins. As such, eating was inappropriate. Since Jesus Christ has become our final sacrifice (Heb 10:12), we do not need a Day of Atonement. Therefore, the only obligatory day of fasting has been removed. So, fasting is not required by God.

Why did people in Bible fast?

Although there was only one obligatory day to fast, voluntary fasting was (and is) acceptable to God if done with the right heart attitude. Some examples of the reasons people fasted in the Bible:

  • When Mourning: 2Sam 3:35. David fasted after the death of Abner.
  • When in Grave Danger: Esther 4:16. Esther asked for prayer and fasting before she approached the king.
  • When Repentant: Jon 3:5, 7. The Ninevites repented before God in sackcloth and ashes for their sins, and God forgave them.
  • When Facing Important Decisions: Acts 13:2-3. Before the church at Antioch sent away Paul and Barnabas for their mission trip.
  • When Facing Intense Trials: Matt 4:2. As Jesus prepared to begin preaching, he was led into the wilderness where he fasted, prayed for 40 days and was tempted by Satan.

How Should We Approach Fasting?

First, remember that fasting is no obligatory, but voluntary. We are nowhere commanded to fast, although we may do so when we desire. The Pharisees fasted 2 times a week (Lk 18:12). But this was a tradition of men, not a requirement of God. And remember this important distinction–if you are tempted to become puffed up in your fasting, that of the two men in the Temple that day, one fasted and the other went home justified! Fasting does not justify us!!

Second, we must fast with the right intentions. Matt 6:16 shows us that there are some who practice religious activities to be seen by others. If you fast, ask yourself why you are doing it? If you fast, are you trying to look normal, or are you letting yourself look haggard so people will ask you about it? The Pharisees loved the attention they received. They even went so far as to rub ash on their faces to look more sullen and sickly. This can be the same temptation with all our spiritual disciplines. Do you do them to be seen by men? If you fast, are you trying to earn God’s favor? Fasting is not a bargaining chip for God. It’s not “I skipped food for three days Lord. YOU HAVE TO HEAR ME NOW!” Fasting doesn’t mean that if I give up meat, God will do what I say.

Finally, when we fast, we should see it as an opportunity to put all of our focus upon God, and not as an opportunity to pull attention to ourselves. You see, Jesus pointed out that the Pharisees drew attention to themselves with their sullen look. Instead, fasting ought to be seen as a time to look at the Giver of every good and perfect gift. We can forget about God sometimes, and when we fast, we take our eyes off of the gift of food and cast our eyes toward heaven to find communion with our Lord. This is why the Pharisees were such hypocrites. They took something which should have given God attention and used it for their own attention. The same is being done today.

Some Considerations regarding Fasting:

Fasting does not need to be a fast from food only. Some of you may not be able to fast from food for medical reasons. Perhaps you are weakened from sickness or you need to take medications or your doctor has said, “No fasting.” That is ok. God knows how weak our frame are!

But fasting is not only described in terms of food. If you look at 1Cor 7:5, Paul refers to a different kind of fast for married couples, a fasting from marital relations. Notice that this fasting referred to here is for a set time and for the purpose of prayer. It should be short and purposeful by agreement of both so as not to give an opportunity for temptation for either the husband or the wife.

Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote:

Fasting if we conceive of it truly, must not … be confined to the question of food and drink; fasting should really be made to include abstinence from anything which is legitimate in and of itself for the sake of some special spiritual purpose. There are many bodily functions which are right and normal and perfectly legitimate, but which for special peculiar reasons in certain circumstances should be controlled. That is fasting.

This means that food may not be a big deal for you, but perhaps TV or internet distracts you from the Lord and prayer. Maybe its sports or something else.

Remember Abraham? Look at Genesis 22:1-2. What did Abraham love? What did he hunger for? That promised son Isaac. And God gave him a good gift in Isaac. But now God asked him to sacrifice what he loved. Did he love God more than Isaac? Abraham set his eyes to obey the Lord. He took Isaac up the mountain and he bound him and took the knife to slay his beloved boy. But look at vv. 11-12. “now I know that you fear God, seeing that you have not withheld your son…” Abraham’s love for God was greater than his love for Isaac.

Now let me ask you, dear reader, what do you hunger for most? Who’s in charge? Is it your hunger or God? Hunger and thirst for Christ above all else.

Do You See the Signs?

One afternoon while we were camping in the sequoias last month, we started to notice that the clouds were beginning to look a little heavy and ominous. As evening began to fall, we started feeling a drop of rain here and there. As somewhat experienced campers, Wendy and I knew that we needed to take a few precautions before we went to bed for the night. We folded up our camp chairs and put them into our car, and then we took down all of our towels and clothes off of our clothesline and put them into the tent. We made sure that anything that could be damaged by the rain was in a safe and dry place. There’s something romantic about being in a tent while its raining, but there is nothing fun about having to run out in the middle of the night in a rain storm to cover and move things out of the rain.

In Matthew 16:1-12, Jesus spoke about observing the signs of the weather, and the activities that are affected when we are good judges of what will occur. Even today, we still read signs. We read the stock market to see whether or not stock prices will go up or down. We forecast the trends of politics and the real estate market. Some people are involved in watching the trends of fashion and technology.

But, what about the big picture? What about the signs of the times that point to the end of the world? The only person the world sees warning about the end of the world is the homeless guy in the movies who holds up a sign warning of the end of the world. The unbelieving world demonstrates its willful unbelief when it can read the signs of the culture while rejecting the signs of the end of the ages.

Of course, Jesus’ comments were to unbelieving Jews who were absolutely rejecting the Messiah and the clear signs that he had been sent from the Father. But as I meditated on how I could apply this text to myself, I realized that we, even as Christians, sometimes can demonstrate willful unbelief much like the Jews did. How do Christians demonstrate our willful unbelief by rejecting those same signs?

Three Ways in Which Christians Can Demonstrate Willful Unbelief Despite the Signs of the Times, so that We Can Get Back on Track While There Is Still Time.

  1. 1. By Failing to Live Holy Lives-2Pet 3:10-13

Like practical atheists we can say we believe that Christ is returning, but act like his coming is a long way off–probably beyond our lifetimes. Peter recognized that since the day of the Lord is assured, his coming should affect our striving after holiness and godliness.

  1. 2. By Failing to Live For Heaven instead of Earth-1Cor 3:10-15

Paul instructed the Corinthian church to stop living for worldly pleasures and to think ahead to that day when they would stand before the Lord and give an account for the sort of life they lived. Would their efforts burn down and blow over like the straw house of the three little pigs or would it stand the refining fire and come forth as refined jewels? Everything that we do in this time frame we have been given will count for eternity–and for some Christians, they won’t have much to count.

  1. 3. By Failing to Evangelize the Lost-Acts 20:24-27

Paul was pretty sure that he was heading for rough times when he headed for Jerusalem. He stopped in to say goodbye to the Ephesian church elders on his way back, and he felt that this might be the last time he would see them. He wasn’t thinking about Jesus’ return as much as the fact that he might go to see Jesus first. So, when he assessed the effectiveness of his time with these brothers in Christ, he was confident that he had done everything that a faithful servant of Christ can do, including preaching the truth of the gospel without any reservations. Paul’s conscience was clear, and his hands were clean.

Jesus’ return may come before we die, or after we die, but what’s the difference? We’ll still be called to give an account as stewards of the gospel treasure. How will you fair?

The signs that Jesus spoke of regarding the end times are true. As Jonah illustrated, Jesus died and rose again. But that isn’t where the gospel ends. He is coming back. Do you believe that? Can you read the signs around us that show us that it will be soon?

Do you have enough sense to get out of a storm?

We need to respond to Christ, not out of fear, but out of faith. Jesus IS coming soon. We need to be prepared.