Lesson 2: Hindrances to Prayer, When to Pray, and Deepening Prayer
Hindrances to Prayer
Welcome. Good morning! It’s good to see you all this morning as we start into our second lesson on prayer. This is going to be a sort of catch-all lesson in which we discuss a few remaining introductory topics.
I’d like to begin by discussing a quote from Paul Miller’s book, A Praying Life. Miller says this: “American culture is probably the hardest place in the world to pray." Now, we could probably have a conversation about whether or not it’s the hardest place to pray. But I think we would all agree that it is a hard place to pray. Why do you think that is? What is it about our way of life that makes prayer so difficult?
In our country, we have a strong sense of self-sufficiency that weakens our dependence on God.
The Bible has so much to say about the importance of relying on God rather than on ourselves. In fact, that is one of the more common themes in the Old Testament. Turn to Deuteronomy 17:16-17. Why would a king multiply horses? So that he could have a strong army. Why would he multiply wives? In order to secure his political alliances. So why does God warn against these practices? Because the people of Israel were to rely on Him alone, and not on their military or political alliances for protection.
In fact, you can even make the case that God specifically designed the geography of Israel in order to foster this sense of dependence in His people. Israel is often referred to as “the land between.” In Old Testament times, it was sandwiched between Egypt to the south and other great empires like Assyria, Babylon, and Persia to the north. Nations were always sending armies through Israel to get someplace else. In fact, that is how King Josiah died. He confronted Pharaoh Necco, who was passing through Israel on his way to fight with Babylon and Persia at the battle of Carchemish.
Another characteristic of the promised land that encouraged dependence on God was the land’s dependence on rain. It never needed to rain in Egypt or Mesopotamia. Those civilizations received their water from rivers. The people living in Israel, however, were utterly dependent upon God to send the rain. That is actually one of the reasons Baal worship was so attractive. Baal was the god of rain and fertility. The Canaanites believed that if they worshipped Baal, he would send them rain. Of course, the ultimate showdown between Yahweh and Baal in terms of their ability to provide rain took place on Mt. Carmel. Israel did not need to worship Baal; God promised to send rain if they would only trust and obey Him.
However, we live in a culture that is very unlike ancient Israel. We are separated from the rest of the world by vast oceans. We share border with only two countries. We are also blessed with an incredible amount of natural resources. We are rich beyond any civilization that has preceded us, and capitalism makes it possible for people to “work their way up in the world.” So it is very tempting for us to become self-reliant and to forget God. But the fact is that we do need Him, both individually and as a nation. The Bible and history are full of stories of rich and powerful people and nations that were brought to their knees suddenly and unexpectedly. That is why we will always need God.
Another reason that American culture is one of the hardest places to pray is that our affluence allows us give ourselves to the pursuit of our idols, which compete with God for our love.
Do you have a favorite idol? You can find it in America! Do you love sports? For $130 a month, you can get so many sports channels that you never run out of something to watch! Do you love shopping? Everywhere you go there are beautiful stores that appeal to your lust for luxurious, fashionable items. I could go on and on, but I won’t because we’re going to talk more about this concept another time. For now, I just want to point out that American culture is a hard place to pray because American society is a hard place to love God.
Finally, American culture is one of the hardest places to pray because our ADD-lifestyle leaves no time for intimacy with Him.
We are a distracted people, aren’t we? I mean, busyness with work is one thing. (And some of us are probably way too busy with work.) But then we add to the chaos by filling all of our free time with frantic activity. It’s like we have this void that we’re trying to fill by stuffing it with busyness, noise, and entertainment. And just in case there were a few minutes of our days that were unaccounted for, someone invented smart phones, so that now we can be perpetually distracted, no matter where we are or what we are doing. We carry little distraction boxes around in our pants!
Unfortunately, one of the consequences of being perpetually distracted is that you lose your ability to enjoy intimacy. I’m not talking about sexuality; I'm talking about close relationships. There’s a quote in Miller’s book on prayer that has had a big impact on me. He says that you don’t plan and schedule intimacy; you simply make room for it. That quote has helped me not just in prayer, but also in my marriage and in friendships. I tend to be impatient to accomplish things. But I realized that not every interaction has to be built around my to-do list. Sometimes what I need most is just to slow down and enjoy being with people. And that is also an indispensable aspect of disciple-making. But of course, Miller meant to apply that idea primarily to prayer. Unless we learn to unplug, slow down, simplify, and make time for God, we will never experience rich lives of prayer.
That idea actually leads right into our next discussion, which is this: when should we pray?
When should we pray?
I hope we would all agree that the Bible commands us to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17). That obviously doesn’t mean that we do nothing but pray, but it does mean that we are constantly praying. Throughout our day, we are recognizing the story that God is weaving through our lives and talking to Him about it—asking Him to do certain things and thanking Him for His blessings.
I think a perfect example of this is Nehemiah. Turn to Nehemiah 2:1-6. So, Nehemiah wants to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, but he is afraid to ask the king. However, God opens up an opportunity for him to do so. The king asks Nehemiah plainly, “What is your request.” What does the Bible say that Nehemiah does next? He prays! What do you think this prayer looked like? Did he say, “Excuse me, king. I need to go get alone with God and pray about this for a few minutes?” No! It must have been a very quick prayer that he said in his head without a word. Something like, “Lord, help me!” And then he answered the king. We ought to be so in touch with God that we offer up these kinds of quick prayers all the time.
But not only should we be praying all the time for ourselves, but also for others. A great example of this was the apostle Paul. He told the Romans that “without ceasing I make mention of you always in my prayers. He said in 1 Corinthians 1:4, “I thank my God always concerning you.” In Ephesians 1:16 he says, “[I] do not cease to give thanks for you.” And in Philippians 1:3-4 he said, “I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine making request for you all with joy.” To the Colossians, he said, “We give thanks to God and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, praying always for you.” And to the Thessalonians, he echoed, “We give thanks to God always for you all, making mention of you in our prayers,” and “We are bound to thank God always for you all.” Finally, he told Philemon, “I thank my God, making mention of you always in my prayers.”
So I hope you see the importance of developing a habit of praying at all times throughout the day.
However, based on the idea of prayer as intimacy with God, we would also have to conclude that it is important to get alone to pray with God.
Can you think of anyone in the Bible who did this often? How about Jesus? My count might be off, but I believe there are at least 9 references in the gospels to Jesus getting alone to pray. In fact, Jesus launched His earthly ministry with 40 days of fasting and prayer in the wilderness! How many of us would choose to launch our ministry that way? No, we would have a grand opening, a special service, we’d be handing out free hot dogs and t shirts—Jesus was alone with His Father in the wilderness praying. Jesus also spent the night in prayer before choosing His disciples, and of course, He set aside time to pray in the Garden before He was arrested and crucified.
Now let me ask you this: if Jesus needed to set aside time to pray, do we? Certainly, we do! Now, Jesus was not some kind of mystic who sort of walked through life in a trance and didn’t pay attention to the people around Him. No! He had a busy life! The Bible says that there were times in which He and the disciples were so busy, they didn’t even have time to eat. He was always being interrupted—His life was like one giant interruption—but He made time for people, and wherever He was, He was all there. That’s why it was so important for Him to get away from the crowds and even sometimes the disciples and spend time with His Father in prayer.
Now, how often should we do this? Well, I don’t that the Bible gives any mandate on this, but I think a good rule of thumb is to set aside time at least once a day to talk with God. Many Christians throughout the centuries have recommended praying in the morning and the evening. And then there will probably also be times besides our daily prayer times in which we will want to schedule larger chunks of time for prayer. Elise and I have done this in the past and called these times “dates with God.” “You watch the kids for the afternoon, and I’m to go sit in the park for a few hours with my Bible, a notebook, and a pen, just talking to God and reading His Word. Now, I don’t want to give the impression that we’re good at that, but other people have suggested it to us, and we’ve tried it before. The point is to get alone with God.
The last topic I’d like to consider today is the idea of deepening prayer by learning to listen to God.
If I were to ask you the simple question, “What is prayer?” what would you say? You would probably say, “Talking with God,” and you would be right. Prayer is talking with God. But the thing about conversation is that it is two-sided. Now, sometimes it’s more two-sided than others. While I was in seminary, Elise and I would carpool. On the way into work/school in the morning, she would drive and I would read. On the way home each evening, I would drive and she would talk. You see, she spent her days watching a toddler, and I spent my days discussing topics in class and then teaching; so when it was time to drive home, I had used up all of my words, and she had barely even started yet! But still, there was at least some interaction. If you are talking, and there is no interaction whatsoever, you may be giving a lecture, but you’re not having a conversation. So, if prayer is talking with God, then we’ve also got to learn how to listen to Him. How do we do that?
Some of you were worried that I was going to go off the deep end here. I’m not. God speaks to us through His Word. So if we want to learn to be better listeners, then we’ve got to learn how to read, study, and meditate on the Word of God.
Now, we could do an entire Sunday school series just on this topic, and that’s obviously not my purpose today. But I do want to highlight this idea, because if we try to spend large amounts of time in prayer without spending time in the Word, our prayers will be extremely shallow, and we will probably pray very poorly.
So how do we avoid that? Well, learn to listen to God. First, read His Word. Each of you should set aside time each day not only to pray, but also to read the Bible. I would highly recommend that you read through the Bible in sections, because when it comes to Bible interpretation, context is king. So don’t just randomly open up to a passage of Scripture and then start reading it; choose a book of the Bible and work your way through it a little bit at a time. You may want to commit to the discipline of reading your Bible once a year. That is a great practice, because it helps you to stay balanced as you consider the entire breadth of what God has to say in Scripture. Right now, I’m reading through the Bible in a year using YouVersion’s Bible app. I love listening to the Bible. I can’t praise it enough. So develop a plan and get started reading the Word.
But second, you need to study the Word. You say, “Pastor Kris, that sounds daunting.” Well, it doesn’t have to be. You don’t have to know Greek or Hebrew; with only a few basic tools and several well-developed techniques you can begin analyzing the Bible for yourself. And the resources are out there. You don’t even have to invest a fortune into buying them. You can get many of them relatively inexpensively, if not free. So, you have no excuse not to study God’s Word. Some people will have more time than others, and there are obviously seasons of life in which it will be hard if not impossible to find time, but Bible study is something we all should aspire to.
The third thing you need to learn to do in order to listen to God is to meditate. Meditation is the process of chewing on a biblical truth. Once you have mined a biblical gem through Bible study, meditation is turning it over and over in your mind, enjoying all of its beauty. Oftentimes as I am studying a passage of Scripture, I will agonize over “what does this mean?” But then once I am confident of the meaning, all of these implications and illustrations and applications begin coming to mind. Thinking through those things is meditation. Keller says, “Meditation is taking the truth down into our hearts until it catches fire.” I like that definition. And the Bible has lots and lots to say about meditation.
Joshua 1:8: “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.”
“Blessed is the man
Who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly,
Nor stands in the path of sinners,
Nor sits in the seat of the scornful;
But his delight is in the law of the Lord,
And in His law he meditates day and night.
He shall be like a tree
Planted by the rivers of water,
That brings forth its fruit in its season,
Whose leaf also shall not wither;
And whatever he does shall prosper.”
As Keller says, “The biblical promises for meditation are enormous."
But it’s also important to recognize that Bible study has to come before meditation. Keller says, “Meditation on a text of the Bible assumes that, through study and interpretation, you already know something about what the text means. You can’t reflect on or enjoy what you don’t understand.” He goes on to say, “Something in the passage may ‘hit’ you, but it may hit you as expressing almost the opposite of what the biblical author, inspired by the Spirit, was saying.” And that’s important. This actually happened to me last week. I was working on my Sunday sermon one day, and I just started getting all of these great ideas for my sermon that I was writing down. But then, as I did some more research, I realized that many of my ideas were based on a faulty understanding of the passage, so I had to scrap them and start over! And that can easily happen to any of us! It is important that we love God’s Word, but it’s even more important that we understand Him correctly.
In the moments that remain, I’d like to list several of the techniques that Keller mentions about how to meditate on Scripture. We won’t go into detail on any of these, but I do think they’re helpful.
One of the most helpful ways to meditate on a verse is to memorize it. I used to memorize a lot as a child and teen, but to my shame, I have not memorized much in the past 10 years or so. So recently, I have begun memorizing again, and it has been so enjoyable. I don’t think there’s a better way to force yourself to think deeply about a verse than to memorize every word of it.
Another way to meditate is to look for themes. What does this verse have to say about God and His character? What does it have to say about mankind and our fallen nature? What does it have to say about Christ and salvation? And what does it have to say about how I should live life? Some other things you can look for are promises to claim, principles to heed, commands to obey, and warnings to heed.
Another way to meditate on a verse is to think it through word-by-word. For instance, you might think through John 3:16. “For” – that means that this verse connects back to the verse that came before it. I wonder what that connection entails? “God” – He is the subject of this sentence. “So – He didn’t just love us a little, He loved us a lot. “Loved” – what does it mean to be loved? What makes God’s love so amazing? Etc. You can see that this type of meditation would take a long time, but it yields rich results.
Another way to meditate is to paraphrase the main teaching of a verse or passage in your own words. Pastors do this all the time when they teach and preach.
So those are just a few suggestions about how to meditate on a passage of Scripture.