Attitudes to prayer
Jesus returns to the importance of prayer and adds persistence to the foundation pattern, and forgiveness that have already been addressed.
Jesus returns to the importance of prayer and adds persistence to the foundation pattern, and forgiveness that have already been addressed.
Hello, welcome to Series 4 and Episode 17 and it's entitled ‘Attitudes to Prayer.’ We're in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 7: 7 - 12.
Introduction and Recap
I hope you've been following this series on the Sermon on the Mount, which is Series 4. It's an amazing series of very important teaching and we're just coming to the end because the next episode will, in fact, bring to a conclusion this amazing teaching. Today's topic is prayer and, as you look back in the Sermon on the Mount, which Jesus gave to his disciples to help them develop their faith and to be good followers of him, we'll see that there have been a variety of different topics covered: inner attitudes, at the beginning, with the Beatitudes; teaching about how discipleship relates to the Jewish Law; ethical issues; the spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting and giving; then a section on wealth and materialism and seeking God's Kingdom; and then, in the last section, we looked at the inner attitude of judgementalism and how to avoid it as a follower of Jesus.
In amongst all those different themes, one of them, significantly, has been prayer and that was the section that Jesus taught which in our Bibles is in Matthew 6: 5 - 15. I will refer back to that section in a moment because it connects very closely to the section we have in this episode. I'd like you to see those two sections together. The earlier one was Episode 12 in Series 4 - so episode 12 and episode 17 fit very closely together. We're going to talk about prayer. I wonder what your attitude to prayer is? It's one of those awkward subjects that Christians often find difficult to discuss because many people find prayer very hard and some Christians don't really pray much at all on their own. They may participate in prayer if they go to church services, or home-based meetings, or special events and conferences but the reality is many Christians pray very little. Jesus' teaching about prayer is incredibly important. In this episode, Jesus puts the emphasis on being wholehearted and persistent in our attitude to prayer.
Matthew 6: 5 - 15
However, before we get there, I'd like to go back over the first section from Episode 12 and remind you of some of the highlights because it's a very important background to what we're going to talk about today. There are three things that I want to highlight. When Jesus speaks about prayer in Matthew 6, he compares people who pray publicly as a sign of religious fervour or sincerity - just to get the approval of other people - on the one hand, with the attitude of his followers which he said should be the complete opposite of that. He's talking, of course, about the Jewish context where praying in public was commonplace and well-respected. The Pharisees, in particular, thoroughly enjoyed praying in public and being seen to be devout and religious for doing so. Jesus compares that attitude with the attitude that he's trying to foster. He also compares the attitude of pagans, the followers of other religions, who he describes as praying a great deal out of a sense of insecurity (many words, many gestures of prayer) because they feel insecure in their relationship with the deity as they perceive it, and they're filled with lots of prayers and requests. Jesus cuts through all that and says the attitude of the disciple is different. If you want to pray, seek privacy. Preferably, find a place where you can close the door - close out the rest of the world - and, without anybody knowing it, pray to your Father who sees what you do in secret and he will reward you. We can see that Jesus' attitude to, and teaching on, prayer is based on the idea that we have an intimate relationship with our Heavenly Father which the Spirit brings about when we are reborn into God's Kingdom. That's the first thing to mention.
The second thing to mention from this earlier section is that the format, or the structure, of prayer is laid out in the Lord's Prayer. There is a basic form of prayer that is available to all Christians and recommended by our Lord as a framework for prayer. We've studied it and, almost certainly, you'll know it well. Let me read it again Matthew 6: 9,
‘9“This, then, is how you should pray: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, 10your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 11Give us today our daily bread. 12And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.’”’Matthew 6:9-13, NIV
This is a framework for prayer. When I taught it, in episode 12, I indicated that this isn't something to be rushed through just as a formula. It's something to be prayed slowly, and steadily and with reflection on each phrase with many other prayers arising out of it - and I gave a structure for that when we looked at it more closely in Episode 12.
The third thing to say is about our relationships with other people and how they're connected to prayer. Jesus emphasises forgiveness. Forgiving other people is very important in order to create a good access between us and God and a means by which he can easily respond to our prayers. Unforgiveness creates a blockage in our prayer life.
These are some of the things that we discovered in Episode 12 ,when we looked at this earlier teaching. Now Jesus comes back to prayer and he's adding in one more important dimension. We're going to read Matthew 7: 7 - 12:
‘7“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 8For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. 9“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! 12So in everything, do to others what (you'd) have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”’Matthew 7:7-12, NIV
Ask, Seek, Knock
The teaching here is on persistence and determination - a wholehearted attitude to prayer. There are three verbs here: ask, seek and knock. They are given in what we can call the present- continuous sense because that's how the Greek language functions in terms of its tenses. Present-continuous means that to say ‘ask’ means ‘ask and keep on asking,’ to say ‘seek’ means ‘seek and keep on seeking,’ and ‘knock and keep on knocking.’ A present-continuous activity is an ongoing activity. Keep on knocking, keep on seeking, keep on asking. The verb ‘ask’ has a sense of urgency - asking even to the point of demanding. The verb to seek has a sense of urgency also - trying to get something from somebody urgently - and the verb to knock has a sense of knocking persistently. Keep on asking, keep on seeking, keep on knocking. Later on, Jesus reiterates this teaching on another occasion which is recorded in Luke 11 and we have something very similar stated there - and you can read that as a comparative text. We'll study it separately when we get there. Jesus often repeated his teachings, as I've said before, in different contexts and so when that happens we give respect to each context in which Jesus gives similar teaching. Here on the Sermon on the Mount, he's adding in the element of persistence and determination.
Foundations of a Prayer Life
Let me take a moment to reflect on this. If we put these teachings together, we have the following things to think about: first of all, the foundation of a prayer life of a Christian is our actual living relationship with God as our Heavenly Father - we're coming to a loving Heavenly Father. Until we get this clear in our minds, then prayer will tend to be mechanical; prayer will tend to be hopeful (or even pessimistic) because we don't know the mind of God, or we don't know his attitude towards us - we're uncertain of our salvation. Those who have found a living faith in Christ will also, through the work of the Holy Spirit, have a very vivid understanding of God as our Heavenly Father. This is a wonderful reality and it under-girds prayer. When you're praying, you're talking to a Father who loves you, who cares for you, who's forgiven you all the things you've done wrong in the past; who's got your future in mind, who's looking forward to having a face-to-face encounter with you and relationship with you in eternity; who sent his Son to die for you and who has given the Holy Spirit to live in you as a deposit - as a first payment, as it were - of the salvation you're going to receive when you enter into eternity. That's the Heavenly Father that we are relating to. Without that foundation, all these other things become very difficult to live out.
I've found it really helpful to focus on the wonderful love of my Heavenly Father for me as the foundation of my own prayer life and, as I wake up in the morning every day, my first inclination is always to think, “I want to spend that time in prayer, to be with my Father, to read his word and to pray the Lord's Prayer.” I've found over the years - I mentioned it when we looked at it in Episode 12 and I want to reiterate it here because it's such an important point - I found that using the Lord's Prayer as a framework for prayer is tremendously helpful. I did it this morning and I do it most days when I pray. I will start, “Our Father in heaven,” reflect on that, what does it mean? I'm coming to my Father, he's in heaven but he's connected to me; his Holy Spirit is connecting us together; I can communicate with my Creator and my Redeemer. What a wonderful thought! “Hallowed be your name, may your Kingdom come” I immediately think of a thousand different applications of that: I want God's Kingdom to come in my family's life so that there are breakthroughs in my family's life; I want God's Kingdom to come in my church so that it grows and more people are healed and brought into salvation and more poor people are helped. “Thy Kingdom come” can mean things about international mission that I'm concerned with ... and so the list goes on and on. Starting with a good relationship with our Heavenly Father and a real perception of his love for us, we're able to pray with confidence and I encourage you to use the Lord's Prayer as a framework.
Thirdly, every day we should be dealing with the issue of forgiveness. Is there anyone that you need to forgive today? If so it's time to make that decision and that decision is not about emotion, it's not about feeling - it's a decision you make with your will, with your mind and with the help of the Holy Spirit. They don't deserve to be forgiven; they may never change but we give God the right to judge them. We're not going to be judgemental; we're going to forgive. That opens up the door for a living relationship with our Heavenly Father; we're not burdened by unforgiveness, anger, bitterness and sadness. All that can be resolved. However deep those issues, the Holy Spirit can come and work deeply within us if we release the issue to him. The reason it's important here is that it has a fundamental effect on our prayer life. Those who don't forgive, don't pray very much - that is my common experience. They feel a bit disconnected from God; they feel unable to come to him with confidence; they find it harder to prioritise his Kingdom and are more interested in their own welfare because they're absorbed in the pain and the hurt of things that have happened.
These are the foundations that we want to build but then we need to add in the very thing that Jesus is teaching us here - which is persistence. Keep on asking. This is one thing that we all find very difficult because we like to have things resolved quickly. We don't like waiting; we don't like asking but this is where we have to trust in our Living God. Some prayer requests that I've had on my list, I've been asking God for five, or even ten years, and they still haven't happened; other things happen within days or weeks of me asking him and I can't really explain the difference between the two. There are some things, deep down inside you, you know you should be praying for and asking for and the Lord Jesus here is saying, “Keep on asking.” Every time you pray, it's remembered by God - it's part of the process. There may be a much wider spiritual battle going on behind the scenes of your prayers. There may be some character formation in you going on, as you are seeking him. There may be an issue of timing - that that prayer is better answered sometime in the future - in a way that you can't understand from where you stand, and this is where we have to trust our Heavenly Father and to pray with faith. I've been praying for decades for a spiritual revival in my country, the UK, and I've been praying for a number of nations round the world regularly for many years too. I attend an early morning prayer meeting every week at which these are major themes and I'm praying and I'm praying and I'm praying, I'm persisting, and as yet I haven't seen the fulfilment of the answer to that particular focus of prayer but I feel deep down that this is what I should be praying for and I feel that every time I've brought it to the Lord it's a step closer; and I hear other people praying similar prayers and that really encourages me. It's a way of praying that I feel is really important.
As I come to this scripture, I'm encouraged because the Lord says, “Keep on asking”, because God isn't going to give you something negative for something positive that you ask. ‘“If your son asks for bread, will (a father) give him a stone?”’ says Jesus, rhetorically, here. What father would humiliate his child who comes to him hungry and says, “Father I'm hungry can I have some bread?” and just give him a rock or stone and say, “Eat that”? That's not our Heavenly Father, that's not our loving Heavenly Father, he would never do anything like that. ‘“Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?”’ What a terrible thing to do! A fish for food, we don't want a snake, we want a fish to eat.
‘“If you, then, though (you're) evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”’Matthew 7:11, NIV
We should keep asking. One of the good gifts that God gives us is gifts of the Holy Spirit and the very presence of the Holy Spirit in greater measure. This is one of the mysteries of prayer: the more you pray about other things the more God gives you of himself. In the parallel passage in Luke 11, which we'll study in a later series (Luke 11: 13), we find that the good gift there which the Father in heaven is going to give is described as the Holy Spirit. Jesus, teaching something similar on a later occasion, defines the good gift as the Holy Spirit or even the gifts of the Spirit. I think that's wonderful, because God gives us more of himself as we seek him and as we ask him. I want to encourage you to go back to this issue of prayer.
The discipline of finding a time and a place has been dealt with in Matthew 6: 5 onwards, and mentioned briefly at the beginning of this talk. You need to find a place and a time to pray; it doesn't happen by accident. You can't do all your deep praying just as you're walking along the road or looking after your children or cooking your food or going to your office. We need a time of peace and quiet and a place. Find it! Use the Lord's Prayer. Decide you're going to forgive people who need to be forgiven, who've wronged you, Ask specific things. Be very specific, be very clear, be very confident that you can come to God's throne of grace and ask him and he will intervene and answer your prayers. It appears that for Jesus, for the discipleship community, personal prayer was a foundation stone. If there isn't any personal prayer of any significance in your life, then today's episode is an incredibly important moment for you. I encourage you, don't just read it, go back to the relevant scriptures (these two passages in Matthew 6 and 7 and the parallel passage in Luke 11: 1 onwards) Read that section through and ask the Lord to help you establish a pattern of prayer. That varies dramatically according to your life circumstances. If you're a retired person in a comfortable home, you've got plenty of opportunity. If you're a mother with four children at home, there's hardly a moment you get to yourself unless you really find a way and you have to work very hard. Or if you're a busy worker who commutes an hour and a half to work each day (on the bus or walking or on a train) then you're very tired at the end of the day and you have to get up very early. I understand all this; there are no simple, easy solutions but Jesus encourages us to believe that we can find time and a place and, if you analyse your day, you'll find there's elements of time there that you hardly think about which you can give to prayer. You may have to take it away from something else. You may have to switch your social media or your television off. You may have to withdraw a little from conversation from time to time. You may have to go out of your home and go quietly to a place you can walk and pray, or may be able to close the door to your room. We should be seeking to find that time and to develop that life of prayer.
I had the privilege, many years ago, to travel to South Korea which is famous for its emphasis on prayer in their churches. It's also famous for having some of the largest churches in the world and I was privileged to visit some very large churches in major cities in South Korea during the time that I visited friends there. On one occasion, I was taken from a church meeting on Sunday, by bus, to an area which was called a prayer mountain. Quite a few churches in South Korea buy land which they use for prayer retreats and there I spent a day. I was able to see the huge numbers of people who came just to seek God. There were little places that they could sit. There were little caves that had been dug out of the side of the hill. There were benches that they could sit on. There was a prayer chapel they could go to and I saw hundreds and hundreds of people. Some were fasting, some had spent several days there; some took a week's holiday; and they went just to pray and to seek God. It was a most moving experience and I realised that in some parts of the world the expectation of God answering prayer is greater than in others - and it was greater in South Korea than it was in my home country, the UK. I learnt something there. I never forgot that wonderful experience and it's been my priority in my own life, wherever possible, to seek time and place for private communion with my God and to seek his face as my Heavenly Father and to pray to him along the lines that I have suggested to you, based on the teaching here in the Sermon on the Mount.
The Golden Rule
We have one more verse which we haven't commented on which is very important, the last verse of our passage, Matthew 7: 12,
‘“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”’Mattew 7:12, NIV
This particular verse is actually the concluding verse of the formal teaching of the Sermon on the Mount. It's bringing it to an end; it's the bridge between the formal teaching and then Jesus' final comments - which we're going to get to in the next section. The next episode is actually all about choice (and that's what we're going to deal with in Episode 18) but here he says, ‘“So in everything, do to others what (you'd) have them do to you.”’ This is sometimes called the Golden Rule - the golden ethical rule. The golden rule identifies the underlying attitude of Christian disciples towards others, which is to love your neighbour. It encourages us to be proactive towards other people and to have the love of other people in mind in all our religious and ethical behaviour. This lovely verse brings this passage to conclusion and we have the so-called Golden Rule of Jesus. I hope you've enjoyed going through all the ethical teaching of Jesus - teaching about attitudes, teaching about various religious practices - in the Sermon on the Mount. This is a foundational text for our faith and I encourage you to study it really seriously and go back over this teaching again and see what you can implement in your own life.
In our next episode, the final episode of Series 4, we're going to look at the remaining sections of Matthew 7 and, as I mentioned just a moment ago, this is all about choice because Jesus, at the end, looks out over this vast crowd that's gathered - disciples at the front and many other people around, interested observers - and he basically says, “There is a choice. You either live this way of life or you don't.” It's a choice. It's not something you study academically. It's not something of casual interest. It's not something you can easily dismiss. You're either going down this road or you're not. You're either going to be a disciple or you're going to choose not to be a disciple and the consequences of those choices (and the significance of those choices) are going to be the subject of our next episode. I hope you'll join us, thank you.
The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.
- Martin Charlesworth comments, ‘This is one of the mysteries of prayer: the more you pray about other things the more God gives you of himself.’ What is your experience of this?
- How do you find that special time of prayer with the Father when lives are so busy?
- Is the time of prayer life-giving or a religious act?
- What do the words ‘Your Kingdom come’ mean, or could mean?
- Why do people find persistence in prayer so difficult?