3A Prayer is the heart of our relationship with God

Eternal life is all about our personal relationship with God our loving heavenly Father. Jesus said: “Eternal life means to know you, the only true God, and to know Jesus Christ, whom you sent” (John 17:3 GNB). “Everything that goes into a life of pleasing God has been miraculously given to us by getting to know, personally and intimately, the One who invited us to God” (2 Pet 1:3 THE MESSAGE). I promised to return to the subject of prayer this week because the first and best expression of our relationship with God is in our prayer life. Clement of Alexandra and John Chrysostom both said prayer is conversation with God. Christians are encouraged to talk with God just as they would with a trusted friend. David Watson wrote, “God is the living God, and every day He wants us to enjoy a living relationship with Him, involving a two-way conversation” (Discipleship Hodder, 1981 p149). Prayer isn’t just something which helps us in our Christian life. Prayer is our Christian life. In Richard Foster’s words, “Prayer is nothing more than an ongoing and growing love relationship with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” (Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home Hodder, 1992 p13).
Prayer is not a means to an end – prayer is a most worthwhile end in itself. Prayer expresses and deepens our relationship with God. Through prayer we do come to know God better and trust Him more and more, but more than that spending time in the company of family or friends is not a means to an end but an end in itself. Praying is enjoying time in God’s presence.
Prayer opens the doors to our experiences of all of God’s blessings, love and joy and freedom and victory and peace. God makes so many wonderful promises to believers. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, withb thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:6-7). We only come to experience God’s peace as we bring our anxieties, our needs and our fears to God in prayer.
“What a friend we have in Jesus, All our sins and griefs to bear
What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer.
Oh what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear,
All because we do not carry Everything to God in prayer.”
We experience God’s peace through our relationship with God which lets us commit every part of our lives to Him in prayer. God gives to Christians wonderful contentment and divine strength, but these do not come to us in abstract. They only come to us as we enjoy communion with God and draw on His strength moment by moment. “You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in You.” (Isa 26:3-4). Peace only comes from the act of fixing our minds steadfastly on God, relying on Him and consciously putting our trust in Him. Joy and freedom and victory come in the same way, by experiencing God’s presence.
This morning I want to talk more about the place of prayer in our relationship with God. Our weekly church prayer meetings, regular nights of prayer, mornings of prayer, days of prayer, and united prayer events have been very special times. Good habits can help us in praying. Silence and retreats are very helpful. But ultimately, each one of us need to learn for ourselves how to pray and we do that simply by praying.
That will come as no surprise to anybody. Prayer is the heart of our relationship with God and the secret of every relationship is good communication, When we become God’s children, we begin the lifelong adventure of learning to communicate with Him. In many ways, learning to pray is like learning to speak a different language, or play a musical instrument, or ride a bike, or play a sport. The key is practice. So if we want to learn how to pray, we just need to pray. Sermons and Bible Studies and reading books about prayer can be helpful. But most Christians don’t need more teaching on prayer. We need to put into practice what we already know. This means we just need to make the time and really get down to praying.
Praying begins with asking
When he was teaching His disciples to pray, Jesus said this:
“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened” (Matt 7:7-8). In Greek these verbs are present imperatives – keep on asking, keep on seeking, keep on knocking. We will always need to express our dependence on God by keeping on asking, seeking and knocking. Of course, we should pray about our Christian activities. At the same time, we also need to be praying about all our ordinary experiences of life, starting, as Jesus teaches us in the Lord’s Prayer, by praying for our daily bread and for forgiveness and to be spared from times of trial and from the evil one. The Bible reminds us repeatedly that God values the ordinary. We need to keep asking God for the little things in life.
I have talked before about the six weeks I spent on sabbatical in 2001 visiting missionary friends in rural Uganda with another two weeks in Uganda in 2009. Then in 2019 Ruth and I spent a month teaching and visiting churches and schools in Zambia. I learned something very important about prayer from those times. African Christians pray before every meal, before every drink, before every journey, after every journey, before they say goodbye, every time when somebody is hurt or sick – not just when it is something major. For all their problems with water supply and health and transport and survival hand to mouth from day to day, Christians in Africa understand God’s provision so much better than most English Christians do. They consciously depend on God for their daily bread and for all their day-to-day needs much more than we think we need to.
We need to learn to keep on asking through all the ordinary experiences of life and by doing so we will become more aware of how God does indeed keep on meeting our needs. Many Christians find it hard to pray for the big things in life, such as praying for healing from a life-threatening disease. We need to learn by asking for God’s help in the little things like colds and headaches. Answers to prayers for the little things will build up our confidence and faith in God to ask for big things. Praying begins with asking. As C.H. Spurgeon once said, “Whether we like it or not, asking is the rule of the Kingdom” (Charles Spurgeon Ask and have sermon #1682 1/10/1882). Let’s use this week of prayer to practise asking God for the things we need we need.
We need to set aside time to pray
John Dalrymple has wisely said, “The truth is that we only learn to pray all the time everywhere after we have resolutely set about praying some of the time somewhere.” (John Dalrymple Simple Prayer Darton, Longman and Todd 1984 p47). Every Christian can benefit enormously from setting aside regular times for personal prayer. When we make our fixed times of prayer take priority over everything else, this reminds us that God is more important than anything else.
Some Christians find a daily pattern of prayer works well for them. Others struggle to fit a prayer time in with their responsibilities as parents or carers, or with working long hours, and choose instead to set aside longer periods spread across the week. It is vital that we each find our best pattern for our personal prayers. We need to commit ourselves to making time for prayer. Just as we need to commit ourselves to another person for any relationship to grow, so we need to commit ourselves to developing and deepening our relationship with God. This will sometimes include praying when we don’t feel like it, but we need to be committed to making time to pray in whatever pattern we find works best for us. Our times of prayer are a vital expression of our relationship with God. Happy children are delighted to be able to spend time and have long conversations with loving parents. Why do some Christians approach times of prayer with so little enthusiasm? If we fail to give time to getting to know God better, we will be the losers. So let us all set aside extra time to pray this week.
Set prayers can be very useful
Baptist Christians belong to a spiritual tradition which values extemporary prayer, coming come to God whenever we want using whatever words come to mind at the time. Such prayer is like a conversation we could have with a loving parent or a dear friend, spontaneous and free. But we should remember that the vast majority of Christians through the centuries, and the Jews before them, did not generally pray the way we do. Many Christians today do not. Other traditions very happily use set prayers written by other people and often passed down through generations.
Set prayers have their dangers. They can become vain repetitions where we don’t think about what we are saying. But the same objection can apply to the songs we sing. Most Christians are very happy to use hymns and songs and choruses which other people have written. We don’t feel we need to make up a brand-new song every time we praise and worship God. The precise advantage of using words somebody else has written is that we can devote our hearts to thinking about the meaning of what we are singing, instead of having to use most of our concentration on thinking of the right things to say.
The same can be true of our prayers. Sometimes using words which another believer has written can help us to express our deepest feelings better than we are able to do ourselves. It is good sometimes to be able to focus purely on God instead of having to search for the best words. It is a good thing to add our voices sometimes to the voices of countless saints in many places over many generations by using the very same prayers they used. Praying like this also helps deliver us from temptations to individualism.
If Christians want to learn more about prayer, it should not be a question of either contemporaneous prayers or set prayers. It should be both/and. If we want to learn more about prayer, we should never look down on the rites and rituals and set prayers of other traditions. All Christians can benefit from liturgy, sacrament and written prayers as well as intimacy, informality and spontaneous prayers. We can start with the Lord’s Prayer. The disciples asked Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray.” If we want to learn to pray, why not start by praying the very prayer Jesus gave to His disciples to use? Of course, the Lord’s Prayer also gives us a pattern for all our prayers, a way of praying. We can also explore the psalms, which formed the hymn book and the prayer book of Christians for two thousand years. There are many fine websites with excellent prayers to use, and I have given everybody a leaflet called Starting to Pray which contains a week of prayers. Next time you don’t feel like praying, or you don’t know what to pray, use prayers written by another person, quite probably somebody who knew more about prayer than any of us ever will. Take their prayer and make it your own personal prayer. Why not try praying using set prayers this week?
One more thing to keep in mind for our Week of Prayer and Fasting. When we are praying, we need to be completely open and honest with God. Nobody knows us as we really are. We are afraid of letting other people see the real me, because we are scared they will discover (borrowing the phrase from Michael Caine’s character in the film Educating Rita) “there is less to me than meets the eye.” We are afraid anybody who did know us as we really are would reject us or hurt us. There is no reason to be afraid with God! What we need is to take definite steps to open our life to God and to share our deepest feelings with Him in prayer. We need to be honest with God.
When I was a teenager, a girl in our youth group once made what is probably the most honest statement I have ever heard anybody make about prayer. She said, “I gave up praying when my goldfish died.” My friend’s pet fish was ailing, and she prayed it would recover. The goldfish died so she lost her confidence in prayer and abandoned her faith in God for a time. We desperately need that kind of reality and honesty in all our praying.
There is a world of difference between saying our prayers and true Christian prayer. Our praying is meaningless if we only say to God the kinds of things we think He wants to hear: good religious requests for suitably worthy causes. Sometimes we can find ourselves asking God for all kinds of things we don’t actually care about at all. We can pray for blessings for people we don’t know, just because these seem like good pious topics for prayer, or only because other people have asked us to pray for those things. There are no examples of that kind of prayer in the Bible at all. Prayers in the Bible are always completely honest.
Jesus promised His disciples they could ask for whatever they wished for, and God would answer their prayers (John 15:7). Whatever you wish for actually means whatever you really want. These have to be things we truly care about. Not just passing whims but things we long for with a passion.
Suppose one of our children had come to me one day saying, “We saw a programme about children in Africa, there was this little girl who looked so hungry – I don’t know what her name was – she was only on for 10 seconds – but can we make sure she gets enough to eat and is never hungry again?” On the other hand, suppose instead she had come day after day saying, “There’s this little girl in my class and I’m so sad because she always seems hungry and never has new clothes and says she doesn’t have any toys – can we help her please Daddy, please?” You know very well which request I would answer.
We can make the mistake of believing it would be selfish to ask for things for ourselves, or for our family, or for our friends, or for our neighbours, or for our church. Some Christians seem to think it is spiritual to ask God for things on behalf of people who are half a world away who they don’t know and never will. It is not. That misunderstands prayer. There are occasions when God does lay on our hearts a burden to pray for a situation which is remote from us. But in other cases, unless we really care about helping strangers in remote lands, unless we are passionate enough to send off a cheque, or unless we have friends working in those troubled areas, it is not deeply spiritual to say prayers about people and places we don’t know anything about. Unless we really care about the requests we make, we aren’t really praying at all. As Thomas Brooks once said, “Cold prayers always freeze before they reach heaven” (“Smooth Stones Taken from Ancient Brooks: Being a Collection of Sentences, Illustrations, and Quaint Sayings, from the Works of that Renowned Puritan, Thomas Brooks” (1860) p107.)
Prayer rightly begins with our nearest and dearest. Until we have the faith to expect God to act in our own lives and with our family and friends, praying for people who are far away who we don’t know can just become an easy get-out. We need to learn to trust God in our own situations and problems and needs. The people who have the greatest faith in praying for remote situations are the people who have experienced the greatest answers to prayer in their own lives.
So when you are asking God for something, try this simple exercise. You could even call it The Goldfish Test. Suppose God does not grant your request. Would you feel really sad, really disappointed, maybe a bit angry? Would you feel let down if God did not answer your prayers? If you would not, if life would go on just as before, if your relationship with God wasn’t affected in the slightest if God didn’t answer this particular prayer, then you aren’t really praying at all – you’re just saying prayers.
Some lines from a hymn by Samuel Wesley make the point. “Let prayer be prayer, and praise be heartfelt praise; From unreality, O set us free”. We need to be completely honest with God about what we really want. True prayer is making requests where it will be very clear to everybody what answers God has given: not beating about the bush; not covering our bets; but specific requests for things we care about.
Prayer is at the heart of our relationship with God. Prayer begins with asking. We need to make time to pray. Set prayers can be very useful. And we need to be honest in prayer. We have to get real with God!

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