3P Prayer and our relationship with God PART 2

Prayer is at the heart of our relationship with God. This morning I reminded us that the very best way to learn to pray is by praying. Practice makes perfect. I talked about asking prayers, because asking is the rule of the Kingdom of God, and about setting aside time for prayer. We thought about the value of set prayers and I gave us a leaflet with a week of prayers on it. And I told you about my friend who gave up praying for a while after her pet goldfish died, as an illustration of the importance of honesty and reality in our praying. This evening I want to remind us about some more important aspects of prayer, starting with:
Prayers of confession, relinquishment and formation
Certain kinds of set prayers are especially helpful. Prayers of confession help us to know ourselves better, so we can then offer the whole of ourselves to God. They confront each one of us with the truth that I, like everybody else, am a miserable sinner. We all have our own blind spots. Things about us which everybody else can see but we ourselves are oblivious to. Set prayers of confession remind us of the kinds of sins people can fall into, so the Holy Spirit can challenge our hearts just like the occasion when the prophet Nathan challenged King David over his crimes of adultery and murder: “you are the man” (2 Sam 12:7). True repentance begins when we genuinely “acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness” and come to the point of “godly sorrow which leads to repentance” (2 Cor 7:10). As a result, we receive forgiveness of sins and assurance of pardon – your sins really are forgiven you, for Jesus’s sake. This in turn will bring us to an ever-increasing appreciation and fuller assurance of God’s grace and forgiveness and to a growing holiness and a deeper relationship with God.
William Carey, the founder of the Baptist Missionary Society wrote, “Secret, fervent, believing prayer is the root of all personal Godliness.” As our relationship with God deepens and as we come to know Him better, we will want to do more of the things which please God and less of the things which offend Him. We will want to become more like Jesus, so we need the kinds of praying which change us. Prayers of confession lead on to prayers of relinquishment – prayers of letting go. These prayers change us because, instead of asking God to do what we want, we invite Almighty God to do whatever He chooses in our lives. Mary had reached that point when she said to the angel, “I am the Lord’s servant … May Your word to me be fulfilled” (Luke 1:38). Even Jesus had to wrestle in prayer in Gethsemane to come to declare, “Not as I will, but as You will” (Matt 26:39). Prayers of relinquishment are laying down our own human will to do God’s will – the way of surrender. Andrew Murray was a South African pastor at the heart of the revival there in 1860. One of his most famous books is called Absolute surrender. Andrew Murray wrote this.
“The Spirit teaches me to yield my will entirely to the will of the Father. He opens my ear to wait in great gentleness and teachableness of soul for what the Father has day to day to speak and to teach. He reveals to me how union with God’s will is union with God Himself. How entire surrender to God’s will is the Father’s claim, the Son’s example, and true blessedness of soul.”
It will often be difficult to say no to self and yes to God. Prayers of relinquishment describe not only the final prayer of surrender, but also the whole process of days or weeks or months of wrestling with God in prayer until we finally come to the point of saying yes, we are willing to offer ourselves as living sacrifices (Rom 12:1-2). Sometimes God will ask us to hand some area of our life over to Him, only to give it straight back to us again. The point is that we all need to learn that Jesus Christ is Lord. God is the boss. When He commands, we must obey. We need to nail our will to the cross so God’s will is done, to the point where we can agree with the apostle Paul that we have been crucified with Christ and now Christ lives in us (Gal 2:20).
The simplest prayer of relinquishment is to echo the prayer of Jesus: “Not my will but Your will be done.” A longer one begins, “Lord, I am willing to be made willing. I am desirous that Thy will shall be done in me, and through me, as thoroughly as it is done in heaven. Come and take me and break me and remake me.” Very early on I discovered the wonderful book Prayers of Life by the French priest Michel Quoist. It contains a very helpful meditation entitled, “Help me to say ‘Yes’”.
After prayers of confession and of relinquishment we can use “formation prayers” or “prayers of transformation”. These prayers are intended to form the character of Christ in us and help us be transformed into His likeness. I commend the simplest of these, the prayer of Richard, Bishop of Chichester: “Day by day, dear Lord I pray: To see You more clearly; Love You more dearly; Follow You more nearly.” Another familiar example would be the prayer incorrectly attributed to Saint Francis, adapted into a popular song, which begins, “Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace.” For many years I made a point of ending every day using one or other of those prayers. Prayer changes things and prayer changes us: prayers of confession, of relinquishment and of formation. God can use such prayers to make us more like Jesus. But we need to be doers of the word – not hearers only. We learn to pray by praying.
Listening to God
Prayer is conversation with God and any conversation consists not only of speaking but also of listening. We must make time to listen to God in prayer as well as to speak to him. We can expect God to speak to us through the Bible as we read and study and mediate on His word. We can also expect God to reveal Himself to us in dreams and visions and words of prophecy – I talked about this a few weeks ago when I spoke about the prophet-hood of all believers.
If we eagerly desire to meet with God and hear God speaking, most people need times of solitude and silence. My first experience of this aspect of listening to God came at Cambridge in four days of silent retreat with the College Chapel community led by the Dean at an Anglican retreat centre. Over more than 40 years I have found setting aside periods for silent retreat for hours or even days at a time to be precious and valuable. My most precious experience of refreshment and healing came in a week of individually guided silent retreat at Lee Abbey.
Silence is golden. Jesus Himself searched out solitude for prayer in the middle of the busyness of life – how much more do we need to do so. Monks and mystics have retreated into deserts in order to meet with God. Solitude is a blessing. “Be still and know that I am God” (Psa 46:10). This is not just about shutting out all the noises which so easily distract us. It is about becoming still so we can hear God’s voice. And so we will move on to:
Praying without ceasing
Jesus taught His disciples to abide in Him, to remain in union with Him and remain united to Him (John 15:4-5). Prayer is the heart of the new life and the relationship which Christians have with God through Jesus Christ. The Bible urges us to pray without ceasing (1 Thess 5:17) and to be constant in prayer (Rom 12:12). We should “pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests” (Eph 6:18). But what does it mean in practice to pray continually?
We have already said that praying begins with asking for all the little things of life as well as the big things. We need good habits of praying, starting by making our regular times of prayer a priority. Set prayers can be helpful, not least the Lord’s Prayer. We need to work hard at meeting with God, day by day and even hour by hour. we also need to set apart special times and spaces for solitude and silence. I want to recommend some other practices which have also been very helpful to me.
Very early on as a young Christian I came across the little book, The Practice of the Presence of God by the 17th century monk Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection. “Practising the presence of God” is just a simple way of seeing God and bringing prayer into all the ordinary experiences of life and discovering God is involved in every aspect of our daily lives. It gives a way of learning to trust God in every area of our lives by making an effort to acknowledge God’s presence in every situation. God is with us all the time and, rather than ignoring Him, we can enjoy continuous conversation with God as we would with a friend. Our jobs are not a hindrance to prayer but an opportunity for prayer. We can sometimes pray while we work. We should always pray about our work and for our work. But we can also pray through our work. Our work can become prayer in action. “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him” (Col 3:17).
Another very helpful practice in prayer is using “breath prayers.” These are specific short prayers which we can say in a single breath. Whenever we want to bring God to mind during the day and acknowledge His presence with us, we breathe this prayer. Whenever we want to dedicate a particular activity to God, we breathe this prayer. Whenever we want to ask for God’s grace and help and draw God into a particular situation, we breathe this prayer. It is a form of prayer which helps bring God into every part of our lives as we use it many times through the day.
One breath prayer has been used by Christians for centuries. “Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” I used this prayer many times each day during my Sabbatical time in Uganda: first thing in the morning; last thing at night; when I moved from one activity to another; as I went to greet someone. There are many other excellent breath prayers. You might like the first line of the prayer attributed to St. Francis, “Lord, Make me a channel of your peace.” You might like to use “Abba Father, let me Yours and Yours alone.” Or God might lead you to a different “breath prayer” which is personal to you.
There is one more very simple and practical suggestion which helped me enormously when I adopted it many years ago, back in my days as a student and then as a science teacher. One of the things most of us do almost unconsciously throughout the day is look at our watch. Nowadays it is more likely to be our smartphone. For a number of years, I had fixed to the face of my watch two little strips of sticking plaster in the shape of a cross. Every time I checked the time, I saw the reminder: “I am a Christian.” “God is with me.” That simple symbol would often prompt me to prayer. In these days of smartphones, we can have a Christian image as our screensaver, or even set one or two alarms at particular times of day to call us to prayer. These things will remind us that God and our relationship with God are more important than anything else you are doing at the time. We need to learn how to pray without ceasing.
Most of what I have been saying this morning and this evening has applied primarily to individual Christians in our personal prayer lives. But I want to remind us of one more important truth.
Churches need to pray together
It is a curious coincidence that although the four churches which I have served have been of very different sizes, the attendances at the central church prayer meetings have been roughly the same. While the two larger churches only held monthly prayer meetings the smaller two have met faithfully for prayer every week. Charles Haddon Spurgeon described his church prayer meetings as the powerhouse of the church, and I remain convinced he was correct. Churches need to pray together.
Home Groups for Bible study, prayer and fellowship have rightly become a vital part of the life of many churches. Of course, prayer should be a central part of our corporate worship, although it is too often sadly neglected in favour of extra songs and over-long sermons. Although previously they were often included in the majority of our services, times of “open prayer” led spontaneously by any members of the congregation have become an indispensable element of all our services since the Zoom services during Covid lockdowns and in our “fully hybrid” services since. But central church prayer meetings are also valuable, as well as regular mornings, nights and days of prayer and fasting for the whole church.
Jesus taught His disciples, “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them” (Matt 18:19-20). Here Jesus promises that He is present in the midst when Christians gather in a way that He is not present with us as individuals. And Jesus promises that requests offered by Christians united in prayer will be answered. We will not experience these blessings if we neglect joining together in praying. The first Christians devoted themselves to prayer (Acts 2:42). They were constantly in prayer, with 33 mentions of prayer in the Book of Acts and almost as many of worship and praise. Christians and churches need to pray together just as much today.
While he was General Secretary of the Baptist Union, David Coffey said this, “Many churches need to recover this lost principle. Not prayer as a token gesture, some spiritual national anthem where we profess loyalty to the King and then proceed to the real purpose of our gathering. But urgent and dynamic prayer that seeks God in such a manner that everyone becomes aware that, unless God intervenes, we are doomed!” He was correct. Former BMS Missionary Eric Westwood said this in his address when he was President of the Baptist Union. “We must write prayer again into the lifestyle of our churches; meaningful prayer, urgent prayer, repentant prayer, constant prayer, Spirit-led prayer, even sacrificial prayer!” He was right too. Churches need to pray together.
So there you are. Prayers of confession, relinquishment and formation. Listening to God. Praying without ceasing. And praying together. Things we can all take to heart in our week of prayer and fasting this week.

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