Prayer changes things. But prayer also changes us. And the more we learn about prayer the more we will realise how important it is that prayer changes us.
In learning to pray we began by thinking about simple prayer, asking, seeking, knocking, ordinary people bringing our everyday needs to our loving heavenly Father. “Asking is the rule of the Kingdom.” But any parent longs for the day when his children will see him not merely as a Provider but also as a Teacher and as a Friend. So God longs to the time when our relationship with him will involve more than just a shopping list of things we want God to do for us.
We need a Copernican revolution of the heart. Copernicus realised that the sun does not God around the earth but the earth goes round the sun. In the same way we need to move on from thinking that God is a part of our lives to realising that we are part of God’s life. God is at the centre, not me. And prayer is at the heart of this revolution in our thinking. Prayer changes us. It was the founder of the Baptist Missionary Society William Carey who wrote that “Secret, fervent, believing prayer is the root of all personal Godliness.”
As our relationship with God deepens, as we come to know God better, just like in any other relationship 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. And in order to become more like Jesus, we need to learn about this secret fervent believing prayer which changes us –transforming prayer.
This will begin with what Richard Foster calls prayers of relinquishment – prayers of letting go. These are prayer which change us because we invite Almighty God to do whatever HE chooses in our lives. Richard Foster puts it like this. “As we are learning to pray we discover an interesting progression. In the beginning our will struggles with God’s will. We beg we pout. We demand. We expect God to perform like a magician or shower us with blessings like Father Christmas. We major in instant solutions and manipulative prayers.”
But then as we grow in prayer we discover that prayer is not about getting God to do our will. Prayer is about coming to the point where we do God’s will. Not God doing what we want but us doing what God wants. The point which Mary reached when she said to the angel, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.”
It is that point in prayer which even the Lord Jesus Christ had to wrestle to reach in Gethsemane.
Matthew 22:36 Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” 37 He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. 38 Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”
39 Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”
40 Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Could you men not keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. 41 “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.”
42 He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”
43 When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. 44 So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing.
Did you notice there that the answer of God the Father to the prayer Jesus was asking was NO.
“If you are willing, take this cup from me.” NO.
“If it be possible, take this cup from me.” NO.
In the end the only way left open for Jesus was to do the Father’s will. “Not my will but your will be done.” The prayer of relinquishment. Laying down our own human will to do God’s will. Gethsemane shows us a better way to live. The way of helplessness. The way of abandonment. The way of relinquishment. Not my way but God’s way. “My will” in submission to God’s will.
The struggle Jesus experienced in Gethsemane was genuine. Saying “no” to what we want and “yes” to what God wants will often be a battle. As we will see in our evening service in a few weeks time, Abraham struggled with God over Isaac. It took Moses 40 years learning as a shepherd in the desert before he was ready to do God’s work in God’s way. Think of the lives of King David or of the Apostle Paul. Every Christian will have areas of our lives where we struggle with God in prayer: over the job we will do, the person we may marry, where we will live, the church we belong to. And for each one of us there will be parts of our lives God wants to change: our besetting sins. There will be many areas where we each need to come to the point of sating to God, “Not my will but your will be done.” Handing control of our lives open to God in prayers of surrender – prayers of relinquishment.
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 ho 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.”
Handing our lives over to God in prayer in this way is a vital part of spiritual growth and a deepening relationship with God. When God brings a particular activity or a specific aspect of our lives to our attention, it won’t always be easy to say “no” to self and “yes” to God. Of course, prayers of relinquishment are 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 being will to say “yes”.
The apostle Paul describes this process of self-surrender in words we know well in Romans 12:1-2.
Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. 2 Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
Here is the challenge to sacrifice what we want to do, and instead to do what God wants us to do – God’s good, pleasing and perfect will.
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 there is that we all need to learn that God is the boss. Jesus Christ is Lord. When He commands, we must obey. We need to nail our will to the cross so that God’s will is done.
On the other hand, sometimes when we hand an area of our lives over to God He takes it away and never gives it back to us. In those situations the prayer of relinquishment is absolutely vital. Richard Foster puts it this way. Sometimes “we hold on so tightly to the good we know that we cannot receive the greater good we do not know.” That is so important that I am going to say it again. Sometimes “we hold on so tightly to the good we know that we cannot receive the greater good we do not know.” “God has to help us to let go of our tiny vision in order to release the greater good He has in store for us.”
God may ultimately give back to us what we have handed to Him, or He may take it away from us forever. Either way, the important thing is that we come to the point of saying “not my will but your will be done.” What matters is that our own will is crucified so that God’s will is done in our lives – that we come to the point of being able to say with Paul in Galatians 2:20
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.
With crucifixion comes resurrection. God is not destroying our will. But He is transforming it so that we freely will what God Himself wills.
Last week we thought about the value of prayers of confession: acknowledging and bewailing our manifold sins and wickedness. Confession is the first step in opening our lives to God’s transforming power. God can only begin to change us to be more like Christ when we honestly acknowledge that we need to be changed. Then the second step is prayers of relinquishment as we hand our lives over to God and actually ask God to set us free from what A.W.Tozer so memorably calls “the fine threads of the self life, the hyphenated sins of the human spirit … the self sins: self-sufficiency, self-pity, self-absorption,… self-deception, self-exaltation, self-indulgence.” Letting God have HIS way in our lives will finally bring us freedom from the everlasting burden of having to get our own way.
Only God Himself can tell us what are the areas of our lives which we are holding on to, where He wants us to hand control over to Him. But there are particular prayers of relinquishment which you may find helpful.
Philippians 2:5-8 reminds us of Christ’s attitude, and we can use that passage as a starting point for meditation and as a “prayer of self-emptying.”
5 Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: 6 Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross!
In the same way we can meditate on Jesus in Gethsemane in Matthew 26 or Luke 22 and use his prayer as our own prayer of surrender. “Not my will but your will be done.”
There is a simple prayer of self-abandonment which some people find very helpful:
“Father I abandon myself into your hands: do with me what you will.”
There is a longer prayer of relinquishment in the booklet of prayers which 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.”
In the booklet there is also a very helpful meditation written by the French priest Michele Quoist entitled, “Help me to say ‘Yes’”. You may like to use the prayers in the booklet in your own prayers this week.
In all we are learning about prayer, the theory is only an introduction to the practice. We learn to pray by praying. So I invite us all to make some time this week to come before God in meditation and in prayers of relinquishment and surrender.
But after prayers of confession and of relinquishment there is another kind of prayer which is very valuable in the process of God changing us. We can call this “formation prayer” or “transformation prayer” – prayer which forms the character of Christ in us and transforms us into His likeness. This is an vital aspect of what all prayer should be about, “to bring us into such a life of communion with the Father that, by the power of the Spirit we are increasingly conformed to the image of the Son.”
We started the year and introduced this sermon series with a simple example of a formation prayer.
Day by day, dear Lord I pray:
To see you more clearly; Love you more dearly; Follow you more nearly Day by Day
Another familiar example would be the prayer of Saint Francis. I have included this in the Booklet of Prayers. For a number of years when I first became a Christian I prayed this prayer every evening just before going to sleep.
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, let me bring hope; where there is darkness, let me bring light; and where there is sadness, let me bring joy.
O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Of course prayer is not the only thing we can do to develop our Christian character. Worship, meditation and fasting have their place, as also do faith and love and obedience and humble service. But we should not neglect the importance of prayer: prayers of relinquishment and prayers of formation. And one thing these kinds of prayer need is time. Time given to drawing close to God in prayer. We learn to pray by praying – and that takes time. And also solitude and silence. Separating ourselves from noise and people so that we can really meet with God.
And then when it comes to prayer which changes us, we can learn a lot from the classical mystical traditions of Christian spirituality. You may have heard of the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola: a pattern of meditations each day over four weeks. The first week focuses on our own sins and our need to be bathed in God’s love. The second week looks at the life of Christ as we ask to be transformed into the image of Christ. The third week focuses on Christ’s passion as we seek to die to our sins and the fourth week looks at Christ’s resurrection as we see God’s grace to choose God’s will. The Spiritual exercises of Ignatius of Loyola.
Another tradition is the 12 steps of St Benedict: 12 meditations on the subjects of a constant reverence for God, rejecting our own will and doing God’s will, confession, cultivating silence, avoiding frivolous talk, using plain simple speech, enduring with patience the afflictions we face and being content in all things. The 12 steps of St Benedict.
I can also offer you a modern equivalent of these classic routes to discipleship and holiness: a five week guided course in discipleship called “Fan the Flame” Week 1 looks at “Knowing God better”. Week 2 covers “Becoming like Jesus.” Week 3 explores “Living in Christ’s Body”. Week 4 is the challenge of “Becoming a Servant” and Week 5 looks at what it means to “Be filled with the Spirit”. Each week has notes for five studies with Bible readings and a few pages to read and pray about – the topics for all the studies are listed on the flier. It is called a guided course because after each week of personal study and reflection the disciple meets one-to-one with a guide to discuss and pray about what they have been learning.
I wrote “Fan the Flame” three years ago and since then something over fifty folk in Brentwood Baptist Church have gone through the course and a number of other churches have used it as well. People have told me they have found it very helpful. If you think you would like to work through Fan the Flame between now and Easter with me as your guide please take a flier and have a word with me.
Prayer changes things and prayer changes us. Prayers of confession, prayers of relinquishment and prayers of formation – transforming prayer. Prayers God can use to make us more like Jesus. But we need to be doers of the word – not hearers only. We learn to pray by praying.
You can find more details of the guided course in discipleship, “Fan the Flame” at