Prayer

This Sunday we’ll be diving into the transformative power of prayer and how approaching God’s throne with confidence can bring wisdom, peace, and guidance to every moment of our lives. Don’t miss this practical and encouraging message.

If you’re new to Blue Oaks, we’re in a series called Practicing the Way of Jesus. And we’re learning together how to grow spiritually.

To put it another way, we’re learning how to live as followers of Jesus or as disciples.

In order to be a disciple, you have to have a way of life that you’re living.

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A lot of people believe they’re Christians, but if you ask, “Are you a disciple?” they’re kind of fuzzy on that.

Well in the New Testament, people were not fuzzy.

When Jesus was around, their way of life was literally and physically to follow him, and learn from him how to pray, and how to grow, and how to relate to other people.

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Now, we’re learning to practice the way of Jesus, and I promise you the practices we’re talking about can be used by God, and have been used by God for centuries, to change lives.

And they will be used by God to change your life if you practice them with sufficient intensity, beginning with surrender.

We talked about that the first week. Just give up. That’s always the foundation — “Your will be done.”

Last week, we looked at what we’re feeding our minds. We have these amazing gifts (our minds), and we’re often not careful about what we allow in.

We said we want to intentionally feed our minds great thoughts from Scripture. The three words I hope you remember from last week were — Read the Bible.

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Now, we’re at the third practice, and I’ll describe this from the Bible.

In the book of Exodus, the writer of Scripture says:

One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to where his own people were and watched them at their hard labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his own people.

Looking this way and that and seeing no one, he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. (Exodus 2:11-12)

Moses looked this way. He looked that way. Which way did Moses not look?

He didn’t look up. He didn’t invite God into this situation. He didn’t ask God for knowledge of what his will is and the power to carry out.

If he would have looked up, things would have happened very differently.

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I promise you — if there is someone at work who is very, very difficult to get along with. If you pause and pray to God with a surrendered spirit, the thought that will come to you will not be, “Kill them, and bury their body in the sand.”

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Jesus himself was a person of immense prayer from forty days of prayer at the beginning of his ministry to a final night in prayer before his death.

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When we pray, very often it’s with heads bowed and eyes closed. That’s actually not the normal posture for prayer in the Bible. It’s okay, but it’s not what characters in Scripture usually did when they prayed.

I’ve heard it was mostly invented (heads bowed and eyes closed) by Victorian Sunday school teachers to make antsy children settle down.

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When Jesus prayed for instance for his friend Lazarus, we’re told that Jesus looked up and said, “Father, thank you that you’ve heard me.”

In his last great prayer with his disciples, the writer of Scripture says Jesus lifted his eyes toward heaven and prayed.

I think Jesus often looked up physically when he prayed because in prayer we live again in the elevated vision of God’s power and God’s presence and God’s goodness.

And here’s the choice we’re faced with over and over by prayer.

I can live without God — I can look down at the size of my problems, the smallness of my adequacy, my uncertainty about tomorrow, the fear in my heart.

Or I can look up at the size of my God — at the greatness of his sufficiency, at the promise that he holds tomorrow in the palm of his hand, at the offer he gives me — “Don’t be afraid, because I am with you.”

In prayer, I remember I can’t, but he can. I think I’ll let him.

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Last week, the message boiled down to three words — read the Bible. This week, it’s even simpler. One word — Pray.

Part of what we want to do in this series is come out of denial and face up to the lame excuses we tolerate to live lives of spiritual mediocrity.

So I just want to ask if any of these excuses have ever occurred to you as a reason to avoid prayer:

I don’t have time to pray.
I don’t know how to pray.
I tried before and didn’t get what I wanted, so I don’t think it works.
I’m not sure there is a God.
I think there is a God, but I don’t think he’s involved at the level of my little life.
My mind wanders when I pray.
If I try a formula for prayer, it feels contrived.
If I freestyle, it feels confusing.
I’m not spiritual enough.
I’m too cynical.
I’m too tired.
I fall asleep when I pray.
I’m afraid if I prayed, God would make me change things I don’t want to change.
Other people seem to hear God when they pray, and I don’t hear him.
If God already knows everything, my prayers wouldn’t change anything, so I don’t know why I should bother.
I did something bad last night, so I’m in spiritual timeout today.
I’m too extroverted.
I’m too introverted.
The dog ate my homework.

It’s amazing how we can rationalize not praying, and how we’ll attribute bad stuff to God and good stuff to ourselves.

Anytime something bad happens to me, I think, “Why? Where’s God? What kind of world is this? How could anybody have faith to pray in a world with so much suffering?”

But when something good happens to me, I think, “I got this figured out. I got it dialed in. I’m in control.”

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A folk singer named Pete Seeger told a story that just captures the human mindset.

This is the way we all operate.

In this story, two little brother worms were sitting on a shovel handle when a workman picked it up and walked off. One of them fell into a crack in the sidewalk. The other fell into a dead cat.

The one that fell in the dead cat ate and ate for the next three days until he couldn’t eat anymore.

Then, he went to the crack in the sidewalk and called down to ask his brother how he was doing. The brother said, “I’ve been here three days without anything to eat or anything to drink. I’m nearly starved, but you are sleek and fat. To what do you attribute your success?”

“Brains and personality, brother.”

That’s the human condition.

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Ask anyone in Silicon Valley, “To what do you attribute your success?”

“Brains and personality.”

Until we fall in the crack in the sidewalk, which we will, and then we’ll be reminded — we are not meant to live on the power of brains and personality, remarkable as yours may be. We are meant to live on the power of God.

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Now, I want to talk about the kind of prayer this practice involves.

There are lots of different kinds of prayers. This is non-optional and what might be called a lifeline prayer.

I’m not talking in this practice about prayers for particular outcomes or circumstances (health, finances, job, or relationships). It’s not wrong to talk to God about those things, but sometimes those kind of prayers are really just me trying to run the show again.

Then, when I don’t get the answer I want for the circumstance, I may feel like prayer doesn’t work, so it’s important to remember that prayer is not the use of a force. It’s not magic.

It’s a conversation with a person.

If I flipped a switch and the light didn’t go on, it didn’t work.
If I turned the key to the ignition and the car didn’t start, it didn’t work.

But if I talk to a person —

If I talk to my wife and say, “In addition to your work as a Nurse Practitioner and raising our children, I’d like you to be at my beck and call, fix me eggs and bacon in the morning, massage my feet at night, iron my shirts, clean my shoes, and wash my car,”and if those things do not happen, does that mean talking to my wife doesn’t work?

No!

Does it mean my mind doesn’t work?

Probably.

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It’s the same with prayer. It’s not casting a spell. It’s not magic. It’s talking with God.

Of course, God knows way more than me. Part of faith means trusting that if you knew what God knows, and you loved like God loves, and you saw what God sees, you would do what God does.

Here’s the core prayer that’s involved in this third practice — “God, please give me knowledge of your will for my life and the power to carry it out.”

Remember, the foundation for all spiritual life is always surrender — “Your will be done. Your will be done. Your will be done.”

Now, this foundational prayer flows right out of that — “God, let me know from one moment to the next what your will is for me right now. And give me the power to do it.”

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There’s a wonderful invitation to prayer in the Bible in the book of Hebrews that shows how important this step is.

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16)

When is our time of need?

You could actually divide your moments up based on this passage into times of need and times of not need — moments when we need something from God versus moments when we don’t need anything from God.

Here’s the question — how often do you need something from God to live well?

If someone makes a wrong comment or uses body language I might take the wrong way or respond to badly.
When a problem at work is beyond my wisdom.
When my child might incline me to worry.
When my thoughts drift toward envy or resentment or disobedience.
When I’m afraid about money or a conversation.
When I’m ungrateful or bored or lustful or afraid.

On the other hand, when I might miss an opportunity for love and joy and peace without God’s help.
When I might miss the chance to bless someone at a coffee shop or in the next cubicle.
When I’m reminded not to squander the precious gift of time and life.
When I make memories with friends and family.
When I’m unhurried, and not irritated.

How many moments of your life would go better if you were receiving wisdom, peace, guidance, gratitude, learning, and love from God beyond your own little petty power of brains and personality?

Of course, the answer is, “All of them!”

“Approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”

That’s every time. That’s every moment.

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Gary Haugen, CEO of International Justice Mission, said God spoke to him a phrase that changed his life.

He was heading into a year of challenge. Their work is very daunting and often quite dangerous. God said to him, “I don’t want another year of prayer-less striving.”

I don’t know about you but I don’t want that to be my life — prayer-less striving.

I can choose a prayerful life. I can seek above all else the steady companionship of Jesus as my friend and Savior and High Priest.

I can look up.

Or I can live in prayer-less striving — constantly overwhelmed, burdened by outcomes, regretting the past, and anxious about the future, and I can look down.

“God give me the knowledge of your will for me and the power to carry it out.”

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Now, we’re getting really practical in this series, so I’m going to recommend that you start every day with prayer.

It doesn’t have to be heroic. It doesn’t have to be long.

The writers of Scripture say, “God’s mercies are new every morning.”

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Now, there’s a problem for some of you. Some of you are morning people; some of you are not.

You may wake up grumpy and groggy and quite unsanctified in the morning.

No one wants to be around you till you’ve had your coffee. Even Jesus doesn’t want to be around you till you’ve had your coffee. So start with coffee.

Literally, for God’s sake, start with coffee.

Then, find a place to pray for a few moments where you won’t be interrupted.

If you have small children and they just won’t be quiet early in the morning, you may want to move away from them for a couple of years, or you may have to make other adjustments about when to pray.

Get up earlier, or do it during nap-time, or get creative.

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There’s a little app called Pray As You Go. It leads you in 15 minutes of guided prayer time with Scripture. I’ll sometimes use that when I’m getting ready in the morning.

Most days I’ll have a time of morning prayer at my desk in my office. I have some friends who like to light a candle to help remind them this little space is an altar and God’s light and God’s warmth are there with them.

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This is a remarkable invitation from our passage in Hebrews — “Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence.”

Six words here teach us so much about how to pray.

We approach God’s throne, the writer says. Who’s sitting on God’s throne?

That’s not a trick question. You’re in church, so that’s a big clue, kind of like who is in Grant’s Tomb? Who is sitting on God’s throne?

That would be God.

That means I don’t start by thinking about my problems. I start by thinking about God’s power. God is on the throne. God is superintending the cosmos. God is able.

He is able to deliver David from Goliath.
He is able to deliver Daniel from the lions’ den.
He is able to give a child to 90-year-old Sarah.
He is able to calm the storm.
He is able to part the Red Sea.
He is able to walk on the water.
He is able to judge the nations in righteousness.
He is able to harden the heart of Pharaoh and soften the heart of Saul.
He is more than able to give more than all we can ask or imagine according to the glorious riches in Christ Jesus.

Prayer is not just positive thinking. Prayer is not whispering gentle wishes into the universe someplace. We are approaching a throne, and there is someone on the throne, and that someone is God.

And our God is able, and if we were a Baptist church, at this point, someone would have said, “Amen,” because that’s good news!

We approach God’s throne. That’s amazing!

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The throne, of course, is a great image of power and sovereignty, but the writer of Hebrews says that throne has a name.

This is amazing.

It’s not the throne of performance.
It’s not the throne of brains and personality.
It’s not the throne around which beautiful people of wealth and importance network.
It’s not even the throne of spiritual giants.

It is the throne of grace.

It’s a throne for misfits, and mess-ups, and the needy, and the desperate, and the unclean, and the sinful, and the losers, and the failures, and the left behind.

Who sits on a throne or who occupies the seat of power and wants to hang out with that crowd?

Well, that’s our God, and that’s why when we come together we have to come out of hiding and into the light just the way we are — sin and all.

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Not just that, but we come to God’s throne of grace in confidence.

Not in fear.
Not in worry.
Not in inadequacy.
Not in uncertainty.

But in confidence.

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Now, the reason for our confidence has nothing to do with us — nothing to do with our performance, not even our spiritual performance, not our achievement, not our attainment, not our gifts.

We have confidence because we have a High Priest and his name is Jesus.

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Every morning, I remember when I wake up, when I have no business approaching this throne — when I was separated from God through my sin and my guilt — Jesus became my great High Priest, offering his life as a sacrifice on a blood-stained cross so that I, sinful man that I am, can come boldly into the presence of God to receive help.

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I want to challenge all of us on this for a moment.

For a long time in my life, I found prayer hard, and I didn’t find it particularly helpful.

One day, I went back to look through old journals. I would often write my prayers, but I discovered when I would go back and read through them, mostly what I thought of in my prayer time was just a list of my inadequacies on the previous day.

“Dear God, yesterday I did not do well as a dad. I did not do very well as a husband. I did not do very well in what I said. I was not productive at work. I didn’t get much done. I didn’t have a great attitude. I didn’t have the joy I wanted to have. I just kind of let the day slip away.”

I could sense God saying to me as I read through those prayers — “Matt, I’m Master of the universe and Creator of all that is, and your prayers are depressing me. I’m God, and I don’t like to be depressed. I’m not used to it.”

I thought, “My prayers are depressing me!”

It was as though God was saying to me — “Matt, in the morning you can fill your mind with your inadequacy, or I can fill your mind with my sufficiency. Your call. In the morning you can fill your mind with your inadequacy (there’s plenty of it), or I can fill your mind with my sufficiency, and there’s plenty of that. Your call.”

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Listen, prayer is not supposed to be depressing. It’s an amazing thing to come into God’s presence.

Sometimes, of course, there will be pain as I come to grips with self-awareness and who I am and confess, but prayer is not at its root an expression of inadequacy.

Prayer is coming to God’s throne (he is able) of grace (I’m forgiven) in confidence (Jesus is my High Priest) to invite Jesus into my day.

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I look at the people I’m going to meet and the challenges I’m going to face and the problems I have not solved and the questions I have not answered, and I ask, “God, give me the wisdom to know your will and the power to carry it out. I can’t. You can. I think I’ll let you.”

I ask God, “Just for today, give us this day our daily bread.”

I have to let go of my demands to know all about tomorrow. That’s not where my security lies. It lies with God, so manna for today in this moment.

I don’t tell God how to solve these problems.

I often pray what some of you will know from AA as the Morning Prayer — “God, direct my thinking so that it ’s divorced from self-seeking, dishonesty, self-will, self-pity, and fear. Inspire my thoughts, decisions, and intuitions. Help me to relax and take it easy. Free me from doubt and indecision. Guide me through the day. Show me my next step. Give me whatever I need to solve any problem. I ask these things that I might be of maximum service to you and my fellow human beings. In Jesus’ name, I pray.”

I can’t tell you how often a word or a phrase from that prayer is just what I need.

Then, I don’t just talk. I listen. I’m still. I allow thoughts to come into my mind which may be from God.

Now, you might find it hard to believe in a God who speaks, or you may believe God could speak but he would never do that with someone like you.

But the Bible is full of people God speaks to and many of them are not particularly spiritually impressive.

God spoke to Cain, and he killed his brother.
God spoke to Moses. He was a murderer and a fugitive.
God spoke to Abraham. He was a liar.
God spoke to David. He was an adulterer.
God spoke to Solomon. He was a polygamist.
God spoke to Jonah. He was a runaway.
God spoke to Thomas. He was a doubter.
God spoke to Peter. He was a denier.
God spoke to Lazarus. He was dead.
God spoke to a donkey whose name we don’t even know.

Why do you think God could not speak to you?

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There was a businessman who was under tremendous strain in his work. He was deeply discouraged over what he had counted as twenty-two problems that were involved in this business he had to manage.

He had recently become a follower of Jesus but was in so much despair he got on the road and was simply going to drive away in disappear when the thought came into his mind, “Pull over to the curb,” and he did.

When he did, he said that there came to him, as though someone was with him, these words, “My son had strains that you will never know, and when he had those strains, he turned to me, and that’s what you should do.”

He sat at the wheel of that car and sobbed.

Then, he didn’t disappear. He drove to the office and found by the end of the day not only had most of the problems been substantially resolved, but he had been internally changed.

He experienced God’s partnership and strength to face his work one moment at a time, and he had been given the power to do it.

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A woman I know had a child who was a problem kid, and she knew he was a problem kid, and she kept praying, “God, change that kid.”

Have you ever prayed that prayer?

But the kid didn’t change. One day, the word that came to her was, “Become a student of your child. I made him, so you discover the special brilliance I have placed inside that child.”

She spent the next two years looking for and discovering what she called the native genius of her son, and it transformed their relationship.

Guess who it turned out the problem was?

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That’s what I find in prayer.

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Remember, this prayer is not, “Give me this, change her, prevent that, or produce those.”

It is, “God, give me the knowledge of your will for my life and the power to carry it out.”

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In the morning, approach God’s throne (“God, you are able”) of grace (“I’m forgiven”) with confidence (“I can’t; you can”).

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Then, all through the day take little breaks to pray, when you’re in the car or when you’re in the store.

Pray for God’s will in your conversation with people you talk to. See how often you can remember to do it.

Take little prayer breaks at work. If you’re wondering if that’s legal in a secular society, you already take breaks to check the stock market or social media, so just use that time to pray and ask God to help.

Pray when you email.
Pray when you leave the office.
Pray when you’re anxious.
Pray when you’re confused.
Pray when you’re angry.
Wake up with prayer.
Pray as you think through the day.

Then, I’m going to recommend you end the day with prayer. It’s a great way to end the day.

Again, it doesn’t have to be heroic. It doesn’t have to be long.

Just end the day by handing everything over to God. Sleep well and be ready for a wonderful morning.

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Alright, I want to give you one last word.

I think in our day, where we live, probably the biggest barrier to prayer is just our sheer sense of inflated self-sufficiency (the illusion that I’m in control). I’m captain of my ship. I’m master of my fate.

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I know a guy who worked in government. He was in Washington for a number of years and was struck by — in that place, kind of like where we live — this struggle of power and ego and control.

He was talking to his boss about this, and his boss gave him a picture that I like.

He had him come over to the window and look at the Potomac River. He said, “Imagine a log floating down that river.”

“Imagine that log has 200,000 ants on it.”

He said said, “That would be a big log.”

The boss said, “Yep! And every one of those 200,000 ants thinks they’re steering the log.”

He said, “That’s what Washington DC is like.”

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Guess where else is like that.

Brains and personality, brother! Brains and personality.

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Until you fall in the crack in the sidewalk.

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Tony Campolo writes about how he was the guest speaker in chapel at John Brown University in Arkansas.

He had preached there on two other occasions and enjoyed a warm reception and good responses from the students.

On this particular day, he was speaking to a packed-out chapel, and he noticed a middle-aged couple sitting in the front row, listening with great intensity.

They were not students, nor did they appear to be part of the faculty. The two of them seemed to hang on his every word though.

After the service was over, that couple explained who they were and why they had come.

Their daughter, who had been a student at John Brown, had been very difficult, rebelling against everything they believed and tried to teach her.

She had become part of a culture of drug and alcohol that ending up drawing her away from God.

Worse than that, her behavior toward her parents was horrible. She seldom, if ever, said anything kind to them, and constantly sneered at their Christianity and mocked their Christian lifestyle. How she had ever ended up at this Christian school was beyond their understanding.

These parents told Tony that, because it was required of all students, their daughter had been at chapel when he last preached at John Brown.

On that particular day, his message had been a very specific evangelistic message and when the invitation to accept Christ was given, she made a decision.

After chapel, she had gone back to her dormitory and written a loving letter to her parents, begging for forgiveness for all the hurt she had inflicted on them, and promising that, because Christ was now in her life, things were going to be different.

The following weekend she promised to come home, just so they could be together and have a face-to-face reconciliation. It was a well-written and beautiful letter, and she mailed it that same day.

The next day, as this young girl attempted to cross a highway, she was hit by a drunk driver and was killed.

The devastated mother and father buried their daughter, convinced that their prayers for her salvation had been in vain.

Then, two days after the funeral, her letter arrived.

It couldn’t alleviate the incredible sense of loss they experienced, but it did give them comfort because they knew their prayers for their daughter’s salvation had been answered.

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Going through this series, I just have to say addiction has a power that is from the pit of hell — what it does to a life.

For anyone who has it, and we all wrestle with it in one way or another, please do what you can — step into the light. “God, I can’t! You can.”

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We’re not steering the log. I need God, and you do, too, and he’s just a prayer away.

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Would you pray with me for just a moment?

Blue Oaks Church
Pleasanton, CA

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