Bible reading: Luke 11:1-3
Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’ He said to them, ‘When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name.
As a minister I often find myself in arguments over some of the most controversial issues of our time, the last of which was a pretty heated debate over the single most memorable moment in the history of college football. And of the many suggestions offered, most were a variation of the same play. Although named after a Roman Catholic prayer this play is used by Catholics, Protestants, and atheists alike. Can anyone guess what play I’m referring to? The Hail Mary pass. (Flutie to Phelan, the miracle at Miami, ring a bell?) Well, for you non-sports fans, the Hail Mary is a play of desperation. The Hail Mary is run when the clock is ticking away, the goal line seems a mile away, and a victory is in jeopardy. In other words, the Hail Mary is a last resort, where the quarterback desperately hurls the ball against impossible odds to the corner of the end zone. The idea is that a pass thrown in such desperate circumstances can only be completed with the help of divine intervention. Commentators will even say that the quarterback “threw up a prayer” in such situations.
Now, I’d like to ask a question. Why is the Hail Mary the only play in football named after a prayer? There is no Hail Mary kickoff return to begin the game, and to date no coach has ever run the Lord’s Prayer half back sweep. Why is Mary brought in the last play of the game?
The answer is because prayer is something that our world associates with desperation. The rationale is that for the majority of the game, I can rely on my own strength, my own resources, my own game plan to carry me, but in a moment of crisis, when human competency and cleverness have failed, when all other options are depleted, when something significant is in jeopardy, that – of course – is when it’s time to “throw up a prayer.” Prayer is something that our world associates with desperation.
Now, you and I know in our bones that praying is something that we should do. That it’s important. That prayer is essential if we’re going to grow in our faith. And yet we struggle. As Paul once noted in his letter to the Romans “we do not know how to pray as we ought.” And let’s be honest. Paul’s right. We find prayer difficult. We don’t always know what to say or how to listen and because of that some of us never even get started. And yet we know that prayer is something we should do, that as Christians prayer is our duty. After all in tonight’s reading Jesus doesn’t say, “If you pray,” he says, “When you pray.” Jesus prayed and he assumed that his disciples would pray as well. And so on the one hand we know that prayer is our duty, but on the other hand we struggle – we “do not know how to pray as we ought.” And so we have to ask, what’s the secret? How do we learn to pray well?
Well, tonight I’ll mention two big reasons we struggle to pray well. We struggle to pray well because we misunderstand faith. We struggle to pray well because we misunderstand God. First, we misunderstand faith, and because of that, we misunderstand God. And because we misunderstand both faith and God, we struggle with prayer.
Let’s start with how we often misunderstand faith. A sociologist by the name of Christian Smith did a fascinating study on the religious beliefs of young adults in America and he coined the term “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” to describe what he found. According to his well documented study, the overwhelming majority of young adults in America believes in God, and in fact most of them self-identity as Christian, but when it comes to important questions of faith very few people have convictions. Moralist Therapeutic Deism, according to Smith, is the new religion of America’s youth. Here are just a few of the highlights of Moralistic Therapeutic Deistic belief.
One, God’s primary desire is that people are nice and good. (moralistic)
Two, God’s primary purpose is that we feel good about ourselves and find happiness on earth. (therapeutic)
Three, God doesn’t want to be too involved in our life but doesn’t mind being called upon from time to time to solve a problem – you know if we’re really in a jam. (deism)
God wants us to be nice. God wants us to feel good. Assuming we’re trying to be nice, God leaves us alone to do as we please.
Now, I’m not trying to be disrespectful or to knock anyone’s beliefs but I do want to be honest about something. If we embrace the worldview of moralistic therapeutic deism we’ll never learn to pray. And do you know why? Because moralistic therapeutic deism places us at the center. Think about it. It’s a faith that’s based around us – around us being nice and around us feeling good and around us making our own plans and charting our own course. But if we think that faith is primarily about us then we’ll never learn to pray. We’ll treat God like a genie or like a cosmic Santa Claus, always approaching Him with a list, feeling happy when we get our way and getting depressed whenever we don’t.
Moralist therapeutic deism; think for a moment about what those words actually mean. First, moralistic – the belief that faith is about us being good people. But according to the Bible, we’re not good people. We’re actually quite selfish and we can do some pretty rotten things. Christian faith is not about us being good. It’s about God being good. It’s not about us climbing a ladder up to God. It’s about Him climbing down to us.
Second, therapeutic – the belief that faith’s primary objective is good self-esteem and that God wants us to learn to be confident in our abilities. But according to the Bible, we rightly feel guilty for some of the things we do and because of our inadequacies all of our confidence should be in God. Christianity calls us to esteem not ourselves but God. Following Christ will lead to self-esteem; but that self-esteem is a byproduct of esteeming God above all else.
And finally, deism – the belief that God is far removed, that He doesn’t care about every detail of our life but only wants to be bothered with the “big stuff.” But according to the Bible, God has every hair on our head numbered. To God, the small stuff is all very big and very important. The God we worship wants to be involved in every aspect of our life.
Now to some extent – all of us, myself included – misunderstand the Christian faith. From time to time we lapse into moralism – thinking that faith is about us being good. Or we make faith therapeutic – thinking that faith is about us feeling good. Or we act like deists, forgetting that the God of the Bible cares more about our life than we care about our own. That’s what I mean when I say that we misunderstand faith. We have a tendency to make faith about us – about us being good and about us feeling good. We place ourselves at the center. But if we’re going to learn how to pray we need to place God at the center. And I can’t stress this enough – not just any view of God will do. There are a lot of views of God floating around out there and the vast majority of them just aren’t biblical. And I say that because as Christians we believe that God has revealed Himself in and through the Bible and that He wants to be known. And so if we’re going to pray well, and if we’re going to have a proper understanding of our faith, we need to know God’s character. For example, if we think of God as an angry tyrant or as a senile, benevolent grandfather or as some impersonal, amorphous blob we’re just not going to advance very far in our prayer life.
And so that leaves us with a question. Just who exactly is the God we pray to? Well, to answer that question I’d like to give us the eight late great truths about the God we pray to. The eight, great truths about God – lucky for us, they all happen to start with a P. The God we pray to – what is He like?
1. The God we pray to is personal
God isn’t a force or just impersonal energy. God is personal. That’s part of what it means to say that we’re made in the image of God. In the same way that we take personal interest in each other God takes a personal interest in us. The God we pray to isn’t an object. The God we pray to is a Subject. A person. A being with desires and feelings and a passion for what is true. The God we pray to is personal.
2. The God we pray to is plural
God is a trinity of persons. God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit – not three Gods, but one – and yet three distinct personalities within the one Godhead. What this means is that God is, by definition, perfect community. God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Bible’s witness is that the three persons of the Trinity are both one in being and purpose, but at the same time, they work together for our salvation. We don’t worship three Gods but one. But, the One God we pray to is plural.
3. The God we pray to is perfect
What this means is that God isn’t capable of being better than He actually is. God lacks nothing. He’s not deficient in any way. God needs no improvement. When Moses asks God for His name God’s response is “I am who I am,” which is God’s way of saying that He’s perfect. He’s the God who just IS – always present, always in control. He ordained both what is and what will be and all that He’s ordained is perfect.
4. The God we pray to is powerful
This means that God is omnipresent, permeating every inch of our world. There’s literally nowhere we can go to hide from God. You’d be better off hiding from Sherlock Holmes in a telephone booth than you’d be hiding from God. But not only is God omnipresent, He’s also omniscient, which means that He knows everything, literally everything that has been, that is and that will be. Nothing surprises God. The past, present and future are all His. The God we pray to is powerful.
5. The God we pray to is purposeful
God has a purpose in creating us and in creating our world – and it’s not primarily our self-esteem. Now granted, having a proper understanding of God and our place in God’s world will no doubt cure low-self esteem, but God’s purpose is much greater than what most of us imagine. And God’s purpose is two-fold. First, God wants all of creation to honor and glorify His Son Jesus Christ. Second, God wants his adopted sons and daughters – that’s you and me – to be holy, joyful and complete, which of course happens as we learn to honor and glorify Jesus. After all, the Bible tells us that we were created for Jesus and through Jesus, which means that our purpose is found in Him. The God we pray to has a purpose.
6. The God we pray to is a promise-keeper
God makes promises to people who trust Him. “I will never leave you or forsake you. I will do for you what you cannot do for yourself. I won’t let anything happen to you that, in the end, will not work for your good.” These are just a few of the promises that God makes us – promises that God, because He’s perfect and powerful and purposeful, will not break. The God we pray to makes promises that he cannot break.
7. The God we pray to is paternal
Jesus tells us to call God call Father. Yes, God also compares Himself to a mother but that doesn’t start with a P. God is an amazing Father. God calls us His children and He behaves toward us in a fatherly way. The biblical metaphor of fatherhood means authority, affection, and care on the one hand, but also discipline and protection on the other. And like all good Fathers God wants His children to grow up – to become strong and wise and mature. The God we pray to is paternal.
8. The God we pray to us praiseworthy
Because God is personal and plural and perfect and powerful and purposeful and promise-keeping and paternal, does it not stand to reason that He’s praiseworthy? God merits all the adoration we can give him not only for who He is but also for the faithfulness that He shows us in so many ways.
And so back to our question. What’s the secret? How do we learn to pray well? The secret to praying well is knowing that God is praiseworthy, not just in our heads but in our hearts. Knowing that God is at the center of the universe and not ourselves – knowing that to be true and being thrilled about it – that is the secret to prayer. For though it may be true that prayer is the first duty of the Christian, it’s also true that we’ll never learn to pray until prayer becomes more than a duty. Prayer must become our delight. We’ll never learn to pray until we love to pray. And we’ll never love to pray until we understand the greatness of the God that we pray to – who He is and what He’s done for us.
And if I had to choose one word that best describes what God’s done for us I’d choose the word adoption. That word means that in Christ, God has done for us what we could not do for ourselves. By living the life we should have lived and dying the death we should have died, God has brought us into His family. He’s adopted us as children. He’s given us a great inheritance. All things that belong to Jesus now belong to us. He looks at us and feels great pride and joy. He calls us his own and says, “with you I am well pleased.” Paul, in his letter the Ephesians, puts it like this:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory.
Do you hear what Paul’s saying? He says that we’re …
• blessed with every spiritual blessing
• chosen before the foundation of the world
• destined for adoption
• redeemed through his blood
• forgiven of our trespasses
This is where authentic, joy-filled prayer begins – with a correct understanding of the God we pray to, which of course includes the wonderful salvation that God’s accomplished for us. Think about how radical Jesus’ teaching on prayer is. When you pray, Jesus tells his disciples, say Father. Jesus tells us to begin our prayer by addressing God as our Father. To the extent that we understand how radical God’s love for us is, to the extent that we understand how praiseworthy God is, prayer will become for us not a last resort but a first resort. And that’s what I’m inviting you to learn this semester at Omega – how to pray as a first resort, how to find joy in knowing just how desperate we are, how to depend on God not just at the end of the game but for every single play.
Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’ He said to them, ‘When you pray, say: Father.