Sunday, October 23, 2011

Sermon: Effective Prayer

A web sermon by Richard W. O'Ffill at

One doesn't necessarily have to be a religious person to pray. However, it has been discovered that even a person who isn't particularly into spiritual things may find that when they are in a really tight situation they may began to feel the need to pray--at least until the crisis is over.

We are all intrigued at stories about answers to prayer. These stories strengthen our faith in a dimension we cannot see. When a person hears a wonderful story in which someone's life is miraculously saved or some other unmistakable miracle occurs, we are assured in our minds that prayer is truly effective. Even though we haven't seen God, we know He is indeed out there somewhere.

We all get into crises from time to time. We may have financial problems or we may have family illnesses. And then there are those scary moments when a car is headed straight for us and we know that, unless something happens to save us, we will be killed for sure. Perhaps you have had an answer to prayer.

Have you ever noticed, however, that when we tell stories about answers to prayer or hear them told, they have mainly to do with miracles relating to what we might call life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I refer to these areas as "the flesh and its support groups." I am not suggesting that our material and physical well being is not important; rather that our interests and concerns often don't extend much beyond those aspects of our lives.

So when we hear stories of someone else's answer to prayer, we are subconsciously taking notes for our own rainy day, so to speak. Some people who are really into prayer often keep score of answered prayers. These same people, however, usually don't have much to say about the prayers that don't get answered, but you would expect that, wouldn't you. We are into success stories. You may hear how a person made a million dollars on the futures market, but they don't bother to tell you about the person who lost everything he had. I used to have a next door neighbor who was a consultant for small businesses. He told me that after approximately five years, four out of five new businesses dissolve and cease to exist. It is probably a good thing that this fact is not mentioned very often or few people would go into business.

I believe that we need to encourage one another with stories of answered prayer, but we also need to keep things in perspective in this regard. The reality is that, of all the prayers offered in a day, probably the overwhelming majority seems to go unanswered. This can become a problem, because prayer is directed to God, and therefore unanswered prayer can seriously affect a person's attitude toward God and toward spiritual things.

When a plane crashes, the government doesn't rest until it is discovered what caused the crash. Although less than a hundred people may have been killed, and although millions of people may have flown millions of miles without a mishap, it makes little difference. In the airline industry a batting average of 999 is not good enough. Unfortunately, we are not nearly as sensitive about spiritual things. But spiritual death is even more serious than a plane crash or a deadly disease. Jesus Himself made that point perfectly clear when He cautioned us not to fear him who is able to kill the body, but fear him who is able to kill both body and soul in hell.

Because prayer is so basic to spiritual life and to a person's concept of the reality of God, and because God has determined that prayer is what He uses to activate and sustain the process of salvation in a person's life, it is imperative that we give a great deal of time and effort toward making sure that we know the meaning of effective prayer.

Prayer is the umbilical cord of the spiritual life, the point where we are reached by God and where we reach out and touch Him. A person who doesn't have a growing understanding of the significance of prayer and who doesn't have a functioning prayer experience will sooner or later drop out of the salvation loop. Although salvation is a free gift of God, the way that we get our hands on it is through prayer.

Mankind has prayed from the very beginning, but it wasn't until God Himself came to live with us here on this planet that we began to learn the meaning of prayer and how to pray effectively. Jesus lived His life on our behalf, and His life is imputed to us; however, there is one thing that in a very real sense He can't do in our place. Although He can pray for us, He cannot pray instead of us.

Prayer is the cup in which the grace of God is served up to us, and we must, if you please, bring our own cup. Prayer is about the will of man, and God is owner and sovereign of all but man's will. Man's will is uniquely his own. God brings everything to the salvation banquet table except the cup, and the cup, which is our will, we must bring. It must be understood that effective prayer has much to do with the will.

The Lord's Prayer

Jesus taught us how to pray and made us understand the meaning of effective prayer when He gave us what is called the model prayer. We call it the Lord's Prayer. The Spanish call it El Padre Nuestro. This is the prayer a person may pray when he knows he needs to pray but doesn't know what to say. You have probably read stories of ships that were going down at sea, and the prayers offered in those last awful minutes were often, "Our Father which art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name; Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." Often this is all of the prayer that a person can remember or knows how to say.

Perhaps you, like I, learned the Lord's Prayer at an early age. It was usually the one we prayed together as a family. I must confess that the prayer didn't mean much to me as a child. To tell the truth, I never really thought about what we were saying. Somewhere along the line I should have asked someone what it meant. I did understand parts of it, however. I understood the part that says, "Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors." But I had problems with the part about leading us not into temptation but delivering us from evil. Somehow it didn't make much sense to me to ask God not to lead me into temptation. I thought the devil is the one who does that.

The first part of the Lord's Prayer is perhaps the most important part of all. We usually go over it in a hurry, rather automatically, without thinking about it very much. But there at the very beginning is where we set the tone for our prayer. "Our Father which art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name; Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven." This is the part where prayer is either made or broken, so to speak. A person who hasn't got a handle on this first part will miss the point as to what effective prayer is all about. I don't mean just The Lord's Prayer, but if we don't know what the model prayer is about, we really won't be able to understand what any prayer is about.

Our Father Which Art in Heaven

The first words of this prayer tell us what relationship we have to the One to whom we are praying. It says, "Our Father, which art in Heaven." We must remind ourselves that when we are praying to our Father in heaven we are not praying to an earthly father who we remember as being less than perfect, or worse yet, who may have been dysfunctional or irresponsible. We are not praying to the dad who may have left our mom or never married her at all. We are not praying to a dad who was an alcoholic or who verbally or physically abused the family.

It is terrible to have to talk this way, but in this day and age even to say the word "Dad" can conjure up all kinds of emotions for many people, and many of these emotions may be less than positive. It is incredible how the devil has been so successful in breaking up and nearly obliterating all that is precious and sacred about human existence. Satan must laugh as he continues to debase mankind. He is leading this race to eternal ruin, and you would think that pretty soon someone would wise up and see what is happening. We are blowing the whistle on everything these days but on the things that really matter. I wish more people would blow the whistle on the devil.

The point where we would best understand the meaning of what God is was supposed to be in the family. Ruin the home and it can really mess up the relationship with God. When the family is messed up, it can cause huge blinders to fall across our hearts that keep us from knowing and understanding God as our heavenly Father and our God.

So from the very start when we pray we must understand that we are not talking to a machine but to a Being to whom we can relate and who relates to us. More and more large companies these days are automating their phone marketing systems. It is getting to the place where one can call up a company and carry on a conversation--give information and get information in return--all to a computer. The voice says, "Thank you and have a good day," and we hang up, but we actually haven't talked with anybody but a computer chip!

When Jesus teaches us to pray effectively, He wants to set the record straight. He tells us that we are not talking to a computer chip or to somebody who will try to take advantage of us. You and I are talking to the Father that every child in their heart of hearts wishes he had, and in Him we in fact do have--a Father who understand things about us that we don't even understand about ourselves and who knows what is best for us and will, if we allow Him, make all things work together for good in our lives.

Our Heavenly Father is Holy

This heavenly Father is something else that no father on this earth has ever been, and that is, He is holy. That is why when we pray to Him we say, "Hallowed be Thy name." When we say that, it is not some kind of compliment we are giving Him; rather it means we recognize that He is, to put it one way, out of the ordinary.

We need to study more and more the meaning of holiness, because of all the words used to describe God, holy is the one that comes closest to describing what He really is. The other words we use to describe Him are His attributes or characteristics. Inasmuch as He is holy, we must discover what that is or we could miss the point and actually end up praying to a god that doesn't exist or one that we have invented in our own minds.

All the idols that have ever been made are the result of man missing the point as to the true holy nature of God. When we don't know the true God, we tend to do the next best thing, and that is to make gods who are just like us. At least when we say, "Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed by Thy name," we are made aware of the distinctions between that heavenly Father and our father here on earth, with whom we may have had a disappointing relationship. We will know we are talking to our heavenly Father, whose holiness results in His doing everything just as it should be done

Praying to God as Lord and King

The next part of the prayer says, "Thy kingdom come." I have never lived in a country where there was a ruling king. Once, however, I traveled through Iran when it had a king. The king's picture was on every wall and his statue in every town square. Nowadays even if a monarch manages to survive, he may be little more than a figurehead and have virtually no authority over the people.

In some countries that have royal families, the citizens could actually vote away the royal franchise, so to speak. But in the kingdom of God this could never happen. The government of God is not a democracy. A king in this day and age gets his power from the people. In the kingdom of heaven it is just the opposite; the people get their very being and existence from the heavenly King.

When sin came into existence, all the beings God ever created suddenly found their existence at risk. Although the issues are deeper and wider than any of us will ever know or understand, in the great controversy between Christ and Satan the continued existence of almighty God was not in jeopardy. To the contrary, the future of the beings He created would now depend upon whether they would or would not remain loyal to their Maker.

The rebellion began in heaven, but fortunately for the rest of the universe it never spread further than this planet. Although temporarily lost to the enemy, through the Son of God, Jesus Christ, this planet was given a second chance. When we say, "Thy kingdom come," we are acknowledging that God is our King. This concept goes further than His only being our heavenly Father. It now says God is not only our Father, but we willingly give ourselves to Him. We are saying to Him, "You are my Ruler. I have agreed that Your word is law." Here is where many get hung up in their relationship to God. To see God as "daddy" is one thing, especially if your daddy gave you everything you wanted and you had him wrapped around your little finger, so to speak. Some children will boast, "I can get my dad to do anything for me, especially if I nag him or cry or get angry."

So we not only must have a clear concept of God as our Father but of God as our Ruler. He is not our president, our representative, our coordinator, nor our facilitator. He is our God; and when we say, "Thy Kingdom come," we are declaring we willingly acknowledge that He is the King in our life. What He says goes!

Thy Will be Done

Jesus further clarifies this concept as He continues, "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." In other words, when we say, "Thy will be done," we mean that as far as our life is concerned we will do it His way.

An evangelist friend of mine told me that sometimes when he is conducting an evangelistic meeting he will ask the people, "How many of you are tired of someone else telling you what to do? "According to my friend, most of the people in the room will raise their hand. Then he will say, "I guess I am wasting my time preaching the gospel to you." You see, sin is about doing it our way. And the whole crux of salvation is about bringing us back to the point where we will willingly and gladly say, "I delight to do Thy will, O my God; yes, You have written Your law in my heart."

So let's get down to nitty gritties. Now that we understand that we are to relate to God as a Father, that He is holy, and that even more than being a father, He is our Maker and our King, from there we must go on to understand that the whole purpose of prayer is to discover what is the will of God. We can say, then, that the purpose of prayer is to know the will of God. It may be disappointing to some, but the true motive for prayer is not to get God to do what we want Him to do, but rather to discover what He wants us to do in our lives.

You can see, then, that a person who does not see God as Lord and Father and Holy will likely have an infrequent and sporadic prayer life. This is because he is seeking to manipulate God for his own purposes rather than to seek the will of God, and this can lead to disappointment and frustration. Too often when we come to God in prayer we have an agenda or, as they say, an ax to grind. A proud and selfish person might not even bother to go through the motions of prayer if they realized that God would never do for them what was not His will for their lives.

And what are the kinds of things we do pray about? If we would stop and analyze our prayers once in a while, we would soon see that some of the things we ask God to do for us make about as much sense as a child asking their father or mother if they can play ball on the freeway.

I am not trying to make fun of us or to put down our best efforts, but Scripture tells us that we don't know how to pray as we ought. We are also told that the Holy Spirit who really knows what we need will make sense out of our prayers for us. But at times that can seem like the slow way around. The sooner we come to an understanding of the way things really are in our lives and the reality of the Holy God we worship, the more our lives will begin to make sense and take on true meaning.

We should not think that God is sitting up there in heaven trying to tag us out or to discount our best efforts. When calling heaven, it is possible to get through even when we dial some wrong numbers once in a while, but not all the time.

As far as heavenly things are concerned, we were all, as they say, "born on the wrong side of the tracks." The Scripture says that there is a way that seems right to man but the end of it is the way of death. In another place it says that God's ways are not our ways nor His thoughts our thoughts.

This puts us in a dilemma. The Bible tells us that we are not on God's wavelength and that our instincts are to do wrong. It even goes so far as to say that when we think we are going the right way, we may actually be going in the way of death.

Some might ask, "But if God knows what is best for us and has promised to do only what He wants to do anyway, why bother to pray at all?" Some may respond that God has given us the power of choice. Someone might say, "Some kind of choice! You either do what He wants or you don't do it at all." Or worse, He does you in at the end.

When we buy a car, we usually shop around first, if we are wise. When we need telephone service, we can even choose which phone company we prefer. But what are the options when there is but one Being in this universe Who is the Maker and Sustainer of everything that exists? There are no other options. In this sense, "To be or not to be" is the only question.

So you might say we have two choices-"to be" is one, and the other is obvious. The nature of things being what they are, God does not create something like one would spin a top and then leave it spinning in perpetual motion. Every turn of this top of life that each of us possesses is the conscious will of Him in whom we live and move and have our being.

So if we think there is another option, we need to think again. We didn't ask to be born into this world, but we definitely have the opportunity to decide which side we will be on and if we in fact want to go on. The power of choice is what makes us distinctly human. Once we have made the decision for Christ, the choices as to how we will serve Him and bring glory to His name every moment of every day are limitless!

There are some who are of the opinion that one should be able to look through the Bible for the promises of God and, when we find one that suits our need at the particular time, we should name it and claim it. Great caution should be taken with this method. Personally, I am not convinced that every particular thing that God did for someone else at some particular time or other is His will for us at this moment. Having the Bible and the Spirit of Prophecy as we do, we have an advantage of understanding the will of God perhaps like no generation ever before has been able to. So if the purpose of prayer is to be able to do the will of God, the logical question is, How can we know what the will of God is? It would be futile to imagine that a Holy God, Creator of heaven and earth, would ever do for us in answer to our prayers anything that was not for our long-range good and for His glory. And so we are wasting our time if we expect Him to change His mind or rewrite the rules of the universe to make an exception for our request. The challenge is in learning and experiencing what is His will.

When you decide to build a house, those of you who have done this will recognize that, although you may have an architect customize the plans to reflect just what you want it to look like, where every room is to be, and what the amenities will include, this is no guarantee that your wishes will all be granted. At this point, your plans are now subject to the building codes. Even though it will be your house and you have designed it, nevertheless, how it is built and the context in which it is built will not depend on your wishes but on the building codes.

In the same way, when we take our plans to God in prayer, we may want Him to customize our lives and change this or add that, and this He will do but only within the context of His codes or will.

Because we do not take this into account, we often feel that God is letting us down or that He doesn't hear our prayers. The fact is, when we pray we must realize that all our requests to Him must be within the context of His codes. And, by the way, His codes weren't written yesterday; and also just in case you were wondering, you can't ask for a variance or an exemption.

The Bible is the book of the codes that take precedence over all the customized plans we may have for our lives. The Bible is the revealed will of God, and if we are praying that God will do something for us that is not in harmony with the principles of Scripture, we waste our time praying about it.

The story is told that in the last century over in Great Britain someone had invited the famous English preacher Charles Spurgeon to a social event that included a big banquet. There in the middle of the table of food was a roasted pig, prepared as I have only seen in pictures, with an apple in its mouth.

Before the meal Pastor Spurgeon was asked to say the blessing over the food they were about to eat. Spurgeon took in the banquet table with the big pig in the middle. Then he closed his eyes and prayed, "Lord, if You can bless what You have already cursed, please bless this food."

That may not have been the politically correct thing for him to do, but it was surely true. It must be born in mind that in our prayers we are wasting our time and effort and setting ourselves up for a big disappointment if we continue to ask God to bless what He has already cursed. Remember, before a person designs a house, if they want to avoid disappointment and added expense, they will find out what the code permits and what the zoning laws that govern the area will allow.

We must realize that God has already saved us a lot of time and trouble by giving us His Word and, especially to this church, the Spirit of Prophecy. This means that, when we go to Him in prayer, we will always pray within the context of what He was already revealed to us.

I have heard people say that if the Lord wanted them to keep the Sabbath, He would reveal it to them. Can they really be serious? He has already revealed that to everybody. Our task is simply to pray for grace and strength to obey.

Another dangerous philosophy is the one that a person would wait for God to tell them something inside their own head. This is very dangerous. There are too many voices in this world that would send us in the wrong direction. Also, some are under the impression that God doesn't hold them accountable or responsible unless they happen to agree with a plain Bible truth. They seem to think that their relationship with God is like a contract; that is, if they haven't signed up, so to speak, it is not binding.

There seems to be a prevalent concept these days that the rightness or wrongness of something is strictly a personal matter. It is true that God doesn't hold everyone equally responsible, but it is He who decides and not we.

Whenever we pick up the Bible to read, it should always be with only one purpose and that is to obey. I wish it could be understood by all that the Spirit of Prophecy was given to this church not to mess up our lives but to keep us from messing up. There are hundreds of Christian religions and sects that claim to follow the Bible. The Spirit of Prophecy, contrary to the belief of some, is not the problem in the church. The problem is that we have decided to go it alone, that we don't need the counsel given. But it is a jungle out there in the religious marketplace. The Scripture itself tells us of those in the last days that, because they would not believe the truth, God gave them over to a delusion that they might believe a lie and be damned. And here is the point: a person who continues to pray and yet is knowingly disobedient to the obvious will of God is either in trouble or headed for trouble in their spiritual life. How can we know the will of God? We should start from the obvious. As they say--when in doubt, read the directions.

Let's go back to the matter of building a house. This time let's not so much think about the building codes as about the zoning. You are aware that there are communities where you can't set a mobile home, for instance. There is a certain community standard that must be maintained for the good of the community. In the community where I live, they won't let you park a camping trailer or boat in the driveway.

When we first moved into our house we had a pop-up trailer. Because the garage was temporarily filled with packing boxes, we parked the trailer for a time in the driveway-until one day I received a letter from the community association informing me I could not do that. The covenants of the community forbid it. The covenants also inform the residents that they must keep their grass cut and that they cannot paint their house a color not approved by the association.

And so in our prayer experience, one of the fundamental issues is that we often do not bring our prayers into God's standard of righteousness, His standard of right and wrong. To be able to pray effectively we must be on God's wavelength.

We sometimes bring some, but not all, of our problems to God. And too often all we want Him to do is to fix it with baling wire and bubble gum. We are afraid of a permanent solution. Too often when we bring our problems to God we expect spare parts out of the junkyard, when the standard that God has for us is genuine replacement parts.

Another great hindrance to effective prayer is that, as Scripture says, God's ways are not our ways, neither are His thought our thoughts. This very fact can get us off on the wrong foot in our prayers.

We live in a "take away the pain" society. Our tendency is to treat the symptoms. We tend to say, "Just give me a Tylenol now, Lord, and I'll try to remember to call You in the morning." This is a very real problem in our spiritual lives. We need to understand that, when we feel pain and guilt, there are fundamental causes that need to be addressed. Of course, we need to take our guilt and pain to the Lord but with a view of having the Holy Spirit give us an MRI so that we can learn what is really causing the problem.

The closer that we can come to having the standard for ourselves that God has for us, the more successful our prayers will become. The Bible is not obscure in letting us understand what God's standard is for us, and that standard is that we be conformed to the image of His Son. God will not be satisfied with us until we are like Jesus. But don't be upset about that. No one is upset to say that they will not be satisfied until they are a millionaire or until they are the president of a large company, so what is wrong with God wanting us to be free from sin and filled with the fruit of the Spirit?

Our prayers can never be effective as long as our ideals for ourselves are less than God's ideals are for us. The Christian life is not about "getting by." Friends, we must understand what the purpose of prayer is before we can learn how to pray. Before we can learn how to pray we must know what prayer is and what it is for. Often we want to know the "how's" of prayer before we understand the "why's." How we make a product is not a problem until we know what the product is. We want to know how to pray and many of us haven't discovered what prayer is

How is it possible or conceivable that the infinite and all wise God would change His holy will in order to answer our feeble, childish, and often foolish prayers? The answer, of course, is that He does not and will not. Such questions arise out of a misconception both of the nature of prayer and the nature of God's will.

In Summary:

* Prayer comes naturally. Sooner or later everybody will pray. But they will pray for different reasons and, of course, not to the same god. A person prays when their life, for the moment, seems to be out of their control.

* Many prayers are not answered as the one who prays has requested. This can result in a problem inasmuch as one can loose confidence in prayer, and thus their faith and their connection with God can be adversely affected.

* It is therefore mandatory for a growing Christian experience that we pray effectively. Though praying may come instinctively, effective prayer must be learned.

* The first thing that must be learned is who we are praying to, and that is that we are not talking to a computer chip or an answering machine--we are talking to our Heavenly Father who is more concerned for our well being than we are. But He is more than our Heavenly Father--He is our Holy King.

* This means then that, though we bring our wants and needs to Him, we must refrain from telling Him what to do or trying to impose our will on Him. Trying to find a Bible text to make our point will not be too hard, because even the bad guys use the Bible to make their point. When we pray we must bear in mind that the purpose of prayer is not to get God to do our will, but to bring us around to the point to where we are willing to do His.

* We must pray then within the context of His codes. He doesn't make up the rules as He goes along. So we will save ourselves a lot of time if before we pray we would study His Word closely to see how He traditionally does things in this regard. You may have heard of a person who fell off of a ten-story building and lived to tell about it. I wouldn't suggest that we say a little prayer and try it ourselves.

* Finally, if our prayers are going to be effective, we must have bought into the same ideals for ourselves that God has for us. He is not as a thrift store or a pawnshop. Do not be overwhelmed, but higher than the highest human thought can reach is God's ideal for us. Godliness, Godlikeness, is the goal to be reached!

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