Own the Vision: Prayer


Over the past several weeks, as we have talked through the vision of the church, we have been talking about discipleship, marriage and family, being diversely unified, missions, and serving. But, as I was thinking through how we were going to land the plane today, my mind drifted from the metaphorical, and I began to think about, like, actually flying. More specifically, how much I hate flying.

Honestly, I could have the smoothest flight in the world, and I would still be uncomfortable. There’s just something about being in a large metal tube, suspended some 37,000 feet in the air that doesn’t bring comfort to me, you know? And, there’s some people who think I’m the irrational one! But, then, there’s something truly unnerving about those moments where the flight isn’t really so smooth. You’re met with turbulence. The cabin begins to shake. Your seat is rumbling. You look out the window, and you see the wings are bending, and you’re convinced there’s only one possible outcome and it’s certain death. At least, that’s what this woman was convinced was going to happen on her flight.

I love that in a plane of a couple hundred people, she’s the only one screaming. Like, I wonder what kind of looks she got when they finally landed safely. But, honestly, I’m not here to judge because that woman is only vocalizing what I feel internally every single time I’m on a plane. And, look, I know all of the statistics and facts. 

The last time a plane went down due to turbulence was on March 5, 1966. Now, modern wings are designed to flex around 24 feet before structural damage occurs. To be certified by the FAA, all airliners must be able to withstand 150% of the most extreme forces the airplane is ever expected to experience while in service. The FAA also requires airliners to be able to withstand forces of at least 2.5 Gs. For instance, a 737 hitting the maximum turbulence at cruise speed at 30,000 feet might see 2.2 Gs. Then, the 150% mentioned previously is in addition to this 2.5 G requirement — so, we’re actually talking abilities to withstand 3.75 Gs. Planes can take a lot more than you think they can.

Now, those are the facts, but if you’re anything like me, the next time you’re on a plane, they’re not going to help you at all. And, look, maybe it’s not airplane turbulence that gets you, but I bet it’s something. It’s always something. See, too many of us approach life the way I approach flying. We want to settle in. Buckle up and have smooth, clear skies. And, at the slightest bit of turbulence, we lose our minds. We tell ourselves it’s not supposed to be this way. I’m supposed to be relaxing, enjoying my cabin peanuts while catching the in-flight movie. We will do anything we can to avoid the turbulence.

But, this morning, I want to invite you to do something that may seem contrary to how you’ve approached life and God up to this point. I want to invite you to do something that might seem to be just outright dangerous. I want to invite you to pray for turbulence. Invite the turbulence. Stop praying safe and shallow prayers. Friends, if we are to be a church that believes in the power of prayer, then we need to begin to pray like it. I mean, when was the last time we prayed something that challenged us in our very spirit? Something that shook us? Something that disturbed us?

Sir Francis Drake was a sea captain in the 1500s who was made famous for successfully completing the second circumnavigation of the the world in a single expedition. And, it was as they were setting sail he penned this prayer,

Disturb us, Lord, when we are too well pleased with ourselves, when our dreams have come true because we have dreamed too little, when we arrived safely because we sailed too close to the shore.

Now, that’s a scary prayer. But, how many of us are sailing too close to the shore? How many of us today are dreaming too little? I want you to think with me for a moment: why is it that you pray? And, before you give me the church answer, I want you to really think about it. What is it that causes you to pray? If you excluded the time around the table or moments where a pastor has led you, when was the last time you really prayed? 

See, I sense an unsettling trend within the church to view prayer only as a vehicle to bring before God our wish lists, our hopes, our needs. And, please don’t misunderstand me. God wants those. His Word tells us that we have not because we ask not. James encourages us that if anyone is in trouble to let them pray. So, hear me clearly: He desires for us to bring those requests before Him, but, friends, we are sailing too close to the shore if that’s where we stop. 

In Psalm 27, we find King David in this difficult season of his leadership. It’s evident that he’s being pursued on all sides. It speaks of trouble from his enemies and lies from false witnesses. People want David dead. Sadly, those details don’t really help us to narrow down exactly when David wrote this of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? [2] When evildoers assail to eat up my flesh, my adversaries and foes, it is they who stumble and fall. [3] Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war arise against me, yet I will be confident.

Now, to me, that sounds like some turbulent skies. These are some rough waters. And, if I’m David, I know what my prayer would be. “God, deliver me from my enemies!” “God, expand my territory against those who oppose me!” “God, rescue me. Give ‘em what they deserve!” That’s what I would want, wouldn’t you? 

I mean, think about this for a moment. If the Spirit of the Living God were to accomplish anything in you this morning — if you could make a wish (and, like, we know that God isn’t some genie in a bottle, but bear with me here) — if you were to ask the Spirit of God to do just one thing in your life today, what would that thing be? Do you know what that thing would be? David knew what it was because here’s what he prayed next,

[4] One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple.

Out of all the things David could have asked for he asks for the presence of God. The Hebrew word translated as one thing here literally means the main thing or the very first thing. Throughout his life, David had certainly asked for many different things, but David states clearly that if he could ask for only one thing it would simply be the presence of the Lord. All of his other desires were bound up in this single desire for more of the presence of God.

And, if you’re anything like me and you were just thinking of your one thing, you may say, “Oh, well, yeah, I didn’t know that’s what you meant! Yeah, that’s what I want, too! I thought we were talking about something other than God!” But, what would it look like if we began to pray for this one thing? What if we truly became convinced that the presence of God was sufficient for all we need and all we desire? What would it look like if we truly understood that even if everything on my wish list was accomplished today, I still would not be satisfied unless I have more of His presence? Friends, hear me on this: I’m convinced that somewhere along the way we stopped asking the Lord to change our hearts — only our circumstances. But, He wants more for us; He has better for us. 

Somewhere along the way we stopped asking the Lord to change our hearts — only our circumstances.

There was a time when the church understood more of His presence was sweeter than more of our comfort. That more of Him was better than deliverance from our circumstances. In fact, there was a time when we not only endured our hardships but embraced them because they produced within us an urgency and dependency upon the supremacy of our Lord Jesus Christ. Listen to what the author of Hebrews reminds his readers,

[10:32] But recall the former days when… you endured a hard struggle with sufferings… [34] For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.

We have that same Better Possession. Solomon, too, reminded us that I am my Beloved’s, and He is mine. I’m telling you that you already have everything you need in Jesus Christ. So, what if our prayers began to focus on laying hold of Him rather than laying hold of that which will not last! 

Let me ask you some difficult questions. If you could become debt-free but not have more of Jesus, would you take it? If you could be healed from your cancer but not have more of Jesus, would you want it? If you were offered that job promotion but not more of Jesus, would you accept it? If the Green Bay Packers could fix their holes on defense and get Rodgers’ arm back from 2011 but not have more of Jesus… well, you get the point. 

And, look, I realize it’s not at all as dichotomous as I’m making it out to be here — it’s not that if you get one, you sacrifice the other — but I have to wonder what is really driving and motivating our hearts. I have to wonder if we truly see Jesus as the Better Possession sometimes. I know there are things that I have allowed to usurp the place of God in my life. I know there are times where the “better-ness” of Jesus fades in my eyes compared to the “right now-ness” of other things. So, that leaves us with this nagging question: What do we do? Where do we go from here? How do we begin to shift how we pray as the people of God? 

Start with God.

And, I realize this is a cliche churchy answer, but we need to start with God. I know we’re ending our Vision series with prayer, but here’s the reality: if we fail here, we will fail everywhere else. If we’re not a praying church, we’ll fail to make disciples who pray. If we’re not a praying church, we will serve in our own strength. If we’re not a praying church, we’ll give to missions without ever sensing our own call to missions. If we’re not a praying church, we may be diverse but we won’t be of one heart and mind toward the things of God. If we’re not a praying church, we can have marriages and families that go the distance without ever fully realizing their potential in Jesus Christ. In fact, we are a church that emphatically believes that any success that is not accomplished through prayer and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit is viewed as failure. Why? Because it starts with God. 

Any success that is not accomplished through prayer and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit is viewed as failure.

How often, though, do we start with self? We do everything we are able to do first and, only then, do we run to God. Only when I’ve exhausted all my other options do I turn to the Lord. It is frighteningly easy to lay our heads down on our pillows at the end of the day and realize we did not stop to consider the Lord in any of our decision-making processes that day. We work on autopilot. We parent on autopilot. We fellowship on autopilot. We drive on autopilot. We live on autopilot. What would it look like if we began first by considering the Lord. “God, I know I’ve done this a thousand times before, but I don’t want to do it one more time without Your strength, Your wisdom, or Your empowerment.” 

Prayer is not meant to be optional in the life of the believer. In fact, for the Christian, I gotta tell ya, if you’re not praying, you’re playing. We cannot claim the truth of the gospel and not sense the necessity for prayer. We cannot declare the sweetness of knowing Jesus and not desire to spend more time with Him. We cannot preach that we need the Lord and never call upon Him in fervent prayer. Frankly, the prayer-less life is incongruent with the gospel. Martin Luther once said, ”To be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing.” Church, I fear that we have been holding our breath for far too long.

“To be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing.” — Martin Luther

Maybe it’s because we don’t really know how to pray. Did you know that you can just talk honestly with God? We overthink how we ought to pray sometimes. Like, you can start praying today by telling God exactly what’s on your heart and mind. Some of you may be thinking, “Oh, man, I don’t know about that. I don’t think I can say to God the things that are in my heart and mind. He might strike me down right here!” If you need convincing that you can pray honest and vulnerable prayers to God, you just need to check out the Psalms. Friends, He already knows what’s in you. There’s no point in hiding it from Him. You don’t need to polish it or sugarcoat it before coming to Him. He’s not surprised. He’s not caught off guard. He’s not offended. He doesn’t want us to hide from Him; He wants us to run to Him. He has never asked us to suppress what’s inside of us; rather, He invites us to surrender it to Him. 

If you are too busy to pray, you can be assured you are busier than God wants you to be.

Maybe it’s because we feel like we don’t have the time to pray. Look, I get it. We live in a society that wears busyness like a badge of honor. But, the person who isn’t committed to prayer is doing a whole lot of moving without going anywhere of importance. There is no honor in filling our schedules with a lot of things if none of those things are the right things. Friends, if you are too busy to pray, you can be assured you are busier than God wants you to be.

Maybe it’s because we don’t know what to say. You wouldn’t be alone in that either. In the Bible, we read the story of Hannah who continually went before the Lord to pray for a son. And, finally, at one point, we read that

[1 Samuel 1:13] Hannah was speaking in her heart; only her lips moved, and her voice was not heard.

Sometimes prayer can be quiet. Sometimes the words don’t come. Sometimes our prayer means waiting before the Lord for Him to speak. Sometimes it means we don’t know what to say, but praise God, there is an Intercessor who is the Holy Spirit and He prays on our behalf. You don’t need elaborate and showy prayers. Actually, the Bible is pretty clear that God hates showy prayers. Simple and honest prayers will be powerful. We read in James, that

[James 5:16b] The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.

Friends, let’s start with God. Instead of talking about the power of prayer, let’s start practicing it. And, not just as a last line of defense; may it be where we start. Author and theologian Leonard Ravenhill wrote in his book Why Revival Tarries, ”Prayer is not our defense. The shield of faith is for that. Prayer is our secret weapon.” In fact, I believe we often miss prayer as the essential piece of the armor of God. In Ephesians 6, the Apostle Paul begins to outline the armor of God with which we ought to equip ourselves. We have the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, and the shoes which are the gospel of peace. He continues on by saying,

[Ephesians 6:16] In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; [17] and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, [18b] and praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication.

Prayer is the power in the armor. It’s not just your defense; it’s your weapon. Whatever it is you might be walking through today, now is the time to start with God. Don’t delay any further. Put aside any of the excuses. Clear the schedule. Speak honestly. Stop playing, and let’s start praying.

Leave it with God.

But, we don’t only need to start with God; we, then, need to leave it with God. Now, this isn’t an excuse for inaction on our part. The individual who is praying for a job can’t refuse to submit applications. The parent who is working through a phase with their children can’t neglect their parental responsibilities. What it means, though, is that I bring my burdens to Him rather than carry them myself. It means that I let go of control and allow God to do what I’m unable to do. You know, the Bible doesn’t tell us to simply talk to God about our worries and struggles. We’re told to cast them on Him. He invites it. We read in 1 Peter 5:6-7,

[6] Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, [7] casting all your anxieties on him, (why?) because he cares for you.

I know we’ve shared parts of his story before, but George Müller is one of the best examples of this. Müller was an evangelist and the director of the Ashley Down orphanage in England. And, if anyone had a reason to worry, it was this guy. From 1830 to 1898, he was preaching three times a week, totaling some 10,000 times. When he turned 70, he began missionary work for the next 17 years, traveling to 42 different countries, preaching on average once a day, and addressing some three million people. 

In the midst of all this, he had built five large orphanages and cared for 10,024 orphans in his life. To put this into perspective, when he began in 1834, there were accommodations for just 3,600 orphans in all of England. One of the greatest effects of Müller’s ministry was to inspire others so that some fifty years after he began his work, at least 100,000 orphans had been cared for in England alone.

Adjusting for inflation, he prayed in millions of dollars for the orphans, but he never directly asked anyone for money. In fact, he never took a salary in the last 68 years of his ministry; he only trusted God to put in people’s hearts to send him what he needed. He never took out a loan or went into debt. And neither he nor the orphans were ever hungry.

One day, the housemother of the orphanage informed him, “The children are dressed and ready for school. But there is no food for them to eat.” Müller asked her to take the 300 children into the dining room and have them sit at the tables. He thanked God for the food (the food they didn’t have) and he waited. Within minutes, a baker knocked on the door. 

“Mr. Müller,” he said, “last night I could not sleep. Somehow I knew that you would need bread this morning. I got up and baked three batches for you. I will bring it in.”

Not a moment later, there was another knock at the door. This time, it was the milkman. His cart had broken down in front of the orphanage. The milk would spoil by the time the wheel was fixed, so he asked George if he could use some free milk. The milkman brought in ten large cans of milk, just enough for the 300 thirsty children.

Others took notice of Müller’s calm demeanor. How does one not panic when for 68 years, never receiving a paycheck, but just trusting in the Lord? How could he be so at peace in the middle of a hectic day with so many uncertainties and children depending on him? The key for Müller was prayer. How did he handle the pressure? He answered, ”I rolled sixty things onto the Lord this morning.” He took the burdens, one by one, off his own shoulders, and he rolled them onto God’s.

Müller continued by saying, “[The children of God] are permitted, not only permitted but invited, not only invited but commanded, to bring all their cares, sorrows, trials, and wants to their heavenly Father. They are to roll all their burdens upon God.”

Friends, when we leave it with God, something marvelous begins to occur. As we roll our burdens onto His shoulders, we begin to find that the Father is closer than any one of our worries. We begin to see that His shoulders are stronger than any one of our burdens. We discover His provisions are sweeter than any one thing we could muster in our own strength.

Hannah, who we last read was praying in her heart to the Lord, understood this as well. We read in 1 Samuel 1:15,

[1 Samuel 1:15b] “I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord.”

We’re invited — not only that, we’re commanded — to do the same. But, we often walk away from our time with God still carrying our burdens. Yes, the Lord wants us to talk to Him about our hearts and what’s going on inside of us. But, He doesn’t want us to just stop there. May we not just talk about our anxieties; may we learn to cast them onto His shoulders. He’s strong enough for whatever you’re carrying today. Don’t walk away until you’ve poured it out. Roll your heavy burdens onto His shoulders.

Continue trusting God.

So, we need to start with God and, then, we leave it with God. But, then we need to continue trusting God. What would it really look like if we didn’t only declare God is trustworthy with our words, but we lived like He is? What if we didn’t only declare God to be trustworthy with our worship on Sundays but also with our lives on Mondays?

At first, this sounds so simple and, at face value, it is. But, as sinners, we default to trusting our own efforts, not God. We trust in plans, not God. We allow our confidence to be contingent upon our circumstances rather than the character of God. And, this is not a new phenomenon. We read in Psalm 20:7,

[7] Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.

We might say, “Amen!,” but do we really trust Him? May we come to observe that only His promises are secure; all our efforts are prone to failure. But, the Lord never fails. We miss the mark, but the Lord is good and He is true. I must admit that the way I pray does not often reflect the declaration that I trust the Lord. Our safe and shallow and selfish prayers actually shout, “Lord, I trust You just this much.” Friends, the Lord is calling us and pulling us into deeper trust and deeper dependency upon His sustaining grace. If today’s headlines communicate anything, it’s that we will live in shakeable and uncertain times. But, our Lord is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He is a firm foundation. You can trust Him. 

How do we know this? Well, because the Lord doesn’t invite us into anything where He Himself has not first paved the way. We read in John’s account that God Himself became flesh and made His dwelling among us. Scripture tells us that Jesus didn’t consider equality with God something to be used to His own advantage, so He emptied Himself and took the form of a servant. And, when it came time for all that had been prophesied to be fulfilled through the obedience of God the Son, He led those who were closest to Him into a Garden, and they began to pray.

[Luke 22:40] And when he came to the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.” [41] And he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, [42] saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.”

Notice first how Jesus instructs His friends to pray. He’s saying here, “There’s a tumultuous time about to happen. You don’t understand it yet, but I don’t want you to pray to circumvent it. I don’t want you to pray to get around it. I don’t want you to pray to avoid it. I want you to pray to endure it. I don’t want you to just pray for your circumstances; pray for your hearts. They’re going to be tested!”

Then, notice how God the Son prays to God the Father. “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me.” Again, we can bring our requests and our petitions before the Lord. He desires this type of communion with us — casting our anxieties on Him. But, I must confess like many of you, this is where I would say, “Amen.” This is where I too often stop. I understand this part of Jesus’ prayer. It’s what He says next that shakes me. It’s what He says next that takes our smooth flights into truly turbulent skies. Takes our ships away from shore into deeper waters. “Not my will, but yours, be done.” 

Friends, how often are we praying my-will-be-done prayers! Prayer is not meant to be a vehicle where we communicate our plans to God, as if we already have the better way predetermined and we just need to inform Him. No, prayer is a submission to God’s good and perfect will for our lives. It‘s a confession that I may not have all the details. I may not have the full picture. So, I will trust the One who does. Jesus shows us that we need to exchange my-will-be-done prayers for thy-will-be-done prayers.

We need to exchange my-will-be-done prayers for thy-will-be-done prayers.

That ought to be a scary revelation! Because I’m not sure if you know the rest of the story here but Jesus is about to embrace His Cross and endure a tortuous death for our sake. And, this is a difficult pill for us to swallow sometimes — that we could pray for the will of God in our lives and consequently be led into violently turbulent seasons of life. Jesus Himself suffered under God’s will more than any one of us ever will. If you can wrap your heads around this today: no one has suffered under the will of God as much as God Himself. Jesus is not inviting us to anything He Himself has not already accomplished.

But, all glory to God because the story is never quite finished when it appears to be. If we can trust the Father through the turbulent journey, we will discover something sweeter, something grander, something better than we could ever accomplish for ourselves. The suffering of God the Son results in the glory of God the Father and grace for us sinners. The author of Hebrews instructs us, then, to

[12:2] [Look] to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

If we’re not careful, though — if we‘re not examining our hearts and prayer life — we will find that when we pray it is just so that our requests may be granted not so that the Father may be glorified. May it not be so! Not my will be done, but Yours! We can trust God because He has gone before. He has paved the way. He is familiar with our journey. He is not unable to sympathize. We can trust His guiding hand because, though the way may shaky at best, He sees us through to something better. Though the pain may last through the night, I trust the Lord that His joy comes with the morning.

See, friends, when we trust in the Lord, we will come to find Him to be the Counselor who invites us to unload our anxieties upon Him (Philippians 4:6). We will discover that He is the Shepherd who gathers us in His arms (Isaiah 40:11). We will know the Lord who is the Bridegroom who takes our problems and makes them His own (Ephesians 5:25-27). We will experience the strength of the King who shelters us in His mighty tower (Proverbs 18:10). We will witness the Warrior who fights on our behalf (Exodus 14:14). In Jesus, we discover our hope, our joy, our peace, our rescue, our salvation, our answer, our purpose, our King, our Lord.

But, something has got to shift in the way we are praying. We need to trust the Lord who is able to accomplish infinitely more than we can ask or think. We need to trust the Lord who has gone before and who stands victorious today. We need to trust the Lord — not because He will lead us to the light at the end of the tunnel but — because He Himself is that Light which we seek.

We need to leave it with God. He not only invites us, He commands us to cast all our anxieties on Him today. What is burdening you? What is worrying you? What is heavy upon you? Leave it with God. Don’t just tell Him about it only to walk away still carrying it. Be like Hannah and linger in prayer until it’s poured out before Him. 

But, we need to start with God. Prayer is not our last resort; it’s our secret weapon. It’s the beautiful gift of fellowship with the Father through Jesus Christ and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. So, let’s stop playing; let’s start praying. Instead of just talking about the power of prayer may we seek to pray powerfully. 

Honestly, we try to get from our efforts what we never put into them. Friends, Paul is clear in His letter to the Galatians that the Lord will not be mocked. He cannot be deceived. We will reap what we sow, and the principles of reaping and sowing apply to prayer. Small prayers do not beget big results.

Small prayers do not beget big results.

So, we strive to be a church committed to the power of prayer. That’s why every Sunday morning we have preservice prayer. You can come a half-hour before service and be in prayer over what God desires to do in us. Every Saturday night at 7:00, we meet right here to pray over these moments, these altars, and these pews. Every Tuesday morning at 8:30, your pastoral staff is spending time in prayer around these altars. You’re welcome to join us. In fact, can I strongly encourage you to make these a priority in your schedule. I know you’re busy, but that’s why you need these opportunities. You are too busy to not be praying.

But, there’s another opportunity we have each and every week to pray together as we open these altars. And, look, I get it. I don’t need to be up here for the Spirit of God to move. I don’t need to come forward to have an authentic response to the Word of God. But, can I ask you, for at least this morning, to put aside any excuse or obstacle that may prevent you from coming to these altars? I know it’s safer to stay where you are physically. I know it’s more comfortable. I know it’s familiar. I know it’s a easier to slip out of the service when I say amen. But, this morning, I don’t want you to play it safe. Invite the turbulence. Ask the Lord to disturb you. 

So, as the team leads us in another song, this is your opportunity to respond to what the Word of God is speaking to your heart right now. I know there’s some of you who are praying through some seriously heavy things and you need to come to these altars. There’s some of you this morning who have been talking to everyone else but the Lord about what’s going on. There’s some of you who are exhausting yourselves with your own efforts and attempts. There’s some of you who have frankly grown frustrated in your prayers because you feel like it’s not doing anything. You’ve been looking to God to do something for you. This morning, I want to ask you to invite Him to do a work in you. 

As you come forward for prayer, let’s cast our anxieties upon the Lord, but let’s not stop there. Let’s do something dangerous together today. May we come together and ask not for our own wills to be accomplished but His will to be done in our lives, in our homes, in our church, in our city, in our nation, in this world. He doesn’t promise to give us anything safe, only that which is good.

What would it look like if we, as a church, came together at these altars and together we sought this one thing: more of Him? What if that desire bound up every other desire we may have today? I invite you to stand this morning, if you are able, as we pray together. 

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