What I prayed in the night of my soul

Nothing jerks our prayers out of their “blessed generality” stage like a crisis. The most effective kind of crisis for that is for a close loved one to get in serious trouble–car wreck, cancer, emergency surgery.

But a close second is a personal crisis, the kind where someone is making life miserable for you and even getting out of bed in the morning and walking into one more day is taking all the strength you can muster. You either quit praying altogether, the worst possible choice, or your prayers lose their vain repetitions and meaningless phrases and get down to business.

A crisis can kick your prayer life into overdrive.

What follows is such a prayer of mine, written in the thick of church conflict. It was voiced sometime in the 1990’s, during the last of my six pastorates.  This was a troubled congregation in recovery from a devastating split that took place a year before I arrived.  The church was constantly beset with internal strife.

The prayer is about as specific as one would want a prayer to be. No more “bless him” and “help her.” It does not call names, however, and I’m glad to report is not as harsh as some of the Psalms where David is praying for the children of his enemies to not survive that day.

Here is the prayer, along with a few comments. I send it forth in the hope that some servant of the Lord in the fight of his life may find encouragement to hang tough and be faithful.

Father, what I’m praying for is that….

1) Everything I preach may come from thee. Lead me please regarding subjects, texts, stories, applications, and especially in the delivery.”

When people fight a pastor, invariably they attack his sermons. That happened to me at various times over a long ministry. In a sense, the critics are hitting us where we are most vulnerable, because few of us feel that our preaching is all it should be. They will find fault with the subjects you are preaching, the scriptures you use, the stories you tell, the way you say it, everything. And, if you are doing all these things well, they will criticize your neck-tie–or the lack of one.

The remedy is to turn their opposition into motivation to pray harder, study more diligently, and do everything you know in order to deliver the sharpest, most powerful sermons you’re capable of preaching.

2) “Father, may every position I take, every pronouncement I make, be from Thee. May I be silent until the right moment. May it be obvious to those who love you that my words are Thy words.”

The first request concerns sermons. The second concerns those off-the-cuff remarks made in casual conversations or during deacons’ meetings.  It was in those deacon sessions where those who opposed me fed off each other and gained encouragement to attack. At the same time, the “good guys” tended to be silent there. I have no explanation for that, other than outright cowardice. (Hey, let’s call it what it is. They were intimidated by the bullies.)

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I grieve for the Lord’s church. Here’s why…

“Is Ephraim my dear son?  Indeed, as often as I have spoken against him, I certainly still remember him.  Therefore my heart yearns for him; I will certainly have mercy on him, declares the Lord” (Jeremiah 31:20).

“How often I would have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her chickens under her wings, and you would not.  Behold, your house is left unto you desolate” (Matthew 23:37-38).

Almost daily, I hear of churches firing their preachers, engaged in lawsuits, and struggling with inner conflict.  I know churches that were strong a generation ago but are fighting to survive now.

These are difficult days for churches, which makes these challenging days for church leaders.

Believers who are not grieving for the Lord’s church these days must not be paying attention.

Let us care for what is happening, and pray for the Lord’s people….

–I grieve for the trendy church which is drawing people in from the smaller surrounding congregations and bursting at the seams, but leaving the smaller ones to shrivel and die.  The huge church may convince its members that they are doing big things for the kingdom since they deal with such large numbers. Churches can be so self-centered. Pray your church will be loving toward other congregations. 

–I grieve for the church which is having mind-staggering growth but becomes secretive about what it does with the millions of dollars it takes in, protective about the pay it gives its leaders, and dismissive about the questionable personal lives of its leadership.  Churches can be carnal. Pray your church will be led by men and women of integrity. 

–I grieve for the smaller church which turns an envious eye toward the growing congregations in its community and, desiring to be like the others, dismisses its faithful pastor and worship leaders because “we have to stay current with modern trends.”  Churches can be wrong-headed. Pray your church will look to Jesus for affirmation and not at their neighbors. 

–I grieve for the church which keeps pastors no more than three or four years, then manufactures crises to justify sending them packing so they can bring in another who is destined to become a victim himself in due time.  Churches can be cruel. Pray your church will be Christlike. 

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Truths the devil uses to stop us from praying

The forces of hell will do anything to keep us from praying.

Satan tells lies to keep us from praying.  He uses pleasures and misinformation and our laziness to keep us from praying.  He uses false teachers and busy schedules and great television to keep us from praying.

He also has been known to use truth.

As odd as it seems, the dark prince does not hesitate to speak the truth if it will make us think we shouldn’t pray.

Here are ten true statements Satan uses to put a stop to the most powerful force in the world, the prayers of God’s people…

1–God already knows what you need. (So, no point in asking, he says.)

2–You are unworthy.

3–You are weak.

4–Your faith is small.

5–You have no idea whether God will answer your prayers or not.

6–You’re only one person. (True, says Satan, and so what good will your prayers be?)

7–You don’t know how to pray.

8–Your sins can block your prayers.

9.–When all is said and done, you still cannot prove that what happened was an answer from God.

10.–Faith is hard and difficult to identify.

He’s right, of course. But those statements–while biblical and completely accurate–don’t tell the whole story.

Let’s take a quick look at each of those ten “true” statements….

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The Lord’s Prayer shows us how to have balance in our prayer life

In my early morning walk once I saw a man jogging on the levee beside the Mississippi River. As he approached, he seemed to be tilted slightly, running just a tad off balance. Then I realized one sleeve was hanging limply at his side. The absence of his left arm threw his body off balance.

Veteran Bible teacher Warren Wiersbe used to say there ought to be one more beatitude: “Blessed are the balanced.”

When Rick Warren of Saddleback Church said the key issue of the 21st century church would be not church growth but church health, someone asked his secret of church health. “In a word, balance,” he said.

Rick Warren explained, “Your body has nine different systems (circulatory, respiratory, digestive, skeletal, etc). When these systems are all in balance, it produces health. But when your body gets out of balance, we call that ‘disease.’”

He added, “Likewise when the body of Christ becomes unbalanced, disease occurs. Health and growth can only occur when everything is brought into balance.”

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What good does prayer do?

“And He was giving them a parable to show that at all times they ought to pray and not faint” (Luke 18:1).

At all times we ought to pray.  We ought–that’s the imperative of prayer.  Not faint--that’s the alternative to prayer.

She knew I was praying for a certain family member who seems forever in some kind of predicament.  She asked, “Why do you pray?  I don’t see it doing any good.”

When I caught my breath–this was a believer asking such a question–I said, “Ask me why I breathe air.  It’s what I do to live.”

She did not let me off that easily. “Do you really think God is going to do what you ask? Is that why you pray?”

By now, I had settled down enough to try to verbalize a reasonable answer.

“That’s not up to me. How He chooses to answer my prayer is His business.”

“My job is to pray. To ask, intercede, to speak in faith what someone else needs. And so I ask for it.”

“How He answers is strictly up to Him. Or whether He even answers at all.”

Her question will not leave me alone. I imagine everyone who prays regularly–and keeps it up over the years, through good times and bad–has to answer this for themselves repeatedly, as well as for friends and skeptics alike.

It’s not as simple as it sounds. “Why pray?”

I certainly do not get all my prayers answered.

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Three cautions before you teach others how to pray

They invite you to bring a talk, a lesson, or a sermon on prayer. Your first thought, if you are normal, is, “Who me? What little I know about prayer you could put in a thimble.”

There may be some Christian somewhere who considers himself an authority on prayer, but I have yet to meet him. The truly godly men and women known as prayer warriors will tell you they feel they have just enrolled in kindergarten.

I’m confident of this one thing: our Heavenly Father is not happy with any of His children claiming to have the inside track on how to approach Him, how to “get things from God,” “how to make prayer work for your benefit,” and how to get on His good side.

Jesus Christ has done everything necessary for us to enter the Throne Room of Heaven. See Hebrews 4:16.

Jesus Christ has opened the divider between man and God and we have an open invitation to “come on in.” See Hebrews 10:19-22.

If you and I are not entering God’s presence and lifting up our needs and petitions and interceding for those on our hearts, it’s not God’s fault. It’s not the fault of Jesus, who did everything necessary to make it possible for us to pray effectively.

So, come on in. Come in humbly, for this is the Throne Room of the Universe. Come in worshipfully for the One on the Throne is the Lord of Lords. Come in boldly because your Authority is the Blood of Jesus. Come in regularly because you live in a needy, fallen world. Come in with Jesus: in His Name, by His blood, for His sake.

That’s what we want to teach others.

But there are some things we do not want to teach, no matter how great the temptation.

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What the embattled pastor prays

Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that You are God in Israel and that I am your servant…. (I Kings 18:36)

Elijah was confronting the prophets of Baal when he prayed that brief but potent prayer. But his goal was not to win these renegades over. His target audience was the spectators, the Israelites who in their shallow affection were going with the deity who could produce the most dramatic fireworks that day.

I have prayed Elijah’s prayer.

Many a time as I entered the sanctuary for the Sunday morning service, I sent up this plea. “Lord, there are a few people in this church who are roadblocks to us doing anything. They fight me on every proposal. And they do it in Your Name. Father, please–let them know that You are God and that I am your servant.”

Now, you would think it was the second part of that prayer that occupied my attention, that what I wanted most of all was for this bunch of nay-sayers to get clear on the fact that God in Heaven had sent me as His ambassador. But you’d be wrong.

Before anything else, I wanted the same thing Elijah wanted for God’s people that day: for them to settle once and for all that the Living God is Lord and in charge and in this place. That He is “God in Israel.”

I am personally convinced that the trouble-makers in most churches do not really believe in God. Oh, they do, theoretically. If you press them, they can tell you when they professed faith in Jesus and were baptized. Call on them to pray in the service and they will render up an invocation or offertory prayer with the best of them. It’s just that they don’t really believe God is on the premises.

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Some necessary things about prayer

I had led a family to Christ.  They soon joined our church and were baptized the following Sunday.  My notes remind me of something the grandfather said.  He was chairman of deacons in a church 3 hours away, and of course, they were excited about what had happened.  He said to me, “We’ve been praying for this family, but one by one.  We had no idea they’d all get saved at the same time!”

Expectations.  Dale Caston told me something that took place in a high school class when he was a teen.  The teacher asked the students, “What do you expect to get out of this class?”  She looked at one student: “Eddie, what do you expect?”  Eddie said, “Well, I’ve had you before–and I don’t expect nothing!”  —  What do you expect when you pray?  The curse of modern Christianity is that we expect little from the Lord, too much from the church, and nothing from ourselves.

“Thou art coming to a King; Large petitions with thee bring; For His grace and power are such, none can ever ask too much.” –John Newton

Okay.  Now, some quick thoughts on what the Lord has taught and is teaching me on prayer….

One.  You don’t have to be perfect to pray.

That’s almost funny, it’s so obvious.  But you might be amazed to know how many of us shirk from praying because “I’ve sinned.”  Well, duh.  “He Himself knows our frame; He is mindful that we are but dust” (Psalm 103:14).  He is under no illusions about us, friend.  He who created us knew He was getting no bargain when He saved us.  When we sin, the only one surprised is us. So, go on and pray.

Two. You don’t have to feel like you deserve to pray, have lived so righteously that you have a right to have your prayers answered.  It’s all of grace, friend.  How we feel has nothing to do with anything.

Three.  The best advice I was ever given–and the best I have ever doled out–on this subject is: “Pray Anyway.”  In spite of how you feel, what others say, what you know about a situation, how little or much you know on what the Almighty wishes to do in a situation, or a thousand other things, it is all right to pray.

It is urgent that we pray. See Luke 18:1. “Pray or quit.”

Four.  Honesty in prayer is always best.  If you don’t feel like praying, tell Him that.  He who created you understands tiredness.  If you have a fear or doubt or question, He can take your admitting that in your prayer.  We worship in Spirit and in truth.

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I prayed for my preaching–and got answers I did not expect

(This is a reprint of an article I wrote for Leadership magazine several years ago, maybe 2001. It was later picked up and included in “The Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching,” a textbook edited by Haddon Robinson and Craig Larson, published by Zondervan, 2005.)

I had been preaching for more than two decades, and I should have been at the top of my game. The church I served ran up to 1,500 on Sunday mornings, and the live telecast of our services covered a fair portion of several states. Most of my colleagues thought I had it made, and if invitations to speak in other churches were any sign, they thought I could preach.

But I didn’t think that.

My confidence was taking a beating as some of the leaders let me know repeatedly that my pulpit work was not up to their standards. Previous pastors carried the reputation of pulpit masters, something I never claimed for myself. To make matters worse, we had numerous vacancies on staff and my sermon preparation was suffering because of a heavy load of pastoral ministry. But you do what you have to do. Most days, my goal was to keep my head above water. Every day without drowning became a good day.

That’s when I got serious about praying for my preaching. Each night I walked a four-mile route through my neighborhood and talked to the Father. My petitions dealt with the usual stuff–family needs, people I was concerned about, and the church. Gradually, one prayer began to recur in my nightly pleadings.

“Lord,” I prayed, “make me a preacher.” Asking this felt so right I never paused to analyze it. I prayed it again and again, over and over, for weeks.

I was in my fifth pastorate. I owned a couple of seminary degrees. I had read the classics on preaching and attended my share of sermon workshops. I was a veteran. But here I was in my mid-forties, crying out to heaven for help: “Lord, make me a preacher.”

I knew if my preaching improved, if the congregation felt better about the sermons, everything else would benefit. I knew that the sermon is a pastor’s most effective contribution to the spiritual lives of his members. To do well there would ease the pressure in other areas. So I prayed.

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12 reminders about prayer

“Pray without ceasing.”  — I Thessalonians 5:17.

I do not imply that I know more about prayer than others.  I hate to hear anyone celebrated as “an expert in prayer,” for the simple reason that no child should be called an expert in talking to his/her parent.  What’s so hard about that?

Granted, we often make it harder than it should be, with our rules, our religions, our legalism, our opinions, our blindness, and our sinfulness.  But in its essence, prayer is talking to the Father through the work of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Period.

What I do imply however (for this article) is that there are insights in Scripture on the subject of prayer many of us may have missed.  Here are a few……

One. Scripture says you do not know how to pray as you should.  That’s Romans 8:26. So, let’s not let that stop us.  God’s not looking for eloquence but faith.

Two.  Scripture says both the Holy Spirit and the Lord Jesus are interceding for us.  That is Romans 8:26 and 8:34.  Now, personally, I have no idea how this works, particularly when Romans 8:31 says “God is for us!”  So, it appears the Triune God is on our side!

Three. Scripture indicates the best pray-ers God knew were Moses and Samuel.  That’s Jeremiah 15:1.

Four.  Unconfessed sin in our lives stops our prayers dead in their tracks.  That’s Isaiah 59:1-3.

Five.  When we fail to intercede for those who count on us, we sin against the Lord. That’s I Samuel 12:23.  See Ephesians 6:18-19.

Six. As a rule, short to-the-point prayers are best.  That’s Matthew 6:5-7.

The inimitable John R. Rice used to say, “Prayer is not a touring sedan in which to see the sights of the city, but a truck which you drive to the warehouse, pick up the goods, and come home.”

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