Wearing Knee-Holes in Hardwood Floors
Devoted to Prayer Seminar
The apostle Paul commands Christians to devote themselves to prayer.
Devote yourselves to prayer. (Colossians 4:2, NAS, NIV, NRSV)
To “devote” oneself means to give oneself to something with such dogged commitment that one becomes known, even identified, by that devotion. A husband devoted to his wife has eyes and time for no other woman. A teacher devoted to his or her students is committed, in and out of the classroom, that the students would learn and flourish. A fan devoted to his favorite college or professional team wears his team colors on game day, loves to talk about his team, and senses the joys of winning and the pain of defeat along with the players.
Christians are called to devote themselves to prayer. To be devoted to prayer means to commit ourselves to prayer in such a way that our lives (not merely our pre-meal rituals) are defined by prayer. Being devoted to prayer means that our eyes are on God and the moments in our days are filled with prayer. Being devoted to prayer means that we make every effort to battle for souls, our own and those of others, asking, knocking, and seeking God’s work. Being devoted to prayer means that we will be marked by an obvious, fanatical, intense, and unwavering practice of prayer.
As the ESV translates Colossians 4:2, we must “continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving” (“continue earnestly” NKJV). Paul likewise urges devotion to prayer in Romans 12:12. The early church, in the days following Christ’s ascension, were “devoting themselves to prayer” (Acts 1:14). They “devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42).
We, on the other hand, devote ourselves to many other substitutes for prayer. We give our time to this-worldly work, maybe even intending to pray later, rather than do our work in prayer. The attention we pay to our arguments and persuasiveness is out of balance with our attention to supplication. We depend directly on people–mostly ourselves–and programs instead of depending directly on God to use us or programs.
We don’t hold prayer meetings, and we infrequently attend the few that are held. We don’t have prayer closets. When we finally do enter into the closet to pray, it’s easy for us to fall asleep. We are not “being watchful” or “keeping alert.” Our praying is hit and miss, willy-nilly. We are not devoted to prayer, and the ill spiritual health of God’s people today is no surprise.
I found myself in an ugly and disobedient condition of prayerlessness in the spring of 2003. During a Shepherds’ Conference general session, God’s Spirit pierced me with conviction, using 1 Timothy 4:16 as the tip of the Sword: “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by doing so you will save both yourself and your hearers.” I think I had been paying attention to the teaching. But, as I look back, it was almost as if I was preparing food for others that I myself wasn’t eating. The conviction that surfaced most was that I was not praying. My shepherding, my husbanding, my parenting, were all in need of prayer power. My soul was wilting and wobbling apart from lingering with my Lord in prayer.
I’d read books on prayer. I’d taken (at least one) class(es) on prayer. I prayed before eating and big exams. I prayed when my dad had by-pass surgery. I prayed in public when called upon. But I was not devoted to prayer.
This seminar aims to birth fraternal twin convictions. The first brother is named Confession. We ought to mourn and repent if we do not pray as we ought. We have not because we ask not or because we ask amiss. The second brother’s name is Confidence. We also need assurance that when we ask according to His will, He hears us. We need the certainty of knowing that God loves to give, that He gives liberally and without reproach to those who wait on Him, depend on Him, and go to Him in prayer.
Those twin convictions, one causing mourning and the other motivation, have changed me. I want to testify to those convictions as one pursuing, not as one having attained, devotion to prayer. My goal isn’t to regurgitate everything that’s already available on prayer. We could have organized a book club about prayer or handed out sermon CDs. But this is personal.
My vision is of a church devoted to prayer, a people so devoted that they’re wearing knee-holes in hardwood floors, not only holes in their jeans around the knees, but holes (or maybe at least grooves) in the floor from their knees. I first heard that phrase in an early morning prayer college group I was in called Camel Knees. The idea of knee-holes in floors is mentioned quickly in E.M. Bounds book, Power through Prayer, chapter 8, but he doesn’t elaborate on it. The image conveys the resulting soreness of such time and persistence on one’s knees that oak boards show wear patterns from the prayer warrior’s battle day after day. The seminar tagline is not intended to locate prayer to one place or position, but rather to provide a solid example of what it may look like to be devoted to prayer.
Pastors in particular–or at least apostles, with pastors by way of application–must be devoted to prayer. In Acts 6, when widows were being neglected, men were chosen to coordinate the first century equivalent canned food drive rather than the apostles. The apostles’ devoted themselves to prayer (first) and to the ministry of the word (6:4). That does not mean that prayer and preaching are more important than feeding widows in their hunger, or any other image-bearing opportunity. But the apostles’ resolution does imply that prayer ministry (and the word ministry) is important enough and difficult enough to require removing distractions for focused effort.
As we’ve already seen, however, every believer is urged to devote themselves to prayer, and that’s the hope of this seminar. I pray that your prayer life would be developed today, not just your prayer list.
Objectives for this hour:
- Cover some administrative minutiae
- Clarify the focus of the seminar
- Describe the risks of a seminar on prayer
- Identify some prerequisites to prayer
- As with last year, today is going to go really fast, and many of you may feel like you’re drinking from a fire hydrant. That’s good. I want everyone to get as much as they can. Take notes in your new Devoted to Prayer journal. Write down questions to ask me later. But, let me encourage you that all the audio recordings of the sessions, as well as my notes, will be available for you online, Lord willing in the next couple weeks. I’m even planning on making my presentation slides available, so if you don’t get it “all,” you can get more later.
You should have received a schedule for the day. I’m going to do my part to keep on track. Curtis Wentling, the seminar coordinator this year, will be reminding people about breaks and such. But I’m going to try to start and end when it says and begin again when it’s time. So if you don’t want to miss anything, keep track of the time.
As was the case last year, during the breaks there will be drinks and snacks in the back of the worship center. Please try to keep food and drinks either in the worship center or downstairs in the fellowship hall (that is, not in the foyer), as the carpet is easier to clean in those places.
You all have name tags. There are a number here from other churches as well as some from within Grace Bible Church that you may not recognize. Please serve us by keeping your name tag on throughout the day. That will also help us make sure we’re feeding and gifting the right people.
p># The Aim of Our Seminar
Prayer, like Bible study, is a lifelong practice. Prayer cannot be summarized in six hour long teaching sessions. There are almost 430 verses that include some form of the word “prayer,” which doesn’t account for the verses that use words such as supplication or intercession or ask or request or cry out, etc. One of my seminary professors, Dr. Jim Rosscup, recently published a book on prayer over 2,900 pages in which he exposits every passage in Scripture on prayer.1 My notes, with a large font and wide margins, are around 80 pages. So to set our expectations for the seminar in the right place, I’d like to clarify my focus.
1. A Focus on Personal More Than Public Prayer
By public prayer I mean prayer in corporate meetings, whether up front or in a group of people. Not that the two types are entirely different, but I’m eager to address private, or at least family, prayer. I think especially in our context, it is easier to pray when others are around. Besides, we hardly ever have to pray in public. Private, personal prayer is probably our weakness and deficiency.
2. A Focus on Changing Us, Not God
This seminar is built on the belief that prayer changes things. This seminar is also shaped by the belief that God does not change based on my, or anyone’s, prayers. Prayer does not and cannot change His person, His perspective, or His plan. That He urges prayer and answers prayer does not mean He is ignorant (depending on us to provide Him information) or impotent (depending on us to empower Him somehow). We’ll spend the fourth session considering the sovereignty of God and prayer, but when I say prayer changes things, I mean it changes us first and God never.
There’s a vivid scene in Shadowlands, a movie about C.S. Lewis. His wife recovers from her first bout with cancer, and one of Lewis’ colleagues attributes her improvement to his prayers. Lewis, at least in the movie, responded: “That’s not why I pray. I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God, it changes me.”
As much of a contradiction as it may seem to some, I am devoted to prayer as a card-carrying Calvinist, believing that God reveals Himself as distinct from idols not only because He knows, but because He declares the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:8-11; cf. Revelation 21:6, 12). Prayer yanks us into His predetermined plan, it doesn’t yank His plan in our desired direction.
3. A Focus on Spiritual, Not Material Prosperity
Even if you’ve read the The Prayer of Jabez, it’s very unlikely that any of you registered for this seminar in hopes of learning the secret formula (or mantra) to enlarge the borders of your property and build your wealth (apart from those of you Building Wealth Dave’s [Ramsey] Way). Asking God to give us daily bread, to help ends meet, to keep oil in the jar, and to heal the sick are all legitimate requests, even if God doesn’t answer as we’d hoped. But many don’t have because they ask amiss, for their sensual, temporal benefit. They ask for sake of building their own kingdoms, rather than desiring the coming of His kingdom. Those prayers are an abomination.
Risks of a Prayer Seminar
Prayer may be a the ultimate subject for which “we don’t need more instruction, we simply need to do it.” But here are a few reminders.
Talking about prayer, even listening to (great) teaching about prayer, is not prayer.
We should stimulate one another to love and good praying. Jesus taught His disciples to pray. But reading every page in an issue of Runner’s World doesn’t make someone a marathoner. Buying the right shoes doesn’t necessarily lead to taking a step out the door. I’ll be sharing a few fantastic, amazing, rousing, sound-byte quotes on prayer. But reading and repeating truth about prayer is not being devoted to prayer.
Feeling guilty about a lack of prayer is not prayer.
Good Christians bemoan the sin of little-praying. We know in our most fruitful seasons of prayer there are still empty branches. It is much easier to feel bad about it than to confess it and then get down to business. Grief, even humiliation, may lead to humility and a desire to pray, but wishing we were better prayers is not being devoted to prayer.
Trying new systems, and or tweaking old systems of prayer, is not prayer.
I can’t pray without a list. I must have a plan. I am far too easily distractible and my mind too often draws blanks. But, there is a way to spend all our time organizing and prioritizing (or even decorating) our task list that undercuts our getting things done. We’ll talk about some “how-tos,” but the how to is not nearly as important as the prayer itself.
Checking prayer off the list like a legalist, is not prayer.
Yay for prayer lists. Yay for being daily disciplined. Muslims are disciplined in prayer, and they do it more religiously than we do. Pharisees prayed; they never missed an appointed time. They prayed in name, but not in power. God hated their praying. It was a stench in His nostrils. This seminar will not only be a waste, but it will make your judgment weightier if it makes you proud about your prayers or causes you to think you earn grace (or salvation) by your prayers. Being devoted to ritual and formality is not the same as being devoted to prayer.
Prerequisites for Effective Prayer
Prayer is one of those activities where no experience is necessary, but there are conditions that must be met. By “effective” I don’t mean to say effective in that we’re guaranteed to get what we think we want, but that we’ll see God work effectively.
Love of sin in a man’s heart keeps his prayers from God’s ears.
If I had cherished iniquity in my heart,
the Lord would not have listened. (Psalm 66:18)
Why would we think it appropriate to ask the holy God for help if unholiness is our pursuit? It isn’t that prayer is only for perfect people, since none of us would qualify. But God does not hear hypocrites.
That also means God does not hear the prayers of unbelievers, unless it is a prayer of repentance. He doesn’t bless those who crave exactly what He condemns. He hears in the sense that He knows, but He does not hear in the sense that He is attentive.
Sin not only keeps us from studying the Bible, it also keeps us from praying. Confession/repentance is an appropriate and necessary starting point.
Proud people do not pray. Self-dependent people don’t pray. What good would it do them? They (think they) have everything they need already. God resists the proud.
“God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. (1 Peter 5:5b-7)
God doesn’t help those who help themselves; God helps the helpless. Humbly casting all our anxieties on Him in prayer makes way for Him to get all the glory. Humility also keeps us from presuming that we know better than He does and makes us more ready to submit to His will.
Prayers should not be offered in doubt.
If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. (James 1:5-8)
Recognizing our need is good, but let our requests be made in faith. The suspicious offer poor supplications, if any at all, because to they figure God doesn’t care or can’t do anything about it anyway. On the other hand, hearts full of faith result in lips overflowing with prayers. Belief is the enemy of doubt and pragmatism. We trust more in the One who works than “what works.”
This is not a self-produced righteousness, but a believing righteousness.
If one turns away his ear from hearing the law,
even his prayer is an abomination. (Proverbs 28:9) The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the LORD,
but the prayer of the upright is acceptable (a delight) to him. (Proverbs 15:8)
One type of praying, the law-listening and upright type, is acceptable. The other type, law-ignoring and unrighteous praying, is abominable.
The LORD is far from the wicked,
but he hears the prayer of the righteous. (Proverbs 15:29)
One is effective, the other is mere formality.
Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. (James 5:16)
There aren’t any hermeneutics of prayer. We don’t need full or total knowledge, but we do need:
Understanding of God’s Will
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven. (Matthew 6:10) And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him. (1 John 5:14-15)
Praying in confidence according to His will does not come from throwing darts at a board of possibilities, but from reading what He wants in Scripture.
Understanding of one’s wife
In chapter three Peter begins with some instructions for married people, for the wives and for the husbands, in the context of submission (to government 2:13-17, to masters 18-25). Then he devotes the first six verses to the women and just one to the men (perhaps that has something to do with our short attention span), nevertheless his instruction to the husbands is short and sweet.
Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered. (1 Peter 3:7)
This is amazing to me. Peter gives instruction to both the women and the men: women are to be submissive to their own husbands and men are to be thoughtful, appreciative, and considerate to their wives.
Notice that both responsibilities have a purpose. Look at verse 1, so that (the unbelieving husbands) may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives. That is powerful submission; God can use a woman’s submission to save her husband. So wouldn’t we expect something similar as a purpose for the man’s right treatment of his wife? Something like, “live with your wives in an understanding way so that she may be won by your considerate conduct”? But instead we see so that your prayers may not be hindered.
Peter implies that disrupted prayer is a tragedy, on a similar level with the tragedy of an unbelieving life. On the other hand, unhindered prayer is (at least loosely) compared to salvation! Wow! Don’t let anything hinder your prayers–even the closest earthly relationship you have.
Not in a mystical or esoteric way, but in the sense of being in the Spirit.
praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints (Ephesians 6:18) Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Romans 8:26-27)
For each session today I’m planning on finishing with at least two take-aways.
I’ve tried to think of at least one element for every hour that each person can walk away with, no matter what category of ability or current commitment level you have. During our Bible study seminar we divided it in terms of Milk and Meat. For this seminar we’ll consider prayer Grunts and Warriors.
A grunt is a low-ranking or unskilled soldier. The word itself may sound like what we think our prayers sound like. A warrior is a brave or experienced solider or fighter.
If you’re not devoted to prayer:
- Examine salvation.
- Examine and confess sin.
- Pray for God’s help to take steps in prayer.
If you’re not devoted to prayer as you’d like:
- Examine humility.
- Examine Spirit-filled-ness.
- Pray for God’s help to take a step up in prayer.