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Luke 18: The Wrong Way to Pray
Good morning, church. Please go with me to the book of Luke, chapter 18. If you don’t have a Bible with you this morning, just raise your hand and we will bring one to you, which you are welcome to keep so long as you intend to use it.
We’ve been in a series for about two weeks now asking the Lord to teach us to pray. I started by admitting my own struggles with prayer—intellectual struggles, understanding what exactly we are doing by praying to a God who already knows everything we need and will say, and even deeper emotional struggles where I often feel unheard, unhelped, and directionless.
But Jesus assures his disciples, over and over again: when we pray, God hears us. Every time we come to him, even in the middle of the night, even if the need is small and unimportant, like a good father responding to an upset child, every time we come to him, he opens his door to us, every time we knock. Every time we look for him we find him, because he wants to be found.
And Micah preached for us last week on choosing the best thing, spending time with the Lord. Thanks to him, and thanks to you all. My trip to go see my dad was so good. Speaking of spending time with our fathers, that trip was time very well spent, and I know it was time I borrowed from you all, so thank you.
This morning, we are going to read a parable that for years I hated, because I wasn’t reading it in its context. So you have an opportunity this morning to learn from my mistakes, we’re going to read a larger section of the text along with the parable. It’s probably labeled in your Bible as the parable of the persistent widow. Luke, chapter 18, starting in v.1. [Luke 18:1-27] This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God.
Basically, the topic of the sermon this morning is getting prayer wrong. How not to pray. prayer is like asking questions—people tell you there are no stupid questions. Teachers like to say there are no stupid questions, because asking questions is healthy, and they want to encourage curiosity—but we all know they’re lying. There are stupid questions. Have you ever been to a city council meeting? Open mics are a terrible thing. There’s always at least one guy who rants for like five minutes and then forgets to actually ask a question. Or, they end the rant with, what do you think about that? There are stupid questions, and you can get prayer wrong.
I had one friend in high school who told me she read Thessalonians, where Paul says to pray without ceasing, so she would start her day every day with a prayer, but she wouldn’t say amen, so the prayer would just last throughout the day. Praying without ceasing accomplished. But I don’t think that’s what Paul means.
I have other friends who refuse to pray out loud, because they don’t want to pray the wrong way, and that I understand. I’ve known many others who stopped praying, either because they were mad at God, or they just didn’t have any words. Usually after some kind of grief, or loss of faith, and they felt like if they didn’t have any faith in their prayer it wouldn’t work, wouldn’t be efficacious.
I have spent large portions of my life anxious about prayer, feeling like if I get it wrong, I’m going to let down all of the people around me, or if I pray the wrong way in front of them they will think less of me. So, I want to ask this question: what is the effect of prayer? What does prayer do? And if there is a right and a wrong way to pray, how do we avoid pitfalls and pray in ways which please the Lord?
So we’ll start with the question, what is the effect of prayer? And I admitted to you last week, this is something with which I’ve always struggled intellectually, understanding the purpose of bringing my needs and desires to a God who already knows what I need. Did I need to ask? What did my asking really do?
In free churches, meaning those without a hierarchical structure—Baptist, pentecostal, ev. free, this is the tradition we are in. In free churches, there is lot of emphasis on praying with faith. If you pray with even a little faith, Jesus says, you can move mountains, and he says again, if you pray in faith you will receive whatever you ask. Praying with faith and being righteous, from James’ instruction that the prayer of a righteous man is powerful as it is working.
Our emphasis on praying with faith is good, and important, but we misunderstand what it means to have faith. Faith is not like money, where you acquire faith by working for the Lord, and then you can spend your faith on cars, or miracles, or luck. Faith is not a transaction. Faith is praying with an expectation that God hears you, and that God can do anything, and that he is good. I would encourage you to believe God hears you every time you pray to him. Almost every time Jesus prays, he addresses God as Father. We talked about this last week—he’s trying to teach us, yes, God is all powerful to create and move mountains, but also yes, he will listen to you, why? He’s not just God, he’s also your father. He wants to hear your ever concern, and he wants to help you.
I want to state this very clearly. The effect of prayer is that the Lord hears you, not that you are able to effect the world around you. You should believe that the mountains might move, not because you are able to move them with your faith, but because God is able to do whatever he wills, and when you speak to him, he really hears you. Going back to the analogy Jesus gives us of God being our father, think about it this way. When I was a child, my father was the provost at a Christian college in Memphis. At his college, he had a lot of power.
I’ve told this story before, but I remember one time trying to go see him at his office and being stopped when I first walked into the building by an administrative worker who asked me what I was doing and why I was there—I was in high school, I’m sure I looked like a student. I think now of the disciples stopping the children from bothering Jesus as he was teaching. I told her I was going to see Dr. Brian. She told me his afternoon was full and asked me if I had an appointment, I told her he had asked me to come see him, and then I told her I was his son, and the whole tenor of the conversation changed.
She repeated the words: you’re his son? She got up from her desk and opened all the doors from that room to his office for me. When we got there, gladly she interrupted him in the middle of a meeting and told him “Your son is here to see you!” That’s what Jesus is trying to get us to believe about prayer—prayer is an open door, a welcome interruption of the most powerful being in the universe, and a glad greeting.
But, do you know, with all of the power my dad held growing up at that college, we really didn’t talk about his work very much. We talked every day, but we mostly talked about me, and those conversations shaped me as a person—that was his goal, in those conversations, he raised me. I feel a little self-absorbed saying that, just as a feel a little self-absorbed when I tell you most of my prayers are about me and my small life, but it’s honestly what my father wanted to talk about. It took me years growing up fully to understand what it is he did with his days, but I knew I could tell him what I was doing with mine. In fact, he insisted on it, he would ask how my day went, and what I was working on, and can he help. Now we talk about education’s role in the landscape of church work and Christian societal involvement, but only because I’m now trying to do some things in that space—we’re still just talking about my day.
My point is this: God, our Father, doesn’t need your help upholding the universe with the word of his power, and when it comes to it, we don’t really know how to do his job. If you are constantly praying to change the leadership of the country or the fabric of the universe, you’ll probably be disappointed in a lot of your prayers, just as a two-year old who tries to run the household, demanding whatever comes to his mind to desire is often disappointed in his parents’ responses. I don’t need Noah’s input on what and when to serve dinner—he’s throwing a tantrum about it, but I’m over here meeting his needs in the right time because I know better than he does what he needs and when. And I would have done the same without him asking.
Prayer is more about shaping you than shaping the world around you. It’s more about getting time with the creator God than it is about getting what you want from the world. Faith is important. You should have faith that your father wants to speak with you and that he hears you. Does he do miraculous things? Always, and everywhere. Does he give us what we ask? As often as he can, and with delight. But we are so young, like children, that we often don’t know what it is we are asking, and God’s concerns are elsewhere. Don’t throw a tantrum—he will meet your needs in the right time.
Hopefully understanding a bit more of the purpose of prayer maybe can help us see clearly some wrong ways to pray. Prayer is not magic. It’s not a wedding registry. My kids always ask me for things when we’re at the grocery store. They ask for cars and candy and I tell them no as I put into the cart all of the food that will nourish them for the next week. Then sometimes I buy them candy.
From the widow we learn that prayer is a way of seeking justice, even when every other person on earth might ignore or forget your pain and oppression—God will not. From the Pharisee and the rich young ruler, we ought to learn humility. Pray as though you are in need of God to work in your life, not as though the creator of heaven and earth needs your work that you do on the face of the earth. From the tax collector we learn that God hears and forgives us. From the children we learn he welcomes and loves us. We aren’t just children, we are his children, and a welcome interruption.
I want to shift now, now that we’ve talked about the some wrong and right was to pray, I want to talk about what I will call neutral signs. Things which don’t really effect your prayer one way or another—hopefully by way of relieving anxiety in your prayer and just getting really practical about what it means to come before your father in faith that he will hear you. First, eloquence doesn’t matter. Eloquence doesn’t matter. You can pray beautiful prayers, you can pray straight to the point prayers, it doesn’t matter. In other words, God cares less about your words and more about what I’m going to call your orientation, and I’ll explain what I mean by that in a little bit.
Eloquence doesn’t matter. You don’t win points with God by having well-said prayers. Eloquence doesn’t matter, and the length of the prayer doesn’t matter. I try to encourage people, if you have something to say, just be real, be honest with the Lord, and if you don’t have anything to say, be still and know that the Lord is God. There’s a lot of value in just being silent with your body and heart oriented toward prayer. Jesus says specifically in the sermon on the mount, he’s making fun of pastors, like me, he says some pastors seem to think God will only hear them if they talk for a really long time. Have you been in that small group before? Pastor’s been praying for the past fifteen minutes—that’s a sermon. You can call it prayer, but anything past fifteen minutes is a sermon.
We play these games with each other in churches. If my daily bible study time lasts thirty minutes, Phil’s going to start doing forty-five minutes, because apparently that’s the amount of Bible study time that makes you holy. Or we get together to pray, and if Adam prays for ten minutes, I’m going to pray for at least five, right? Even if I have nothing to say, because apparently we’re doing long prayers at this event. Actually, one of my favorite exercises to break people of this habit, it to ask everyone to pray in single sentences. Set an amount of time, say thirty minutes, and ask people to only speak one sentence at a time, then wait for someone else to speak. Because eloquence doesn’t matter, and the length of your prayer doesn’t matter.
Have you ever noticed, in the Lord’s prayer, in Luke 11, in Matthew 6, when Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray, it’s a little ten-second prayer, and it’s not particularly eloquent. The beauty of it is in the humility and simplicity of the prayer. Father, please provide for me. Father, please forgive me. Father, help me make it through this temptation.
Eloquence doesn’t matter, the length of your prayer doesn’t matter. Another common misconception: your status doesn’t matter to the Lord. In my first ministry job, I was running the set-up and greeting team at a church plant, and one morning this family walks in, I’m standing in the foyer, and I shake their hands, strike up a conversation. We talk about where they are from for a little while, and what brought them to NOLA, I showed them where the coffee was and thanked them for being there.
One of the pastors’ walked over to me a minute or two later, big smile on his face, and he’s telling me, “Wow, dude, that was incredible, you didn’t even blink an eye with him, totally straight face.” I blank-stared back at him, and he goes, “That’s Benjamin Watson.” He said it in a way that I could tell I was supposed to know who that was. If you’re like me, I’ll explain: he’s a football player, a good one.
But my point is, church should be a place where your status doesn’t matter, because compared to the creator of the universe, we are all small and broken. You can see clearly in the passage, the pastor and the politician, they are turned away, but the widow and the children, they are invited deeper in. Your status doesn’t matter. Whether you are an influencer, or homeless, or famous, if you are a child of God’s, he’s going to listen when you pray like you are the only person in the world. Imagine the God of the universe, stopping what he’s doing to bend down to your eye level and hear what it is you have to say.
Eloquence doesn’t matter, the length of your prayer doesn’t matter, your status doesn’t matter to the Lord, and lastly, there is no special formula to get God to hear you, because he’s already paying attention to you. You don’t need to know a special dance or prayer. You don’t win God points if you say Jesus a lot—that’s not what he means by “there is power in his name.” Prayers don’t always start with dear God and and with In Jesus’s name, amen. You don’t have to close your eyes, and you don’t have to bow. You don’t have to memorize specific prayers, and you don’t have to feel a certain way when you pray—that’s a sermon coming, we’ll talk more. There’s value to all of those things, and there are reasons why they have become common, but every time you knock, God’s going to open his door to you.
You can pray while you drive—don’t close your eyes, but you can pray. You can pray in fits and starts on a run, or when you’re working, or in the split second in which you have to make some big decision. You can even pray about things in the past, because to God they are still present. There’s no magic formula.
Again, the reason I’m going through all of these neutral signs, the reason I’m saying all of this is, I want you to stop worrying you’re going to make some small mistake and God’s not going to hear you. He loves you. He is paying attention to you.
What Jesus is teaching in this passage is less about posture, or saying the right words, or praying for a long time—none of that matters, but I said before, God does care about your orientation, and now I want to tell you what I mean. Your orientation has to do with faith, hope, and desire.
Y’all may have heard me talk about this before: the word orientation refers to a church practice in the middle ages, churches would do everything facing the east. They would build cathedrals with the front of the sanctuary toward the east, and when they buried people on the grounds, they would bury them facing east. So when you knelt to pray in church, or when you lifted your voice in song, or when you heard the word of God proclaimed, it was all coming from the east.
Because the Bible, throughout, most powerfully in the book of Isaiah, compares the coming of the kingdom of God to the rising of the sun. Just as surely as the sun will rise in the east, Christ will return to rescue his children. Just as dramatic as darkness breaking into day will the change be as God’s kingdom breaks into our world and renews it. As Lewis writes, “I believe in God as I believe in the Sun, not just because I see him, but because by him I see everything else.”
Churches built everything facing east to teach their people where their hope was to be found, where to look for help, where to place your faith for real change in the world—the coming kingdom. And we are meant to live in the light of that expectation.
Prayer has more to do with your orientation than it has to do with your method. Don’t worry about whether or not I was impressed with what you said, or if you got the posture right, or if you prayed for long enough. Ask yourself, truly and honestly, where do you look for help? Where does your help come from? What are you hoping for? Where, honestly, is your faith?
My invitation to you this morning is to orient yourself toward the coming kingdom of God and to pray believing God hears you. Pray about the things you see him doing in the world. Hope in him, believe in him, find your help in him. Stop worrying about whether or not you’re praying correctly, and just pray. If you don’t have words, be silent. If you don’t have faith, say that. If you you aren’t able to pray with sincerity, and your prayer life as cold and empty, borrow other people’s prayers.
As I did in my first sermon, I want to use the time of response to pray as God is teaching us show to pray this morning, so in response this morning, I hope you will join me in silence this morning for a time, and then I’m going to pray just a few short, sentence prayers to lead us this morning before the throne of God, but God our father, who wants us to interrupt him.