UNDERSTANDING THE PRIMARY PURPOSE OF PRAYER

A typical Christian...asleep in the Light.

Christians are on a quest! Like never before, it seems Christians are looking for two things that seem to elude them: peace and an understanding of prayer that makes sense. It may not seem like it, but these two things are related. With the turmoil we face everyday in our country—the recession, crime, inflation—and the turmoil we face everyday in our own lives—health problems, relationship issues—no wonder there is a shortage of peace! Being good Christians, most of us stay away from tranquilizers and illicit drugs, but we spend a fortune of religious self-help books and CD’s and seminars and retreats. And, here’s where the relationship to prayer comes into play, we are admonished to “pray for peace” by evangelists and Bible teachers. Often, though, sometimes that kind of advice ends up doing more harm than good because:

  • Practising the latest “positive confession/thinking” technique may work in the short term, but when it fails in the long term and the peace vaporizes, we get discouraged and feel worse than ever. When that prayer prayed in faith fails to change a dire circumstance, our faith is challenged.

  • Sin is the biggest problem we’ll ever confront, and no amount of “positive thinking” will change that.

  • True peace; lasting peace cannot be manufactured because it is found in God, not in a book or pamphlet.

  • Sometimes we are seeking relief from something that God has either sent or allowed to occur in our lives. The “thing” that may seem so awful to us may be the very thing God wants to use to change us; to teach us a lesson.

Peace and prayer: two things that are terribly misunderstood by Christians. And yet, they shouldn’t be because our Operating Manual for Life, the Bible, tells us everything we need to know about these two subjects. If you really want to know how to obtain peace in your life that won’t leave you wanting more and if you want to pray prayers that don’t leave you frustrated, then self-help books, seminars, and pills won’t help you. The Bible will!

Arguably, Paul’s letter to the Philippians is the most encouraging piece of the Bible. Paul didn’t write this letter to correct wrong teaching in the church at Philippi, yet this little letter is jam-packed with doctrinal teaching. But what makes Philippians so special is that it is practical; it is not full of hoity-toity ten dollar theological ideas.

1. Nothing and everything. Philippians 4:6

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.

Here is wonderful contrast between two words: nothing and everything. Dr. McGee paraphrases this verse like this: Worry about nothing; pray about everything. This is not Paul’s suggestion; it’s a command. It is absolutely wrong and it is sinful for a Christian to be eaten up with worry. Most of us don’t think of worry as a sin, but it is. There is such a thing as loving concern. We have to take a genuine interest in the well-being of others and ourselves, but we are not allowed to cross the line into worry. At that point, we’re sinning even though it may feel like we’re behaving properly. There is never an appropriate time to worry; be concerned absolutely, but not worry.

As far as we are able to do so, we should be responsible people and plan for the future. Paul gave this very practical piece of guidance to Timothy:

If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. (1 Timothy 5:8)

And yet at the same time we are not to be anxious (not to worry) about anything:

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? (Matthew 6:25)

This isn’t a contradiction; it’s common sense. In the natural we are to do what we can to mitigate adverse circumstances in our lives and in other people’s lives. We should never live recklessly but responsibly. However, any “control” we think we have over the circumstances in our lives is an illusion. More often than not the unexpected pops up and throws a monkey wrench into our plans, taking the wind our of our sails. Then what do we do? What we do not have the luxury to do is to worry. One scholar quipped:

Care and prayer are more opposed than fire and water.

Paul’s statement to “not be anxious about anything” is pretty exclusive. In other words, there is NOTHING we should worry about. It’s exclusive—there are NO exceptions. Christians should worry about NOTHING; not their health, not their children, not their church. Nothing means nothing. Why are we to worry about nothing? Is it because we’re like ostriches who bury their heads in the sand? No; we are to worry about nothing because we are “pray about everything.” That’s inclusive—there are NO exceptions. Christians should pray about EVERYTHING. We are commanded to talk to God about every single aspect of our lives.

The apostle Paul wasn’t the only one teaching this. Peter said much the same thing:

Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. (1 Peter 5:6, 7)

This is guaranteed to help you sleep at night! There is no way this cannot work because when you tell God all that is troubling you, your problems cease to be your problems; they become His. It is our privilege—it is our right—as children of God to expect our Heavenly Father to take upon Himself all that we cannot handle.

God is our Father; He has “the father’s instinct” to care for and support His children. Yes, God does discipline us for our good, but He has that instinct to do what any father would do for his children: go to the mat for them. There is no father (in his right mind) who would do anything to harm his children. So why would we second-guess our Heavenly Father? Why do we get angry or frustrated with God when He answers “No” to our prayer? Do we think we know what’s better for us than God?

Here’s how God dealt with somebody in Scripture who thought like that:

Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. (Job 38:2, 3)

Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him? Let him who accuses God answer him! (Job 40:2)

Of all the things you want God to say to you, it’s not that! God always answers your prayers the right way; the right way is always the right thing for us.

2. Indescribable peace, Philippians 4:7

And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Verse 7 is the result of verse 6 put into practice. If you pray about everything, worry about nothing, and maintain a thankful attitude come what may, God will give you His peace. Thanksgiving and peace actually go hand-in-hand:

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. (Colossians 3:15)

Your prayers may not be answered the way you want them to be answered, but God will fill your heart with peace, which is the seat of your will. Paul said that His peace will “guard our hearts.” This is a military metaphor; God’s peace will stand guard over your heart. This is a “protective peace” that is beyond understanding. If you could understand it, it wouldn’t have come from God. This is the peace that flows into your life right in the midst of a terrible time. This special peace is what gives you confidence that no matter how bad things may appear, things will work for your good and God’s glory.

God’s peace, the silent Sentinel that keeps a watch on our hearts and our minds, enables us to face life head on with confidence, optimism, and good cheer. The Philippians of Paul’s day were used to looking out their windows and seeing the Roman sentinels surrounding their city. It gave them a sense of security. How much more should Christians feel a sense of security knowing that the Spirit of God is guarding their hearts and minds?

But the secret of acquiring this peace lies in between verses 6 and 7. In verse 6 we have worry and in verse 7 we have peace, but in between those two verses is prayer. You can’t have God’s peace apart from prayer. The circumstances of your life may never change, but if you pray you WILL have peace regardless because you have changed. Or perhaps it might be more accurate to say that something in you has changed: you know that a garrison from Heaven is posted around your heart and that God is in control of your life.

The only way Christians will ever have any peace is to wrap there minds around the primary purpose of prayer: to change us. The problem is we want to make the primary purpose of prayer to be changing things. We want prayer to be a sort of debit card that we slide into Heaven’s ATM to withdraw the answers we want so all our cares, or our loved one’s cares, will vanish. But that is NOT prayer. Real prayer is handing our cares over to God and letting Him take over. And it is only when we let go of those cares that He can get to work—maybe not on the problem on the outside, but certainly on our hearts and minds. Sometimes God moves heaven and earth and changes the circumstances of our lives, and sometimes He is more concerned about changing our hearts.

Most Christians have barely scratched the surface of prayer. They are content with the idea that prayer is “talking to God.” They may “talk to God,” but they have never really entered into the inner sanctum of prayer, where God is waiting to meet them.

(c) 2012

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