How To Pray

Ask, and it will be given to you. Matthew 7:7

When we depend on organization, we get what organization can do. When we depend on education, we get what education can do. But when we depend on God, we get what God can do. That is why we pray. We want to be involved in what only God can do for us and for our city.

God is at work among us, because Jesus is being lifted up. I sense his presence. I find myself in conversation these days with five very fine young men who are interested in church planting in Nashville. God is stirring hearts. He must have a purpose of grace for this city and far beyond. We are involved. It looks like the beginnings of a new gospel movement in Nashville. It looks like maybe the Lord purposes to make Immanuel the mother church of a new movement of gospel-centered churches for this city.

How should we pray about that? One thing we need is money. We need millions of dollars to plant Acts 29 churches in Nashville over the next ten years. We can’t raise our families without money, and we can’t plant churches without money. But money isn’t the first thing we ask God for. How should we pray? We look at the guarantees Jesus puts on prayer here in Matthew 7:7-11, and we wonder, What kind of praying will God surely answer? We can pray in many ways and not be sure that God will answer. But what kind of prayers have God’s guarantee on them? We’re going to see one of those prayers this morning. This way of praying is filled with God’s blessing, and from this kind of praying flow all the other things we need. I ask you to join me in praying this way as we go into a new year of growth and opportunity here at Immanuel Church. Let’s take it in three steps, as we prepare our hearts for communion. One, what to expect. Two, how to pray. Three, where the courage comes from.

What to expect

Five times in verses 7-11 the Lord uses the word ask. Asking God is not an inferior way of praying. Should we praise God too? Of course. A good paradigm for prayer is ACTS: adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication – that is, asking. ACTS covers the bases of prayer. So asking is not the only way to pray, but never be ashamed to ask God for what you need. In verse 7, Jesus is commanding us to ask. God wants you to ask. He’s your Father. Fathers aren’t offended when their hungry children ask about their needs.

But there are levels of asking too, levels of intensity – asking, seeking, knocking. We come to God our Father with asking, the way children do with their father: “Dad, may I have this? May I go there? Would it be all the same to you if I could do thus and so?” Of course. Children never stop asking and needing. Then there’s seeking too. Seeking is when we’re confused and concerned and we’ve lost our way. So we go to God with our bewilderment and our fears. And then there’s knocking, when we know what we need, and we’re desperate, but the door is closed, God doesn’t seem responsive, so we knock until our knuckles are sore. When do we seek and knock? For example, if your child is turning his life into a disaster, you don’t just sit there. You go to God in heaven and ask and seek and knock. We can’t pray with that intensity all the time. But Jesus knows we’ll need it. So he encourages us to treat God as our wonderful Father who has everything we need at all levels. Our part is to ask, to seek, to knock.

But the main thing I want you to see here is the guarantee Jesus puts on our prayers: “It will be given to you, you will find, it will be opened to you. Everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.” The Lord’s guarantee is so absolute, we wonder about it. We may not admit it but we think, “Some of my prayers haven’t been answered.” We’re tempted to write our own fine print in here: “This works sometimes, but not all the time.” But that is the Lord’s whole point. “Ask, and it will be given to you.” He doesn’t qualify it. He understands that prayer becomes perfunctory and unreal, unless we can expect God to answer. To pray without expectancy is like shooting an arrow and not looking to see if you hit the target. You can see here that Jesus doesn’t want us just to pray; he wants us to pray and then look for God’s answer.

Is it possible to ask, seek and knock with positive assurance that God will answer our prayers? Yes. There are prayers God loves to answer. For example, “Your kingdom come, your will be done.” Jesus himself taught us to pray that way back in chapter 6 of Matthew’s gospel. He wants us to be personally involved in the great work of redemption God is accomplishing in our time, and we get involved primarily by praying. God will use us, when we pray for his will and his kingdom and his glory. But here in chapter 7 there is another way to pray that God will surely answer, because it is so gospel-humbled. It’s implied in verses 3-5, and it helps us get ready for communion today.

How to pray

Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. —Matthew 7:3-5

What is Jesus talking about? A critical spirit. A judgmental heart. A self-righteous outlook. And every one of us has it. We have a remarkable capacity for noticing what’s wrong with everyone else but not noticing what’s wrong with ourselves. That’s the key, in verse 3: “But you do not notice.” Jesus is not telling us not to notice other people’s problems. He is telling us to notice our own problems first. But we don’t notice. We don’t see ourselves. We appoint ourselves the critic of everyone else. We evaluate. We scrutinize. We keep score. When you drive home from a party, what do you think about and talk about? This censorious spirit troubles families, it troubles churches. Why? Because the log is there. It’s not as though other people don’t have specks in their eyes. But there’s a log in every one of our eyes. And it only makes things worse.

But here’s what I want you to see. God promises a cure, if we will ask, seek and knock for that cure. God wants to see us desperate about ourselves. Here’s how he wants us to pray, because he wants to answer. So here’s how to pray: “Father, help me see myself. Help me face myself. And help me to change.” God will answer that prayer. The answer will be humility and a new sense of reality with God and growth in grace and peace of conscience and joyous freedom at heart and tenderness toward others, just for starters. God answers prayer. It was the crooked tax collector who prayed, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner,” and he went home clear with God. It was Peter, when he was drowning, who prayed, “Lord, save me,” and the Lord lifted him up. It was Bartimaeus, the blind beggar, who prayed, “Jesus, have mercy on me,” and then he shouted it louder, and the Lord healed him. God promises a breakthrough, when we pray with urgency that he will save us from our sin – not someone else’s sin, our own sin. God loves that honesty. When we pray that way, we get answers. And those are the answers we need the most. All the other blessings we desire flow from getting real with God. He promises, “I will pour water on the thirsty land” (Isaiah 44:3). Nashville needs more Christians and more churches that are thirsty.

I’ve been praying that way this week, and I want to tell you, God answers this prayer. It’s scary and wonderful. What a blessing just to have reality with God. He has been showing me – I’ll say it only at a principial level – that my sin is not only the bad actions I choose; my sin is also the bad desires and feelings inside I don’t choose. Original sin. And I’m forgiven even at that deep level!

When we drive across our country, we come to the Continental Divide. It runs down through Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico. On one side, all the water flows east. On the other, it all flows west. Little streams in the Rockies flow together to form the Colorado River to the west, a river big enough to cut out the Grand Canyon. I believe that this way of praying is the Continental Divide of everyone’s spiritual journey. When you cross this divide and move from being bothered about other people’s sins to being bothered about your own sins and you ask, seek and knock about it, the whole flow of your life changes, the whole flow of your family changes, the whole flow of a church changes. It can grow big enough for the whole city to notice. So the first prayer we must always pray is, “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner. Deal with me as I really am.” If that’s what we ask him for, he will give it. You can be a flow of love into other people’s lives. That can be your beautiful future. It all changes when your heart does business with God about yourself.
Can a single one of us here today say, “No, I don’t need that”? There is so much joy in stepping across that Continental Divide. How do we find the courage to go there and stay there? Here’s how.

Where the courage comes from

The Bible says, “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). The throne of Christ is a throne of grace. The Bible says, “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). He is the sympathetic Friend of sinners. So, as he shows us our sins, we can know this – every sin revealed is also forgiven. The church in Corinth was a church of sinners. And Paul said to them, “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11). The apostle also said to them, “You are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord’” (1 Corinthians 1:30). You are forgiven in Christ. He has made your place in his heart so secure, you can admit anything, and you can be set free. Will you pray right now, “Lord, help me see myself. I want to grow in 2010. Lead me into new blessing, I ask, seek and knock”?