Prayer [Part 1]

Be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus. —2 Timothy 2:1

In 2001, at First Presbyterian Church in Augusta, Dr. John Piper preached on prayer. One sentence of his has never left me: “You cannot know what prayer is for, until you know that life is war.” As we begin a new year, we are going into the Bible for several weeks, to find out how to be a church marked by prayer. But before we consider what prayer is, we need motivation that prayer matters. As we begin, I am not assuming that we all feel intensely in our hearts that prayer matters.

Why might we take a casual view of prayer, such that prayer ends up an infrequent, one- or two-sentence, emotionless duty? One reason could be not knowing there’s a war on. In peacetime, our priorities line up one way. In wartime, our priorities line up another way. Dr. Piper explains the difference: “We have taken a wartime walkie-talkie [prayer] and tried to turn it into a civilian intercom to call the servants for another cushion in the den.” We cannot be passionate about prayer, if it’s self-focused. But we will pray passionately, when we see that our King has sent us on a mission of liberation into our world today, that mission is glorious and worthy but not easy, we are in ourselves powerless to fulfill it.

Life is war. Life is striving for something and against its opposites. And for us, to live is Christ. So Paul says here, “Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:3). Immanuel does not exist to make your life more comfortable. Immanuel exists to help you become more deployable. We are here to fight for Christ, and to win, and to enjoy winning. I love the passage in The Lord of the Rings when the army of Rohan goes into battle against the orcs of Mordor:

For morning came, morning and a wind from the sea; and darkness was removed, and the hosts of Mordor wailed, and terror took them, and they fled, and died, and the hoofs of wrath rode over them. And then all the host of Rohan burst into song, and they sang as they slew, for the joy of battle was on them, and the sound of their singing was fair and terrible.

Some of us might have difficulty with that. But our warfare as a church is not political. We are not fighting the culture war. Our struggle is against the oppression that many people don’t even feel until they wake up in hell. We are not fighting against people. We are fighting against the God-dishonoring and self-injuring things that people are living for. The real battle of our times – and let’s make sure we are on the right side – the real battle of our times is not between us and anybody else but between Christ and religion. That battle is subtle but real. We feel it in the form of silent pressure to keep quiet about Jesus or, even if we do use Jesus-talk, just to fit him into the convenient margins of the status quo. But he must never become the commanding presence at the center of our lives. That is the pressure against us and against him. We must rebel, and rebel happily.

But we are weak. We are not always loyal. 2 Timothy 2 awakens us to what is at stake in our lives and offers us an endless source of strength and makes prayer an urgent priority. 2 Timothy 2 is realistic. It says that life is not easy, ministry is not easy, church is not easy. In this world, spreading the gospel is hard. Look at the wording here: “suffering” in verse 3, “hard-working” in verse 6, “suffering” in verse 9, “endure” in verse 10, “worker” in verse 15, “work” in verse 21, “opponents” in verse 25. That’s why Paul starts out in verse 1 by saying, “Be strengthened.” We need strength from far beyond ourselves. And we have it – in the grace of Christ Jesus.

Paul has just said at the end of chapter 1 that most of the Christians deserted him when he was put in prison (2 Timothy 1:15). They saw the implications for themselves, and that was not the Christianity they bargained for. But a beautiful exception was a brave man named Onesiphorus and his whole family. They stuck up for Paul, and he tells Timothy about that also at the end of chapter 1. Now, in chapter 2, Paul is saying to Timothy, “You too need courage. This is not going to be easy. And here is where you can find endless strength: the grace that is in Christ Jesus.”

As we begin our new year together as a church, we can expect two things. One, we can expect the blessing of God. The Bible says, “The eyes of the Lord move to and fro throughout the earth that he may strongly support those whose heart is completely his” (2 Chronicles 16:9). The secret to the blessing of God here at Immanuel is not that we are geniuses but that our hearts are completely his. He loves to bless any church where the people are surrendered to the Lord Jesus Christ. We are, and we always want to be. The second thing we can expect in 2011 is not only the blessing of God but also hardship. Let’s not be surprised. Spreading the gospel is hard. And it’s okay for us to be weak. But it’s not okay for us not to be empowered in our weakness. So let’s go now into 2 Timothy 2, and find out why prayer is so urgently meaningful.

You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, —2 Timothy 2:1

My dad preached on this verse at my ordination in 1975. He showed me something I’ve never forgotten. There is more than one kind of strength. And the strength we all need, the strength that helps us and puts heart back into us, is the strength that comes from the grace that is in Christ Jesus. It’s the strength that comes from being forgiven of all our sins, the strength that comes from being cherished by the all-holy God above. We don’t need the strength and resolve and willpower of the law – like making a New Year’s resolution, because we want to stop feeling so guilty about something. That strength comes from our own negative energy. That strength is flimsy, because it comes from inside us. There is another kind of strength: “Be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus.”

His grace is powerful. His grace makes an impact. His grace changes us. Here at Immanuel we love to say, “You are accepted through the finished work of Christ on the cross, received with the empty hands of faith.” That is the gospel. But that message of acceptance comes with power. That message makes weak people strong. It makes indecisive people unstoppable. It makes selfish people generous. Grace is a power, an energy, for newness of life. Grace is Jesus himself saying to you, “I chose you, I died for you, I forgive you, I delight in you, I am with you, I will provide for you, I will defend you, I will never leave you nor forsake you, I am preparing a place for you,” and so much more. Paul understood the power of that. Here’s what it did to him: “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than [the other apostles], though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10). Grace motivates work. Grace generates courage. But if you receive grace as an excuse to hide behind, you don’t get it yet. “Be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus.”

It’s not as though we are facing two options: grace, with its acceptance, making us drowsily inactive; and law, with its threats, making us nervously compulsive. The gospel is a third way: grace, with its acceptance, making us ruggedly, happily active for Christ, in Christ.

If you are not experiencing the power of grace – in a moment we’ll come to verse 7: “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.” We all need to ask the Lord for clearer understanding. We all can make 2011 the year when we very personally and individually ask the Lord to reveal to us what it is inside that may be clogging and hindering the greater impact of his grace. If there is a barrier inside you that you can’t see, you can ask the Lord to help you see it and by the power of his grace break that barrier down and get free, so that you can spread the gospel. Timothy needed that. That’s why Paul is writing this. Timothy was not like Paul. The apostle was a mighty man. Timothy was timid and fearful. And the great apostle is about to die and hand the baton of church leadership over to a weak man. Paul is saying to him, “Bro, it is time to man up! Not in your own strength, but in the grace of Christ.”

So here is what we are learning. We all need strength to live on mission. And the living Christ gives his power to weak people as we pay more attention to his grace than we do to our own failings. Change the subject in your mind from yourself to Christ. Quit obsessing about your weakness, fasten your heart on his grace, and you will grow strong.

Here is what Christ gives his power for. He doesn’t pour out the power of the Holy Spirit for our own religious joyride. He strengthens us, so that we can spread the gospel strongly:

and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. —2 Timothy 2:2

Paul and Timothy probably had conversations in which Paul told him about personal experiences he had had with the Lord and maybe his personal hunches about profound questions the Bible does not fully explain. But private experiences and personal hunches are not the mission. The mission is to spread the gospel, the public message of the apostles, that everyone heard Paul teach. And that is not easy. It is labor-intensive, one person at a time.

We see four generations in this outflow of the gospel. First, Paul himself embraced the truth of Christ. Secondly, he entrusted the message to Timothy. Thirdly, Timothy was to find faithful people, and entrust the message to them as something sacred and worthy of their all. The word “entrust” suggests the precious value of the gospel. I am not saying to the younger men of this church, “Here’s the gospel. Take it or leave it.” I am saying, “Here’s the gospel. Live for it. Die for it.” Fourthly, those faithful people were to teach others also, who can keep pressing the cause still further. Where are you in that missional flow from one generation to the next? Who is going to be more gospel-aware, more gospel-interested, more gospel-convinced and more gospel-strengthened by the end of 2011 because of you? Are you living on mission?

The key word in verse 2 is “faithful,” that is, reliable, trustworthy, dependable. You can count on these people. They don’t bend with the winds of their moods or the convenience of their circumstances. And that is a rare quality. The Bible says, “Many a man will proclaim his own steadfast love, but a faithful man who can find?” (Proverbs 20:6). In other words, some people will make big promises. But where are the faithful ones who follow through? Give your life to them! They are the future of the cause of Christ.

But don’t expect it to be easy. In verses 3-6, Paul tells us the price we must pay to be involved in what the Lord is doing in the world today:

Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him. An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops. —2 Timothy 2:3-6

Here are three qualities of a grace-empowered Christian. One, like a soldier, a grace-empowered Christian is gung-ho, all-out, willing to suffer for the advance of the gospel. Why suffer? Because the gospel provokes opposition. We must be willing to be misunderstood and misjudged and cold-shouldered and left out and spoken against. Jesus was. And it was his sufferings that broke the power of the status quo. Okay, now it’s our turn. And it’s a privilege to be a good soldier of Christ Jesus. I saw a movie about World War II. Two GIs were at a farm in northern France soon after D-Day. They were leaning against a stone wall, all worn out. One says to the other, “I’m gonna die. I just know I’m gonna die.” And his buddy says, “Why not? You somebody special?” Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus.

Not only must a soldier be willing to suffer. He must also be focused on the mission: “No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits.” The Bible is not saying that Christians can’t get involved in non-religious things. It is saying that Christians ask questions about their involvements that non-Christians don’t, because Christians know there’s a war on. But sometimes Christians are neutralized in their influence simply because they have crammed their lives full of nice, inconsequential activities that leave no room for the mission. They aren’t against Christ. But they aren’t available to Christ. They’re just too busy. They are “entangled.” They are not living to please the Savior who enlisted them because they never saw their conversion to Christ as military enlistment. They never perceived Jesus as a recruitment officer. They thought he was offering them a nicer peacetime lifestyle. And those Christians need to go all the way back and reconsider their very conversion. The first quality of a grace-empowered Christian is willingness to suffer and total availability to Christ. And that is not easy. That means we need to pray, to get deeper inside the power of the grace of Christ and win the battle that must be fought in our time.

The second quality of a grace-empowered Christian is personal discipline: “An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.” A runner in the mile doesn’t run three laps and then cut across the track and cross the finish line in first place – not if he expects the gold medal. He accepts the disciplines of the sport. It is not legalism to be disciplined. Legalism is thinking we can get God to like us more, if we are disciplined. Legalism is about meritorious discipline, “Maybe God will pay attention to me now”-kind-of-discipline. But grace is a sport. We discipline ourselves not to get God to love us but because he loves us and wants to use us. Grace gets us striving for our very best efforts! It is amazing how Christians at home can arrange their world with excellence and high standards, but at church, where Jesus is publicly represented, it’s a sloppy “Whatever!” The second quality of a grace-empowered Christian is discipline. And that is not easy. We need to pray for the discipline to compete with excellence.

The third quality of a grace-empowered Christian is, unlike the soldier and unlike the athlete, quite non-spectacular and non-dramatic and humbling: “It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops.” Where would we be without farmers? But who wants to be one? That is hard work! Crops don’t just happen. The farmer gets out there with his plow and digs one furrow, then he turns around and digs another, and then he turns around and digs another, all day long, day after day, throughout the season until the harvest is brought in. That’s how the gospel goes forward – hard work!

By the way, the man who compared gospel work with farming was a Calvinist. Paul believed in the sovereignty of God. He believed God will do whatever God wants to do. But that belief did not make Paul passive and lazy. He understood that the sovereign God who purposes the outcomes also purposes the means to the outcomes. And the sovereign God has purposed that we be involved in those means, including hard work. And if we’re not involved in the means, we have no right to look for God to be involved in the outcomes. The outcomes won’t happen – not for us. Here is how Spurgeon put it: “Without him, we can’t. Without us, he won’t.” The next generation getting the gospel clearly and loving Christ passionately and deploying their lives sacrificially for the generation yet to come – God will not do that for us. But he will use us, if we will work hard. Who is willing? Rugged effort is not one of the outstanding marks of our time. But it is very Christian. It is not easy. It’s not meant to be easy. David said, “I will not offer to the Lord my God what cost me nothing” (2 Samuel 24:24). His grace deserves our all. We need to pray for greater capacities to work hard.

This is Christianity. It might be different from what we thought. We might wonder, “Man alive, how can I live that way? I don’t even know how to live that way.” So Paul ends with a wonderful encouragement:

Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything. —2 Timothy 2:7

I love that. Paul doesn’t say, “Here is a list of rules.” He says, “Think about it. Pray about it. If you will, the Lord will give you clarity and courage all along the way.” I like the fact that Paul doesn’t say “Only think about it,” as if we could figure this out on our own. Nor does Paul say, “You don’t need to struggle with this. You don’t need to ask yourself the hard questions and figure out some answers. You can wait every morning until golden tablets float down from heaven with your to-do list for that day.” It isn’t an either/or, it’s a both/and – both our honest thinking and God’s wonderful illumination. The only way we can’t know and break through to greater power in 2011 is if we don’t think about or pray about it. If we don’t know how to make a real difference with our lives, because we don’t want to know, the Lord will pass us by. He’ll go find a church that does want to be involved. But if we are willing to seek the Lord, our incomprehension is no problem to him. He will show us the way.

Life is war. It is not easy. But that’s what prayer is for. More next week.