Prayer That Is Not Over Matched by Every Buzzing Fly


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John Newton, who wrote Amazing Grace, said this about prayer in a letter to a friend:

Our ability to pray is so weak that, if we are sitting in a room trying to pray, we are over matched by the buzzing of a fly.

Tim Keller says that prayer is hard for us for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that we have “distance” from God is the due to the fact that we live in a physical world, while God does not. We are absorbed by the physicality of the world in such a way that is hard for us to contact to a non-physical God. What, then, is prayer that we can engage in it, engage God and overcome the obstacles that get in the way?

We don’t just struggle with physical distractions; we struggle with things like feelings of shame or unworthiness. Sometimes we struggle with disappointment and unmet expectation. We often simply grow cold in our affection toward God, and sometimes we simply don’t want to be beholden to God. “Our hearts sometimes don’t want to be in a relationship with One who can tell us how to live our lives.”

Keller alludes to the story told by St. Augustine about stealing pears from an orchard. He realized he didn’t even really like pears and that the only reason he did it was because he was told he couldn’t have them. The heart is like that.

The only remedy for the condition of our hearts is God. We have to go continually to God. Prayer is being real with God, admitting our frailties, exposing our sinful hearts to Him, and casting ourselves on His mercy and Grace. If we confess our sins, He is faithful to forgive us.[1] We need this continual forgiveness, and renewal, from God. We need to be honest with Him and intimate. He already knows our hearts.

Keller reminds us that prayer is conversational. Prayer is having a conversation with God. Prayer is responsive to God, responsive to what we know about God.

We often conflate prayer with asking for things from God, as if God is a great vending machine in the sky. This is not a good concept of what real prayer is like.

The prayer Jesus taught us to pray[2] does include requests, but most of the requests do not focus on the things we typically want. This prayer Jesus taught doesn’t include the types of things we often hear people pray about. “Give us this day our daily bread” isn’t the same as praying for wealth, or a career or even a job. It is simply asking for what I need when I need it.

“Forgive us our sins” isn’t the same as asking to be let off easy from the consequences of the bad decisions we have made in our lives. This request is eternity focused and relational – focusing on our relationship with God – not focusing on the consequences in the here and now.

And the prayer includes a reminder that we are forgiven “as we forgive those who sin against us”. In our prayer, we are reminded of the things God has said to us, the things we need to remember.

The end of the prayer includes a final request: “Lead us not into temptation”. The focus, again, is on the eternal, and not anything having to do with the temporal other than a desire to be holy now as God is holy, for which we need his help even to do that.  This is what God wants for us, and we need His help to realize it.

But the most important thing Jesus says about prayer isn’t part of the prayer, itself, which Jesus taught us. It is in the afterword in which Jesus encourages us to ask, seek and knock.[3]

This may sound, on the surface, like the kind of thing we tend to think about when people talk about prayer. We think of asking God for things for ourselves: Jesus uses the examples of children asking parents for a fish or an egg, saying the parent won’t give them a serpent or a scorpion.

But Jesus is not just encouraging us to ask for things for ourselves. The bottom line is this:

“If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

This is ultimately what God wants to give us – Himself! The Holy Spirit!

I am reminded of Jesus praying in the garden before he was taken away to be crucified. While Jesus was wrestling in prayer with the sacrifice of His very life, the disciples could not even stay awake. “Their eyes were heavy”; their spirit was willing, but their flesh was weak.[4]

This is why we struggle to pray. We are weighed down by the flesh, but our physical selves in this physical world. What we need, what God desires to give us, is His Spirit to buoy us and to help us rise above the gravity of our fleshy nature.

To be in constant conversation with God (to pray without ceasing[5]), to pray as Jesus taught us, requires the help of the Holy Spirit. Without the Holy Spirit, we are over matched by every fly that buzzes into our consciousness.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

[1] 1 John 1:9

[2] Luke 11:1-4

Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” And he said to them, “When you pray, say:

“Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread,
and forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.
And lead us not into temptation.”

[3] Luke 11:5-13

And he said to them, “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything’? I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs. And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. 11 What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; 12 or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

[4] Matthew 26:4043

[5] 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”)

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