When we attend a professional sporting event, before the game begins everyone rises to their feet as the national anthem plays over the stadium speakers. Some of us put our hands over our hearts, hats are taken off, and respect for the anthem is observed. Then after we sing out “and the home of the brave!” and fireworks light up the sky, we sit back down, continue eating our hot dogs, and the game commences — and we won’t usually think about the national anthem until the next time we’re at a sporting event.
Too often Christians view prayer the same way. Perhaps there are weeks that go by during which the only time we pray is at church. Just as we do with the national anthem, we stand with the rest of the congregation and “pay our respects” to God in prayer — and then we go home, and maybe we don’t think too much about God until the next time we gather with our brothers and sisters.
As we continue our journey through 1 Thessalonians 5 and discover what characterizes us as believers in Jesus, this past Sunday we looked at verse 17, which says something very different about prayer. It’s reads, “pray continually.”
Now before we get to the notion of praying without ceasing, it’s a good idea to look at what prayer is. As usual, there’s no better example than the way Jesus prayed — and the Gospels tell us he gave specific instructions for how we are to pray. In Matthew 6, Jesus prefaces what’s commonly known as “The Lord’s Prayer” with the following instructions: “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”
The time you spend in prayer is not an informational meeting for God. He knows what’s going on with you already. And more than that, the Lord already has the answers to our prayers as well. Isaiah 65:24 reads, “Before they call, I will answer; while they are still speaking, I will hear.” So why pray in the first place? Well, James in the fourth chapter of his epistle has something to say about that: “You do not have because you do not ask.” In other words, some of the answers to prayer you seek won’t come unless you ask God for them — which should motivate all of us to pray a lot more than we do at present.
Now let’s look at the first part of the Lord’s prayer, which Jesus prefaces by saying “pray then like this.” Indeed, Jesus is giving his disciples a model for prayer.
Then Jesus begins his prayer with “our Father in heaven.” Why does he use the word “our” instead of “my”? The answer is packed with meaning for all of us: No Christian is an only child. We’re surrounded by other children of God, other brothers and sisters in Christ. And that fact also reflects God’s design for us to live in community. And while living in community is hard at times, the beauty of it is underscored by the truth that there are things God wants to give us and have us experience that will only happen when we’re part of a community of believers.
Then Jesus uses the word “Father” to describe his relationship with him as the. Jesus uses the personal, intimate word “Father” all the time in the Gospels — except when he was suffering on the cross and quoting the Psalms in his cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” During that one moment in history, Jesus referred to his Father as “God” to describe the position he was in as a sacrifice for our sins.
Jesus then notes in his prayer that the Father is “in heaven.” That’s a great way of showing that God lives above the limitations we experience on earth — and that we need his power and love and presence down on earth with us.
“Hallowed be your name,” Jesus prays next. And what does “hallowed” mean? It’s another way of saying “holy” or to describe something as separate from us. While Jesus reflected the closeness and intimacy and love that God has for each of us, there is a balance with regard to our relationship with our heavenly Father: He’s a holy God — and we are not. So, acknowledging that important fact is necessary and wise for us all as we come before the Lord in prayer. It’s a way of reminding ourselves how sacred this opportunity is.
“Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” Christ prays next. As we look at the will of God, it’s crucial to understand that there are two types of will: God’s unconditional will, and God’s conditional will. As for his unconditional will, it will be accomplished no matter what we do or don’t do. God will do what God will do, and there isn’t anything that will stand in his way. But then there is his conditional will — and that’s where we come in, particularly when it comes to prayer.
While God is sovereign and will do what he wants to do no matter what we do on earth, there are some things the Lord wants to bring about with his creation based on their behavior or decisions — in other words, it depends on us. So how do we know what God’s conditional will is? We can’t! Which is again more motivation for us to be in prayer continually, as sometimes God uses our prayers to accomplish his conditional will! How amazing is that?
So, don’t treat prayer any longer like singing the national anthem before you witness a baseball game; instead make it part of your daily life. Pour out your heart to God, hour by hour, minute by minute. Ask the Lord continually to work in your life and in the lives of others. Be in constant relationship with God and live out the truth of the Scriptures that Jesus is there with you always. And realize that we have no idea what joys and treasures the Lord is just waiting to bestow upon us and others — until we ask him.