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My normal method of driving is with my car's gas tank as near empty as possible. I stop at a gas station only as a last resort. Anytime my wife, Lois, has to drive my car, she first asks if there is anything in the tank because she knows I drive on fumes.
One reason I do this is that I've gotten away with it so often. I can't tell you how many times I've pulled into the gas station just in the nick of time.
One time when Lois was with me in the car, she was telling me I was going to get in trouble someday driving around with an empty gas tank. Sure enough, the car started to cough and run out of gas, but I was able to exit the highway on a downhill ramp, and there was a gas station at the bottom.
So I said to Lois, "See what happens when you know Jesus?"
Well, I wasn't as fortunate the next time my car ran out of gas. I wound up stranded on the side of the road, standing by my car feeling very embarrassed.
Take it from me. You won't get very far driving around on gas fumes. That's a very powerless, frustrating way to travel.
A lot of Christians are trying to operate their spiritual lives the way I drive my car. They are running on fumes—trying to get somewhere for the Lord without using the fuel that provides the spark that energizes the power of God resident within us through the Holy Spirit.
The fuel that provides the spiritual spark is prayer. You can't get very far in the walk of faith without a prayer life, yet many Christians are doing it because they think they're getting away with it. They're like me in my car, ignoring their need to pray until their tanks go empty and they wind up on the side of the road looking for help.
Many of us struggle with the spiritual discipline of prayer. Some believers know how much they need to cultivate a prayer life as a vital part of their daily lives. To others, prayer is more like the national anthem at a ball game. It gets the game started, but it is not seen as having anything to do with the action on the field.
It helps to know we are not the first people to struggle with prayer. Jesus' disciples watched Him pray one day and said, "Lord, teach us to pray" (Luke 11:1).
That's interesting because they didn't ask Jesus to teach them how to preach. But when the disciples watched Jesus pray, and saw the intimacy between the Son and the Father and what the Father did for the Son, they said, "We need to get in on this."
Jesus answered the disciples' request by offering a model prayer we call the Lord's Prayer. That's actually a misnomer, because this is not a prayer Jesus would pray. Jesus had no "debts" or sins to be forgiven.
This is really the disciples' prayer. Jesus didn't mean this was the only prayer we are to use, or that we need to pray these exact words. The Lord's Prayer is a marvelous example, an outline, of how to pray. It gives us a pattern for prayer.
THE PARAMETERS OF PRAYER
Before we begin a detailed study of this amazing prayer, let me give you a basic definition of prayer. Prayer is a believer's communication with God the Father, through the authority and Person of Jesus Christ, assisted by the Holy Spirit. Let's break this down.
The key word is communication, not just talking. God is a Person to be communicated with, not someone for us to talk at. The test of prayer is whether God is the audience of your conversation.
Our prayer is to be offered through Jesus Christ. The only reason you and I have access to God is that the door was opened by the blood of Christ. Jesus said, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me" (John 14:6).
We can't come into the presence of a holy God unless we are escorted by the Son. That's why we pray in Jesus' name. That's not a nice religious tag to tack on to the end of our prayers. Jesus is our access to God, and because of what Jesus did on the cross we can "draw near with confidence to the throne of grace" (Hebrews 4:16).
Prayer is also assisted by the Holy Spirit. Romans 8:26–27 says the Holy Spirit helps us in our prayers because we are weak and don't always know how to pray as we ought. Sometimes we don't know what to say, and other times we're hurting too much to say anything.
But look what the Holy Spirit does for us. "The Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words" (v. 26b). When all we can do is groan and grope for the right words, the Spirit interprets those expressions and turns them into intelligible requests before the Father. The Spirit knows what we mean even when we don't know what we mean.
In other words, the Holy Spirit's ministry in prayer is to take what cannot be clarified and clarify it. That's why you're not wasting your time praying even when you don't know what to say, because the Spirit is at work organizing your confusion.
True prayer is limited to the sphere of the Trinity—but that means the parameters of prayer are limitless because we are talking about the infinite God.
THE PRECAUTIONS OF PRAYER
The Lord's Prayer is set in what I call a precautionary context. That's because before Jesus gave His disciples their model for prayer, He taught several important principles about prayer that we need to consider.
The first principle is that we need to pray regularly. Jesus said, "When you pray" (Matthew 6:5, italics added). Notice He didn't say "If you pray," or "It's up to you whether you pray." Our need to pray is the unstated assumption behind Jesus' statement.
Prayer must be a regular part of our lives because it's such a critical part of our lives. One reason prayer is so important is that it is an expression of faith, and the Bible says, "Without faith it is impossible to please [God]" (Hebrews 11:6).
Jesus also said we need to pray sincerely.
When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. (Matthew 6:5)
This takes us back to verse 1, where Jesus said, "Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven."
Most of the Jews in Jesus' day prayed three times a day. The hypocrites who prayed only to be seen and heard by others went to the most crowded, public places to pray.
They were like the little boy whose grandmother was visiting. He was praying in his bedroom one night while his mother and grandmother were sitting in the living room. His mother heard him say very loudly, "And Lord, please give me a bicycle for Christmas."
She went into the bedroom and said, "Son, you don't have to yell. God can hear you."
"I know, Mom," the boy answered. "But Grandma can't hear very well, and she's got the money to buy me a bike."
How do you measure sincerity in prayer? Jesus told us, "When you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you" (Matthew 6:6). We must pray secretly.
Jesus wasn't just equating being alone with effective prayer. Praying in secret means refusing to make a show out of prayer. It means shutting out anything and everything that keeps you from concentrating on God. A closed door refers to an undistracted environment for prayer.
Obviously, shutting yourself off from other people and distractions is one way to achieve secrecy in prayer. This is crucial because it doesn't take much to drown out God's voice. God is a spirit, so if you are going to connect with Him you must connect spiritually.
When God sees that you want to be in His presence so much you're willing to remove all distractions—when He sees you in secret and knows you are not playing to the crowd—then He shows up.
God also wants us to pray thoughtfully. "And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words" (Matthew 6:7). "Meaningless repetition" means babble, and babble means thoughtless verbiage, saying the same words without any thought behind them.
If I asked you for your home address, you could probably rattle it off without even stopping to think about it. You've given out your address so many times you have it down cold. That's the way some people pray.
I remember when I was a boy, if my mother had fried chicken for dinner and it was my turn to pray, I prayed with my eyes open and my hands on the far side of my plate. That way, I was ready to grab the piece of chicken I wanted.
I can tell you, I wasn't thinking about God. My mind was on that fried chicken. I just had to get past the prayer to get it.
Sometimes, prayer is just words we toss out to salute God so we can get on to the real deal. Hurry up and pray so we can start the meeting and get to the real issues.
The best way to avoid meaningless repetition is to continue getting to know God. The better you know a person, the more the two of you have to discuss. Whenever you learn something new about our great God, include that in your prayer life.
Jesus added, "So do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him" (Matthew 6:8). You don't have to inform God of anything in prayer. As a good Father, He already knows all about you, including what you need.
PRIORITY ONE: GOD'S WILL
When we begin to understand how vital it is to pray regularly, sincerely, secretly, and thoughtfully, we are ready to learn more about how to pray. That was the next subject Jesus addressed with the disciples as He taught the Lord's Prayer.
Let's go through this great prayer phrase by phrase as we seek to understand what Jesus is teaching us about prayer.
The Paternity of Prayer
You probably know the first two words of the Lord's Prayer. This is a child addressing a loving Father. Jesus said, "Pray, then, in this way: 'Our Father who is in heaven, hallowed be Your name'" (Matthew 6:9).
Notice this is "Our Father," not "My Father." You're not an only child in this family. The Father wants us to know that when we come to Him other siblings are involved. We can't be selfish in prayer.
Since only believers can pray and expect God to hear, "Our Father" means God is not everybody's Father. Jesus said to the unbelieving religious leaders of His day, "You are of your father the devil" (John 8:44). Only those who receive Christ as Savior and are born from above are given the right to be called the children of God (John 1:12).
The fact that all believers are invited to pray to the Father means all of us have equal access to God. He doesn't have favorite kids. If you're in the family of God, you bear His name and have full access to the Father.
Let me tell you some wonderful things about the heavenly Father to whom we pray. When you have a real father who loves you and cares for you and protects you and disciplines you, you have somebody you can trust. Your welfare is always on his mind. In fact, you can trust a loving father's heart even when you can't figure why he's doing what he's doing.
Being able to say "Our Father" also addresses the problem of worry. Later in Matthew 6, Jesus talked about worry (vv. 25–34). He said don't worry about having enough food or water or clothes. In fact, it's a sin to worry because Jesus commanded us not to do it (v. 34).
You say, "I'm not worried, Tony. I'm just concerned."
Well, if your concern is keeping you up at night, it's a worry. If your concern is ruining your health, it's a worry. If your concern keeps you constantly depressed, it's a worry. And it's sin.
What's the cure for worry? Knowing and trusting your Father. "Your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness; and all these things will be added to to you" (Matthew 6:32–33).
Jesus said His Father even takes care of the birds (v. 26). Have you ever seen a worried bird? Do birds get high blood pressure or bad nerves from worry? No, they just go out each day knowing there's going to be a worm or a seed somewhere. Having a Father who cares means you don't have to worry.
It also means you don't have to be afraid, even in the most difficult circumstances or the darkest hour. Those may be the times when you don't know what your heavenly Father is doing in your life, but since you know He has your welfare at heart, you can conquer the fear the Enemy throws at you.
If God is your Father, He's also in charge. He makes the final decisions. You can make your request and tell Him what you want, and sometimes He will say yes. But because God is dealing with His whole family and not just one child, sometimes He will say no for His greater purpose. He has that prerogative as our Father.
Praying "Our Father" means we accept His right to discipline us too. Every good father disciplines his children, and God disciplines His own (Hebrews 12:4–11).
Let me give you one other benefit that comes to those who can legitimately pray, "Our Father." This statement of intimacy means availability.
No matter how many meetings I may have at church, no matter what I may be doing, my children can always get through to me if they need me. My assistant, Sylvia, knows that whenever the kids call, she can go ahead and put them through. I may not be able to talk to them very long, but I want them to know that my work at church doesn't get in the way of my being a father.
Let me tell you some good news. Being Ruler of the universe doesn't get in the way of God's being our Father!
After saying "Our Father," we are taught to say, "Who is in heaven." Why do we need to be reminded in prayer that God our Father is in heaven? Because it tells us He is not subject to the limitations of earth. Earth does not have the final say-so in our lives. God rules from heaven, so He can do anything He wants to do on our behalf.
Jesus taught us to say to this Father who rules from heaven, "Hallowed be Your name." The word "hallowed" is from the same root as the word "holy." It means to set something or someone apart as unique or special. When we pray this way, we are saying, "God, I recognize that You are in a class by Yourself. You alone are holy."
The name of God deserves to be hallowed because God's name is the sum total of His attributes. In the Bible, a person's name reflects that person's character.
If you know your Bible, you know that God has many names. Each name addresses a different aspect of His perfect character, and each one also speaks to any situation we might find ourselves in or any need we might have.
Not all of these names are readily obvious in the English text of the Bible, so let me give you the Hebrew word or words, their translation, and what they mean. Here are some of the names for God in the Bible.
In Genesis 1:1, God is called Elohim. "In the beginning, Elohim ..." This is a plural word that emphasizes God's majesty, power, and glory. Elohim is the mighty Creator God who can speak worlds into existence and meet you in your weakness.
God is also El Elyon, "God Most High." This name means He's the God who is high and exalted and can do great things. David wrote, "I will cry to God Most High, to God who accomplishes all things for me" (Psalm 57:2). When everything in your life is out of order and disjointed, you need to know El Elyon.
In Psalm 91:1, the psalmist urges us to "abide in the shadow of the Almighty," El Shaddai, a name for God that speaks of His strength. Even when you have no strength, you have not exhausted your resources because God says, "My name is El Shaddai."
Another wonderful name for God comes from an unlikely source. Sarah's Egyptian maid Hagar, who bore Ishmael to Abraham, was thrown out of the house by Sarah. Hagar thought she was finished, but God came to her and promised her a heritage through Ishmael. Hagar responded by calling God El Roi, "God who sees" (Genesis 16:13). Even when you feel like you're alone and have no hope, God sees you. He hasn't forgotten you.
God is called El Olam, "the Everlasting God" (Genesis 21:33) who is in no hurry and will take the time to do what is best for us.
There are so many more names for God in the Bible, and each one has a special meaning and holds special hope for us. Let me give you a few more examples.
Jehovah is the most sacred name of God, which speaks of His self-existence. "I AM WHO I AM," God told Moses (Exodus 3:14). Jehovah needs no assistance. This name was often paired with other words for even more emphasis on part of God's character.
Excerpted from Speaks Out on Prayer by Anthony T. Evans. Copyright © 2000 Anthony T. Evans. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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