On paper, praying seems easy enough. But, when we try to pray daily, we sometimes realize that it’s much harder than we’d thought. In fact, it’s usually easier to come up with excuses not to pray than reasons to pray. And the most common excuse seems to be the busyness of life. But a vibrant prayer life doesn’t have to be an elusive goal; because at its core, prayer is simply talking and listening to God. Using passages from both the Old and New Testaments, Joseph Yoo takes a look at how and why we pray, how to handle what we perceive to be unanswered prayer, and how to learn to hear and recognize God’s voice.
Converge Bible Studies is a series of topical Bible studies. Each title in the series consists of four studies on a common topic or theme. Converge can be used by small groups, classes, or individuals. Primary Scripture passages from the Common English Bible are included for ease of study, as are questions designed to encourage both personal reflection and group conversation. The topics and Scriptures in Converge come together to transform readers’ relationships with others, themselves, and God.
About the Author
Joseph Yoo has a passion for impacting the world by making the message and love of Christ relevant to his community and beyond. Joseph, his wife, Rahel, and son, Nathanael, live in Pearland, TX where he serves as a pastor at First United Methodist Church of Pearland.
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Converge Bible Studies Practical Prayer
By Joseph Yoo
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2013 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
WHY WE PRAY GETTING TO KNOW GOD'S HEART
SCRIPTURE LUKE 6:12-19; 1 THESSALONIANS 5:12-24
12 During that time, Jesus went out to the mountain to pray, and he prayed to God all night long. 13 At daybreak, he called together his disciples. He chose twelve of them whom he called apostles: 14 Simon, whom he named Peter; his brother Andrew; James; John; Philip; Bartholomew; 15 Matthew; Thomas; James the son of Alphaeus; Simon, who was called a zealot; 16 Judas the son of James; and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.
17 Jesus came down from the mountain with them and stood on a large area of level ground. A great company of his disciples and a huge crowd of people from all around Judea and Jerusalem and the area around Tyre and Sidon joined him there. 18 They came to hear him and to be healed from their diseases, and those bothered by unclean spirits were healed. 19 The whole crowd wanted to touch him, because power was going out from him and he was healing everyone.
1 THESSALONIANS 5:12-24
12 Brothers and sisters, we ask you to respect those who are working with you, leading you, and instructing you. 13 Think of them highly with love because of their work. Live in peace with each other. 14 Brothers and sisters, we urge you to warn those who are disorderly. Comfort the discouraged. Help the weak. Be patient with everyone. 15 Make sure no one repays a wrong with a wrong, but always pursue the good for each other and everyone else. 16 Rejoice always. 17 Pray continually. 18 Give thanks in every situation because this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus. 19 Don't suppress the Spirit. 20 Don't brush off Spirit-inspired messages, 21 but examine everything carefully and hang on to what is good. 22 Avoid every kind of evil. 23 Now, may the God of peace himself cause you to be completely dedicated to him; and may your spirit, soul, and body be kept intact and blameless at our Lord Jesus Christ's coming. 24 The one who is calling you is faithful and will do this
INSIGHT AND IDEAS
During my college days, seven friends from high school and I spent a lot of time hanging out together. There were four guys and four girls in our group. We guys lived in a campus apartment together, and the girls lived in the apartment right above ours. We'd try to eat together as much as possible throughout the week (mostly to save money); but once a week, we'd have a "family dinner."
There was one member of our group who constantly talked about herself and her problems, mainly about the guys she was seeing. At first, we were genuinely interested in helping her make the right decisions and so forth. But every time we got together, we heard about how so-and-so was calling some other girl, all while he was supposed to be seeing her. Yada, yada, yada.
What's worse was when we tried to share with her the struggles that we were experiencing, she'd hijack the conversation. "Oh, I know! Michael did the same thing to me. Well, not really the same thing, but you know, close enough." But it never really was "close enough" to what we were talking about. Nevertheless, on and on she would go.
Sometimes she would call one of us to ask whether we could get coffee or lunch and hang out and talk. Again, at first, all of us were more than eager to skip out on studying or doing school-related things to spend time with a friend. Especially me. I always looked for ways to avoid my college responsibilities. But I quickly learned that our conversations always ended up being about her problems.
Slowly, we guys began to pull away from her. It was easier for us to do this than it was for the girls, because we didn't live in the same apartment. Things reached the point that if we knew that she was going to be present, we'd hold minor competitions where the winner would be excused from hanging out with the entire group. For some odd reason, our group almost always did things together. I think that it was because, secretly, we were scared of the girls, although none of us would admit it.
During our weekly "family dinners," we would eat, clean up, and get out of Dodge as quickly as possible, making up excuses if necessary.
We even entered her in our cell phone contacts as "Do Not Answer" so that when the phone rang, we'd be able to avoid talking to her. Of course, this wasn't a very mature or gracious way to handle the situation. But we were young. And we were boys who were a bit on the slow and immature side. Every time she called, she seemed to be wanting something from us. And when we didn't answer, she'd confront us and ask why. This infuriated us, because she would never answer when we called her. Ever. I swear her phone only made outgoing calls.
Truthfully, we were just tired of dealing with a one-sided relationship. We could never bounce ideas off of her, we could never share our stories or our days with her, and we could never talk about our struggles and problems because she would always turn the conversation around and make it about herself.
Most of us probably know people like that—those who keep taking and taking but are never able to give. If you don't have anyone like that in your life, there's a good chance that you might be that person. Of course, I'm kidding.
MORE THAN JUST SUPPLICATION
Our relationship with God can sometimes become one-sided too, especially if we carry a narrow view of prayer. Some of us see prayer mostly as a time of supplication, where we come before God and ask for things. Or we make it the "break in case of emergency" part of our faith journey, where it's the last resort we take—a form of bailout that we desperately seek from God. So when we hear people say things like, "Pray continually," it may be difficult for us to understand why, because most of the time, we don't need to be rescued. And there are points in our lives when everything is going decently to great. It's common to forget to pray during those times.
If this is how we approach prayer, it's possible that we have a limited view of God as well. If our prayers are nothing more than a wish list, perhaps we view God as someone like Santa Claus. We figure that the better we behave, the more we go to church, the more we follow God's commandments, and so forth, the better chance we have that our prayers will be answered. Essentially, we become like that person from my college days—only approaching God when we need something. But while asking God for help and grace is an important part of prayer, it's just that—a part of prayer.
A pastor once told me that breathing is to the body as prayer is to the soul. Prayer is not just something that we do before we consume a meal. Or something we do before we take a test that we didn't study for. Or a plea bargain we make after breaking Mom's treasured vase. You know how it goes: "God, if you fix this right now, I'll be nice to my brother from now on. Not just for today. Not just for this month. But forever. I'll be really nice to him." Or "If you can make my mom never find out about this, I'll never hit my brother again. Ever. Please help. Amen." Not that I'm speaking from experience.
Prayer is so much more than us just yelling, "Help!"
COMMUNICATION AND RELATIONSHIP
Early in my faith formation, a youth pastor told me that the biggest difference between Christianity and other religions is that, in Christianity, God wants to have a relationship with us. With me. This was such a foreign (and fantastic) concept for me at the time. A relationship? With me? God? Wow! It changed the way I viewed God. And it was probably the point where I began to take ownership of my faith rather than thinking that I had inherited God from my dad (who happens to be a pastor).
Practically anyone, from professional counselors to those who have been married for years will tell you that the most important part of a relationship is communication. If you don't communicate, problems will arise. Prayer is how we communicate with God. If we limit our communication with God to only wish lists and requests for help, we're limiting our relationship with God as well. It's hard to have a full relationship with people in our lives who just want something from us. And it's hard for people to have a relationship with us if all of our communication is our asking them for something. This is how prayer works, too.
Not that we can really have a "balanced" relationship with God. After all, God is the Creator; we are just the creation. But that shouldn't stop us from attempting to have the fullest relationship with God that we can possibly have.
WE PRAY SO WE CAN HEAR GOD
In prayer, we commune with God. We thank God. We bless God. We adore God. We praise God. We confess to God. And we ask God for help.
When it comes to prayer, we Koreans have a beautiful and powerful tradition called tongsung kido. We all say our individual prayers out loud, all at once. But prayer is so much more than just talking.
During a youth retreat, I once witnessed a student who was pouring out her heart in prayer. For some reason, I could sense a bit of frustration in her words. As the prayer time went on, she got louder and louder, sounding more and more frustrated. Afterward, I pulled her aside and said, "Hey, I don't know what you're praying for; but next time during worship, when we pray, instead of going on and on in your prayers, take time to just listen. Sit back. Ignore all the other sounds going on, and try to prayerfully listen. I don't know if that'll help you or change anything, but I felt like I should let you know that."
The next day, she came to me and said, "Thanks, I feel so much more at peace. I think I was talking too much to hear from God."
Listening is an important part of prayer, too. In fact, it's an important aspect in all of our relationships. Communication is a two-way street, and it's practically impossible to hear God if we aren't actively listening for God's voice.
PRAYER SUSTAINS US
Throughout the four Gospels, there are many mentions of Jesus withdrawing and spending time in prayer with God. I believe that it was these times spent in prayer that really sustained Jesus. His prayer life gave him strength, refreshed and renewed him in his ministry; and most important, it helped him stay in tune with God. Jesus modeled an intimate relationship with God; and this intimacy had a lot do with how much time he spent in prayer, often withdrawing from everyone else.
If Jesus found it important to pray—to intentionally carve out time dedicated to prayer—then it should be a high priority for us too.
In our close relationships, we often know what our best friend or our spouse or significant other is thinking because of how much time we spend together talking and listening to one another. Much like that, the more time we spend with God in prayer, the more we understand what God's purpose for our life is. The more we pray, the more we get to know God's heart. The more we pray, the more we know God's will. The more we pray, the more we're in tune with God.
Prayer is not just about getting God to do what we want or need. Prayer is more about getting ourselves to do what God wants us to. Nineteenth century Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard said it perfectly: "The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays."
So, we pray—not only to ask God for help but also to offer our thanks. We pray to praise and adore God. We pray to confess our shortcomings to God. We pray to commune and communicate with God. We pray so that we become more and more in tune with God.
May we all shape our prayer lives to become more than just asking for help. May we learn to listen, talk, reflect, and just be in God's presence.
May we, like our Christ, find time to intentionally be in prayer.
May we see that prayer is more than just an act that we engage in here and there, but that it's a way of living.
And may we pray continually.
1. Why did Jesus pray all night (Luke 6:12)? Do you think that this was a regular habit? Is this something that believers should try to imitate? Why, or why not?
2. What was the point of Jesus' going to the mountain to pray (Luke 6:12)?
3. What was the connection between Jesus' prayer and the power that was going out of him to heal the sick and those bothered by unclean spirits (Luke 6:19)?
4. Did Jesus really need to pray? Why, or why not?
5. What does it mean to rejoice always (1 Thessalonians 5:16)? What are some strategies for doing this? Why is it important?
6. What does it mean to pray continually (1 Thessalonians 5:17)?
7. What is the connection between prayer and giving thanks (1 Thessalonians 5:18)?
8. First Thessalonians 5:19 instructs us not to suppress the Holy Spirit. Is it possible to suppress the Spirit when we pray? How do we keep from doing this?
9. How does prayer help us avoid evil (1 Thessalonians 5:22)?
10. What role should supplication (requesting things from God) play in our prayers?
11. Why is listening so important in prayer? How do we learn to listen more?
12. How does prayer contribute to a healthy relationship with God? What does it mean to be intentional in praying?
13. Do you agree or disagree with the Søren Kierkegaard statement that "the function of prayer is not to influence God"?CHAPTER 2
HOW WE PRAY LEARNING TO COMMUNICATE WITH GOD
SCRIPTURE MATTHEW 6:1-15
1 "Be careful that you don't practice your religion in front of people to draw their attention. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.
2 "Whenever you give to the poor, don't blow your trumpet as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets so that they may get praise from people. I assure you, that's the only reward they'll get. 3 But when you give to the poor, don't let your left hand know what your right hand is doing 4 so that you may give to the poor in secret. Your Father who sees what you do in secret will reward you.
5 "When you pray, don't be like hypocrites. They love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners so that people will see them. I assure you, that's the only reward they'll get. 6 But when you pray, go to your room, shut the door, and pray to your Father who is present in that secret place. Your Father who sees what you do in secret will reward you.
7 "When you pray, don't pour out a flood of empty words, as the Gentiles do. They think that by saying many words they'll be heard. 8 Don't be like them, because your Father knows what you need before you ask. 9 Pray like this:
Our Father who is in heaven, uphold the holiness of your name. 10 Bring in your kingdom so that your will is done on earth as it's done in heaven. 11 Give us the bread we need for today. 12 Forgive us for the ways we have wronged you, just as we also forgive those who have wronged us. 13 And don't lead us into temptation, but rescue us from the evil one. 14 "If you forgive others their sins, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you don't forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your sins.
INSIGHT AND IDEAS
We Koreans seem to have a flair for the dramatic. Yes, I realize that this is a very broad, general, and maybe even unfair statement.
Once during a Sunday morning service at a Korean church, an elder of the church was going to do the morning prayer. He methodically and gracefully walked to the pulpit, paused for a few seconds, cleared his throat, and began to pray softly.
The words and phrases he was using felt like the Korean equivalent of the words and phrases found in the King James Bible, meaning that no one, not even he, spoke that way in the real world. As the prayer went on (and on), he became louder and more convicted. As his volume increased and as he displayed more passion, his voice would quiver and tremble at the end of each phrase.
I couldn't hold my curiosity any longer; I just had to see how he looked as he prayed. His eyes were tightly shut, creating even more wrinkles. Both arms were raised above his head, pumping them to accentuate the words he was unleashing. He reached the climactic point of his prayer and took a long, dramatic pause. Then, in a very soft, trembling, fear-filled voice, he whispered, "In Jesus' name" (another pause), "we pray. Amen."
I felt that all that was missing from this prayer was a single tear rolling down his cheek.
What made it worse was that this man wasn't the nicest of people. He usually gave everyone a hard time. No one was to question him or his motives, ideas, suggestions, critiques. He wanted everyone to know who he was and the "high" and "honorable" positions he held within the church. And all of those who were younger than he had better be good Koreans and respect authority (read: Don't question; just do as he says). So for him to stand and pray like that, on behalf of the church, well, it felt ... empty. It seemed like he was putting on a show.
Now, I know that I probably sound very snarky and judgmental with this story. But the worship service that morning raised another issue, one that bothered me even more than the man's prayer did.
After quite a few (both private and group) conversations with some youth who were present, I learned that many of them felt like they didn't know how to pray. They thought that Christians had to pray the way the elder prayed in front of the church in both private and public prayer.
Excerpted from Converge Bible Studies Practical Prayer by Joseph Yoo. Copyright © 2013 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsAbout the Series,
1: Why We Pray,
2: How We Pray,
3: Answers to Prayer,
4: Listening to God,