(Including thoughts from the sermons of John Piper)
Daddy, I’m thrilled to be spending another day with You. Thank You so, so much for the Holy Spirit that You have given to me, for the joy and love and peace that You fill me with every day. Thank You that You have given us of Yourself as the only perfect gift. May this writing inspire my audience to pray to You passionately, fervently, frequently, unceasingly, eternally, God--may You whip us into a joyful frenzy of prayer. Change our lives so that we would live always waiting for our next prayer time, counting the hours until we get to speak with You again. In Jesus’ most lovely name, Amen.
Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, an American college student decided to change his major to Russian Literature. He loved to read, and he spent hours and hours every day immersed in thick, dust-covered books from centuries long forgotten, gleaning cultural words, phrases, and practices from the stories they told. His classes each day were heavy on debate as a way to encourage the students to use the advanced vocabulary they were learning, and so, naturally, they centered around complicated political, historical, or religious matters.
Five years passed. The student became highly fluent in the language. He completed his studies, receiving the highest academic honors the university could bestow, and after he graduated, the student got a job working at a university in Russia.
After he arrived, it took only a week for him to adjust to the speed of native speech and the new vocabulary of the regional dialect of his area. Such was his mastery of Russian after his intense study, he found he could speak easily and quickly with anyone at the university on any topic he chose.
But one day his roommate caught the flu, and he asked our hero to go to the market in his place to get vegetables for dinner. Our bold adventurer agreed confidently, but once he arrived in the market, he realized he had a problem.
He could describe the appearance of a cabbage in intimate detail, he could spin a beautiful fairy tale about happy farmers growing crops in the forest, he could yammer on and on and on about the economic impact of this year’s Russian vegetable crop and its influence on the geopolitical atmosphere in eastern Europe and Asia--but he did not know the specific word for ‘cabbage’. For five full minutes, the student stood stunned at the vegetable counter, unable to ask for what he needed, until he finally, humbly, opened the Google Translate app on his phone and looked up the word for ‘cabbage’.
It is a sobering thing when the mighty are brought low.
Okay, now, remember this story, Church. There’s a reason why I’m telling it to you, but I’ll come back to that in a minute.
First, I need to apologize to the audience, because I’m about to make a high percentage of you rather uncomfortable. Any Calvinists in the room? Raise your hand high, now--to you, especially, I apologize in advance. You may squirm and fidget a little as you hear what I have to say today. That’s okay, it’s okay if this teaching doesn’t fully sit right with you, I don’t mind. Just try to hear me out.
I’m going to make you uncomfortable because of the first of the two points I want to make about prayer. So we’ll hit that one first, so that we can get any unpleasantness out of the way at the beginning, and then we’ll move on to my second point. Yeah, I know, only two points today, you’re probably pretty happy about that--when John Piper preaches, he reads a text of scripture, states his basic premise, and then says “This is true, and I have thirty-eight reasons why it’s true!” and he goes right down the list to every single one, and you’d better be writing them down or you’ll have no clue what he said afterward. But I’m not as smart as him--that’s why I steal all of his material. So just two points for me. That’s all I can handle.
Here’s point number one: When we pray, we make things happen that would not have happened otherwise. (Isa. 38:1-5, Exo. 32:7-14)
I hear the squirming, yes I do, simmer down in the back, I know it hurts but think about what I’m saying. I’m gonna say it again, because this is absolutely biblical: When we pray, we make things happen that would not have happened otherwise. We change the future.
Yes, I am a huge believer in the sovereignty of God. Yes, I am a huge member of the God-Does-Everything camp of theology. I love it. I worship a God Who leaves nothing to chance, no molecule in the universe, Who has sovereignly created and caused all things to be to His glory, all good things and all bad things. But, hear me now: Prayer can and does change the path of history. (Rom. 8:28, Gen. 50:19-20)
Church, if that idea hits you funny, really analyze why. Why do you believe prayer is ineffective, or only jokingly effective? Why are you thinking about the plan that God has already made, rather than effectively changing the situation around you? Why do you believe prayer is only a ritual you do to align yourself to God’s will or get you in the presence of the Holy Spirit, instead of a precious tool to let God’s power change everything on planet Earth? (Jas. 5:16)
This is a sin I’ve committed many times, and you have to know about it so you won’t commit it as well: Is it because you’re trying to think the thoughts of God? Trying to sit in the seat of God? I know that you know that God has all of time sitting before Him right now. He’s in all of time, every millisecond of every day. He knows everything that’s gonna happen. To Him, it’s already happened. Done. Boom. He sees it, He knows it, it’s there, it’s done. That’s God’s perspective, the way He operates.
But to us, time is like wandering through a dark tunnel. We have no clue what’s gonna happen tomorrow. The future is dark to us, and the past is only half remembered, if even that. We don’t even know a percentage of a percentage of a percentage of what’s happening now in the world! We only know what tiny specks of matter are in front of us--that’s all we get. That’s all we’re responsible for, all God has given us, all we’re able to understand. (Deu. 29:29)
But my thoughts often don’t look like that, do they? The way I live doesn’t look like that. You with me now, Church? In fleshly moments, I think as if I sit in God’s seat, and not my own. When I think about family members or close friends that aren’t Christians, I think about God’s cosmic plan, His entire unfolding of all of time, and I wonder if He will save them in that plan. Do you do that too? And when I think of my kids, I think about their entire lives, and I hope God will draw them to Himself someday. I hope it’s part of His plan, the one He wrote a long time ago, the one that’s static and unchanging. My perspective is centered in the future, and not in the present.
Listen to me: Beware these thoughts. Don’t let your mind drift to either the future or the past--be engaged in the now, do spiritual battle in the now. When we allow ourselves to think about God’s cosmic plans, that thought is us trying to view life from God’s perspective, and it causes us to stop praying, because we believe the future is unchangable--we believe prayer is powerless. We believe we have little or no role in God’s battle on Earth. (Dan. 10:2-14)
We become like a man who has studied a language for five years, but can’t say the word for ‘cabbage’. We’ve gone so deep in our theology, studied so much of the science of our faith and progressed so much in knowledge, that we’ve forgotten a basic truth of God. And this is the truth: We have an agency on Earth. We, mankind, the children of God, have a powerful role and calling in the working of God on Earth. God has chosen to operate in this way--not that He can’t do things without us, of course not, but that He chooses to allow His power to flow through us in prayer.
Prayer changes everything. Prayer can take every single anxiety or strand of bitterness or unforgiveness in your heart and flood it with light. Prayer can open the eyes of the blind around us, it can send God’s mighty hand into an unbeliever’s heart and cause his soul to live in the Presence of God. Prayer can change the weather, can change your finances, can change your marriage, can change traffic patterns, can heal, can resurrect the dead, can grant religious freedom to closed countries, can spark large-scale revivals, can get you a fantastic parking spot at the mall. Prayer is limitless, provided you pray according to God’s will and believe the answer is guaranteed--which is easy, because you can pray to be able to do those things, and God will teach you how. (1 John 5:14-15)
So, child of God, instead of thinking about God’s business when you think about a nonbeliever, think about them today, now, here, in this moment, and beg God for their salvation today. Limit your thoughts to today only, and start beseeching God endlessly that He might work in the realities of today. Then you’ll see Him work tomorrow, you feel me there? He will work in tomorrow if I am engaged in today, and if I am doing battle to believe my prayers will be answered.
Church, hear this again in the words of Jesus: Tomorrow has enough anxiety. Right? Guys, you don’t have to mess with tomorrow. Get your head out of tomorrow, nothing good lives there. Get in the game today--and let’s pray unceasingly for God to work in our lives. (Matt. 7:34, 1 Thess. 5:17-18)
Because our prayers will change the world. All of it. When we pray, we make things happen that would not have happened otherwise.
Okay, second point, and this one will be more familiar, I think: We pray to enter God’s joy. We pray because the Holy Spirit fills us when we pray, if He grants that. It’s another opportunity to be filled with the all-completing, all-satisfying, peaceful Presence of God.
And take note, here--there is a tangible, distinct, experiential difference between the peace of God and emotional happiness or sadness. I’m not talking about praying in order to be happy. Beware your emotions, Church, those flitting, fleeting manifestations of the flesh using emotion to pull us this way and that, beware the directions your heart commands you to go. What I’m trying to offer to you instead is the joy of God, the full river of God’s peace and God’s delight in your soul. It’s different from happiness. It is required of every Christian to learn how to discern God’s joy from the pleasurable sensations of what Jonathon Edwards called your ‘animal spirits’.
Now don’t get me wrong, yes, we were saved to be on mission (Eph. 2:10) and to welcome the lost into Christ--that’s important. But we were also saved into a loving, completing, filling, joyous relationship with God, and I would argue that the second of those is more important than the first, because without the love, the mission gets screwy. You know what I mean? Without the relationship, the obedience gets mixed motives, the desire gets pulled in different ways, God becomes a tool to be used, and God says some dangerous, scary things about people with mixed hearts. Listen to me: We are not able to keep ourselves pure in our love for God if our love for Him is shared evenly with our love for mission. We begin to use God to accomplish the mission.
Instead, let your love for God and your joy in Him be the primary mission of your life. Let your delight in God and in His ways be what you seek above all else. Focus on begging God to do the heart work in you that you can’t do--namely, turning your desires to Him, making you want Him every day, enabling you to obey Him joyfully, causing you to be enraptured and enthralled and delighted in His love.
Prayer, either alone or with other Christians, is a huge part of this process because it’s one of the most joyful experiences in Creation. You with me there? Have you ever had a prayer time where God’s joy comes over you so strong you feel like you could blow up, and the tears just start coming out of you? You’re smiling, and shaking your head, bowed over on the floor and weeping like a little baby. Those happen. God loves that, when He grants us those times--and so do we. We are made whole in those moments. May you experience those times often with Jesus! May they be the theme of your life! Ask God to create that in you, and He will!
But you know, if you hear that last paragraph, and you’re like, “Man, I don’t have those times. What am I missing? God never makes me cry--why doesn’t God make me cry? Why don’t I enjoy God that much?”, then you’re in a beautiful spot. You really are--you’re in a wonderful position now, because listen to me: When we pray, we make things happen that would not have happened otherwise. Your prayers are effective in your life as well, not just in the lives of other people.
All you have to do is pray for God to break you, to fill you, to conquer you, to be your greatest joy and your greatest pleasure and your greatest happiness on Earth, and fight and battle and persevere in that prayer, and God will come to you. It’s guaranteed, folks--you will begin to love God’s law, to delight in holiness, and the Presence of God will be real to you. This happened to me, personally. It was a real thing that happened, and God came through. This is real life. You’ll be invincible in the joy of God, if you seek it--no danger will threaten you on Earth, because all your treasure will be in Heaven.
Pray for that now. Pray that God would be your greatest love.
A final note on prayer: There are some days where I get up in the morning, or I hit a time where I normally pray during my day, and I’m just not feeling it, right? Just not in the mood, not wanting it, not caring about prayer. That happens. You may also feel apathy towards prayer in times of really intense sorrow, when you feel you have no idea how to pray at all. In those moments, when you don’t know how to pray or how to want to pray, turn to the Bible. What you need is to escape your flesh and set your mind on the Spirit--you need some reprogramming, some brainwashing. So take out the Bible and start filling yourself with the Word.
Prayer flows out of the Scriptures like Niagara Falls flows downhill, you with me? Prayer and the Bible are joined at the hip, and it’s important that you let the Bible do its work in you to fill you with desire for God when you don’t have it. The Spirit does this on His own, according to Romans 8:26-27--He intercedes for us when we can’t according to the will of God, so there’s safety in turning to the Bible to guide you to God when you can’t do the heart work you know you need. The Bible is a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path (Ps. 119:105). Trust it to do its work to draw you to God at those times.
For me, generally, other than the Bible, nothing else does it. Praying anyway, when I don’t really want to, feels a little disingenuous, a little false--I often get distracted and wander off in my thoughts towards a sports game or something. Worship music is nice, but it normally doesn’t move me. Same with sermons. The Bible is the only thing that can give me the increased desire and delight in God, the love for God, that I need.
That’s all I got, folks. Join me in begging God to change us and to change the rest of the world today. Our prayers are powerful and effective, if Jesus has made us righteous--and He has!
Glory be to the living God!