“Until you know that life is war, you cannot know what prayer is for.”
That quote is from Pastor John Piper; the sentiment is straight out of the book of Ephesians.
We talked recently about how scientists now say as much as 95% of the universe is invisible to us. Even with the latest and greatest scientific instruments, we are still unable to see, hear, touch, taste or smell 95% of what makes up the universe.
It is reasonable, then, to accept that there is also a spiritual realm that is largely unseen by us, but fully real. And the reality of spiritual warfare is what fuels the conclusion of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.
As Christians, we face a spiritual enemy who is committed to doing everything possible to deceive and destroy. Satan and his demons hate our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they hate us, and they hate the church. Knowing this, the apostle Paul’s final plea to all Christians is pray.
Under house arrest chained to a Roman guard by his wrist, Paul concludes his section on spiritual warfare with a fourfold call to pray, writing:
“And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.”Ephesians 6:18-20
The Old and New Testaments are replete with accounts where prayer made the difference between victory or defeat. Prayer determined the outcome, the end result. And so since life is war, Paul urges four prayer actions; four things to give your all to as you pray. Here’s the first:
Let the Lord prompt you to:
- Pray in all kinds of situations.
“Pray in the Spirit on all occasions,” Paul urges. Always. At all kinds of times, in all kinds of circumstances, in all kinds of conversations, in all of your interactions—pray. Online, face to face, on the phone, in your writing including emails, pray. Pray first, not as an afterthought. Pray before you speak or write or text or post. Pray first, always.
Praying “in the Spirit” simply means praying prompted and guided by God. That’s what it means to pray in the Spirit: pray prompted and guided by God. The first emphasis is when Christians should pray: always. Pray as the Lord prompts you, anytime, anywhere you are. No place and no occasion are off-limits. Certainly don’t limit yourself to Sunday mornings.
When you want to understand what something in the Bible looks like in day-to-day practice, the best place to look is the rest of the Bible. Even so here, Nehemiah gives us a great example of praying in all kinds of situations.
The book of Nehemiah at surface level is about a construction project, rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls. But when you read the story as a whole, it becomes clear that it’s actually all about spiritual warfare attempting to wreak havoc on the physical experience of God’s people.
And so knowing this, Nehemiah constantly prays. He is a highly competent leader and administrator, and he knows he must take time to pray, all along the way. Throughout his book, we see Nehemiah praying. One time it’s even just a momentary silent prayer slipped into the flash-of-a-moment gap between a king asking what Nehemiah wants, and Nehemiah answering. Even there, in a tiny in-between of conversation, you can pray. Nehemiah knows that life is war, and so he understands what prayer is for. He takes whatever situation is in front of him at the moment, and lets God guide him in how to pray about it. God answers, and victory follows.
Let me give you the greatest single way to become confident that you are praying in the Spirit, meaning you’re praying prompted and guided by God. Here it is: pray in line with what the Bible clearly teaches. What the Bible is clear about, you can pray about. Ask God to do what he clearly promises.
George Muller, who was known for his prayer life, left us a gem when he wrote:
“The less we read the Word of God, the less we desire to read it, and the less we pray, the less we desire to pray.”
The best way to fuel your praying is to get going in your reading or listening to the Word of God. Flip Muller’s saying on its head to hear the positive: The more you read the Word of God, the more you desire to read it, and the more you pray, the more you desire to pray.
When my family was on vacation recently, we kept passing places with bundles of firewood for sale. If you’ve ever tried to start a campfire, you know the whole thing begins with good kindling.
- What kindling is to fueling a campfire, God’s Word is to prayer.
- Like kindling to a campfire is God’s Word to prayer.
- It kicks up the sparks.
- It ignites the potential within you.
- It gets things cooking.
So let me be intensely practical: jump in on the through-the-year Bible reading plan in your bulletin. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t read anything yet. Just start today. And don’t worry if you don’t keep up: even a little kindling will get a fire going better than if you have none. Stoke the flames of praying by getting God’s Word into your head and heart. Then you’ll be ready to pray in all kinds of situations.
Pray on all occasions. Second, Paul urges…
- Pray in all kinds of ways.
“Pray…with all kinds of prayers and requests.”
Pray in all kinds of situations, and pray with all kinds of prayers and requests. What does this mean? Simply that Spirit-led prayer can look and sound a lot of different ways.
Every Sunday since January we’ve had someone read a Psalm and then pray inspired by that Psalm. The Psalms look vastly different from one to another, all inspired by the same Spirit of God prompting and guiding godly men from the past. We can learn from them.
Take a Psalm and change some of the words to fit your situation at the moment.
You can pray the Lord’s Prayer, the model prayer Jesus taught his disciples that’s found in Matthew chapter 6 and Luke chapter 11.
You can adapt prayers written by Christians from across history.
Let me give you one, from the end of the 1st century A.D., one of the earliest Christian prayers we have after the New Testament was completed:
“We ask you, Master, be our helper and defender. Rescue those of our number in distress; raise up the fallen; assist the needy; heal the sick; turn back those of your people who stray; feed the hungry; release our captives; revive the weak; encourage those who lose heart. Let all the nations realize that you are the only God, that Jesus Christ is your Child, and that we are your people and the sheep of your pasture.”
1 Clement (c. 96)
When I hear that prayer, I’m struck by how radical it was that at the point when Christ’s Church was a tiny, persecuted minority, even then the kindling of the Holy Spirit was firing up believers to pray that the world will hear the good news of Jesus, believe, and be saved. Radical!
But here’s the point: just pray. Peter Kreeft in his book Prayer for Beginners, writes, “Prayer is easier than we think. We want to think it is too hard or too high and holy for us, because that gives us an excuse for not doing it. This is false humility. We can all do it, even the most sinful, shallow, silly, and stupid of us.
You do not have to master some mystical method. You do not have to master a method at all. Can you talk to a friend? Then you can talk to God, for he is your Friend. And that is what prayer is. The single most important piece of advice about prayer is one word: Begin! God makes it easy: just do it!
God also makes it easy to progress in prayer …. for it gradually becomes more natural and delightful.”
Peter Kreeft, Prayer for Beginners (Ignatius, 2000), pp. 25-26
It’s like last week when I met someone and learned she’s originally from Ethiopia. All I said was, “Oh, you speak Amharic!” Her face lit up at the most basic attempt to meet her where she’s at. So listen: if we, sinful as we are, are gracious to someone who makes even the slightest attempt to understand us, how much more do you imagine God is gracious as we stumble our way through praying to him?
Timothy Jones asks this very question in his book The Art of Prayer. “Is God any less generous? He hears all that arises from us—the words of our mouth, the longings of our hearts, the thoughts of our minds, the intentions of our wills. Regret, grief, thanksgiving, hope—God hears our emotions, not just our grammar. Because of his grace, not our eloquence, we can pray. Even if we stammer.”
Timothy Jones, The Art of Prayer (WaterBrook Press, 2005)
So pray! Pray in kinds of situations. And pray in all kinds of ways. Don’t get hung up on how; just pray. God loves to hear from you. And he wants to rekindle faith, hope, and love within you. Pray.
Third, Paul urges…
- Pray for all of God’s people.
“With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.”
Pray in all kinds of situations.
Pray in all kinds of ways.
And pray for all of God’s people. To do that demands alertness. There are a thousand voices vying for your attention and mine, many of them worthy causes. The way to keep in step with God’s call for you…is pray. Since life is war, know what prayer is for: it’s essential. So push back against the tyranny of the urgent. Set aside time…to pray, shutting out all the competing voices.
One of the things I did as we went on vacation was delete social media from my phone. Within a day of coming back and putting it back on my phone, I deleted it again. When I want to access it on my laptop I will. Here’s what I experienced: on the positive, I was in the moment, with the people I was with. That was quality time, uninterrupted by any of a thousand urgent or emotional or divisive posts.
The other thing I experienced was a fresh shock when I put social media back on my phone, and scrolled down the feed feeling more depressed and bummed the further I went. So I removed it from the phone. Less convenient, yes. Better for staying prayerful day rather than feeling barraged, yes.
If you’re not alert to what’s on God’s heart and God’s agenda, you will suffer in the spiritual battle. You won’t be able to put your finger on what’s wrong or what’s missing until you push back to make room to pray. The New Testament gives us at least four reasons to stay alert so that you can pray:
- The devil: “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” 1 Peter 5:8
- False teachers: “will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard!” Acts 20:30-31
- The Lord’s return: “You know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night… So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober.” 1 Thessalonians 5:2, 6
- Natural laziness: “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.” Colossians 4:2
- It is in prayer that the Lord will intervene in spiritual warfare.
- It is in prayer that the Holy Spirit will grant you discernment against false teaching.
- It is in prayer that you will be ready for the Lord’s return, unashamed at his coming.
- And it is in prayer that you will find yourself thankful, seeing and appreciating all the ways the Lord is so good to you.
We saw a dramatic example of being alert to pray when Bill Oberlin, who started this church, was back visiting. Bill was then an international worker in Indonesia, the most populous nation on earth. We had a bunch of guys together at a coffee shop on a Saturday morning and Bill was telling of his ministry in Indonesia, when his phone rang. He excused himself, saying he should take the call, and went elsewhere in the coffee shop.
When he returned several minutes later, he was shaken. It turns out the call was from someone who wanted to know what was happening with him at a certain date and time earlier. She had been sound asleep when she awoke feeling moved to pray for Bill. What she didn’t know—and Bill didn’t know the Lord was prompting her to pray—was at that very moment in Indonesia, Bill was on the verge of drowning. While underwater, he suddenly experienced extreme vertigo. He could not tell which way was up, and he was running out of breath.
The Holy Spirit prompted, this Christian prayed, and God intervened. All of us were floored at the connection that had just been pointed out. Who knows how many times and ways the Holy Spirit does this still, prompting and guiding Christians to pray for one another? Who can say the difference in spiritual warfare when we stay alert and pray for one another?
Let me make this personal: please pray for me. There’s a saying that if you want a new pastor, pray for the one you have! [repeat] God only knows the difference if you stay alert and pray for me, for yourself, and for the others that make up yChurch. Pray for the next members of yChurch that God wants to lead us toward.
Life is war. And this is what prayer is for.
So pray—in all kinds of situations.
In all kinds of ways.
For all of God’s people.
Fourth and finally, Paul models a great request for every Christian to pray:
- Pray for courage & clarity with Christ’s message.
“Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.”
If life is war, the gospel is the way people find spiritual freedom in that war. Believing the good news message of Jesus is the way anyone can experience spiritual victory. And by ‘the gospel’ or ‘good news’ I mean the message that Jesus died and rose for the forgiveness of sin for all who trust in him. All who repent of sin and trust in Christ will be saved. This is the irreducible, non-negotiable core of the Christian faith. This is why Paul was in chains—because of the message.
It’s a mystery in that God had to reveal it, that the way to be reconciled to him is by trusting in his Son whom he sent. And we are now Christ’s ambassadors, sent to speak this message to anyone who might listen.
The true story is told of when George Schultz served as Secretary of State under President Reagan, Schultz kept a globe in his office. When newly appointed ambassadors came to be interviewed, as well as when ambassadors returned from their posts for their first visit with Schultz in his office, he would test them. He would say, “Go over the globe and prove to me that you can identify your country.” Consistently, these ambassadors would walk over, spin the globe, and place their finger on the country to which they had been sent.
Only one ambassador got it right. When Mike Mansfield was appointed United States ambassador to Japan, Mansfield spun the globe and put his finger on the United States, saying, “That’s my country.”
An ambassador must represent the nation that sends them, not the nation to which they are sent. As ambassadors of Christ, Christians are called not primarily to represent the United States, or a political party or position.
We are ambassadors of God’s Kingdom, entrusted with God’s message of how to find peace with him—by trusting in Jesus who died and rose for the forgiveness of sin. That’s our mission as God’s ambassadors, and that’s the message entrusted to us.
Everyone needs Jesus. So pray for courage and clarity to make him known; to introduce the next person to Jesus. Pray that each of us will be clear and courageous so that we get to baptize the next new believer in the pool here. Ask God to give us all we need to be his clear and courageous ambassadors, even as Paul asked the same for himself.
When my family was on a plane to fly back to Indy recently, after everyone was on board, a Southwest employee came on looking for a seat. There weren’t any. The flight was completely full. But then something happened. With the company badge hanging around his neck, he was welcomed him into the cockpit, where he was given a seat for the full flight. His ID badge granted him authority, an open door to go where others could not.
There might be a word play along these lines here, when Paul refers to himself as “an ambassador in chains.” You will never see a nation’s ambassador bragging about being locked up. So what’s going on here? Listen: The same word Paul uses for his prisoner’s chains here was also used for the gold jewelry that high ranking government officials wore in those days. Think about the Queen of England’s jeweled crown as an example. The ‘bling’ testifies to the power and authority of the government they represent.
The chain on Paul’s wrist, he suggests, rather than a source of shame or shrinking back, are in fact heavenly bling, evidence that he is an ambassador who answers to a higher power. His chains serve as a
symbol of the King who sent him—Jesus who was also led away in chains, on his way to becoming the one Mediator between God and man.
So what concerned Paul most—what he asked prayer for—was not that he gain political or personal freedom. What mattered most—and he asked prayer for—was not that his wrist be unchained, but that his mouth would be opened to speak freely of Jesus. Because against this kind of prayer, our spiritual enemies are powerless.
The end of the book of Acts shows us that this prayer was answered. Acts concludes with Paul right where he was when he wrote the letter to the Ephesians—under house arrest in Rome, one wrist chained to a Roman guard. We read, Acts 28:30-31…
“For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance!”
This is where the book of Acts ends: Paul is not free. But his prayers are answered: the good news of Jesus is freely spoken, courageously and clearly to all who will listen.
This has always been the world’s greatest need, and it is still the world’s greatest need today: Christians who think like ambassadors, and who pray for opportunities to make Jesus known. Would you pray for this? Pray for courage and clarity with Christ’s message. Not everyone will receive him. But some will. And heaven will rejoice.
I want to end with two practical opportunities to do what this book ends with, two prayer opportunities. The first is tomorrow morning, 6:45-7 a.m. I’ll be in the chapel to guide in 15 minutes of prayer to start the work week. We’ll use the Lord’s Prayer as a guide, with its 6 parts. You can pray out loud or you can pray silently as I lead us through the Lord’s Prayer.
So if you want to start the work week alert and praying, join me 6:45-7 in the chapel tomorrow morning.
The second prayer opportunity is we’re going to offer the prayer table this Tuesday evening from 6-8 p.m. Every time we do this, we get to pray for people. It’s amazing. This is a wide open door for ministry that very few places would allow. We have a green light to openly speak of Jesus and pray for others in his name!
So if you want to and see what it’s about—even if you want to sit on the bench behind the prayer table to play it safe but get close enough to the action to see and hear what it’s like—write your name & cell on your communication card along with the word prayer. Put it in the offering basket after the next song and I’ll follow up with you today.
This is where we stop for today. Everyone needs Jesus. For anyone to believe in Jesus, someone needs to explain the good news of Jesus with courage and clarity. So pray. Ask God to open doors, open hearts, and open our mouths to make Jesus known.
Life is war. Now you know what prayer is for. Pray with me.
Our Father in heaven, may you be honored as holy. May your kingdom come, and your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us, not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
Holy Spirit we ask your help, beginning anew right now, to pray in all kinds of situations, in all kinds of ways, for all of God’s people with alertness. And with Paul’s example before us, we dare to ask you to give us courage and clarity to make Jesus known to those around us. Mark us as your ambassadors. Clear our minds from confusion about lesser matters. And lock us in on the only message that brings spiritual victory. In the name of Christ our King we pray. Amen.