We currently find ourselves in the second week of our investigation into prayer as a habit of grace. Given by the God of all grace, through Jesus Christ, to pour into us grace upon grace. Last week as we began looking into prayer as a habit of grace we saw three large and broad realities.
First reality: that the order of prayer after the Word exists for good reasons, to remind us that prayer (and praise) is always a response to God’s revelation of Himself in His Word, that the God who speaks desires to hear us speak to back to Him, that prayer isn’t a conversation between equals, and that prayer exists therefore not mainly to get things from God, but to get more of God. Second reality: that the source of prayer matters as well, that all we have from God comes to us through Jesus Christ, so our prayer better have an ‘in Jesus name’ feel to it regardless whether or not we say it like that. Third reality: that the majority of prayer should happen in private where we enjoy communing with God regularly. I think we saw clearly that without prayer we can’t truly know and enjoy and do life with God.
As we continue on we turn to more particular practices regarding prayer. Specifically four things are before us this evening: praying with others, praying with fasting, praying with pen in hand, and praying in silence.
Praying With Others
It is very true that prayer is to begin in private and to be employed and enjoyed by us regularly in private. But it is also true that prayer cannot remain private. “Prayer is for all of life, especially for our life together in community.”God has given to each of us certain gifts that we’re to develop and fan into flame, that lead us to certain vocations in this life where do labor and toil to glorify God. Prayer cannot remain in private because prayer is to go with us as we go into the various vocations God has called us to. Tim Keller expands on this thought saying, “Since God is everywhere and infinitely great, prayer must be all-pervasive in our lives.”A quick survey of this in the book of Acts will show us this clearly.
-Acts 1:14, “All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer.”
-Acts 2:42, “And they devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”
-Acts 4:24, “They lifted their voices together to God.”
-Acts 6:6, when they chose the first deacons, “…they prayed and laid their hands on them.”
-Acts 12:5, when Peter was in prison, “earnest prayer for him was made to God by the Church.”
-Acts 13:3, the Church “after fasting and prayer” sent out Paul and Barnabas.
-Acts 16:25 while in jail, “Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God.”
-Acts 20 during the tear filled goodbye with the Ephesian elders, “Paul knelt down and prayed with them all.”
So beginning in private, prayer goes public, going with us out of the closet as we do life with our families, as we commute to work, while we’re at work, while we break from work, while we return home from work, and throughout all our evening activities with family and friends. God through prayer is to be our constant companion throughout all of life. And that means, because we do life with others, at special certain planned and unplanned times, we pray with others.
As we saw private prayer commended to us consistently in Scripture last week but not clarified as to how it ought to be employed, we find the same with public prayer. It is spoken of often, that it’s to be done in families, as we go throughout life, with our churches, and churches with other churches. So how are we to do public prayer in a helpful manner? That largely depends on the context of where we are. And from examining where we are, what patterns are already present, and what patterns ought to be present, we can come to some decisions about how to encourage and foster the habit of public prayer. Mathis gives five basic principles to govern public prayer, then nine benefits of public prayer. Here’s the five basics:
1) Make it regular: just as we must build private prayer into our lives, we must make public prayer a priority as well. This can look like a once a week prayer meeting at church, a weekly small group meeting that meets to study can begin with prayer, a weekly or bi-weekly phone call to pray with another, or a frequent afternoon phone call to pray with others. Bottom line: be flexible, but be intentional – disciplines do not just happen, we have to actively pursue them.
2) Begin with Scripture: just as we saw last week, it rings true again. All prayer is a response to God’s Word. His Word is hot-breathed out from His mouth and from hearing it we respond with our own words. A brief Psalm reading, or a portion of Scripture read at the start of a prayer meeting, will do much to guide and govern the prayer of those gathered together. If we do not start here, God only knows where our prayer will end up once we begin.
3) Limit share time: many often start public prayer by asking for requests or for those present to share what’s on their hearts. This is good, but should be kept short simply because we have the tendency to share, gossip, or go on and on about this or that and never actually get to praying.
4) Encourage brevity: in public settings long winded prayer often discourages those who’ve come to pray. Whether the is a long winded rambling on and on, or a devout and deeply theological informed pleading, I’ve often found that shorter prayer encourages more participation from those in the group.
5) Pray with others in mind but not for others: it’s always a helpful reminder that prayer shouldn’t be for the applause of those we’ve gathered with. But it’s also a good reminder that prayer is truly with the other people you’ve gathered with. So praying only about yourself and your sins or your particular concerns is out of place. Rather, public prayer should be public, including ‘we’ instead of ‘I’ and ‘our’ instead of ‘my’ – corporate words for corporate settings.
After these five basic generalities about public prayer, here are nine benefits (quickly) of public prayer if perhaps you find yourself still unconvinced or in need of encouragement to pursue this discipline.
1) For more power – Matthew 18:19 “…if two of you agree on earth about anything…”
2) For multiplied joy – 2 Cor. 1:24 working with others for joy
3) For greater glory to God – 2 Cor. 1:11 many will give thanks
4) For fruitful ministry – the churches to join in prayer for him
5) For unity – all the Acts examples
6) For answers we wouldn’t otherwise get – James 5:14-16
7) To learn and grow – learning by listening to others
8) To know each other more – knowing our brothers/sisters
9) To know Jesus more – we see more of God with others
Praying With Fasting
So far I’m sure most of you were eager and willing to agree to the discipline of private prayer, and even the discipline of public prayer, but as we turn to prayer with fasting I wonder if you’ll be as agreeable. In a culture saturated with overindulgence, fasting isn’t usually seen as a common discipline among us. This is a sad truth. I’m convinced we miss out on the joys fasting can bring because we’re so slow to actually do it.
So what is fasting? I think that can be easily answered by asking a different question: why talk about fasting alongside prayer? Well, prayer and fasting are coupled together because when fasting accompanies prayer one thing is in view – desperation. What do I mean? Fasting is a desperate measure, for desperate times, employed by those who desperately want to know God more.It’s a holy discontent with the status quo, an expression of the soul’s deep desire to love God more than anything else.Many people rightly go to the sermon on the mount to prove that Jesus assumes we’ll fast when He says in Matthew 6:16-18 ‘when’ not ‘if’ you fast, but there is a clearer text to see. Mark 9:14-15 says this, “Then the disciples of John came to Him (Jesus), saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.”
When we typically think of fasting usually we think of abstaining from food or a kind of food for a time for a specific purpose. But throughout the Bible many kinds of fasting come into view: public and private, congregational and national, partial and absolute.In his book Spiritual DisciplinesDonald Whitney describes more kinds of fasting: fasting to strengthen prayer (Ezra 8:23), fasting to seek God’s guidance (Acts 14:23), fasting to express grief (2 Sam. 1:11-12), fasting to humble ourselves (Ezra 8:21-23), fasting to express repentance (Jonah 3:5-8), fasting to see God’s work expand (Dan. 9:3), fasting to break free from sin and to effectively minister to others (Isa. 58), and fasting to express love to God (Luke 2:37).Whatever it is we’re fasting from, for whatever reason, for however long, the ache of absence over the lack of the thing we’re fasting from is within us a loud resounding anthem crying out to God saying “This much, O God, I want you!”
If you’ve been convinced this is a good idea, a Biblical idea, a Christian reality that ought to be present in each one of our lives to varying degrees in varying seasons, you have arrived at the correct position. If it’s been a while, or if you’re going to give it a go for the first time, in his book Habits of GraceMathis gives five tips on how to start fasting.
1) Start small – do not begin with the pedal all the way down by doing a 40 day fast or something monumental like that. Rather, start by fasting from one meal once a week for many weeks, than maybe two meals the same day for many weeks, than try a one day fast once a week for a bit…or try two days on nothing but juice (never fast from water). But be smart, when you’ve fasted don’t gorge yourself and eat a giant meal right away, you won’t feel very good.
2) Plan ahead – what will you do during the time you’re fasting? Read? Study? Pray? Sing? All of the above? A plan works best, so make sure to be intentional about it, and stick to the plan.
3) Consider others – we don’t fast for the sake of others, or for the sake of applause, but fasting must take others into account. For example, don’t plan a lunch meeting with someone while you’re fasting where you’d have to awkwardly refrain from eating while they go ahead. Assess how your plans to fast will affect those in your daily life, and adjust accordingly knowing that the glory of God and the good of neighbor must remain in view.
4) Try various kinds of fasting – try it by yourself, try it with others, try it with your women’s group, men’s group, or even your whole church. Is there a need present at for you and a few others, or a pressing need in the church? Link arms together by fasting together.
5) Fast from other things than food – for some fasting from food cannot be a reality. Health concerns come quickly into view even for some believers. So see fasting broadly, as more than just refraining from food, fast from TV, from social media, from technology as a whole, if you’re an avid reader fast from all other books than Scripture for a time, or fast from some other regular enjoyment for the purpose of increasing your enjoyment in Jesus over and above all things. In 1 Cor. 7 Paul even mentions married couples to temporarily fast from sex for the purpose of a greater devotion to prayer.
All said, praying with fasting for the Christian isn’t a God given diet plan or weight loss program. Fasting is more involved than just giving something up for Lent. Making a habit of fasting reminds ourselves of what is of supreme important and tells God we love Him, want more of Him, and our desperate for Him. Fasting increases our earnest pursuit of Christ, and makes much of Christ by solely turning our attention to Him. Jesus assumes we’ll fast on occasion, the question for us is: will we obey Him or will we not?
Time is short so I’ll just make a few comments on these next two items.
Praying With Pen In Hand
Why develop the discipline of praying with pen in hand, or journaling? Not to leave public reminder after your death of how godly you are, but to catalogue your thoughts about God for the glory of God and your own good. Unlike fasting, journaling is never commanded of us in Scripture, some people love it while some others hate it. I would commend it to you simply for the following reasons.
1) For growth: some things won’t come out of you unless you’re writing. Journaling helps us slow down and reflect upon what we normally take for granted, and from slowing down and reflecting we see more of what God is doing in us. To quote Augustine, “I count myself among those who write as they learn and learn as they write.”
2) For meditation: writing thoughts out on paper, praying with pen in hand helps us think out a truth long enough to be able to think it into ourselves. In this sense, journaling can be seen as a handmaiden to the discipline of meditation.
3) For praise: just as praise is not just the expression of our joy in Jesus but the completion of it, I’ve often found writing isn’t just the expression of my heart felt longings for God but the deepening of my heart felt longings for God. With pen in hand, slowly thinking things out, my prayer and study often goes deeper than when I’m just sitting and thinking.
Praying With Silence
This last discipline is last tonight because it isn’t so much a habit of grace to develop on its own, as helpful as that can be at times, but a habit of grace to develop which promotes and builds all the other disciplines we’ve discussed in this series. So here’s one thought on the discipline of silence.
1) Balance and Aim: it’s as unhealthy to always need to be around people, as it is to never want to be around people. We must strike a balance in life. At times we need others, but also at other times we need to be alone and in silence. Why do we need silence? Not just to cool off or to enjoy alone time, but to hear God’s voice with no other voices competing for your attention. In this sense silence functions as a help for the other disciplines. Just as caffeine aids the sleepy soul by rousing it to attentiveness and awareness, so too, silence aids all the habits of grace by providing an ordered and suitable environment where they can run free. So in silence, read, pray, sing, fast, and journal and you’ll realize how nice it is to avail yourselves of those things without hindrance. And once we’ve spent time in silence you’ll realize first, how much you needed it, and second, you’ll be better equipped to come back into fellowship with others. I try to have moments like this at least 4-5 times a week in the office here and I’d encourage to do what you need to do make silence a regular part of your routine.
These four headings are the next four chapters in David Mathis’ book Habits of Grace (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2016) page 107-142.
Ibid., page 108.
Tim Keller, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy With God (New York, New York: Dutton, 2014) page 28.
Mathis, page 122.
Ibid., page 118.
Ibid., page 118.
Donald Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life(Colorado Springs Colorado: NavPress, 2014) page 200-217.
Mathis, page 121.
Ibid., page 127-135.