Friday, March 11, 2011

What are you willing to do to sustain the privilege of prayer?

Next month, I’ll line up with about 20,000 other people to run the Boston Marathon. It’ll be my third time there, and since you have to qualify each year, slower runners like me have to work hard to maintain the privilege of running there—watching my weight, keeping fit, and completing another marathon under the time limit for my age. It’s hard work, but to me, spending that weekend in Boston is more than worth the effort. It’s a privilege I cherish and am willing to sacrifice for.

On numerous Sundays, I get an even higher privilege: I’m invited into the pulpit of Second Baptist Church in Houston, a community with over 20,000 weekly attendees. Certain things are expected of me to maintain that privilege: my sermons better be prepared. The people here know their Bibles, and if I just throw something together, I’ll lose them. I’m also expected by the executive staff to maintain a certain integrity in my lifestyle.

But by far the greatest privilege of my life is to approach God in prayer. We often talk of prayer as an “obligation,” a “duty,” a spiritual “discipline,” but in reality it is a breathtaking opportunity. That we could speak to the God of the universe—that we dare even enter his presence; that we might ask him to consider our pleas, and that we might receive marching orders from him—well, the fact that he even knows who we are, much less has something for us to do, is unimaginable apart from his mercy and grace.

The doorway to prayer, of course, was opened through the reconciling work of Christ to which we added nothing. But sustaining the privilege of prayer, though always grounded in grace, does require a certain maintenance on our part. This is not adding to the finished work of Christ, but rather accepting Scripture’s teaching that there are certain things that disrupt our awareness of God’s presence and voice in prayer, and we’d be wise to pay heed to them if we want to sustain the privilege of prayer.

The “Work” of a Christian

The notion that grace precludes effort is a cancer in the church, a false understanding of the crucial distinction between justification and sanctification. The spiritual life and ministry both take enormous, persistent, and diligent human effort.

Consider Paul’s attitude: “One thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. All of us who are mature should stake such a view of things.” (Phil. 3:13-15)

Notice the phrase, “all of us who are mature should…” Paul isn’t showcasing his piety here, or nominating himself for a Christian of the Year award; he’s laying down a standard to which every believer should aspire. According to his inspired words, a mature Christian will “strain toward what is ahead...”

Commentator Jac Muller writes, “The verb used here is very descriptive, and calls to mind the attitude of a runner on the course, who with body bent forward, hand stretched to the fore, and eye fixed on the goal, strains forward with the utmost exertion in pursuit of his purpose.”

The great (Reformed, by the way) Puritan Jonathan Edwards was as blunt as a man could be about this: “We are nothing if we are not in earnest about our faith, and if our wills and inclinations are not intensely exercised. The religious life contains things too great for us to be lukewarm.”

He takes it one step further when he adds, “If there is a fight to be fought, or a race to be won, then it must be done with utmost earnestness. Without this there is no way of traveling the narrow road that leads to life. Sloth is therefore as damning as open rebellion.”

I mention this because many will say “sustaining the privilege of prayer” sounds like works righteousness. Maybe it might even lead to legalism. This misunderstanding will keep us immature and unfruitful.

Can we value work as Paul, the champion of salvation by grace through faith, did? I love his comments in 2 Timothy 2:6, when he tells his young protégé to “reflect” on the fact that it’s the “hardworking farmer” who gets the first share of the crops. (2 Tim. 2:6) This is such a brilliant metaphor that it’s particularly sad I’ve never heard a pastor preach on it. Much of a farmer’s work—unlike, say, that of an athlete, solider, or politician—is done behind the scenes, without any glory, applause or excitement. Ancient farming, particularly in the days before mechanized harvesting, was grueling work based largely on perseverance and consistent effort. That’s the metaphor Paul uses to describe the hard, often anonymous work of a Christian as he or she pursues God and is used by God.

The renowned John Stott warns, “This notion that Christian service is hard work is so unpopular in some happy-go-lucky Christian circles today that I feel the need to underline it…It may be healthy for us to see what strong exertion [Paul] believed to be necessary in Christian service.”

Indeed, as Stott points out, Paul gloried in the fact that “I worked harder than any of them,” explicitly referencing his hard work in 2 Corinthians 6:5, 1 Corinthians 15:10, and Philippians 2:16. Paul always ties his labor to God’s energy and provision, but never in a way that God’s provision puts Paul to sleep and certainly not as an invitation to a life of neglect.

Ministry and an intimate prayer life are a lot like farming. Much of the work that produces fruit passes unseen. No one on earth is applauding or even recognizing our efforts. But the life it creates can be used by God to bless and serve many. The “planting” is grueling; the harvest can be great.

Just a few verses later in 2 Timothy, Paul tells Timothy, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed...” (2 Tim. 2:15)

In the next post, we’ll talk about how we work at sustaining a prayer life; since work is such a suspicious element of today’s Christian spirituality, I believed I needed to first support my contention that a productive prayer life doesn’t just happen by “letting go and letting God.”

Again this might sound like a provocative statement, but I believe the biblical record is clear: sustaining a rich spiritual life of devotion and service requires persistent, diligent and even enormous effort.


  1. Wonderfully written Gary. Look forward to reading your next post. Heard a fabulous sermon on prayer just this week from a Pastor in CA and he spoke along these lines as well. Coincidence...I think not :) A renewed passion to press on - love it!

    Hope you are settling in well down in Houston. Best of luck in Boston!! Please give Lisa a hug for me.

  2. Thank you for this post...touched me deeply. What a privilege it is to talk with the Creator, the King of Kings, the Lord of Hosts - the Lord of the Angel Armies. We take it for granted that He wants to walk our days like He walked with Adam in the garden. The intimacy that prayer creates is incredible and then when we start noticing it is actually him talking, to learn to be like Moses to turn off the road to see what that burning bush is about when so often I just keep walking down the road - it's life changing, heart changing.

  3. You mentioned in the next post you'd discuss sustaining a prayer life...did I miss it?