[T]ake the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel… (Ephesians 6:17–19)
The Word of God is our most powerful weapon against sin and temptation. In it God shows us who he is and what love actually looks like in the real world. We are drawn to him by seeing his glory, and we are driven out in service as we come to understand his commands.
However, as powerful as the Sword of the Spirit is, we cannot yield it properly without understanding the vital connection between God’s Word and our prayers. Reading the Bible and prayer are, in a sense, two sides of a conversation. In the Word we hear God’s voice and learn God’s thoughts (as far as he has revealed them). In prayer we respond to this revelation and we make known our own struggles and desires. This “conversation” forms genuine communion with God. We are brought into his presence to experience the joy of fellowship with him.
In Ephesians 6:17-18, Paul tells us that constant prayer should accompany our wielding of God’s Word. Without prayer, we will not make effective use of the Bible in our fight for joy in Christ. The wartime metaphor that Paul uses in Ephesians 6 helps us to see the proper place of prayer in our lives. Prayer is not a convenient accessory for the Christian life. It is a necessity. We don’t simply get to pray; we must pray. Prayer connect us to the only One who can supply us and fly in reinforcements on the battlefield of this world.
“In fact, part of the difficulty we have with prayer stems from our failure to understand the battle before us. We pray for comforts while the world is burning around us. John Piper warns us: Could it be that many of our problems with prayer and much of our weakness in prayer come from the fact that we are not all on active duty, and yet we still try to use the transmitter? We have taken a wartime walkie-talkie and tried to turn it into a civilian intercom to call the servants for another cushion in the den,” (John Piper, “Desiring God,” 152).
Paul’s specific prayer request in Ephesians 6:19 is a reminder that we are supposed to be on mission: pray “that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel.” We all have a mission given to us by the Lord. Paul is not alone in his call to “boldly proclaim the mystery of the gospel.” Jesus has told his people, “You shall be my witnesses…” (Acts 1:8). He has commanded us to “make disciples of all nations,” (Matthew 28:19).
So, knowing our mission and remembering that we are in a war “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12) will urge us on in prayer and keep us focused in prayer.
GOD, THE GIVER
Our mission is to make disciples. But the power to save is God’s alone. This is why, before giving his disciples the “Great Commission,” Jesus first reminds them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. (Matthew 28:18). So, our mission is not to accomplish things in our own strength, but to live by faith in God’s power to do what he has promised. Jesus will gather his sheep (John 10:15). He will build his church (Matthew 16:18). We trust those promises and start calling sheep and picking up hammers. The work is his; the joy of partnership is ours. This is how prayer works.
God is the giver. We are the receivers. God is the rescuer. We are the rescued. All of this is because, in God’s economy, the giver gets the glory and the receiver rejoices in the gift. “Prayer is… the turning away from ourselves to God in the confidence that he will provide the help we need. Prayer humbles us as needy, and exalts God as wealthy,” (John Piper, “Desiring God,” 138).
In prayer, we are acknowledging the twin truths that we are needy, and God is all-sufficient. God does not need us or anything from us. He is self-sufficient. Paul magnifies this truth about God as he proclaims the Gospel in Athens:
The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. (Acts 17:24–25)
This God that Paul proclaims is not like the gods that these philosophers so often reject. The Greeks and Romans were accustomed to providing for their gods in order to get something in return. They had to barter with idols. But the true God is not “served by human hands.” He doesn’t need anything. He is the great Giver! This truth is celebrated in the Old Testament:
I am God, your God… I will not accept a bull from your house or goats from your folds. For every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills. I know all the birds of the hills, and all that moves in the field is mine. If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and its fullness are mine. (Psalm 50:7–12)
From of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear, no eye has seen a God besides you, who acts for those who wait for him. (Isaiah 64:4)
Isaiah says that the true God acts on behalf of those who do… what? Nothing! They just wait for him! He works, we wait. He gives, we get. He is glorified, we rejoice. He rewards, we receive. When we understand this, then we begin to understand the significance of prayer. We begin to pray for the reward: a glimpse of the glory of the all-sufficient God who stoops down to meet our needs.
In prayer, we are asking God, who gets great glory from giving, to give us things. In prayer, we are paving the path to our own pleasure in God’s provision. This is precisely how Jesus talks about prayer in the Gospel of John.
Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it. (John 14:13–14)
In that day you will ask nothing of me. Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full. (John 16:23–24)
Four times in these few verses Jesus speaks of us praying in his name. Praying in the name of Jesus is not about discovering some magic words by which we can force God to act. Praying in the name of Jesus acknowledges the unique role that he plays as the mediator between us and his Father. He brings our prayers to God – and he is never turned away!
Paul makes this connection for us in 1 Timothy 2. In verse one he commands us to pray, “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people…” Then, in verse 5 he tells us, “For this one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” Praying in Jesus name honors both the Father and the Son. The Father is honored as the giver and the Son is magnified as the mediator and intercessor.
When we come to God the Father through Christ, he will answer our prayers, “that the Father may be glorified in the Son,” (John 14:23). God will get the glory because he is the giver. In addition, we will receive that which he gives, “that your joy may be full,” (John 16:24). We will get joy when we receive the things we have asked the Father to supply.
Therefore, we should not be ashamed of nor should we be hesitant to ask God for the things we need and want. God is not a miser. He is not stingy. James tells us that we often lack things because we don’t ask God to give them to us: “You do not have, because you do not ask,” (James 4:2). We must ask.
Of course, our asking must acknowledge that we do not always know what is best for us. God’s goal is that we be “conformed to the image of his Son,” (Romans 8:29). His purpose is that we learn to turn to him as the only ultimate, lasting source of joy in the universe. Sometimes, he withholds from us the things we want because he knows that they will draw us away from him. So, a young man may pray that God will allow him to marry the girl of his dreams, but God may say “no” because he knows that misery and sin lie in that direction. Or, God may not give us a nicer house or a better paying job when we ask because he knows that these things will become competing sources of pleasure. This is the point of James’ warning and explanation for our not always receiving what we ask God to give to us:
You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? (James 4:3–4)
We must come to God in confidence that he will answer our prayers. This confidence, however, must be accompanied by the humility of acknowledging that we do not always know what is best for us. We must trust that he has our ultimate good in his sights. He will, through answered prayer and unexpected trials, conform us to the image of Jesus, the very one who is able to pray: “I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they [that’s us!] may have my joy fulfilled in themselves,” (John 17:13).
THE JOY OF GOD’S PRESENCE
In John 14, 15, 16 Jesus is teaching his disciples about how they will live in his absence. He is going to return to his Father, who sent him. Eventually, he will come again, and “In that day you will ask nothing of me,” (16:23). However, after his ascension and before his return, we will need his help. We will need to ask for help from God the Father in the name of Jesus.
One of the reasons that Jesus emphasizes the role of prayer in his (physical) absence in John 14-16 is because we experience God’s presence now through the Holy Spirit. The joy of God’s presence can be known in this age, because the Spirit of God dwells within and among God’s people. David prayed and confessed, “In your presence there is fullness of joy,” (Psalm 16:11). We see how God’s presence is manifest among us by his Spirit when we take note of the connection between our joy and the Spirit’s work and presence.
And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit. (Acts 13:52)
For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. (Romans 14:17)
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, (Galatians 5:22)
And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, (1 Thessalonians 1:6)
So, Spirit led prayer in the name of Jesus brings us into God’s presence, where joy can be found. This joy is both the goal of the Christian life and fuel for Christian living.
PRAYER IN THE BATTLE
In prayer, we are answering God’s Word to us with our own words back to him. Maintaining this constant communication between God and us is of utmost importance as we continue to wage war against our own flesh, the temptations present in the world, and the tempter himself. Like all soldiers, we need training if we are to faithfully execute these duties. What follows are basic instructions to jumpstart and guide your prayer life.
- Pray the Bible.The Bible is full of prayers to imitate and promises to claim. The book of Psalms is a collection of the prayers and praise of God’s people, Israel. In them, we find the thanksgiving, lament, rejoicing, repentance and more. We can, with slight changes, pray the Psalms. We can put the inspired words of God’s people in our own mouth as we give thanks, repent, and express our disappointment and sorrow. Often, we don’t know how to pray or what to say. In these instances we can use the Psalms as a guide, and we can call upon God to fulfill his promises. Paul’s prayers at the beginning of most of his letters can be used in a very similar way. We can make slight changes to the wording in order to make them our own as we praise God for his work in us or plead with him to continue his work around us.
- Use the Lord’s Prayer as a template.When Jesus’ disciples asked him to teach them how to pray, he taught them what we call “The Lord’s Prayer.” This prayer is a great guide and template for our own prayers. There are four key elements to the prayer: 1) Praise (“Hallowed be your name.”); 2) Petition (“Your kingdom come; your will be done…” and “Give us…”; 3) Pardon (“Forgive us…”); and 4) Protection (“Lead us not into temptation…”). Thus, our own prayers should begin with an acknowledgment of God’s greatness and goodness. We should begin with thanksgiving and praise. Then, we should boldly pray for God’s will to be done and for the things that we desperately need. Of course, no need is so great as forgiveness, which is why it is singled out. We need to pray for pardon every day. And, if we are to survive the war and advance in battle, we need God’s protection. We need protection from temptation and from trials.
- Ask God to meet real needs.When Jesus encourages us to pray for “daily bread,” he means for us to ask for real things. Sometimes, our prayer lives are weak and our and our prayers short because we only pray general, broad prayers. So, for example, don’t just ask God to make you more holy. Ask him to help you with your anger toward your boss. Don’t just ask God to make you a better witness. Ask him for the courage to talk to that one family member or co-worker who doesn’t know Christ. We need to ask God to supply in ways that can be seen and understood. Seeing God’s answers to our prayers strengthens our faith and lifts our prayer lives.
- Pray for others.We should pray for the lost to be saved (Romans 10:1); we should prayer for the sick to be healed (James 5:14-15). We should pray for the various needs of our brothers and sisters in Christ (1 Corinthians 2:11; 1 Thessalonians 5:25). We are to cry out to God on behalf of others (1 Timothy 2:1). When we pray for those with whom we are frustrated, we find forgiveness more easily offered. When we pray for the sick or the poor, we tend to see more ways by which we might serve them. Praying for others awakens us to their presence around us and the great burdens that we can help shoulder.
- Pray for the advancement of the Gospel.No need is so urgent as salvation. Several times in the New Testament, the Apostles urge us to pray for others as they preach and proclaim the Gospel (Colossians 4:3; 2 Thessalonians 3:1). Paul prays for the lost with tears and anguish: “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh… Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they might be saved…” (Romans 9:2–3; 10:1). No doubt these types of prayers fueled the flame of his missionary desires and evangelistic zeal. They can do the same for us.
- Pray all the time.Finally, while we should have concentrated times of prayer set aside, we also need to go about our lives in constant and continual prayer. We can pray for God’s guidance, for strength, and for his work around us even while we drive, shop, work out, and play (Romans 12:2; Ephesians 6:18; 1 Thessalonians 5:17). There is no activity in your day or quiet moment in your week when you cannot pray. Constant communion is our goal and our great joy!