I know I’ve said this before, but I basically grew up in Sunday School. My dad’s been in a senior pastorate position since 1998. Before that, he was serving as youth and assistant pastor for a few different congregations. What’s more, both of my grandfathers served as lead pastors at various stages of their lives. Needless to say, I was always in church. Every time the doors were open, I was there. Sunday School is more part of who I am and less a place I go to every week.
If you’re familiar with this reality, then you might also be familiar with the concept of “Sunday School answers.” You know, those crisp, concise answers that teenagers blurt out whenever the youth pastor attempts to engage his class. These terse response often sound good but they don’t really carry that much weight. There’s not much substance behind them. The teacher might ask, “What’s the most important daily habit a Christian can possess?” And from the back you hear, “Reading your Bible!” It’s not that Bible reading isn’t important, it is — but it’s so much more than that. Other “Sunday School answers” might include “Jesus,” “God,” and “prayer.”
Now don’t get me wrong, these are fine solutions to our problems. We should be reading our Bible, and Jesus should be important to us. Certainly, these answers are all right, in their own ways. But even so, a student’s quippy answer often trumps a teacher’s desire to delve deeper into the Christian life. We often retort with these quick comebacks without really considering how or why we’re saying them. But among these “Sunday School answers,” one stands out among the rest as the least practiced and the most forgotten: prayer.
Prayer’s that thing that’s referenced a lot, talked about a lot, but not practiced a lot. We treat the Christian duty of prayer similar to how we treat the dentist and flossing. We say we’re going to do it and do it more routinely because we know and understand how beneficial it is for us. But after leaving, we don’t do it all. Praying (and flossing) is cast aside in our daily routines for being too inconvenient, too invasive, and just too time-consuming. When making a our weekly schedule as our lives get more and more busy and more and more filled with stuff, the first thing to go is prayer. Indeed, it’s usually the first spiritual practice that gets neglected.
One of the most unfortunate realities today is that other religions are crushing evangelical Christians in the prayer department. Muslim adherents trounce Protestants when it comes to prayer. They’re rigorous, religious, and resolute. Even more, they’re absolutely devoted and determined to appease their God with their prayers. And they’re talking to a false God, that is, to a lifeless entity that’ll never deliver on the petitions they bring to him. Yet, the God-fearing believer who has Jehovah on his side and, what’s more, has all the assurance in the world that Jehovah hears and answers his prayers can’t be bothered for a mere five minutes in the morning to talk with him. How sad. And I’m preaching to myself at this point. I’m no better than anyone else when it comes to the practice of prayer. I’ve often ignored the Spirit’s urgings to pray. “I’m too busy God,” I say, “Not right now.” But disregarding prayer is like snubbing your dentist’s best advice to floss. He’s given clear instructions on how to do it and why you should, yet this counsel is left to pass through both ear canals without the slightest pause for meditation or serious consideration.
You need prayer. Your spiritual life depends on it. Prayer is the lifeblood of the redeemed soul. It’s your spiritual oxygen, without which you’re left to suffocate. Prayer is a good testament and gauge of your relationship with God. A good barometer of the passions of the soul is who (or what) gets the majority of your attention. Prayer, then, proves the tenor and tone of our communion with God, such that, the more often we’re in prayer, the more humble, more reliant, and more faithful we’ll be to God and his gospel.
Prayer is the great humiliator. There’s no barging into God’s throne room of grace. You have to stoop to get there. Remember the parable of the “Pharisee and the Publican” from Luke 18? For all the overarching themes in that account, one narrative is that of the gratuitous speech the Pharisee offers up as a “prayer.” It’s nothing of the sort. He came demanding and presuming upon something, instead of pleading and resting and relying on Someone. And there’s the difference.
What makes prayer what it is, isn’t the loud expostulations, digressions, and musings upon God and his incandescent nature. Prayer isn’t about our eloquence but about the Spirit’s intercession. God cares not for flowery words, just for the dire cries of the desperate. He’s not impressed by the loftiness of our incantations or the exactness of our rhetoric. In fact, the condescension of God is most clearly seen in his willful and free acceptance of our stammering prayers and petitions. Prayer is simply the humble recognition of a filthy soul who knows they’re desperate for grace, and have come to the one place where grace is found.
The life and acceptance of prayer isn’t at all tied up in our command of language but only in the redeeming blood of Christ. We come before God’s throne of grace not because we’re worthy but because his blood bespatters the way. On this account, he bids us draw near. There’s nothing we possess that makes us warrantable of appearing before him. Yet, in grace, the Father says, “Come.” As Joseph insists of his brothers, so the Lord says to us, “Come near to me, please.” (Gn 45:4) Christ makes the way for our entrance, so we enter boldly. (Heb 4:16) He bids us come, therefore, we come. And we come because we are in him. As we are united to the Son by his very blood, we stand in the sight of the Father as pure as he is. And as the Father is never tired of delighting in the glory of his Son, so is he never tired of delighting in us. We are his workmanship, his masterpiece. (Eph 2:10) To us and for us, he has forever cleared the way for us to come to him.
This is the only way God hears us. Christ is the only way to get to God. We entangle ourselves with the semantics and phonics of prayer, when in fact all God’s after is the desolate, distressed cries of his children. Only to the desperate will he utter the tender reply, “Come to me and cast your cares upon me, for with Me is rest.” (Mt 11:28–29; 1 Pt 5:7; Ps 55:22)
Prayer is an all-efficient panoply, a treasure undiminished, a mind which never is exhausted, a sky unobscured by clouds, a haven unruffled by the storm; it is the root of the fountain, and the mother of a thousand blessings . . . Prayer is a haven to the shipwrecked mariner, an anchor unto them that are sinking in the waves, a staff to the limbs that totter, a mine of jewels to the poor, a security to the rich, a healer of disease, and a guardian of health. Prayer at once secures the continuance of our blessings, and dissipates the cloud of our calamities.1
The gift of prayer is the greatest privilege God grants us. When we pray, we’re immediately transported into the very presence of our Heavenly Father. There, he is with us, hears us, and knows us. Prayers sustains each moment of your life. Jesus Christ, your great High Priest, Intercessor, and Mediator, who forever intercedes for you, carries all your days along by his prayers. (Heb 4:14–16) Therefore, never cease to pray. Never resist the urgings of the Spirit to commune with your Father. Let us never cease to pray until we cease to breathe. (1 Thes 5:16)
John Chrysostom, quoted in The Local Preacher’s Journal (London: T. Ward & Co., 1842), 88.