(*Article adapted from Hank Hanegraaff, The Prayer of Jesus, Nashville: Word, 2001, Chapter 3)
Over sixty years ago the famous fictional character named Jabez Stone hit the big time in the Academy Award winning movie The Devil and Daniel Webster. Stone wasn’t evil, but he appeared to be the unluckiest man in all of New Hampshire. Unlike men who have the Midas touch, everything he touched turned to gravel in his teeth. One day he couldn’t take it anymore. He had just broken his plowshare, his horse was sick, his children came down with the measles, his wife was ailing and he had just injured his hand. Although Stone was religious, that day he vowed he would sell his soul to the Devil for a shortcut to success in life.
The Devil obliged, and at the expense of his soul promised to prosper Stone for seven years. Outwardly, Stone’s life was immediately flooded with good fortune and all the trappings of success. Inwardly, however, his spirit had begun to shrivel up and die. He was about to gain the whole world but lose his very soul. As I watched the movie and read the famous story by Stephen Vincent Benet on which the movie is based, I could not help but think back to the haunting words of Jesus, “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you” (Luke 12:20).
Like Stone, all of us have been tempted to look for shortcuts to success. And nowhere is this truer than when it comes to our prayer lives. We desperately want good fortune. We want a formula that will open up the windows of heaven and rain down its blessings. If you want to get right down to it, our prayers often sound dangerously close to the pleas of pagans, who constantly worry, saying, “What shall we eat? What shall we drink? What shall we wear?” (Matthew 6:31)
Thus, before Jesus launches into the principles of prayer through the most beautiful, symmetrical, and majestic of all biblical prayers, he first warns his disciples against praying as pagans do. The last thing he wants his disciples to do is turn the prayer he is about to teach them into what the New King James version of the Bible describes as “vain repetitions” (Matthew 6:7). So, says Jesus, “When you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (vv. 7-8).
As the father of eight children, I can tell you that I sometimes know what my children need before they ask me. However, what I, as an earthly father, only sometimes know, our eternal Father always knows. There’s no need to pull out the prayer beads or attempt to wear God down by repeating the same prayers over and over. He already knows what you need before you ask him.
This statement by Christ inevitably leads to this question: Why bother praying if God knows what we need before we even ask him? I fear the very reason that this question is so often posed is that we have been conditioned to think that supplication is the sole sum and substance of prayer. The prayer of Jabez, now on the lips of multitudes, is an example of supplication.
It is great to ask God to “bless me indeed” so that I can be a blessing to others. It is glorious that God should ‘enlarge my border” so that I might reach more people for the kingdom. It is right to ask that God’s “hand might be with me” so that I might be led through the challenges of life by his sovereign control and not by chance. And it is proper to pray, “Keep me from harm that it man not pain me.” Prayer, however, is not merely a means of presenting requests, it is a means of pursuing a relationship with our heavenly Father.
As I write, the lyrics of a Country Western song, sung by Grammy Award-winning singer and song writer Paul Overstreet, wash through my mind.
‘How much do I owe you,” said the man to his Lord,
“For giving me this day, and all the days that’s gone before?
Shall I build a temple, shall I make a sacrifice?
Tell me Lord, and I will pay the price.
And the Lord said,
“I won’t take less than your love, sweet love.
No, I won’t take less than your love.
All the treasures of this world could never be enough,
And I won’t take less than your love (Paul Overstreet and Don Schlitz, “I Won’t Take Less Than Your Love,” Pegram, Tenn.: Scarlett Moon Records, 1999).
The point of the lyrics, which deal not only with the relationship of a man to his Lord but with the relationship to his wife and a mother to her son, is that relationships are cemented not just by giving and getting but love and communication.
The fact that I often know what my kids are going to ask before they open their mouths does not mean I don’t want them to ask. Rather, I long for them to verbalize their thoughts and feelings. That’s how our relationship blossoms and grows. Likewise, if we are to nurture a strong bond with our Creator, we must continually communicate with him. And prayer is our primary way of doing just that. A memorable way of prioritizing the principles of such communication through prayer is found in the acronym F-A-C-T-S (F-A-C-T-S discussion adapted from Hank Hanegraaff, Christianity in Crisis, Eugene, Ore.: Harvest House Publishers, 1997, 288-90; A-C-T-S used widely many years).
Faith is only as good as the object in which it is placed. Put another way, it is the object of faith that renders faith faithful. The secret is not in the phrases we utter but in the coming to know ever more fully the One to whom we pray. Since God is awesomely revealed in his Word, the prayer of faith must always be rooted in Scripture. Prayer becomes truly meaningful when we enter into a relationship with God through Christ. We can then build on that foundation by saturating ourselves with Scripture. As R.A. Torrey so wonderfully expressed it:
To pray the prayer of faith we must, first of all, study the Word of God, especially the promises of God, and find out what the will of God is…We cannot believe as that is not faith but credulity; it is “make believe.” The great warrant for intelligent faith is God’s Word. As Paul puts it in Romans 10:17, “Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ” (R.A. Torrey, The Power of Prayer, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981, 123-24).
Jesus summed up the prayer of faith with these words: “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given to you” (John 15:7).
Faith in God naturally leads to adoration. Prayer without adoration is like a body without a soul. It is not only incomplete, but it just doesn’t work. Through adoration we express our genuine, heartfelt love and longing for God. Adoration inevitably leads to praise and worship, as our thoughts are focused on God’s surpassing greatness. The Scriptures are a vast treasury overflowing with descriptions of God’s grandeur and glory. The Psalms, in particular, can be transformed into passionate prayers of adoration.
Come, let us worship and bow down;
Let us kneel before the Lord our Maker.
For He is our God, and we are the people of His pasture,
And the sheep of His hand. – Psalm 95:6-9 NASB
Not only do the Psalms abound with illustrations of adoration, but they are replete with exclamations of confession as well. Those who are redeemed by the person and work of Jesus are positionally declared righteous before God. In practical terms, however, we are still sinners who sin every day. While unconfessed sin will not break our union with God, it will break our communion with God. Thus confession is a crucial aspect of daily prayer.
The concept of confession carries the acknowledgement that we stand guilty before God’s bar of justice. There’s no place for self-righteousness before God. We can only develop intimacy with the Lord through prayer when we confess our need for forgiveness and contritely seek his pardon. The Apostle John sums it up beautifully when he writes, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
Nothing, and I mean nothing, is more basic to prayer than thanksgiving. Scripture teaches us to “enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise” (Psalm 100:4). Failure to do so is the stuff of pagan babblings and carnal Christianity. Pagans, says Paul, know about God, but “they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him” (Romans 1:21).
Carnal Christians likewise fail to thank God regularly for his many blessings. They suffer from what might best be described as selective memories and live by their feelings rather than their faith. They are prone to forget the blessings of yesterday as they thanklessly barrage the throne of grace with new requests each day.
That, according to the Apostle Paul, is a far cry from how we should pray. Instead we ought to approach God “overflowing with thankfulness” (Colossians 2:7) as we devote ourselves “to prayer, being watchful and thankful” (4:2). Such thankfulness is an action that flows from the sure knowledge that our heavenly father knows exactly what we need and will supply it. Thus says Paul we are to “be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks on all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess. 5:16-18; also Eph. 5:20).
We began by noting that prayer begins with a humble faith in the love and resources of our heavenly Father. Thus prayer becomes a means through which we learn to lean more heavily upon him and less heavily upon ourselves. Such faith inevitably leads to adoration as we express our longing for an ever deeper and richer relationship with the One who knit us together in our mothers’ wombs. The more we get to know him in the fullness of his majesty, the more we are inclined to confess our unworthiness and to thank him not only for his saving and sanctifying grace but also for his goodness in supplying all our needs.
It is in the contest of such a relationship that God desires that his children bring their requests before his throne of grace with praise and thanksgiving. After all it was Jesus himself who taught us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” And as we do we must ever be mindful f the fact that the purpose of supplication is not to pressure God into providing us with provisions and pleasures, but rather to conform us to his purposes. As we read in 1 John 5:14-15, “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we have asked of him.”
SO, WHY ASK?
This brings us back to the question posed earlier: If God knows what we need before we even ask, why bother asking at all? My initial response was a reminder that supplication is not the sole sum and substance of our prayers. Fat from merely being a means of pursuing a dynamic relationship with him.
Furthermore, we should note that God ordains not only the ends but also the means. Thus, to ask, “Why pray if God knows what we need?” is akin to asking, “Why get dressed in the morning and go to work?” For that matter, if God is going to do what he’s going to do anyway, why bother doing anything? As C.S. Lewis once put it, “Why, then, do we not argue as the opponents of prayer argue, and say that if the intended result is good God will bring it to pass without your interference, and that if it is bad He will prevent it happening whatever you do? Why wash your hands? If God intends them to be clean, they’ll come clean without your washing them. If He doesn’t they’ll remain dirty (as Lady Macbeth found – cf. Shakespeare, Macbeth V, I, 34-57) however much soap you use. Why ask for the salt? Why put on your boots? Why do anything? Lewis provides the answer as follows:
We know that we can act and thus that our actions produce results. Everyone who believes in God must therefore admit (quite apart from the question of prayer) that God has not chosen to write the whole of history with his own hand. Most of the events that go on in the universe are indeed out of our control, but not all. It is like a play in which the scene and the general outline of the story are fixed by the author, but certain minor details are left for the actors to improvise. It may be a mystery why He should have allowed us to cause them by praying than by any other method.
He gave us small creatures the dignity of being able to contribute to the course of events in two different ways. He made the matter of the universe such that we can (in those limits) do things to it; that is why we can wash our own hands and feed or murder our fellow creatures. Similarly, he made His own plan or plot of history such that it admits a certain amount of free play and can be modified in response to our prayers (C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock, edited by William Hooper, Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1979, 105).
Lewis goes on to explain that God has ordained that the work we do and the prayers we utter both produce results. If you pull out a weed, it will no longer be there. If you drink excessively, you will ruin your health. And if you waste planetary resources, you will shorten the lifeline of history. There is, however, a substantive difference between what happens as a result of our work and what happens as a result of our prayers. The result of pulling up a weed is “divinely guaranteed and therefore ruthless.” Thankfully, however, the result of prayer is not. God has left himself discretionary power to grant or refuse our requests, without which prayer would destroy us. Says Lewis,
It is not unreasonable for a headmaster to say, “Such and such things you may do according to the fixed rules of this school. But such and such other things are too dangerous to be left to general rules. If you want to do them you must come and make a request and talk over the whole matter with me in my study. And then—we’ll see” (Ibid, 107).
While our Father knows what we need before we even ask, our supplications are in and of themselves an acknowledgement of our dependence on him. And that alone is reason enough to pray without ceasing.
*Hank Hanegraaff serves as president and chairman of the board of the North Carolina-based Christian Research Institute International. He is also host of “The Bible Answer Man” radio program, which is broadcast daily across the United States and Canada as well as around the world through the Internet at http://www.equip.org.
Widely considered to be one of the world’s leading Christian apologists, Hanegraaff is deeply committed to equipping Christians to be so familiar with truth that when counterfeits loom on the horizon, they recognize them instantaneously.Through his live call-in radio broadcast, Hanegraaff equips Christians to read the Bible for all it’s worth and answers questions on the basis of careful research and sound reasoning. Additionally, Hanegraaff regularly interviews today’s most significant leaders, apologists, and thinkers.
Hanegraaff is the author of award-winning best sellers, including The Prayer of Jesus, – from which the above article Chapter 3 “Your Father Knows” is derived, Christianity in Crisis, Resurrection and Has God Spoken? He has written many other acclaimed books as well, numbering in the dozens. He is a regular contributor to “Christian Research Journal” and “The Plain Truth” magazine. A popular conference speaker, he addresses churches, schools, and businesses worldwide. He is frequently invited to appear on national media programs to discuss a wide range of issues.
Hanegraaff and his wife, Kathy, live in North Carolina and are the parents of nine children–Michelle; Katie; David; John Mark; Hank, Jr.; Christina; Paul; Faith; and baby Grace–and the grandparents of five.