The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
July 24, 2022
A business man was late for a crucial meeting and couldn’t find a parking place. As he frantically circled the block, he started to pray. He looked up to heaven and said, “Lord, if you find me a parking space, I’ll tithe everything I make and serve in the soup kitchen every week.” All of a sudden, a parking space miraculously opened up right in front of him. He looked up to heaven again and said, “Oh, never mind, Lord. I found one.”
Sadly, that’s how a lot of us pray a lot of the time. We focus on our agenda more than God’s. We use prayer to get God to make the world more favorable to us, when He wants to use prayer to get us to be more of a favor to the world. We see prayer as a way to change our situation when God sees it as a way to change us!
While some people today dismiss prayer as an unaffordable self-indulgence, an irresponsible withdrawal from the pressing societal problems of injustice and poverty, the truth is there’s nothing more urgent for the welfare of the world than that the people of God pray and, by that dialogue and engagement with Him, become more God-submitted, God-inhabited followers of Jesus. Sin is the core problem of humanity, and deeply devoted disciples of Jesus are, as Professor Peter Kreeft puts it, the most potent antibodies against the disease that is sin.
Letting prayer change us is the constant, steadfast work of a lifetime. While God can radically change any of us in a flash, few of us give God the chance to do so.
Henry Emerson Fosdick noted that, just as God has left some things contingent on our thinking and working, so He’s left some contingent on our praying – and our transformation is one. Fosdick has said that this truth is summed up in this motto: “Some things, never without thinking; some things, never without working; some things, never without praying!”
Prayer is one of the three forms of our collaboration with God; and one of the things that will never get changed for the better without praying is ourselves!
Watchman Nee put it this way: God’s grace is like a mighty train engine. To pray is to lay down tracks on which the engine of the Spirit can come to us and change us. Once it comes upon us, it is irresistible; but it can’t arrive to us unless we lay down those tracks. Doing that takes a long steadfast persistence in prayer.
Thus, when His disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, He gave them a brief outline of what to say, the Lord’s Prayer, and then immediately told them a parable whose point was to encourage persistence in prayer. Then immediately after telling the parable, He urged them to never cease from prayerfully asking, searching and knocking on heaven’s door. The meaning of those three verbs is clearer in the Greek than in our English translation. The grammatical form of the three verbs exhorts us to keep on asking, keep on searching and keep on knocking – that is, to persist in praying those three ways. After all, the parable’s message is that, if persistence pays off with a cranky, put-out friend, it pays off even more with a loving God eager to bless us.
It is significant, I think, that, when Jesus concluded this teaching on prayer, He specified the pay-off by speaking, not of any change of circumstance, but of the great Change Agent, the Holy Spirit – who transforms people by infusing merely human life with divine life and merely natural strength with supernatural strength.
Praying aright lays down the tracks along which the Spirit might travel to come change us. It is letting God work on us, which in turn lets God work through us in our serving others. It is becoming receptive and submitted to whatever changes in our character and conduct the Spirit chooses to pursue. It is taking in the Spirit’s grace, drawing on the Spirit’s power, submitting to the Spirit’s control, and allowing the Spirit to inhabit and improve us.
Teresa is a fervent and faithful pray-er who was once asked what she said to God other than the Lord’s Prayer and the prayers in her church’s liturgy. She said, “I don’t say much, I mostly listen.” “So, what does God say?” the inquirer pressed. She replied, “God doesn’t say much, He mostly listens.” “Then, why are you listening?” “I am listening to God listening.”
Listening to God listening was her way of describing her being present to God’s presence, her luxuriating in God’s loving closeness, her basking in His warm grace and letting it work its wonders on her: guiding her and inspiring her to do justice, demonstrate compassion and declare the good news of Jesus.
Teresa admits she’s not perfect in praying like that. Sometimes she fears the cost of discipleship and she builds up mountains of resistance against God. But she sees how persisting in prayer, despite her ambivalence, digs tunnels through her mountains of resistance, tunnels in which she can, when she is willing, lay down tracks for God’s grace to roll down to her like a mighty locomotive.
Tunneling through mountains calls for two initial steps. The first involves the protracted, painstaking process of boring deep holes into hard rock, in which explosive “shot” is inserted while connected to fuses. When taking this step, there is little visible progress. The second step involves the quick and easy job of lighting the fuse to set off the explosion, and the results are almost immediate and impossible to miss.
Tim Keller see a spiritual analogy in such work. Some people only engage in “fuse-lighting” prayers, which are fun and initially impressive, but accomplish little if the persistent praying of “hole-boring” has not set the stage. The praying that changes us involves both “fuse-lighting” and “hole-boring”.
To make our praying most effective, we must persist tenaciously in an often tedious process with little to show for our effort at first. Only the faith that it will in the end pay off big can sustain the required dogged determination to keep on keeping at it.
As we do the long hard work of building our personal rail line between heaven and earth, we keep asking, searching and knocking for God to change us. I think of what actor and singer Mark Wahlberg, once a racist criminal and now a devoted follower of Jesus, said about his prayer life: “For me to ask for material things is ridiculous. It’s much bigger than that. I want to serve God and to be a good human being and to make up for the mistakes I made and the pain I put people through…Every day I pray for the strength to be a good servant, father and husband.”
May we too keep asking, searching and knocking that we may be changed by our praying!