Sermon: Why We Believe Better than We Behave Concerning Prayer - James 4

We believe better than we behave when it comes to praying together. Here are five reasons why our stated belief and our practiced behavior don't match. And we're all guilty of all five.

Sermon series: When the Church Prays

  1. The Priority of Praying Together - Acts 6:1-5
  2. The Critical Mass That Unleashes God’s Will - Revelation 8:1-5
  3. Why We Believe Better Than We Behave Concerning Prayer - James 4:1-2
  4. Principles for a Powerful Prayer Meeting, Part 1 - Acts 12:1-11
  5. Principles for a Powerful Prayer Meeting, Part 2 - Acts 12:1-11
  6. The Great Awakening - Romans 1:18; Joel 2

Scripture: James 4:1-2

Introduction

In 1886, John R. Mott was in sitting in a crowd gathered in Northfield, Massachusetts when the Holy Spirit electrified him for the lost through the preaching of D. L. Moody. Moody called for 100 men to step forward for missions. John Mott left his seat to stand forth.

As God refined this call on Mott's life, it became clear that the mission field for him would be college campuses. For the rest of his life, John Mott devoted himself to the salvation and spiritual growth of college students. Simultaneous to this, he passionately worked toward the unifying of various denominations for the sake of advancing the Gospel globally. God granted John Mott amazing inroads internationally. Governments and religious leaders around the world were influenced toward cooperation, and because of this, John Mott was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize of 1946.

For all his achievements, Mott was bold to make one thing clear. These are his words: "More important than the most earnest thinking about a problem, more important than a personal interview to influence an individual, more important than addressing and swaying an audience - far more important than these and all other forms of activity is the act of coming into vital communion with God. It is indeed true that he that saveth his time for prayer shall lose it. And he that loseth his time for communion with God shall find it again in added blessing and power and fruitfulness." John Mott not only believed prayer was a weapon in the hands of the saints, he acted on that belief.

Graham Scroggie, who had the unenviable task of being a pastor and preacher in England during that nation's hardening against Christianity, once said, "One of the greatest mistakes that a Christian can make is to imagine that increased social or spiritual activity can be any compensation for the lack of...communion with God. There's time for business, time for pleasure, time for social and Christian service, but no time for that exercise which would give to all these, and other things, power and effect. The simple fact is, we must find time for prayer or we shall perish."

(The quotes from John Mott and Graham Scroggie were taken from Rick Astle's The Priority of Kingdom-Focused Prayer, p. 28.)

Add to these statements the Word of God's Son on the matter: You can do nothing without Me...If you remain in Me and My words remain in you, ask whatever you want and it will be done for you. (John 15:5b, 7).

Now I have a question that I call you to serious consideration for our time together: If we believe these statements to be true, then why do we find it so difficult to make prayer a priority in our lives and in our church? The Bible tells us that the last command of Jesus before He ascended was that His followers go to a prayer meeting together. In Acts 1:4, Jesus commanded them [His disciples] not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for the Father's promise... They understood what He meant by that and gave themselves to praying together.

So why is something so foundational for Jesus, the Apostles, and the Early Church so frail today? Why is it these days that praying together is so often the spare tire rather than the steering wheel for our churches? Why do so few who teach our Sunday School classes or serve as deacons attend Prayer Meetings or join a Prayer Team? The answer is obvious: We believe better than we behave when it comes to praying together. I want to highlight five reasons why our stated belief and our practiced behavior don't match. And we're all guilty of all five.

I. We do not see prayer as relational

Suppose you talked with your spouse the way you talk to God? There he or she is in the room with you, but the only thing you ever say is thin and repetitious. There's no heart in it. There's no getting connected, no caring about what your spouse cares about. Sometimes when Leeanne and I are out on a date, we'll sit near a couple who will eat an entire meal and never truly look at one another, never speak a word to each other. Hey, that's not a marriage. That's not even a friendship. It's two strangers linked by a vow sharing the same space. It is profoundly sad to see.

Let me tell something even sadder: we treat God that way. We live our lives with God on the surface. We're like one of those bugs that skates on top of water, never really breaking the surface. I can't tell you how many times I've missed God even though He's standing beside me, His Spirit within me. Understand something: God makes relational prayer a condition of His response to us. You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart (Jeremiah 29:13). Until you make your communion with God a priority that calls for stillness and time and energy and focus, you will never know Him.

II. We do not perceive the separating power of tolerated sin

Isaiah 59:1-2 says, Indeed, the Lord's hand is not too short to save, and His ear is not too deaf to hear. But your iniquities have built barriers between you and your God, and your sins have made Him hide [His] face from you so that He does not listen.

But sin's deadening effect camouflages its presence in us. Like sinful Samson, about whom the Bible says he did not know that the Lord had left him (Judges 16:20), we will not immediately perceive His absence in our lives because we have grown accustomed to the distance from Him we are already experiencing. We go on doing our little religious acts, but there is no power, no effectiveness, and desire for Him wanes. Here's a second reason why we believe better than we behave when it comes to prayer: we're justifying our sins while they are corrupting our lives.

III. We do not understand prayer prepares us for spiritual warfare

When the NT talks about the Christian life, it uses words like fight, warfare, armor, weapons, sword, soldier, and so on. In Eph. 6, Paul even lists the spiritual equipment we are issued by God for the spiritual battles. One particular piece of protection is prayer, mentioned in Eph. 6:18: With every prayer and request, pray at all times in the Spirit. Get casual about this piece of armor to your own peril.

When British fleet faced off with the Germans during the Battle of Jutland, the largest naval battle of WW1, they quickly recognized a point of vulnerability. Almost immediately, a British heavy cruiser was hit by an artillery barrage and quickly sunk. Then another ship was hit in its powder magazine and blown to pieces. Next the Queen Mary was sunk, taking a crew of 1,200 sailors straight to the bottom.

What was the problem? The hulls of their ships were heavily armored, but they were built with wooden decks that offered almost no protection against enemy artillery shells dropped from above. This oversight cost the British thousands of lives and strategic opportunities until it was corrected. (Ray Stedman, Spiritual Warfare; reprinted in Men of Integrity (July/Aug 2002); cited at PreachingToday.com) In the same way, if you leave off the powerful armament of persistent prayer, you will be quick work for the enemy, who will find a way to exploit that chink in your armor.

IV. We crowd out prayer with other things

Luke 10 tells about what I call the Martha Syndrome. It happened on an occasion when Jesus and His disciples dropped in on the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in Bethany. It afforded an intimate time with the Savior, and Mary took advantage of it, sitting at His feet drinking in His words.

But Martha made a different choice. Though no one requested an elaborate meal, Martha sets to work putting one together for the guests. She gets steamed at her sister for not helping, then transfers her anger to Jesus because He didn't notice her need of help and do anything about it.

What does Jesus say to Martha? "Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has made the right choice, and it will not be taken away from her." (v. 41-42). Jesus had come to Martha's home, but she gave herself to other things and missed Him.

D. T. Niles made this observation about our lives: "Hurry," he said, "means that we gather impressions but have no experiences, that we collect acquaintances but make no friends, that we attend meetings but experience no encounter. We must recover eternity if we are to find time, and eternity is what Jesus came to restore." (From the Warrack Lectures of 1958 delivered in Scotland (and published under the title The Preacher's Calling to Be a Servant), here quoted from Gordon MacDonald, "Leader's Insight: Slow Faith in the Fast Lane," ChristianityToday.com)

Psalm 46:10 simply says, Be still, and know that I am God. (KJV)

V. We think we can handle things ourselves

This is the root that underlies every other reason why we believe better than we behave. The evidence of arrogance in our lives is the level of our prayerlessness. Listen to James 4:1-2 describes. What is the source of the wars and the fights among you? Don't they come from the cravings that are at war within you? You desire and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. You do not have because you do not ask.

Don't miss the plain and powerful truth: You do not have because you do not ask. Let that sentence run through your life and speak the truth. You don't have a failure in your life that's not a prayer failure. You don't have a sin in your life but what prayer could have prevented that sin. You don't have a genuine need in your life but that that need cannot usher you into a manifestation of the glory of God through fervent believing prayer. You do not have because you do not ask.

The picture we have of God in the Bible is of Someone who is eager, ready, and willing to bless us. He is not a Heavenly Miser, who is stingy with His goodness, letting go of a few crumbs of grace to His starving children only when they beg adequately enough. He is a Heavenly Father who loves to lavish His gifts upon us.

But we're so presumptuous, so self-impressed that we try to make a go of it in our own strength, using our own imagination, education, and personal history. And you know what happens in our hearts, in our homes, and in our churches when we depend on our own best thinking? There is fighting, scheming, planning, hating, killing, conniving, striving, trying in our own way to get the things we think we need. Meanwhile, God waits to be asked.

Adrian Rogers once told of a time when as a young college student, he and his wife Doris took their summer break from classes to work in a little church in the Indian River section of Florida. When the time came for Adrian Rogers to return to college, one of the deacons who owned an orange grove gave him several duffle bags of oranges to take back with him. He had more oranges than he and Doris could ever hope to eat, but he could always share the wealth with others. When they got back to their garage apartment, they stashed the sacks of oranges in a closet and set to work eating oranges and giving away as many as they could.

Then one day, Adrian and Doris were eating lunch between classes when they noticed something unusual. Adrian Rogers said, "I looked out in the backyard and I saw a little fellow sneaking around. It became obvious to me that he was going to steal an orange out of my yard. We only had one orange tree, but it was a sour orange tree. Have you ever tasted a sour orange? The most bitter fruit known to man. One bite and you have lockjaw. It's unbelievably sour. This little fellow didn't know they were sour, and he was going to steal one, and I just watched. I saw him as he took that orange and made his way off.

"You know the thing that I could not get out of my heart and out of my mind is this: Suppose that little fellow had come up those stairs, knocked on my door and said, ‘Mister, may I have one of those oranges from your tree?' You know what I would have said to him? ‘Absolutely not!' because it's sour. ‘But, son, if you'll come in here I will load you down with more oranges than you can carry. I've got the best oranges you'll ever eat right here, and they're spoiling for someone to enjoy them.'" (Adrian Rogers, from the sermon "Victorious Prayer", online at PreachingToday.com)

It's going to amaze you when you get to heaven. I believe God's going to call you over and open a door to His storehouse and say, "Look in there. Those are things I wanted to give you. Those are things that I wanted to load you down with but I couldn't give them to you. You went your own way scheming and planning and conniving and fighting and figuring, and you never stopped to ask Me."

How does that song go? "Oh what peace we often forfeit. Oh, what needless pain we bear. All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer." There is a large, framed verse from 2 Chronicles 16:9 that greets anyone who steps through the door to the pastor's office. Listen to what God says: For the eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth to show Himself strong for those whose hearts are completely His. God is scanning this room, His eyes roaming down these pews, looking for a person who will passionately and persistently seek Him. His search never ceases and therefore He never misses one single opportunity any time, anywhere to demonstrate His power on behalf of any individual or any people who rely on Him rather than relying on themselves.

"Will anyone call to Me? Will anyone seek me with their whole heart?" Tell me, as God searches this room, does God find such a person in you? Our Lord stands eager, able, willing, awesome in power, full of grace, glorious in mercy, ready to work for those who will wait in prayer for Him. He's waiting to hear from you.

Let me ask it on a larger scale: Does God find here a church that longs for Him and cries out to Him, so that He moves to powerfully support us in His working? His power will explode on behalf of such a church!

Conclusion

I close with a challenge from a praying pastor named Jim Cymbala: "Anything and everything is possible with God if we approach Him with a broken spirit. We must humble ourselves, get rid of the debris in our lives, and keep leaning on Him instead of our own understanding. Your future and mine are determined by this one thing: seeking after the Lord. The blessings we receive and pass along to others hang on this truth: He rewards those who seek Him." (Heb. 11:6). (Jim Cymbala, Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire, p. 167.)

Lloyd Stilley is pastor of First Baptist Church, Gulf Shores, Alabama. He is a graduate of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is married to Leeanne and is the father of Joey and Craig.