I think we sometimes appear to others around us as people of prayer. After all, we attend church on a regular basis and that’s what “religious people” do. But we’re not really.
A Sunday School teacher was struggling to open a combination lock to a supply cabinet. She had been told the combination but couldn’t remember it. Totally frustrated, she went to the pastor’s study and asked for help. The pastor came into the room and began to turn the dial. After the first two numbers, he paused and stared blankly for a moment. Finally, he said, “You know, I can’t remember the combination either.” Then he folded his hands and looked heavenward and his lips moved silently. Then he looked back at the lock, quickly turned to the final number and opened the lock. The teacher was amazed. “Pastor, I can’t believe you prayed and God gave you the combination,” she said. “It’s really nothing,” he answered. “The combination is written on a piece of paper taped to the ceiling.”
As a church, we don’t know quite what to do about prayer, or how to go about prayer, or even whether we should have any expectation of prayer working in our lives.
Prayer is a major element in the Bible.
This is a strange text from the Book of Acts, chapter 12. It begins like a Shakespearian Tragedy.
The church is being persecuted.
King Herod puts a Christin leader, John’s brother James to death. Herod finds that the masses like this and it helps increase his popularity, so he has Peter arrested and scheduled for execution.
Then the tragedy turns very dramatically as an angel appears by waking him from his sleep leading him out of the prison. It’s a real mystery event as even Peter doesn’t know if it’s real, or a vision, or just a dream.
The angel and Peter walk up to the gates of the prison and the iron gates open by themselves.
But then the event turns and begins to feel like a comedy.
The whole church is praying for Peter’s release, and the church’s response when they see Peter is to think, “That can’t be Peter–he’s in jail! We’re here praying for his freedom so he can’t be free!”
Sometimes our prayers seem to go unanswered so often, we find ourselves expecting God to do nothing when we pray. Sometimes we don’t know what to pray for in a given situation, or how to pray.
So looking at the Book of Acts, in particular, Chapter 12, it’s study can teach us all some important lessons about prayer.
The first lesson is, the Church should pray!
That’s simple and very logical. Of course; you say the church should pray. But I have to say that I wonder if we pray enough in our churches or in our own lives. Paul says in his New Testament book, First Thessalonians, “Pray without ceasing.” Many of us will reverently bow our heads for a few moments and then stop.
Paul didn’t mean that we should be on our knees all the time or living like Monks in a monastery. He meant that we should be in an attitude of prayer, so even while we’re talking with others around us, part of our mind is in communion with God. And when we’re driving down the road, part of our mind should be in a quiet relationship with God.
But for many of us, prayer is a rare action. It’s something we do much too infrequently.
“You are in my prayers”
We find ourselves in a conversation with others who tell us about how they are in the middle of problemed teenager situation, or they are waiting to hear back from doctors and the news might not be good, or they’re struggling to find a job and we give them what we think is comforting–but they aren’t in our prayers. We say we’ll pray for them but we won’t. I often will ask them right where they are if I can pray for them at the point of the request. It helps them know they have my attention and it’s a good reminder for me to keep praying!
One of the things we see in this passage of Acts is that the Church prayed!
Praying is the most powerful thing that we can do as a church. We need to pray as a community.
Prayer for me is often a private thing. In the mornings when I’m reading my Bible, it becomes my prayer time as well in which I’m alone with my heavenly Father. I like to call it ‘Father/son time’.
Hopefully, personal and private time prayer is something we all do, but we also need to pray in community. It doesn’t have to be the entire church–it could be your small group or your Sunday School Class, or a few church members you contact via email.
The church finds strength as a praying community for one another.
Peter finds the church gathered together in prayer for him.
The strange thing is that even though the church is gathered specifically in prayer for him, a comic moment transpires as the church is caught off guard with the fact that God has heard and answered their prayers. This brings us to another important lesson about prayer in the Book of Acts:
When we pray, we should expect God to respond!
Looking at the Bible you’ll find many times when prayers were answered. Abraham’s servant prayed for God’s direction in finding a wife for Isaac, and God led him to Rebekah (Genesis 24:12-15).
David prayed for strength and was able to defeat Goliath (1 Samuel 17).
We tend to forget however, there are many times in the Bible that prayer seems to be left unanswered.
Paul prayed three times for the removal of that “thorn in the flesh.”
Even Jesus prayed a prayer that was left unanswered. Jesus cried out in the garden, “take the cup of suffering from me.” He prayed that He wouldn’t have to suffer on the cross. Instead, He had to suffer the pain of it.
Our own lives are full of unanswered prayers. So much so, that we begin to live in expectation of our prayers being left unanswered.
And like Rhoda and the church in Acts 12, we reach a point where we are shocked and unbelieving when God answers prayer. The thought process of why some prayers seem to go unanswered is a complex question. It’s not a one size fits all sort of question to answer.
There are different reasons for different situations.
Sometimes our prayers aren’t answered because our hearts aren’t right with God: “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (James 5:16).
In Proverbs 15:29, we read “The Lord is far from the wicked, but He hears the prayer of the righteous.”
Sometimes, the problem with unanswered prayer is our time isn’t God’s time.
And what we often interpret as “unanswered prayer” is simply a matter of an answer that’s delayed.
In Jeremiah 42:2-7 we read where the people asked the prophet to speak to God for providing immediate direction in their lives–“We want it right now!”
Sometimes the answer comes for longer than simply ten days later. It might be years later.
Sometimes we misunderstand prayer.
We pray out of selfish motives.
True prayer is God-centered.
But we often turn our prayers into a self-centered activity. I
n the New Testament Book of James, we’re told: “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures” (James 4:3).
The object of prayer is that God is glorified and not ourselves. At times we think of prayer as Aladdin’s lamp to use in glorifying self. We often think of God as a genie who is at our bidding and command.
Can we not pray for ourselves?
Of course, but we should pray for ourselves unselfishly. Unselfish prayer for self is a prayer which seeks not self-centered comfort but Christ-centered conformity to God’s will. Prayer isn’t an end in itself but a means to a greater end which is to glorify God!
The Bible promises us that God will hear our prayers.
The Bible never says that God will obey our orders and sometimes that’s the way we treat prayer.
In the Book of Acts, we don’t see Peter praying self-centered prayers. He isn’t begging for his freedom. He’s resting in the comfort of God. He trusts God so much on the eve of his execution, he falls asleep and he sleeps so soundly that when the angel comes to wake him up, a gentle nudge won’t do.
When I was a young teenager, my mother would come into my room in the morning and wake me up for school–quietly coming to my bedside and gently rocking my shoulder she would say, “Mel, Mel, time to get up and out of bed and go.” No–that wasn’t the way the angel woke up Peter. The angel acted like my father. When Dad would wake me up, he would crack the bedroom door and shout, “Mel. Get out of bed right now and get to school!!”
Acts even says the angel had to hit Peter in the side to wake him up! [Acts 12:7 – Interlinear Bible].
And you know, that in itself is really the best answer to prayer–not that God would do this or God would do that, but that He would give us such trust in Him that we could rest comfortably and calmly in His loving presence.
And the church should pray…
Photos/Images: Google Image Search – Settings, advanced.
Bible Translations: New International Version (NIV), or as stated.
Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary Of Old and New Testament Words by W.E. Vine, Merrill F. Unger, William White, Jr.
Commentary: Drumbeat of Love by Lloyd John Ogilvie.
Contributions by Maynard Pittendreigh in researching commentary on Acts Chapter 12.