(Preached at First Baptist Pauls Valley, OK, 9-14-14 a.m.)
Some of us were eating out a few years ago, and one of our friends was asking the blessing for our food, and he prayed a fairly long prayer. When he was finished, another of our friends said, “Hey, just because you missed your prayer time this morning doesn’t mean you had to make it up while all of our food was getting cold!”
There is a time for praying longer prayers, and there is a time for praying shorter ones, and as disciples of Jesus we need to recognize, and learn to use both types of prayer.
This morning we are continuing our series, “The Disciplines of Disciples.” Jesus commanded in Luke 9:23 that if anyone would come after Him, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily and follow Him. We saw in I Timothy 4 that God commands us to “discipline (ourselves) for the purpose of godliness”. We have seen the importance of having a daily time in “the pure milk of the word” of God and in prayer, and last Sunday we examined the Lord’s Prayer as a model to follow for our morning prayer time. We all need a time of “ordered prayer” like that every day. What I am calling “ordered prayer” is the prayer for which you have a “block” of time reserved every morning, to spend with God alone in worship and in intercession, following the outline of the Model Prayer.
But there is also another discipline which many of us need to cultivate, and that is the discipline of spontaneous prayer. We are to spend time with God in prayer besides that morning time, and it will not all look like the Model Prayer. Many of our prayers — indeed perhaps most of them — will look more like what Nehemiah prayed here in our passage for this morning, Nehemiah 2:4, just a brief spontaneous prayer:
“And it came about in the month Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, that wine was before him, and I took up the wine and gave it to the king. Now I had not been sad in his presence. So the king said to me, “Why is your face sad though you are not sick? This is nothing but sadness of heart.” Then I was very much afraid. I said to the king, “Let the king live forever. Why should my face not be sad when the city, the place of my fathers’ tombs, lies desolate and its gates have been consumed by fire?” Then the king said to me, “What would you request?” So I prayed to the God of heaven.”
I. THE EXAMPLE OF SPONTANEOUS PRAYER
:4 “So I prayed to the God of heaven.”
To give this a little bit of context, Nehemiah chapter 1 opens with the man Nehemiah serving in the court of King Artaxerxes of Babylon. While he is serving, some of his fellow Jews come to visit him, and he asks how Jerusalem, and the people who were there, were doing. They did not have a good report. They told him that the wall of the city was broken down, and the gates were burned with fire, and the people there were in distress. This greatly bothered Nehemiah, and he fasted and prayed for days for the city. Then chapter 1 ends, “Now I was cupbearer to the king.”
So Nehemiah was distressed about Jerusalem when the king asked him why he was sad, and then he asked him “what would you request?” It was in that context, then, that :4 says “So I prayed to the God of heaven.”
What do you think that Nehemiah did when he “prayed to the God of heaven” in :4? Do you think he stopped, and knelt down, and closed his eyes, and prayed through a six-paragraph outline of the Model Prayer, like we talked about last week, while the king and all his court were watching on? Of course not! This was NOT a long prayer. He didn’t have time for it. He couldn’t put the king on hold, and say, “Wait a few minutes, Your Majesty; let me go and spend 30 minutes or so going through all 6 requests of the Model Prayer and I will know how to answer you!” The king might have had him beheaded! He was in the middle of a conversation with the king, and it was a grave occasion. Verse 2 says that Nehemiah “was very much afraid” because you were not to come before the king with a sad expression on your face, and he had. And now the king was asking him what he wanted to do about Jerusalem. It was like, “This is your big moment, and you had better not blow it!” He was standing before the king, and he needed to say just the right thing. So undoubtedly, very quickly, Nehemiah “prayed to the God of heaven” and asked Him for help. This was just a quick “breath” of a prayer, something like, “God help me” or “God, give me Your words to say”. It wasn’t anything he had planned out; he didn’t pray it out loud; it was just a silent, brief, spontaneous prayer to God. And that is exactly the kind of prayer that every true servant of God needs to pray, throughout each day.
We see other examples of Spontaneous Prayers elsewhere in the Bible:
— In Genesis 24, Abraham had sent his servant back to Mesopotamia, to get a bride for his son Isaac. When the servant came to the city he prayed: “O LORD, the God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today … may it be that the girl to whom I say ‘Please let down your jar so that I may drink’ and who answers ‘Drink, and I will water your camels also’ — may she be the one whom You have appointed for your servant Isaac …”. (:12-14)
There he was, with his 10 camels, and all of the goods Abraham had sent, standing by the well outside the city, and there were people around. This wasn’t the time or place to kneel and pray a long prayer; it was just a couple of sentences asking God to make His will clear to him as he proceeded. And as we know, God DID reveal Rebekah to him, and made his mission successful, as he brought her back to be Isaac’s wife.
— In Joshua 10, Joshua was in the middle of a battle with the Amorites, and he prayed his famous prayer for the sun to stand still so that they might have time to completely defeat the enemy. Joshua didn’t have time for a “sit down” hour long prayer; it was a sentence prayer in the middle of a battle, but the Bible says that God heard him pray that prayer, and the sun stopped and the Lord fought for Israel.
— In Judges 16, just before Samson died, standing by the two pillars that held up the temple of the Philistines, he cried out to God, asking “please strengthen me just this time” and God answered and gave him the strength to pull down the pillars of the house of the Philistines.
— In Matthew 14:30, when Jesus had been walking on the water, and Peter went out to Him, and then saw the wind and the waves, and began to sink, the Bible says he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Here Peter was, about to drown. He did not have time to pray, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name; Thy Kingdom come; remember the missionaries …” and all of the 6 requests of the Model. He was desperate! He probably just gasped out, “Lord, save me!” And that was a GREAT prayer for that occasion. At least he looked to Jesus and asked Him for help when he needed it. Many prayed such prayers to Jesus when He was on earth: the thief on the cross, the blind man, others … “Son of David, have mercy on me” — just brief petitions for help.
— We see the same thing when Stephen was being stoned in Acts 7:59. As the stones were flying, it says: “he called on the Lord and said, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” As his very life was about to be taken from him, he briefly asked God to help him through the valley of the shadow of death.
These are just some of the examples of spontaneous prayer that are found throughout scripture. There are times for longer, formal, more organized prayer like Jesus outlined for us in the Model Prayer. But then there are occasions when we need to employ spontaneous prayers. I think it is notable that Nehemiah prayed BOTH kinds of prayers. Chapter 1 tells us that he had fasted and prayed — most likely for days and perhaps weeks — for the city. So he had already spent some big “blocks” of time praying, like we talked about last week in the message on “The Discipline of Ordered Prayer.” But it is significant that even though he had prayed many “organized” prayers, he still felt the need for this little “spontaneous prayer” as well. This shows that it is not “either/or” a longer, morning prayer, or shorter spontaneous prayers during the day. Nehemiah used BOTH types of prayer, and we should too. We need both. Beginning with a morning “block” of prayer, we should then continue to pray spontaneous prayers throughout the day.
II. THE IMPORTANCE OF SPONTANEOUS PRAYER.
Now, why would spontaneous prayer be important for us to study? It is important because spontaneous prayer indicates total dependence upon God. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ (Matt. 5:3) The “poor in spirit” are those who recognize their total spiritual poverty, and utter need of God. When Nehemiah stopped and prayed that spontaneous prayer before the king, it showed how much he knew he needed God. He was basically saying, God, I don’t the words to say; I need You. God, I don’t have the courage I need right here; give me the strength. God, the king could kill me for what I am about to say; give me favor in His sight. When he stopped and prayed that spontaneous prayer, he showed how much he realized that he needed God.
The same thing is true for us. The frequency of our spontaneous prayers will demonstrate how much we really think we need God.
There is a young man in Louisiana who lost his father a few years ago, and he is unfortunately going through a difficult time of rebellion against Christianity. The other day he posted something on Facebook which said something like, “Yesterday I told my girlfriend that she was nothing without me.” And then he went on to say that he did not really say that, but that that was what the Christian God was like, who tells His people that they are nothing without Him. (Whisper a prayer for that young man right now; he is misguided — I really think he is seeking attention — but pray that God would get ahold of his heart). But there is a key difference in the comparison he made that he is missing: if he were to tell his girlfriend that she was nothing without him, he would foolish and greatly mistaken; she should be offended by that. But when God tells us that we are nothing without Him, He is absolutely correct! He made us, Psalm 139 says, “knit (us) together in (our) mother’s womb”; Acts says “in Him we live and move and have our being”. He causes our hearts to beat and our lungs to breathe, and we are only able to do anything that we can do because of Him. Jesus was not “bragging” when He said, “Apart from Me You can do nothing.” He was stating a fact that if we are wise, we will recognize, and rely on Him to help us. We really can’t do anything without God.
Now, if I were to ask for a show of hands this morning, and ask “How many of you need God?” I think every hand would go up. “Of course we need God”, we would say. But the truth is, we SHOW how much we really think we need God, by the way that we pray.
This is why P.T. Forsythe once said, “The great sin is prayerlessness”. Why would prayerlessness be “the great sin”? Because when we do not pray, we are basically saying, “God I don’t need You” — and that IS the greatest sin! But “prayerlessness” does not merely refer to missing our morning prayer time, which we do desperately need, but to prayerlessness all through the day. If we truly realize how much we need God, we will demonstrate it by constantly praying spontaneous prayers: “God I need Your protection as I make my commute”; “Lord I need You to bless this work that I am doing”; “God I need You to give me wisdom as I talk to this person now” — and so on all through the day. If we are NOT continually praying spontaneous prayers, we should get down on our faces before God and confess our sin of thinking we don’t need Him. Thus, the frequency of our spontaneous prayers shows how much we really think we need God.
III. OPPORTUNITIES for spontaneous prayer:
So we can and should take opportunities for spontaneous prayer all through the day. The occasions for it are literally unlimited:
— Like Peter when he was sinking, and Stephen when he was being stoned, or the thief on the cross, and others in the Bible, we can call out spontaneous prayers to God when we are times of great need and distress.
— when you are in a conversation with someone (like Nehemiah was here). A lot of people are criticized for not really listening, but thinking about what they are going to say next instead. Better, perhaps we should be PRAYING about what we are hearing, and how/if we should respond.
— when you are afraid: quote scriptures, and call on the Lord to help.
— when you come across someone — anyone — in any situation; pray for them. I do this with the people I pass on the walking trail every day. If nothing else, SOMEONE has prayed for their salvation (I generally pray for God to draw them to Himself — and any other need that might look obvious; like if they appear sad, or are in an angry conversation on the phone, etc.)
— when you hear an emergency vehicle go by. Someone once told me they always pray whenever they hear a siren, because someone obviously has a great need. I have since tried to always do that.
— when you are stuck on an assignment at work, or writing, or on a test at school (I know this is when 99% of students do the bulk of their praying!).
— when you are about to make a phone call: I often call on God to give me the words to say, especially if it is a difficult call; just breathe a word of prayer even as you are dialing the phone, or waiting for them to pick up the line.
— similarly, when you are about to make a visit to someone; while you are waiting for them to come to the door.
— whenever you have sinned. Don’t wait for the end of the day, or until your morning prayer time to confess sin; do it immediately. “Lord, I shouldn’t have said that … thought that … looked at that … have that attitude” etc.
— whenever you are reading or studying God’s word, it is a good time to pray. I Corinthians 2:14 says we cannot understand the things of God without His help, so we should always pray and ask for the Spirit of God to illumine His truth for us. I don’t know how many times I have been studying a scripture, or preparing a message, and just got “stuck”, unable either to understand a passage or to know what to do with it, and when I have taken a moment to pray, God will often almost instantly give me the insight I need. It doesn’t necessarily involve a long prayer time, just “Lord, show me what You want me to see” — a spontaneous prayer for help, and He hears and gives the answer.
— in church is a good time to pray spontaneous prayers. You might say, “Well, duh …” but we should pray spontaneous prayers all through the services: our singing should be prayers, as we sing to the Lord; we should pray for God to speak to our hearts through the message; we should pray for the pastor as he preaches (I heard a story about a lady who reportedly said she prayed for the long-winded pastor: “for the first 30 minutes I was praying for him; for the last 30 minutes I was praying against him!’) One of the most important times to pray is during the invitation: pray for God to work on hearts, and for people to respond to the message. Even besides the “formal” times of prayer, we should all be praying spontaneous prayers all through the classes and services.
Since I was preparing this message, I made a log of some of the “spontaneous prayers” I prayed this week:
— When I was on my prayer walk one morning, a young Oriental man came running across the path, chasing his little dog. I prayed that God would touch his heart, and that a Christian at OU, or someone in the Trinity Chinese ministry, would be able to witness to him.
— Several times this week, when someone came to see me in my office, I prayed a silent prayer to God that He would give me the wisdom to respond the way that I should.
— When I was working on this message, I “got stuck” at a certain place, and asked God to give me His direction.
— I heard some people come to Mike Bailey’s office day and it sounded like they were asking for some benevolence help, so I prayed a quick prayer that God would give him the wisdom and discernment that he needed.
Even in our “spare time” we can be worshipping God in song and prayer; fellowshipping with Him. This is what we were made for, and restored back to in Christ. So let us do it! Singing “Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” is one of the signs of being filled with the Spirit, Ephesians says, so let us be constantly singing — and not just singing, but singing to the Lord, which is praying!
And you could go on and on. The opportunities for spontaneous prayer are virtually endless. Whatever we are doing, we should be praying.
Many of us know the familiar verse, “Pray without ceasing” from I Thessalonians 5:17. For most of my life I had always been taught: “Now, that doesn’t mean we are to literally go around praying all the time; it just means we are to have an ‘attitude’ of prayer” (whatever that means!?) But over the last few years I have come to believe that we are to take this verse more literally than many of us ever imagined. We really ARE to be constantly praying: about every situation we are in, for every person we come across, for every need we hear — and worshipping God every moment we are not occupied doing anything else — we are truly constantly to be praying spontaneous prayers, as we walk with God through each day of our life.
(In fact, it is the relationship that is to spawn these prayers … )
IV. The RELATIONSHIP that spawns spontaneous prayers:
When Cheryl & I were driving back from visiting the grandkids in North Carolina last spring, we both saw a street sign with a name on it, and without saying a word, both of us spontaneously broke out in laughter — because we each knew, without saying anything, that the other would think it was funny. We weren’t even talking about anything, but because we each knew that the other one was there, and would think it was funny, the relationship we had with each other spawned that spontaneous response.
So our walk with God, if it is real will give birth to spontaneous prayers. Nehemiah’s walk with God was so real, that when he encountered that anxious moment before the king, he spontaneously talked to God about it.
As I studied many examples of prayer throughout the Bible this week in preparation for this message, this is one of the things that stood out: Moses, and Peter, and Paul, and others did not always pray “long outline prayers”; they just spoke brief, spontaneous sentences, because they were speaking with Someone with Whom they had a relationship, and they were talking to Him. Their relationship spawned the spontaneous prayers.
Thus whether we pray these spontaneous prayers tells us a lot about how real our relationship with the Lord is. If you never talk to God spontaneously, you seriously need to examine yourself and see if you are in the faith, because the relationship with God is what Christianity is all about.
God made us to know Him, and be in relationship with Him. Jesus said “This is eternal life, that they may know You …” (John 17:3). But we separated ourselves from our relationship with God by our sin, and Jesus came to die on the cross, not just to “take us to heaven”, but to restore us to that relationship with God which we lost through our sin: to again KNOW HIM in the relationship He intended us to have in the beginning. If we have that relationship, then we will worship Him, and pray — and we have the opportunity to talk with Him all through the day. The extent to which we do that shows how real our relationship with Him is.
Charles Spurgeon said: “He who uses (spontaneous) prayer — whose heart talks with God — he is no hypocrite. There is a reality, and force, and life about it. If I see sparks come out of a chimney I know there is a fire inside somewhere, and ejaculatory prayers are like the sparks that fly from a soul that is filled with burning coals of love for Jesus Christ.” (Spurgeon sermon on Nehemiah 2:4)
If pretty much the only time you pray is in church, or when other people are listening, you can be fairly confident that you do not have a real relationship with God. But if you are praying little spontaneous prayers, all through the day, when no one else is around, then you can likewise be confident that you really do have a relationship with the Lord.
It was written of a minister in the 1800’s:
“Mr. Rowland Hill was a remarkable man for the depth of his piety, but when I asked at Wotton-under-Edge for his study, though I rather pressed the question, I did not obtain a satisfactory reply. At length the good minister said, “The fact is, we never found any. Mr. Hill used to study in the garden, in the parlour, in the bedroom, in the streets, in the woods, anywhere.” “But where did he retire for prayer?” They said … that he was always praying — that it did not matter where he was, the good old man was always praying.” (Charles Spurgeon)
May that same thing be said of each of us today as well: let’s begin our day with the disciplines of “the pure milk of the word” and a time of prayer, using the Lord’s Prayer as an outline. But don’t let it stop there. Let us “continue the conversation” with the God whom we know and love, and whom we need so much, all throughout the day, with “The Discipline of Spontaneous Prayer.”