(Preached at Pleasant Ridge Baptist Church, Morganton, NC 5-17-15)
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 then there is a time for praying shorter ones, and as good 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”, and 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 morning to start our day.
But there is also another discipline which many of us need to cultivate, and that is the discipline of spontaneous, or continual prayer. These are prayers that are not necessarily “planned” like our morning prayer time, but arise out of situations we face during the day. We see in our passage for this morning that Nehemiah prayed 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.”
Those words, “So I prayed to the God of heaven” form a very brief sentence, but they teach us some important things about spontaneous, or continual prayer:
I. The EXAMPLE of continual 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 them 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! Nehemiah 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 NOT a long prayer. 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 disciple of Jesus needs to pray, continuously throughout each day.
We see more 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 this servant was, with his 10 camels, and all of the treasures Abraham had sent, standing by the well outside the city, and there were people all 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. But it happened as a result of this brief, spontaneous prayer the servant prayed.
— 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 — in the middle of that battle — for a “sit down” hour long prayer; it was a sentence prayer while the battle was going on, but the Bible says that God heard 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. But again it was just a brief, spontaneous prayer that arose out of the situation he was in.
— In Matthew 14:30, when Jesus had been walking on the water, and Peter went out to Him, and he 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 Prayer. 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: 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 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 — especially in our morning prayer times to begin the day. But then there are occasions throughout the day when we need to employ continual, spontaneous prayers.
I think it is notable that Nehemiah prayed BOTH kinds of prayers. Nehemiah’s prayer in Chapter 1 is a great example of an “ordered prayer” — if you study it, you find that there are many elements in it which are similar to the Model Prayer which Jesus later gave: he began it with praise; he prayed for God’s Kingdom & will; he confessed their sin. So he had times when he prayed longer, “organized” model-type prayers. But as he faced a particular situation in the day, 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. We should begin the day with a morning “block” of prayer, and then we should then continue to pray spontaneous prayers throughout the day.
II. The IMPORTANCE of continual prayer.
Now, why would spontaneous prayer be important for us to study? It is important because spontaneous prayer indicates dependence upon God. When Nehemiah stopped and prayed that spontaneous prayer before the king, it showed that he knew how much he needed God. He was basically saying, God, I don’t have 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 that he realized how much 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. The truth is, we DO need God. Psalm 139 says that He “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 in John 15, “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.
I remember a few years ago, seeing a story in the news about an astronaut who was out on a space walk, who was talking about how when he was out on that walk, the only thing that kept him safe was that little tether cord which kept him anchored to the spacecraft. It not only kept him tethered, but it also carried the oxygen to him that he needed to breathe every second. It was literally his “lifeline”, and he knew it. In the same way, we need to realize that God is our lifeline. We can’t live a second without Him. We can’t do anything without Him. We NEED Him! Now, if I were to ask for a show of hands this morning: “How many of you think you need God?” I imagine that virtually 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 whether we continually pray.
This is why P.T. Forsythe once said, “The great sin is prayerlessness”. That saying might surprise a lot of us. We’d say that adultery, or murder, or homosexual practice, or abortion might be the great sins. Why would prayerlessness be “the great sin”? Because when we don’t pray, we are basically saying, “God I don’t need You” — and that IS the greatest sin!
But “prayerlessness” doesn’t merely mean missing our morning prayer time, which we do desperately need — we are foolish if we walk out into a day without praying first. But it also refers to prayerlessness throughout 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. The frequency of our spontaneous prayers shows how much we really think we need God.
III. OPPORTUNITIES for continual prayer:
So we can and should take opportunities for spontaneous prayer all through the day. The occasions for it are virtually unlimited:
— First of all, we can take our cue from Nehemiah in our passage for today, and pray when we are in a conversation with others. Just breathe a prayer, like Nehemiah did, that you would listen well, and respond the way that God wants you to. If we prayed more during our conversations, we would undoubtedly have many more witnessing opportunities unfold for us.
— 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 or distress.
— When you are afraid: quote scriptures of prayer, and call on the Lord to help. My first Bible memory verse was Psalm 56:3; I used to quote it as a child in the severe Oklahoma thunderstorms: “What time I am afraid, I will trust in Thee, Psalm 56, verse 3”!
— When you come across someone — anyone — in any situation; pray for them. I often do this with the people I pass on the walking trail, or in a grocery store, or wherever. 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. If nothing else, SOMEONE has prayed for them, or for their salvation that day.
— Several years ago someone once told me they always pray whenever they hear a siren, because someone obviously has a great need. I have always tried to do that ever since.
— 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 I am writing a sermon, and get “stuck”, I often take a few moments to pray and ask God to help me, and make things clear. I will usually get a “breakthrough” just after I have prayed.
— Just before you make a phone call can be a good time to pray. I often call on God to give me just the words to say, right before I call — especially if it is a difficult call; just breathe a word of prayer even as you are dialing the phone, or waiting for the other person to pick up the line.
— Whenever you have sinned. You don’t have to 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. Just whisper a prayer and immediately confess your sin to the Lord.
— Any time you are about to read or study 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. It doesn’t necessarily involve a long prayer time, just “Lord, show me what You want me to see” — a spontaneous prayer for help in understanding His word.
— When you are in church iit is a good time to pray spontaneous prayers. We should be praying spontaneous prayers all through our services: our singing should be to God, which makes the whole song service prayer; prayers, 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 that we have together, we should all be praying continuous, spontaneous prayers all throughout our services, really making God’s house “a house of prayer.”
There are all kinds of opportunities for “spontaneous prayers.” Here’s some examples of my mine from last week:
— One day I walked by one of our neighbor’s houses this week, and since I don’t know about their relationship with the Lord, I just quickly prayed that God would draw them to Himself if He hasn’t already — and use me and my family as a witness if He wants to use us.
— I finished one project at the office this week, and so then I just quickly prayed: “Lord, what is it that I should I do next?”
— At one point last week, I had a bad attitude about something (if you can imagine that from the pastor!) and I just stopped real quick and asked the Lord to forgive me for that attitude.
— As I walked down the hallway at the office I noticed that one of our staff members was having a meeting, so I said a prayer for them.
— Several times last week, as I was driving in the car between my home and the office, I sang praise songs to God, which, as we have talked about before, is prayer.
— As I was about to go into a meeting, I prayed for God’s will to be done there.
And we could go on and on. The opportunities for spontaneous prayer are virtually endless. Whatever we are doing, we should be praying in one fashion or another. Many of us are familiar with the 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”. I never could really figure out what that means — “have an attitude of prayer”? 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 just constantly to be praying spontaneous prayers, as we walk with God through every moment of our life.
IV. The RELATIONSHIP of Continual Prayer:
The really important thing about Nehemiah’s continual, spontaneous praying, is that it indicated something important about his relationship with God. His walk with the Lord was so real, that when he encountered that anxious moment before the king, he just spontaneously talked to Him about it.
You see this same thing with people of God throughout the Bible: Moses, Peter, Paul, and others. They did sometimes pray longer, “outline prayers”; but they also often just spoke brief, spontaneous sentences to God, because they were speaking with Someone with Whom they had a relationship, and they were just talking to Him as they went along. Their relationship spawned the spontaneous prayers.
A year ago, before we ever knew we would be coming to Morganton, Cheryl & I were driving back to Oklahoma from a visit with the grandkids in Wake Forest. At one point, we both saw a street sign with a name on it, and without saying a word, both of us spontaneously broke out in laughter at the same time — because we each knew, without saying anything, that the other person would think it was funny. We weren’t even talking about anything, but because we each knew that the other person was there, and that they would think it was funny, the relationship we had with each other spawned that spontaneous response.
That is why we can say that the way that 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. So 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: so that we might KNOW HIM in the relationship He created us to have from the beginning. If we have come to have that relationship, then we will want to worship Him, and pray, and 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 (spontaneous) 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 need to carefully examine your life; you may well be a hypocrite, with no 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 pretty confident that you do indeed have a real relationship with the Lord.
CONCLUSION: That same Charles Spurgeon asked one day to see the study of a preacher he had heard about. He was told that this preacher had no study. “But where did he retire for prayer?”, he asked. “They said … that he was always praying — that it did not matter where he was, the good old man was always praying.”
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 organized prayer, like Jesus taught us in the Model Prayer. But don’t let it stop there. Let us “continue the conversation” with God all throughout the day, with “The Discipline of Continual Prayer” that comes from our relationship with our Heavenly Father.