(6 minute read)
“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God (Philippians 4:4-6, NIV).”
Several years ago, I helped the church I was serving start an evening prayer gathering. I had big dreams and high hopes. I imagined hundreds of people praising, asking for help, and lifting others in prayer. After all, believers should want to pray, right? Don’t we profess the power of prayer? Wouldn’t we yearn to be in the presence of God? We set the time, developed a format, publicized well, and launched the service.
Very few people showed up.
I was perplexed and a little discouraged. Several hundred people gathered for worship on Sunday. Why was it hard to gather for prayer on Tuesday evenings? At the most, we had two dozen. Some weeks there were less than a dozen.
For those who attended, however, it was an amazing experience. Once someone got in the habit of praying with the group, they rarely missed a night. Praying together became not just an optional activity but essential to one’s week.
Just as the first disciples, we asked the Lord, “Teach us to pray (Luke 11:1, NIV).” Over several years, God knit that small group together in powerful ways. On some nights, it felt as if the gates of heaven opened as we prayed for healing, humbleness in worship, and revival for our country.
Still, I wondered: why don’t more people want to pray?
I know people can pray on their own. I know they pray in Sunday School classes and small groups. I know that people believe in prayer. So why couldn’t people carve out just one hour to pray with other believers?
I believe it mostly has to do with how people understand prayer. Many people see prayer as important but perhaps not as valuable as, say, serving other people or spending time with family. Some people don’t know how to pray and can’t imagine sitting for an hour, feeling uncomfortable and wondering, “What should I be feeling now?”
There’s one more reason, however, that people don’t pray. Some people see prayer as always somber, the province of super saints. There’s no joy.
Two words that often don’t go together are joy and prayer.
We tend to think of prayer as really serious business, and for many people, if I was to say, “Come to the prayer meeting on Tuesday evenings,” the image in their minds would be a joyless, solemn fellowship that involved moving through a prayer list of people’s aches and pains. They think it will be boring or dull, or they expect that leaders will ritualize the life out of it. It’s no wonder people don’t want to pray.
When Jesus drove out the money changers in the temple, he quoted a portion of Isaiah 56:7. “My house shall be a house of prayer for all people.” But the whole verse from Isaiah says more. It envisions foreigners coming from all over the world to the place of prayer. The verse says, “these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” Jesus was angry with what the temple had become, but his motive was to bring joy.
Joy and prayer belong together. That’s why Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (I Thessalonians 5:16-18, NIV). Many people wonder how it’s possible to pray continuously, but they miss the first word to be joyful always.
People hear the call to prayer, but not the call to joy.
George Müller loved to pray. He brought everything – material needs, spiritual concerns, relationship issues – before the Lord in prayer. He was willing to wait in prayer for long periods of time. He looked for answers and expected help. When the help showed up, Müller experienced the joy of heaven.
“The joy that answers to prayer give cannot be described, and the impetus they afford to the spiritual life is exceedingly great. I desire the experience of this happiness for all my Christian readers. If you ‘believe on the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 16:31)’ for the salvation of your soul, if you ‘walk uprightly (Psalm 84:11)’ and do not ‘regard iniquity in your heart (Psalm 66:18),’ if you continue to ‘wait patiently (Psalm 37:7)’ and believe in God (Hebrews 11:6), then answers will surely be given to your prayers.”
I know life is hard — it’s not all kittens and rainbows. Sometimes our prayers are full of anxiety or even tears. But I wonder if we miss the central truth that we’re meant to experience great joy as we pray to our Heavenly Father.
When I was growing up, I never saw anyone pray like that. I never heard anyone talk about prayer as anything other than serious. It was a duty to fulfill.
But here’s the good news. There are people already a part of First Baptist who know how to pray with joy. They choose joy first rather than waiting for God to fix their circumstances — the joy of the Lord is their strength — and that joy makes them want to come again and again into God’s presence.
How about you? Is that what you want your prayer life to be?
Here a few directions to help you pray with joy.
Start with gratitude and rejoicing in the Lord. Thank God for what God is doing throughout your life. Focus on the positive ways that God is working, giving thanks.
Then, be real before your Heavenly Father. Ask for what you need. Make yourself vulnerable. Be honest. Say what’s on your heart. God doesn’t want to hear about what you think ought to be in you. God wants to hear what is really in you.
I grew up with moral performance Christianity. You showed up and put on a smile. But you didn’t really talk about what you were feeling or where you have failed. I learned to approach God not out of need but with a desire to impress God. I needed to learn to pray differently, recognizing my total dependence on God.
Just be real. You don’t have to recount the story of Moses and the prophets, with thees and thous.
Here’s a vulnerability test: when you say the same prayer over and over, with the same tone and the same words, it’s probably not coming from the heart.
Finally, keep it simple. Some people pray like they’re working through their grocery list. Names and needs. There’s nothing wrong with that. But Jesus said, your Heavenly Father knows what you need. You don’t have to say a lot of words. Just keep it simple. Focus on communing with God.
The more I learn about prayer, the less I say. The more I listen, the longer I want to spend in God’s presence.
Taking hold of joy is like when my dad would sometimes make me take the wheel of the car as a kid. I’m not recommending this, but I would sit next to my dad as he drove the car, and we would be going down the interstate, and he would say, “Do you want to drive?” So he would keep his foot on the gas and sometimes the brake, but then he would take his hands off the wheel, and I would be steering. It was thrilling. When we came to a turn or approached another car, he would take his hands and place them on the wheel again while my hands were still on the wheel. If I got too scared, all I had to say was, “Daddy, take the wheel!”
There are times when I get so burdened that all I can say is, “Lord, I need you here. I need you to take the wheel. I don’t know what is going to happen, but I trust you, and I believe that you can fill me with joy even in the worst of circumstances.”
Choose joy. Rejoice always. Pray with joy.
Prayer Principle #19: Genuine prayer should lead to joy.