Why does prayer matter? Pastor Luis shares a message about the importance of prayer.
We’re walking through the scene we’re calling Spark when faith comes alive. If we were together a week ago, you may remember that we discussed the reality that pain has the ability to awaken us. It really does. It has the ability to wake us up if we listen to what it’s trying to say. We explored somebody that we’re going to continue to walk with named Nehemiah. If pain awakens faith within us when we listen to it, prayer is the oxygen that blows onto the spark and it creates something stronger. Prayer has the capacity to enable something to grow within our own heart in a way I think very few things can.
Believe it or not, I actually remember the first moments when I uttered my first prayer. I remember them because while they were uttered in a moment, I could say they were shrieked in a moment of somewhat terror and fear. I was a sophomore in high school and on a varsity team. The older guys were going out. It was a Friday night. We were making our way down to the peninsula where you could ride go-karts and play video games and do all kinds of things that teenagers like to do. I remember they asked me if I wanted to come along. I said, “Yeah, definitely.”
We got piled into a minivan and drove down there. My friend and I are in the back. We were the youngest ones so we were in the back, and we had a good time. Along the way, I started to notice that one of the older guys liked conflict. Predominantly, he liked to create it. I didn’t like that so much, so I kept my distance and did my own thing. We piled back into the minivan and were driving back home. It’s later at night and this guy is in a minivan with us. He and his friends started trying to create conflict on the road, which is not smart. He starts yelling out to different people. For whatever reason, he ended up yelling at the wrong car. They rolled down their window and started jabbing back. My friend and I are just sitting in the back, quiet, wondering what’s going on, just thinking, “I just want to get home.”
We heard the word that you just don’t want to hear in a situation like that. Somebody in our minivan yelled “Gun!” Immediately everyone just dropped underneath the seats, so I did the same. Somebody was underneath me so I pulled him out and made sure I went underneath. There were some floor mats. I pulled those up too. I thought, “I just need to get as low as I possibly can.” I felt the bodies on top of me and the seat on top of me, I felt it. My family didn’t go to church. I didn’t grow up religious beyond the two adventures at Easter and Christmas that we would make. I didn’t grow up hearing about God. That wasn’t really part of our ethos as a family. It wasn’t really part of the environment. But I remember in those moments of absolute heroism, yelling out, “Please, no, God. Jesus, no. I’m too young to die. Please let me live. I’m sorry.”
In my group of friends, I was the one when things were tense or whatever, I would crack a joke. We weren’t the greatest soccer team, so I was the one who found the humor in not being the great soccer team. I remember just saying this out of a desire to make people laugh. As we’re driving, I never heard gunshots, but I did hear two pops. I don’t know if they were or if they weren’t. I don’t know. I was convinced they were. This just came out of me, “Please, God, no. Jesus, no. I’m too young to die. I’m sorry. Let me live.” Silent.
I remember after the driver made his way off of where we were, they drove away. We sat there and just settled things down. Everybody else in the minivan started laughing and saying, “Did you hear Luis? Did you hear the guy was praying?” At first, I was like, “Yeah,” and then inside of me, I realized, “Wait a minute, I was praying.” This weird thing happened where I started to recognize my inherent inclination to cry out to God. I didn’t know who I was crying out to. I didn’t know how this whole thing works, but something inside of me wanted to believe He existed. Something inside of me did not want to believe He existed but desperately desired that He would hear me and actually answer that prayer. It was legitimate. It started as a joke, but it was really sincere. I remember that.
I remember years later when I found myself in this building where I came to know who I actually cried out to on that night. I found myself in a group, a small community group, and we were walking and talking. We started talking about prayer. I remember the group leader pulling him aside, sharing this story, “This actually happened to me where this weird thing where I was joking, but afterward, when everyone else was laughing, internally, I realized I want to know who I was crying out to.” I remember what he said to me. He said, “Luis, you may not have been taking God seriously when you said that prayer, but God certainly took you seriously.”
I share that because I’m convinced that we have a natural inclination toward prayer. It’s as natural to us as breathing, but we don’t know it because we may or may not know who we’re praying to. We may not altogether understand what it looks like or how it works. But it shows up when we feel helpless when we feel overwhelmed. It shows up since we have no control and we have no other options. What do we have to lose? Might as well pray. It shows up when we face struggles and challenges that we think are insurmountable. We have an inclination to God.
It was Henri Nouwen who said, “To pray is to walk in the full light of God and to say simply, without holding back, ‘I am human. You are God.'” At its core, it’s a language that allows our heart to express itself, to acknowledge who we are, to acknowledge who God is. A lot of times, it expresses itself like the exhale of an anxious heart under duress, and those are great moments to pray certainly. They may be the only moment some of us pray. But I think that prayer has the ability to become a true source of strength for us if we are able to understand what a resource we have.
Something that Nehemiah modeled for us, and I think it’s worth noting. If you open up your handout, we’ll walk through a passage in which he exhibits what it might look like to pray through a spark or over a pain point. We discussed a week ago this memoir was written about 450 years before the coming of Christ in a particular period of time in Israel’s history, where the Medes and the Persians, the modern-day Iraq and Iran, had removed the Israelites out of their land and scattered them throughout the known world. They were on the other side of that scattering, that exile as they call it. A group of them were given permission to go back to Jerusalem and to rebuild their city.
Nehemiah ends up getting word as he is sitting in a rather well-off position. He hears from a group of people coming from Jerusalem and he gets the terrible news. He discovers after asking how they’re doing that the people in Jerusalem are actually in extreme vulnerability. They have no wall. We talked about this in-depth. No wall in those days meant imminent danger. It meant being exposed without any recourse to any defense, and forgetting chances of prosperity. They were vulnerable constantly. When he heard the news, it so affected him that he wrote it down in his memoir in verse four. At the top, it says, “When I heard this, I sat down and I wept. In fact, for days, I mourned. I fasted, I withheld food for myself, and I prayed to the God of heaven. I allowed this pain to penetrate my exterior and express itself. I mourned for days.” We have to understand this, it’s important to know. Nehemiah was 800 miles away from Jerusalem when he heard this news. He’s sitting in the purge of power. He’s in the shadow of the most powerful person in the known world at that time, but he was expendable too. He was the king’s cup-bearer; that is the last line of defense to make sure the king was not exposed to danger in any of his meals. He was sitting in the shadow of power. Having power and sitting in the shadow of power are two very different things.
Without question, the easier thing to do would have been to ignore the circumstances his people found themselves in. Or at least, surrender himself to the reality there’s nothing that can be done. Yes, he felt the pain. Yes, he had solidarity with them, but to do something about it, well, that’s a different deal. No one would have blamed Nehemiah if he simply said, “You know what, I mourned and I prayed and I grieved over this. I didn’t eat.” That was it. We don’t understand that. We don’t understand it because to do anything would be to risk everything. Yet what Nehemiah ended up doing demonstrates contradiction. It is a hard thing to find someone in a high position in our culture, in our world who has a soft and tender heart for God. There is something about that combination that is rare, to be at the pinnacle, yet soft and available to God. It’s not common. It is what Nehemiah ends up demonstrating.
His prayer, which he writes down, was told in verse five. He says, “Then I said, ‘Oh Lord, God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps His covenant of unfailing love, that is His relationship that will never quit, with those who love Him and obey His commandments.'” Do you know what he starts off doing? In the midst of recognizing how challenging this is, he declares and acknowledges God’s greatness. He places everything in perspective, “Oh Lord, God of heaven.” What he doesn’t do is deny how difficult his challenge is, this situation, an entire city completely exposed for those he loves and he cares for. What he doesn’t do is deny how hard that is. He basically declares there is no challenge that is bigger than You, God. He reminds himself there is no challenge that is more powerful. The risks are massive. No question about it.
A mountain climber I once read about put it this way. Mountains don’t kill people, they just sit there. It’s in the attempt to overcome the mountain that the danger increases. It’s in the attempt of scaling the challenge that one exposes oneself to the risks. Nehemiah was well aware of how hard this was. On the other hand, we are getting the sense that his challenge is large, yes, but God is mightier. This must have felt like an enormous mountain. But God, you’re the God of heaven. You’re bigger than this.
“Listen to my prayer,” he says in verse six. “Look down and see me praying day and night for your people, Israel. I confess that we have sinned against you. Yes, even my own family and I have sinned. We have sinned terribly by not obeying the commands, decrees, and regulations that you gave us through your servant, Moses.” It’s a rather remarkable thing that Nehemiah ends up doing this. He ends up taking responsibility for the situation that his people find themselves in. You could say, “What responsibility did he have? What did he do?” But somehow Nehemiah ends up moving to the place of owning a degree of culpability. He acknowledged he had a role to play. No matter how small we might think it is, he acknowledged he had a role to play. There’s a great lesson. He’s coming before the Lord honestly and earnestly, but he’s not shifting blame. He’s not looking at what is rather tempting for many of us to do, looking at what others should or could do in the midst of this trial. He’s acknowledging he has the capacity to affect change and acknowledges he made choices in his past. Somewhere along with those choices, he’s realizing, “I have a part to play and I own it. I own it.” This is where Nehemiah shows sincere, humble, and courageous expression. This is what it looks like.
It reminds me of a parable Jesus once said to a group of people who were wanting to know what prayer was like and how this works with God. Jesus said two people walked into the temple. One of them was familiar with the ways of the world, very secular. He walked into the temple. Upon walking in, he went down to his knees, started to beat his chest, and cried out, “Oh God.” He wouldn’t even lift his head. He would just cry out, “Oh God, please have mercy on me. Have mercy on me. I’m a sinner. Please forgive me.” There was another man who walked into the temple. That person was religiously trained, understood scripture, and understood ways of faith. That person stood aside where that man was beating his chest on the ground. He prayed in essence, “Thank you God for not making me like him. Thank you for making me right. Thank you for the different ways,” and he started listing all the different ways he behaved right.
Jesus said, when both of them were done praying they left the temple. He asked this question, “Who do you think was justified in the eyes of God?” Well, the man who asked for mercy, the man who owned himself. The point being, humility opens doors. Humility, when it comes to God, opens doors. Nothing else can. It creates access to God in a way nothing else can. So he declares God’s greatness, not denying the reality of the challenge. He comes in humble, earnest, and sincere. We’re told that as he’s doing this, he says in verse eight, “Please remember what you told your servant, Moses.” Remember what you said, and then he quotes God to God. I mean, Nehemiah, he knows what he’s doing. He quotes something that might seem foreign to us. He quotes Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 30. He says, “Remember when You told Moses, God, that if you are unfaithful to Me, I will scatter you among the nations,” that happened. “But if you return to Me and obey My commands and live by them, then even if you are exiled to the ends of the earth, which is what is currently happening, I will bring you back. I will bring you back to the place I’ve chosen for My name to be honored. Do you remember that? The people you rescued by your great power and strong hand are your servants.” We are here now together in a way Nehemiah is quoting these two passages, these two different points.
What he is doing is exhibiting the principle. Nehemiah was familiar enough with the scriptures that he was able to quote God to Himself and ask God to make good on that promise. It’s a remarkable thing. He claimed it and took the Lord’s word at His word. Some of us might be sitting here thinking, “I just want to know where certain books are in the Bible. That’s where I’m at. I’m just working on reading a verse a day,” and that’s great. We all start there. Over time, this is showing us that as we become more familiar with His scriptures and His word, we can come before Him with an increasing sense of confidence and assurance. What Nehemiah is modeling is that he had come to know something through knowing His word. He had come to know and understand His heart, God’s heart.
We must not rush past this. He knew God’s desires for His people. Nehemiah lined up with what God wanted to do. In lining up with what God wanted to do, Nehemiah was essentially joining God. It wasn’t Nehemiah’s idea, it was God’s. He basically was saying in his prayer, “I want what You want. I want what You want. I’ve discovered what You want.” God wants to do certain things in our lives. It’s clear. He wants to bring health, life, joy, strength, and the ability to move forward. He wants to do this in our lives. But a lot of times, He waits for us to understand what He wants to do so that we can join up with Him and declare with Nehemiah, “I want what You want for my life. That’s what I want. I’m owning this over my own life. I want it.” Nehemiah does the courageous thing of calling God out on what God said He would do and asking Him to complete it.
We know how to do this relationally when someone asks us to do something and then they don’t do it, right? The quote starts coming back to mind, “But you said,” and that quote, right? When we hear God promised something to us, He doesn’t hold it over us and He never behaves inconsistently with it. He invites us to experience it and to own it. This is the key difference. I want what You want, God. I want it. In fact, by the end of here, he says, “Oh Lord, please hear my prayer. Listen to the prayers of those who delight in honoring You. Please grant me success today by making the king favorable to me. Put it into his heart to be kind to me. In those days, I was the king’s cup-bearer.”
By the time he’s done with this prayer, Nehemiah moves from a place of being overwhelmed, grieved, in pain, withholding food from himself, and gets to a place of saying, “I am willing to take a risk, but I need You to help me. I need You to move with me.” By the time all is said and done, he was available to meet the need he discovered and willing to step into the challenge. It’s a remarkable, fascinating exploration of how prayer can actually change us from the inside out. With his motivation, humility, and understanding of God’s capacity, something actually did happen. We’re not going to explore it right now, but we know that King Artaxerxes actually did respond to Nehemiah favorably. We know that Nehemiah received the resources, time, and proper defenses to be able to build up the wall around Jerusalem. We know this. If King Artaxerxes was the one who signed the check, it was because God, who owns all things, heard Nehemiah and moved on his behalf.
I don’t know exactly what is sparking within our souls. I don’t know if it’s pain. I don’t know if it’s agitation or desire for something. I don’t know if it’s a dream. I don’t know what it might be. But if something is becoming awakened, prayer is the oxygen that blows it into a strong fire. Nehemiah, I think, has a couple of things for us to consider. Praying over our spark, whatever that might be, embeds endurance into our soul. It forces the muscle remaining under pressure to develop. The pressure may not relent, but as we pray over whatever it is we’re facing, the capacity to remain increases.
It is a challenging thing to desire more, but feel resistance every step of the way. To have an idea or ideal and yet reality looks like it’s in complete opposition. To know that something needs to be fixed, addressed, created, improved, but then to feel incapable of doing anything with it. That feeling and tension can actually destroy us or it can make us stronger. It can make us stronger if we allow our response to become one of crying out to God, one of asking Him for grace and mercy. That is why prayer is so crucial.
Prayer is so key to a life journey with God. It’s important to know prayer causes us to wait on Him. It conveys. In the conveying of our desires, we learn how to pace our days according to His timing. It is not unique to want an immediate solution. It’s not. Everyone wants that, but it teaches us when we pray when we convey our desires, frustrations, and maybe even our anger points to Him, it teaches us to trust Him. In the midst of our desire and immediate solution, it deepens our capacity to recognize great things that were never built overnight. Things worth celebrating always take time, no matter how fast technology gets. There are certain things that require the need to stick with it. That’ll never go away. Prayer builds our ability to endure through the trial.
Paul had this to say to a group of believers in Philippi and Thessaloniki. He said it in two different ways. First, he says, “Don’t worry about anything. Instead, pray about everything and tell God what you need and thank Him for what He has already done.” In a different way, he said it a little bit more to the point, “Pray without ceasing.” Pray without ceasing. Does that mean never stop praying 24 hours a day? Even in your sleep, pray? In your dream, pray? No, it could mean that as you pray, you will not cease, that as you worry, you should pray and you will continue. In your anxiety when you pray, you will be reminded of all He has done for you. As you are facing a trial and a struggle and you pray, something happens inside your soul. He may not deliver the situation and the circumstances may not change, but He makes Himself available. Something of His Holy Spirit infuses us. It reminds us of hope and life and motivation.
The eternal one, the one who has eternal fuel for our soul is able to step into our temporary struggle, mood, and pain; a season of life that we might be struggling through. We are reminded, You are bigger. You are stronger. You can outlast this. You can help me. You can give me endurance. I will not cease as I pray. When we are tempted and weakened, our ability to have a conversation with God that is honest, earnest, frustrated, maybe, yes, filled with pain, He doesn’t shy away. He shows up to the humble prayer, and we find ourselves with the capacity to take one step more. As we do that, we start to discover that praying over our spark starts to help us clarify a plan. It gives us the ability to clarify a plan.
It’s been said there is nothing so small that God is not interested in it. There is nothing so big that He cannot help us with it. We must not hesitate to be specific in our requests. Be specific because when we pray over something and we build endurance, it gives us the ability to avoid the mistake. Haste makes mistakes. Reactions make things worse many times. What we’re not told in Nehemiah, is that somehow he received a plan. We don’t know that. It’s never mentioned. But we know this and it’s not saying it’s not possible, it just doesn’t normally happen. It’s not typical.
What normally happens is when we pray, when we lay our burdens at His feet when we bring our frustrations, our pains, and our desires before Him, it allows us to alleviate stress and anxiety. It gives us the ability to unburden ourselves. Peace and stability start to make themselves known in our soul and starts to guard and protect us. It eliminates or, at least, reduces hasty decisions. It allows us to think because faith in action is never irrational. It’s never blind. It has logic. It gives us the capacity to think through how we’re going to move forward, maneuver, and respond. It gives us the ability to consider.
What Solomon said, the simple believe everything, but the prudent faith-filled man or woman who looks down the road is what prudence means. To have foresight, that person, thinks through their steps. They develop a plan. They have a strategy. They’re not mindless. No. I’m convinced that when we invite God in and remind ourselves of His greatness and we let Him know of our desires and involve Him in our decision-making, He meets us in our thinking. He meets us in our faith-filled thinking, not in denial and not in utter hopelessness, but in faith-filled thinking.
He gives us the capacity to be able to say, “Lord, here is my plan. Will You please guide me? Here’s what I’m thinking. Will You please help me? Will You please give me success as I am thinking through what it is that You are asking me to do? I want what You want. I want what You desire for my life. Here’s my plan of how to put it into action. Will You please show me the way? Will You please give me Your favor? Will You please be kind to me? Will You help and strengthen me? Will You guide me? I’m going to listen to other people who love You and who I trust. I’m going to invite them into the process and seek counsel from them. Will You speak through them, please? As I read Your word, will You speak to me, please? I ask You. Give me the ability to develop a plan. Clarify what one step forward looks like.”
As we do that, we discover that praying over our spark gives us the courage to respond. We may start by being overwhelmed. We may start in grief. We may start in utter pain. We might feel ruined, but in that place, when we turn that over to God and invite Him in, something starts to occur. This is why I love verse 11. He says, “Oh Lord,” after calling on God’s promises, he says, “Lord, please hear my prayer. Listen to the prayers of those who delight in honoring You.” This is about you, God, and what You want to do. “Please grant me success by making the king favorable to me. Put kindness in his heart toward me.”
By the end he discovers as he is mulling this over, as he is grieving, thinking, and praying, he’s realizing maybe he is the answer to his prayer. Maybe he’s the one who actually has to move forward. Maybe he’s the one who has to take risks. Maybe he’s the one who’s supposed to solve something. Maybe he may not do everything, no, “I need you, God, but I understand You have a role for me to play. Now that I’m reminded of Your faithfulness, Your love, and Your grace, I know You will not leave nor forsake me. I have the courage to say all right, then help me. Help me respond. Help me. Help me move forward.”
Not every prayer means that God invites us to be the answer. It does mean every prayer will mean God invites us to play a role. Not every prayer will change the circumstances around us, but every prayer sincerely offered to God will mean our soul will be altered, our inner being will be strengthened. We will discover what Jesus said in Isaiah. God said this about Jesus, his servant. He says, “A faintly burning wick, he will not quench.” A little flame that’s vulnerable in the wind and is about to die. God said, “My servant, Jesus, He will not let it be blown out. No. He’ll breathe it back to life. He’ll speak life into it. He’ll put oxygen around it. He’ll build up protection around it and He’ll let that flame burn and increase.” What is that flame? What is that spark that God is trying to ignite inside of us? What is that tender wick? What does that pain point to, that area in our lives? We think maybe it’s dying away, maybe that’s the answer we need to let it go? Desire or dream? What we need to do is not give up on it. We need to focus on His ability to guide and strengthen us. To give us a path, to empower us, to never leave us nor forsake us. We need to blow over that spark.
God, I invite you. Help me. God, I desperately need You. Help me. Give me grace and mercy. Blow onto the fire inside of my soul. Burn it. Made me come alive and may this little spark, this tiny little thing that I desire to see happen in my life, may it grow. Its conviction, warmth, the bitter cold of fear, the challenge and the loneliness that I feel will be warmed by His breath of life inside of our soul. The empowering conviction inside of our hearts that will never relent will give us the courage to move forward one step at a time, and we allow faith to awaken.
When we do that, let me tell you something, no wind can snuff it. No resistance can put it out. No darkness can overcome the light. It’s a beautiful thing God longs to do in our lives. In fact, for some of us, we might be right there. We’re going to do something a little different. We’re going to have our time of giving and our closing song. We’re going to have some people available. We’re going to have some lanyards and just a simple sign that says ‘prayer.’ If you have a spark, you want somebody to help you pray for, pray with, pray over, we want you to go see them. We want you to receive what God may want to give to you, a strengthened soul. We’re going to do the very thing we’ve been talking about. I’m going to pray. The band’s going to come up, and receive our time of giving.
Lord, I thank You. I thank You that You are the God who takes us absolutely seriously. No amount of requests, big or small, is outside of Your attention. An earnest, humble, sincere cry to You is one You respond to. You’re able to step into our lives. I pray, God, that You would meet with us. I pray for all of us in this room or online. We may feel like that weak wick. Holy Spirit, would You breathe a fresh breath on us? Would You blow our spark into a strong fire of strength, conviction, and courage? Give us clarity one step forward. Remind us of Your goodness. You are for us, You are never against us. Your love is steadfast, never forsaking. We pray for You to do Your work inside of us Lord, and we ask for this in Jesus’ name. Amen.