Changing Your World: Through Prayer
[shared with the people of Friendship Church, August 24, 2003]
“When we work,” someone has said, “we work. But when we pray, God works.” For several months now, we’ve been talking about how you and I can change the world–and change our own individual worlds–for the better. But the simple fact is that on our own, we can’t change the world for the better. Only the God we meet and know through Jesus Christ can do that. Whatever good we want to see happen in our lives, in the life of our families, communities, school, friends, neighbors, or world will absolutely have to begin in prayer.
Bill Hybels is the pastor of one of the largest and most dynamic churches in the world, Willow Creek Community Church in the Chicago area. Some years ago, his father, who had always been physically active, suddenly died of a heart attack. He wrote movingly about that experience in his book, Too Busy Not to Pray:
"As I drove to my mother’s house in Michigan, I wondered how I would function without the person who believed in me more than anyone else ever has or will.
"That night in bed, I wrestled with God. 'Why did this happen? How can I put it all together in my mind and in my life? Am I going to recover from losing my father? If you really loved me, how could you do this to me?'
"Suddenly, in the middle of the night, everything changed. It was as if I had turned a corner and was now facing a new direction. God simply said, 'I’m able. I’m enough for you. Right now you doubt this, but trust me.'
"[Hybels goes on to reflect] That experience may sound unreal, but its results were unmistakable. After that tear-filled despairing night, I was never again tortured by doubt–either about God’s care for me or my ability to handle life without Dad. Grief, yes–his death wounded me deeply, and I will always miss him. But it did not set me adrift without anchor or compass. In the middle of the bleakest night I have ever known, one overpoweringly intimate moment with God gave me courage, reassurance and hope."
Life can sometimes overwhelm us. That’s because, as our Bible lesson tells us, our enemies in this life aren’t the spouse with whom we disagree or the child who rebels or the co-worker who gets on our nerves. Not even the sins that tempt us or the death that comes to us all, which have after all, already been defeated by Jesus Christ, are our real enemies. Our real enemies, our Bible lesson reminds us, are the spiritual forces of darkness. These are the enemies that pull the human race–and each of us individually–down into the pits of despair, depression, apathy, relational discord, and hollow, shallow, pointless living. We cannot overcome them on our own. We need to call on the only One Who can overcome them. We need to pray to God.
And we need to pray not just for ourselves. We need to pray for others. Lutheran pastor Walt Kallestad tells about a friend of his who was being annoyed by a check-out clerk. The clerk “was slow, fumbling, and couldn’t seem to do anything right for the people she was supposed to be ‘serving.’” Kallestad goes on to write:
"Irritated, my friend grumbled to God, ‘Why does this always happen to me?’ Then [a]...thought struck her, ‘You’re here because you’re the only one in line who will pray for this clerk and treat her with patience and kindness, which she needs right now, instead of angrily rattling her more.”
God isn’t just interested in our prayers of cosmic significance for world peace or an end to terrorism. An old saying tells us that “the devil is in the details.” Satan loves to discourage us in the little, everyday places in which we live, in the details. He knows that if he can trip us up there, there is no way that we’ll ever be free enough to address the bigger issues of life. So, we need to pray for ourselves and we need to pray for others. When we do, we’ll change our worlds.
But how do we go about praying exactly? To tell you the truth, I get bored easily. So, I tend to change my approach to prayer about once every six months. But this morning, if you’re interested in establishing prayer as a regular part of changing your life and changing your world, I’d like to share a simple formula for praying each day that I’ve shared before and which people have told me, they find helpful. It’s not the only good formula on the block. A few weeks ago, I helped Kelsey win a Cub Scout merit badge and we learned a formula for praying called PATH: Praise, Ask, Thank, Help! I like that. Another, which is the basis for the dailywalk devotions for this week is PRAY: Praise, Repent, Ask, Yield. Good stuff. Today, I want to talk about a formula that has worked for me: ACTS. I like that acronym because it reminds me that when I pray, God acts.
Following the ACTS formula for praying, the first thing we do when we pray is adoration. We praise God for Who He is, for His characteristics or personality traits. (The theologians speak of God's attributes.) More often than I care to admit, my prayers are offered in a hurry when I’m facing a challenge or uncertainty. “God,” I might say, “I don’t know what to say to so-and-so, who is dealing with difficulty.” Or, “God, any ideas for my sermon for Sunday?” Or, “Protect my kids.” There’s nothing wrong with bringing our everyday prayers of desperation to God. Like the loving Father He is, God loves to hear from us. But more than anything, God wants to have a relationship with us.
God can really work in the lives of those who hop off of their own agendas long enough to cultivate a relationship with Him. When we begin our prayer time with adoration, praising God for Who He is–a God of infinite power, love, wisdom, grace, mercy, helpfulness, infinite life–we take the focus off of ourselves and open the channels of communication to our soul. Sometimes, when I’m sure that nobody is around, I do this part of my praying by singing a song of praise like, “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever” or "I Love You, Lord." When God hears my early-morning yodeling, He may hope that I won’t sing forever. But like the good parent He is, I think that God is pleased even if I am off-key. The point is that when we praise God, we’re ready to take direction from Him.
The C in the ACTS formula for prayer is confession. If adoration opens us up to communicating with God, refusing to confess our sins to God is sure to close off our communication with Him. But we need to be earnest about this business of confession. A few weeks ago, in our Wednesday night discussion group, we were talking about confession in our weekly worship celebrations. We seemed to agree that public confession is necessary, but it’s also dangerous. Public confessions are of necessity, somewhat generalized and vague; they have to be worded so that they speak for all of us as we bring our sins to God for forgiveness. But I know that in my own case, that can set a bad pattern for my personal prayers. I say, “God, forgive me for my sins,” which may not really not be a confession at all. It may only be me mouthing religious-sounding words I’ve heard somewhere else. A good rule for effective praying of whatever kind is: get specific. “God, forgive me for being such a critical, stick-in-the-mud with my family.” “Forgive me for trying always to get my way with such-and-so.” “Forgive me for cutting off that red Volvo on the freeway this morning.” Invite God to forgive and help you change in the specific, little places of your life and then things can really begin to change for the better!
The T in ACTS stands for thanksgiving. You know the famous incident when Jesus healed ten lepers, but only one returned to thank Him? One analyst of this passage has said that you can be sure than all ten were grateful for their healing, but only one expressed that gratitude. Probably most of us in this room today are grateful for the blessings we have in our lives. But when we take the time to thank God for our blessings–like the blessing of being forgiven for being a critical, stick-in-the-mud with our families, for example–we remind ourselves of where our blessings come from and our relationship with God is deepened.
Finally, the S in ACTS is the strangest word of all to our modern ears. It’s supplication, which means humbly asking God for help in our lives. Having adored, thanked, and confessed to God, we now can bring our laundry lists of needs and wants to God. Repeatedly, the Bible confirms that God wants to hear our requests. “Delight in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart,” the Old Testament says. (I think that passage is interestingly worded. It really tells us that if we will delight, first of all in God, He will work a transformation in us and change our priorities so that what we want will be exactly what God wants to give.) “Ask,” Jesus tells us in the New Testament, “and you will receive.”
Repeatedly throughout history, the world has been changed by the supplications of those who established strong relationships with God through time spent in adoration, confession, and thanksgiving. Slavery was brought to an end peacefully in England through a movement that began in prayer. (Slavery ended only after a violent Civil War in America and Abraham Linclon said in his second inaugural address as president that the war came precisely because of the spiritual failings of the country.) The Cold War ended, I’m convinced not because of the policies of any government, but because of people who prayed. Alcoholics Anonymous, one of the most important movements of the twentieth century, began with prayer in Jesus’ Name. So did Habitat for Humanity. So did every worthwhile, life-changing endeavor in the history of the human race.
The world we face is full of challenges too big for any of us to handle in our own strength, too big even to be dealt with by a collection of people in their collective strength. We need to remember something: When we work, we work; when we pray, God works...in us, through us, for us. There’s a whole world in need of changing. Let’s pray and see how God works!
[The book by Bill Hybels, Too Busy Not to Pray, inspired much in the development of this message. The phrase that serves as the title for Hybels' book was one written by the ever-busy Martin Luther, suggesting that activity is no excuse for prayerlessness; in fact, the more active we are, the more we need to pray. The story about Walt Kallestad's friend comes from Pastor Kallestad's book, Be Your Own Creative Coach.]