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The Prayers We Offer

Luther's Small Catechism
(Questions 193-235)

That participants, led by the Holy Spirit, will
1. affirm that the shed blood of Jesus Christ makes prayer possible;
2. treasure the privilege of coming to God in prayers of praise and petition;
3. pray more frequently and zealously.

Central Focus
As we live out the new life God has given us, we find ourselves in the adventure called growth. This session focuses on the function of prayer in the believer's life and will encourage participants to grow in their own personal prayer lives.

Sing "Come, My Soul, With Every Care" as printed in the study leaflet. Have a volunteer read Matthew 7: 7-11 or read it yourself. Then pray the following prayer: Almighty and everlasting God, always more ready to hear than we to pray and always ready to give more than we either desire or deserve, pour down on us the abundance of Your mercy, forgiving us the things of which our conscience is afraid and giving us the good things we are not worthy to ask but through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen. (Collect for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost)

Small-Group Discussion Helps
What about the person who answers every question? Or tries to? This is a perennial threat to otherwise positive group discussions. How do you handle such an individual? I suggest pulling that person aside (beforehand - if you know them) and in a loving, caring way enlisting that person's aid as a (confidential) co-asker of questions, passing on extended aspects of the question to the group as a whole.

To put it bluntly:
a. Don't let one "know-it-all" give all the answers!
b. If the person knows so much, the person should be able to follow the suggestion given above!

Myth 1
"A Christian can always depend on prayer."
1. (a) This statement is a myth because it accents the wrong thing entirely. We depend on the God who hears and answers prayer, not on prayer.
(b) We make this distinction because depending upon prayer itself involves depending upon what we do, rather than upon what God does. The myth also gives the impression that we somehow "twist God's arm" when we pray, as if we could force Him to answer and to give us the good things He might otherwise withhold from us. It distorts our picture of God and is, in the final analysis, work righteousness.
(c) Yes, prayer can be an idol if we rely on it instead of our good and gracious Father, who has promised to hear our prayers and to help us. The most conscientious and active Christians can find themselves overtaken by this subtle temptation.

2. Accept answers anchored in the texts from Scripture quoted in the Catechism. Accent above all God's goodness and wisdom. He is both able and willing to help His people in distress. We see this most clearly in what He has done for us in Jesus our Savior. If time will allow, refer the group to Rom. 8:32 where the Holy Spirit, speaking through the apostle Paul, states this truth directly and clearly.

Myth 2
"The Christian must have the wisdom and ability to pray properly."
2. (a) The penitential psalms include 6, 32, 38, 51, 103, and 130. Accept other suggestions individuals can defend.
(b and c) Praise and thanksgiving often occur within the same psalm. Praise may be distinguished from thanksgiving in that praise honors God for His essential character (e.g., His majesty, power, wisdom, grace, mercy), while prayers of thanksgiving reflect on specific acts God has performed on behalf of the person praying. Accept answers individuals can defend. Some praise psalms include 33, 36, 98, 99, 111, 113, and 117. Psalms of thanksgiving include 18, 30, 105, and 136. Ask individuals to read aloud specific verses of praise or thanksgiving as time will permit.
(d) Psalms of petition include, for example, 57, 59, 69, and 70. Let the group suggest others.

3. (a) The Lord must "open [our] lips," that is, teach us to worship and give us the desire and strength we need in order to do so. Praise and worship are His gifts to us. He does not need our worship, rather, we need to praise Him.
(b) Other kinds of prayer, too, originate with our Lord. Not by accident did the Twelve ask Jesus, "Lord, teach us to pray." In and of ourselves, we cannot approach God. Our sins make it impossible for us to come into His presence. (Cf., Ps. 24:3-4.) In fact, we would avoid Him in fear. But in Christ, we have received the "clean hands and a pure heart" required of those who would "stand in [God's] holy place." Indeed, God now invites and even commands us to come to Him with prayers of praise, confession, thanksgiving, and petition.

4. (a) Let group members keep specific situations private. But mention a few general examples about situations the Scripture does not specifically address and about which we have no direct command from God as to our response. E.g., there's too much month left at the end of the money; the new cancer treatment is experimental but the doctor thinks it may help me; my son's learning difficulties.
(b) Refer the group to Luther's explanation of the Introduction to the Lord's Prayer (p. 175 in the Small Catechism). When we pray about circumstances in which we do not know God's specific will, it is critically important that we keep in mind His general will - our good and the good of His kingdom. We can always trust Him to bring about the best for us, even when our circumstances look the bleakest.

Myth 3
"When we pray, we inform God about our troubles."
5. (a) David does not lay out the specific details of His troubles, but we get the general idea from verses 3 and 5. Apparently he has run into opposition so vehement that his life is in danger. His opponents intend evil against him.
(b) David asks God to save him, to vindicate him, and to listen to him (vv. 1-2).
(c) David spends the major part of the psalm reminding himself of God's character, of the divine promises, and of God's help in the past. (E.g., "God is my help; the Lord is the one who sustains me"-v.4; "Your name, O LORD, ... is good"-v.6; "[The LORD] has delivered me from all my troubles, and my eyes have looked in triumph on my foes"-v7).
(d) Many psalms include prayers for help that follow the pattern of Psalm 54. Besides pouring out their troubles before the Lord, the psalmists almost always praise Him for His mercy, remind themselves of His goodness and power, and meditate on His promises and past help.
(e) Although God already knows our needs in far more detail that we ourselves, we can express those needs to Him. We can pour out our troubles and our feelings of fear, anger, frustration, or whatever other emotions may be flooding our hearts because of those troubles. While God invites us to talk with Him about our needs in as much detail as we would like, we know that we need not inform Him. Rather, we can spend time as we pray meditating on His Word of promise, the Word by which He transforms us so that we can meet our challenges and difficulties with courage and wisdom.

Myth 4
"After we pray, we should sit back and let God act in His own time."
6. (a) Ex. 14:15 and Joshua 7:10 both indicate that after God's people pray, the time can come in which He expects us to act.
(b) Let participants keep the details private, but do discuss briefly how a believer can discern whether to continue to "wait on God" (which is sometimes required) and when to "move forward." This kind of discernment lies beyond our poor human wisdom and requires the wisdom God Himself has promised to provide (cf., James 1:5). When we don't know whether to wait or to act, we seek the counsel of other, mature believers; pray for God's peace; and then take whatever steps we can to move forward, trusting God to do His best for us - to open the doors of circumstance or to shut down any efforts not in our best interests. We can trust Him to do this because He has already met our most critical need, the need for forgiveness and restoration with Himself in Jesus our Savior.

Myth 5
"Prayer changes things."
8. Accept response taken from the Small Catechism. (E.g., We pray that God will see to it that His Word is taught in its truth and purity - question 210; that He will bring others into His kingdom of grace - question 213; that Satan's schemes will be thwarted - question 217.)

9. Again, accept responses drawn from the catechetical material. (E.g., We pray that God will help us to keep His name holy in our lives - question 209; that He will give us grace to believe His Word and lead godly lives - question 213; that He will strengthen us and keep us firm in Word and faith - question 218.)

10. Let participants keep their answers private. If some in the group would like to share specific prayer requests, however, this would be a good time to invite those and to intercede for one another in the group. Allow a few extra minutes so this can happen in an unhurried way.

Presentation Outline
1. Can a Christian always depend on prayer?
2. Must the Christian have the ability and wisdom to pray properly?
3. Do we pray to inform God about our troubles?
4. After we pray, should we sit back and let God act in His own time?
5. Does prayer change things?

A somewhat frustrated young man tells of his mother who, though near-blind, will not admit it. One day as the son walked with her from the car to their front door, he said, "Mom, the door's straight ahead." His mother promptly turned to the right and smacked head-on into the wall of the house.

Again the young man said, "Mom, the door's straight ahead." Again the woman walked smack into the wall to the right of the door.

There was a moment's pause. Then came the question, "Son, where's the door?" Again and again, all of us persist in going our own way. Often only after we have smacked into utter failure time after time do we turn to our heavenly Father for direction and help.

1. Can a Christian can always depend on prayer?
Even when we do turn to God in prayer, we may not know for sure what we can expect. Does prayer "really work"? Can we depend on prayer when we find ourselves slamming into life's hard realities?

As we begin to think about prayer, we need to realize first of all that we do not depend on prayer. Rather, we depend on the one true God who has promised to hear and answer our prayers. To pray aright, we need to know what God is like, and we need to understand by what right we approach Him.

Ps. 24:3-5 says, "Who may ascend the hill of the LORD? Who may stand in His holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to an idol or swear by what is false. He will receive blessing from the LORD and vindication from God his Savior."

Some tough requirements! Clean hands and a pure heart. An absence of idolatry in our lives. Truthfulness in what we say to those around us. Who among us can "ascend the hill of the Lord" to speak to our heavenly King or "stand in His holy place" to present our petitions to Him?

No one here. No one alive today and no one who has ever lived - except for one thing: the cross of Jesus Christ. Because of what Jesus Christ did on that cross 2000 years ago, all those who believe in Him have those clean hands and that pure heart which God requires of those who seek Him.

Because of the cross of Christ, you and I - each of us - now "receive blessing from the LORD and vindication from God [our] Savior." Now we dare to approach the holy and majestic God in prayer, confident that "we [will] receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need" (Heb. 4:16).

2. Must the Christian have the ability and wisdom to pray properly?
How thankful we can be that we rely not on our own worthiness to earn for us the right to present our needs to God in prayer. How thankful we can be that we rely on God's wisdom as we pray.

Our sinful nature often blinds us to our real needs. Often we confuse what we want with what we really need. We sometimes try to impose our will on God. We try to substitute our limited insights for God's infallible, omniscient, gracious purposes for our lives. We need God's wisdom to align our will with God's. We need wisdom to ask for those blessings with which our heavenly Father wants to flood our lives and wisdom to recognize those blessings when they come.

How can we know God's will in any particular set of circumstances? We look first to His Word and what He has revealed there about His will for us. We can pray for those things He has promised without qualification, knowing He will do what He has promised. And when we pray for those things He has not promised, we ask that He would grant our petitions in the way and at the time best for us.

He has promised, for example, to "meet all [our] needs according to His glorious riches in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 4:19). We can ask Him to fulfill that promise and expect Him to do so. His way of doing it may, however, differ from our expectations. He may see to it that we get Job X instead of job Y. Our income may remain lower than we would like, but meanwhile perhaps our car needs fewer repairs or, for whatever reason, the utility bill goes down.

We do not dictate to God the timing or the method of His answers to our prayers. But we can rest secure in His love toward us, remembering Paul's powerful questions of faith: "If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all - how will He not also, along with Him, graciously give us all things?" (Rom. 8:31-32).

In light of our limitations, how wonderful to remember two other promises of Romans 8:

Verse 26: The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.

Verse 34: Christ Jesus, who died - more than that, who was raised to life - is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.

The Holy Spirit prays for us. Our brother, the Lord Jesus, prays for us. How can we possibly fail to obtain our heavenly Father's good and gracious will - His very best gifts, those things that will help us the very most regardless of how big or overwhelming our needs may seem?

Luther, writing in the Large Catechism, puts it this way:

We all have more than enough needs, but our trouble is that we do not feel or see them. Hence God wants you to lament your needs and express your wants, not as though He did not know about them, but in order that your heart might kindle with stronger desires and more insistent and more frequent prayer requests, and that you then might simply open up and spread out your cloak to receive God's plenty ...

We need to realize that prayer alone is our protecting shield and shelter. We are much too weak to cope by ourselves with the devil, his might, and the forces he has lined up against us. They could easily trample us underfoot. Therefore we must be alert and grasp the weapons with which Christians should be armed in order to withstand the devil. ... For when any good Christian prays, "Dear Father, Thy will be done," God in heaven answers, "Yes, dear child, it will most certainly be done despite the devil and the whole world." (Janzow, pp. 82-83, italics added)

3. Do we pray to inform God about our troubles?
Certainly we are to "take everything to the Lord in prayer," but we are misguided when we use prayer only to update God about the events and needs of our lives. A pastor once prayed, "O Lord, the situation in this congregation is bad. We haven't met our budget. We can't get enough volunteers." On and on he prayed, listing problems. After the service, a member came to him and asked, "What's the matter, Pastor? Don't you think the Lord reads the congregation's newsletter?"

We can spend a lot of energy in prayer in an attempt to inform God, not only about things as they are, but as we think or wish them to be. Rather than informing Him, we need to let Him be transforming us - as we meditate on His love for us in Christ, as we recall His promises to us in His Word, as we allow Him to align our wishes and goals with those He has revealed to us in the Holy Scriptures. Then our prayers will not attempt to seize His power to further our own purposes, but we will instead pray as our Lord taught us: "Hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."

The myth that prayer involves simply informing God of our needs is flawed in another way, too. It completely misses other important reasons for which God's people pray. Prayer properly includes confession of sins. Prayer properly involves praise. Prayer properly involves thanksgiving.

When we pray we confess our sins, just as our Lord Jesus taught us in the Lord's Prayer: "Forgive us our trespasses." When we pray, we praise God for who He is. When we pray we thank God for all He has done, especially what He has done for us in Christ Jesus and His cross and open tomb. And as we pray, we intercede for others. A balanced prayer life involves all these elements.

4. After we pray, should we sit back and let God act in His own time?
We do ask God for what we need in prayer, and we do rely on Him to hear and answer us. But we cannot use prayer to excuse inaction. God tells us, for example, to pray for our daily bread; but He doesn't just drop it into our laps. He provides the seed, sun, soil, and rain. Our hands must be on the plow.

Scripture records several instances in which God reprimanded His children for praying without taking action. As you worked through your study leaflet for this session you may have read the words of reprimand He spoke to Joshua. After the inglorious defeat at the village of Ai, Joshua tore his clothes and fell to his face on the ground, dismayed and confused. God told him to get up, to 'investigate the theft that had caused the problem, and then to go in to possess the land that the Lord had promised His people. Joshua sprawled on his face when he should have been standing on his feet - and acting!

God does not encourage indolence. Prayers are practiced as well as spoken.

5. Does prayer change things?
Sometimes, as with Joshua, before God changes "things," He must first change us, the ones who pray. Listen to Ps. 37:4: "Delight yourself in the LORD, and He will give you the desires of your heart."

Think of the promise here! God will give us "the desires of our hearts." Some have taken this to mean that God will give us anything our hearts desire. But the promise means something far more wonderful than that. As we meditate on the Word of our Lord, on His goodness and grace, on His promises to us, and on His revealed will for us and for all people, our desires will become more and more His desires. We will see ourselves and our world in the light of eternity. By God's grace, we will pray more zealously, "Hallowed be Thy name!" And "Thy kingdom come!" The Holy Spirit will use His Word to align our will with His own. Then we can truly pray aright. Then we will see our Lord fulfill the promise He makes in 1 John 5:14-15:

This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us - whatever we ask - we know that we have what we asked of Him.

God the Holy Spirit changes us, and then He uses us, His changed children, to change things. The Scriptures clearly teach this dynamic of prayer, and they go further still in explaining the power that is unleashed when God's people pray. In urging us to pray for the sick, for instance, the apostle James gives the example of God's powerful response to the prayers of the prophet Elijah:

Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.

James makes it emphatically clear - "Elijah was a man just like us." God did not answer Elijah on account of Elijah's personal "pull" in heaven's throne room. No. Elijah was a person just like us. God's person. God's partner in prayer. Prayer does not change things, but the God who promises to hear and answer prayer does change things! Remember what Jesus promised:

"Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.

"Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask Him!" (Matt. 7:7-11).

Who could believe it? God does not need our prayers to accomplish His will, His work here on earth. Yet He has chosen to involve us, to use our prayers. Prayer is not just some kind of psychological trick we play on ourselves to help ourselves adjust to the inevitable. When we pray, we have the ear of our heavenly Father, the Maker of heaven and earth, the one who "gives good gifts to those who ask Him" in the name of Jesus, our brother and Savior.

And so, confident in God's mercy in Christ, we say with the psalmist:

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in Your sight, O LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer (Psalm 19:14).

Concluding Activities
Suggest that participants pay particular attention to the prayers in the worship service they attend this coming weekend. What kinds of prayers does the congregation pray? Which prayers ask God to change those who pray? Which prayers ask God to change circumstances?

Close by praying together Luther's morning or evening prayer.

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