The pastor’s praying
The main purpose of Paul’s first letter to Timothy is stated in chapter 3, verse 15, namely, that pastor, elders, deacons and the flock may all know how to behave in the ‘household of God, which is the assembly of the living God, a pillar, and fortress of the truth’.
This ‘behaviour’ includes praying and knowing what to pray for. Paul is writing to a young pastor, Timothy, but his remarks in 1 Timothy 2:1 are not limited to pastors alone, but are applicable to all believers.
Many Christians find prayer, especially private prayer, quite difficult. Often our times of prayer are approached as a duty rather than a privilege, and we pray without any expectation of God’s presence, or of receiving that for which we pray! Our times of private prayer bear little resemblance to the outpouring of the soul that we find recorded in God’s Word.
What should be an intimate and personal communication with our heavenly Father can become a cold, dry, formal duty – in which we present our ‘shopping list’ with faint hope that God might hear, and even answer our prayers. Hardly the stuff of Mark 11:23-24 where we are told we can ‘move mountains’ by prayer and faith in God.
Such a situation should not exist between the regenerate child of God and his heavenly Father. Our God is a prayer-stimulating God, a prayer-hearing God, and a prayer-answering God. Christians of all ages and backgrounds have the awesome privilege of communicating with their creator – and doing so as his adopted, blood-bought children who come to him through Christ Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit (Jude 20).
One problem is that too often we come into God’s presence without purpose or plan, and with our minds cluttered with extraneous things, some important, some trivial, and some utterly unrelated to our time of prayer.
Author and missionary Phil Marshall gives an example of what many of us experience. He writes that as he began to pray his thoughts ‘wandered’ to the Falkland Islands conflict. ‘My heart went out to the suffering inhabitants of the island … After a number of minutes I was able to bring about a glorious victory for the British. Only then did I realise that I was in the middle of my prayer time’.1
Sounds familiar? Paul’s exhortation to Timothy can help us order our minds so that we are able to pray without such inner distraction. ‘First of all then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people’ (2:1). It is interesting to note that the four principles of prayer in this verse are all in the plural.
Worship is central
The first principle I want to draw out from Paul’s words is that worship must be central to our praying. The Greek word rendered ‘prayers’ is derived from a verb meaning ‘to make vows or worship’. This dovetails nicely with ‘the Lord’s prayer’, which begins with explicit worship (Matthew 6:9).
It is far too easy for the pressures of everyday life and the burdens of ministry to drive worship out of our prayers altogether. Yet if we do not begin our prayers with worship, we will impoverish our personal prayer life.
Of course, it is not the way we feel that makes our praying effective. Regardless of our emotional state at the time, we are to pray with faith in Christ’s name and approach the throne of grace with a bold confidence through his high priesthood.
But if we want our hearts warmed by the felt presence of our God and Father, and if we desire the ‘freedom’ in prayer displayed in the Scriptures (and in the lives of so many men of God since then), I believe we must make worship our ‘first port of call’. We should worship God whenever we kneel in prayer, irrespective of our immediate and pressing concerns.
Appealing not demanding
The second principle of prayer in our text is ‘intercession’. The Greek could be paraphrased as ‘meeting to present a request’! We ‘come near’ to God in prayer to worship, and we ‘meet with God’ to intercede for others, as well as ourselves!
Is that how you see your ‘prayer time’ – a drawing near to God to meet with him in order to worship him and make requests for others and yourself? The application of just these two principles should prevent prayer from becoming cold, formal, lifeless or forced.
You are ‘coming near’ to God to worship – time is of no account here – and you are ‘meeting’ with God, to request his involvement and activity in the lives of those for whom you pray.
Thirdly, the text reads, ‘ I urge that supplications …’ Paul’s choice of words here reminds us that we do not come to God as those who have a right to receive whatever we seek in prayer. Rather, we should present our requests as suppliants, those who can appeal, but not insist.
We are indeed to come boldly to God’s throne of grace (Hebrews 4:16), but our confidence does not rest in what we are but in all that Christ is and has done for us. In recognising that we are suppliants for God’s grace, we shall humbly request but not presumptuously command.
It is never ‘lack of faith’ to say, ‘If it be your will, heavenly Father’. That places our prayers exactly where they should be – in God’s hands, to answer and deal with as and when he sees fit. How much disappointment would we avoid if we just requested that God hear and answer our prayers and not subtly demand.
Fourthly, we come to the giving of thanks. Oh how deficient we all are in that area of our Christian lives! We frequently and earnestly plead, intercede, and petition God, but when in loving mercy and grace he answers us, how slow we are to return thanks!
Lack of a thankful heart and spirit seems to be commonplace among church leadership and congregations alike. The following personal anecdote highlights what happens all too frequently.
Two neighbourhood churches of different denominational affiliations agreed to join together in a special outreach ministry. A month of prayer was called, during which time pastors and members from the two congregations joined together once each week in prayer, seeking God’s blessing on this ‘mixed denominational’ outreach.
God abundantly answered our prayers. Letters of thanks were sent out to all who participated, results were heralded from the pulpits of both churches, and everyone was encouraged. But no prayer meeting was called by either church where thanks could be specifically expressed to God for his gracious answers to our prayers.
Ingratitude seems to be ingrained in us. We are too much like the nine miraculously healed lepers (Luke 17:11-19). They were so lost in the wonder and joy of their healing that they did not think to return and thank the Lord Jesus Christ for the great blessing he had granted them. Fortunately, the tenth man did!
Working at it
Thanksgiving to God, as a regular part of our prayer life, is something we all need to work at – it doesn’t come naturally. Like praise, it is essential to our prayer life and can only arise from a grateful, warm, and loving heart.
Jerry Bridges, writing on the subject of thankfulness, notes: ‘Thankfulness to God is a recognition that God in his goodness and faithfulness has provided for us and cared for us, both physically and spiritually. It is a recognition that we are totally dependent upon him; that all that we are and have comes from him’.2
Such an understanding of our relationship to our God and Father would soon encourage greater thankfulness in our lives.
Praise and thanksgiving should be the foundation of our prayers to the Father in heaven. When that foundation has been solidly laid, then we can move on to make requests and petitions.
Finally, although all I have written above is a suggested framework on which to build our prayers, it should not be taken as a rigid formula. The categories of prayer are expandable and flexible.
But if we begin in praise and thanksgiving, we shall soon experience a greater freedom in prayer and a renewed desire to pray – as well as enjoy a greater sense of God’s presence as we pray.
1. Phil Marshall, The Cross and the Crescent (Authentic Media, 2002), p.99.
2. Jerry Bridges, The practice of godliness (Navpress, 1983), p.123.