How to Pray
February 27th, 1983 @ 10:50 AM
HOW TO PRAY
Dr. W. A. Criswell
2-27-83 10:50 a.m.
During these days, and now years, the pastor is preaching a long series of messages on the Great Doctrines of the Bible.” As the messages are delivered, they are printed in volumes, and the third volume will soon be published. I have divided the long series into fifteen sections. And the section in which we are now engaged I call “proseuchology,” from prŏsĕuchŏmai, the Greek word for prayer. It is seven messages on prayer, and the one today is entitled How to Pray. In the eleventh chapter of the Book of Luke, the first verse reads like this:
And it came to pass, that, as He was praying in a certain place, when He ceased, one of His disciples came unto Him and said, Lord, teach us to pray.
The disciples came to see and to understand that there was a connection between the marvelous life of our Savior in public and His secret life of prayer. There was power in the hands of Jesus: He could place His hands on the eyes of the blind, and they could see [Matthew 20:30-34]; He could touch the ears of the deaf, and they could hear [Mark 7:32-35]; He could place His hand upon the leper, and he was cleansed [Luke 5:12-13].
There was even virtue in His robes, in His garments [Mark 5:25-30; Luke 8:43-48]. There was omnipotence in His voice: He could speak to the raging waves, and they would be quiet, and to the hurling wind and it would cease [Matthew 8:23-27].
Our Savior lived a beautiful and a perfect life. When the disciples saw the kneeling figure and form of our Lord—remember the verse? “As He was praying in a certain place… the disciples said, Lord, teach us to pray” [Luke 11:1]. As they looked upon that kneeling form; our Lord was a suppliant, He was a mighty petitioner. Sometimes, the Bible says He prayed with strong crying and tears [Hebrews 5:7-8]. As they saw our Lord kneeling in weakness, they could not help but see that He rose in power and in the authority of God. So they came and asked, “Lord, teach us to pray” [Luke 11:1]. There are two things in that request—number one: the will to pray. “Teach us to pray.” And the second is implied, not stated, but the implication is correct because, in the discussion that follows, Jesus teaches them how to pray.
First: we speak of the will to pray, “Lord, teach us to pray” [Luke 11:1]. There are three tremendous weaknesses that characterize all of us in our intercessions before God—three of them. The first one is this: we depend upon ourselves; we rely on ourselves, contrary to what God says, “We are not to lean on our own understanding” [Proverbs 3:5]. We have a tendency thus to lean, contrary to what God says, “We are to walk by faith, not by sight” [2 Corinthians 5:7]. We have a weakness, and a tendency, to walk by sight and not by faith. Consequently, our prayers are perfunctory, they are repetitious, they are empty, they are form, habits, and that’s all!
A second tremendous weakness that all of us share in our intercessions: we somehow, unconsciously almost, withdraw from the agony of true intercession. Paul wrote to the church at Rome, in chapter 15, verse 30:
I beseech you, brethren, for the Lord Jesus’ sake, and for the love of the Spirit, that you strive together with me in prayers to God for me.
The word translated “strive,” agōnizŏmai, “that you agonize with me in prayers to God for me.” There are tears in every syllable of that tender appeal, “I beseech you, brethren, for the Lord Jesus’ sake, and for the love of the Spirit, that you agonize with me in prayers to God for me” [Romans 15:30].
And it is not easy to subject yourself to that agony. Why should there be agony in striving in prayer? Because of Satan! He stands at our right hand to resist us. Zechariah, chapter 3, verse 1: the prophet sees Joshua, “the high priest standing in intercession before God, and Satan standing at his right hand to resist him” [Zechariah 3:1]. Paul wrote in the last chapter of Ephesians: “We wrestle not with flesh and blood, but with principalities and the powers of the air” [Ephesians 6:12]. Satan resists us when really, actually, we pray.
Why the agony and striving in prayer? Because of our carnal nature! It is hard—self‑denial. And when we go before God, it cannot be an imposition of our will on God’s will. It is an absolute and utter and complete self‑negation. And that’s hard!
You know, it’s a strange thing our worship of the Lord, when we are in public with it. The man is up there preaching where everybody can see him and hear him; and the orchestra is down here playing where everybody can watch you and listen to you; and the choir’s up here singing; and the teacher is in her place, or in his place, teaching; and the deacons are deaconing; and all of the people are in the church in their assignments, all through this vast organization. And when you do well, you listen to the plaudits of the people and their expressed appreciation. I don’t know of anything sweeter or dearer in the earth than when people pour syrup and molasses on top of me. I just lick it up. It’s just wonderful. It’s just great. And to be complimented and to be appreciated, that’s just the most precious of all the things in the world.
At the 8:15 service, there came a little girl with a family, her father and mother, and Ed Poole came over here. I was over here on this side praying. Ed Poole came over here, and he said: “Pastor, would you go over there and talk to that little girl?”
“Why,” I said, “Why, yes!”
So I went over there and you know what it was? That little thing said: “I don’t want to tell anybody but Brother Criswell. I just want to tell him.”
So I knelt down by her side and put my ear to her mouth. And I said, “Honey, what do you want to tell me?”
She said, “I want to tell that I’ve opened my heart, and I’ve given my heart to Jesus, and I don’t want to tell anybody else. I just want to tell you.” Doesn’t that make me feel good? Oh dear! That’s human nature! We love to be appreciated; we love to be applauded; and we love to be acceptable, it’s just a happy thing in our lives.
Well, you don’t do that in prayer. Jesus said: “You enter into that closet and shut the door. And there you pour out your heart before God” [Matthew 6:6]. There’s nobody to applaud, and there’s nobody to appreciate; there’s nobody to say words of commendation. It’s just you, and you alone, and nobody else.
Why is it that we have a weakness in the will to pray? Because of our discouragement! We get faint in it. When I turn the pages of the Book of Luke, out of which I’m preaching now, and come to the eighteenth chapter, the first verse begins: “And the Lord spake a parable unto them to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint” [Luke 18:1].
It is easy to get discouraged in our intercessions. The heavens turn to brass, and the very throne of God seems empty, and unfeeling, and unheeding, and uncaring, and indifferent. And the only sound of an answer is the sound of the echo of our own voice; and we become discouraged and disheartened and faint.
What we are to remember is that delay is not denial; as our Lord taught us—first, the blade, then the stalk, then the corn in the ear [Mark 4:28]. We’re like a plowman; he takes ten thousand steps, and sows ten thousand seeds, and all of it is a part of the final harvest. It’s like the floodwaters heaping up back of the great dam; and finally they are loosed through the great turbines. So our prayers are heaped up before God. And when the measure is full, God pours out the power and the answer.
Do you remember, in the fourth chapter of the Book of Romans, there’s a long section in the center of the chapter on Abraham? Paul says:
Against hope, he believed in hope…
Not considering his body as dead, though a hundred years old, nor the deadness of Sarah’s womb (ninety years old)…But fully persuaded that God was able to perform all that He had promised.
We’re to be like that! And when we come to the end of the way and see how God listened and answered, when maybe we didn’t know, we’ll say to Him and to one another: “Why was it that we ever fainted? Why did we ever get discouraged? Why didn’t we believe? And why didn’t we listen to the teaching of our Lord?”
The will to pray: “Lord, Lord, keep me on my knees!” And whether today I see an answer or not, may I continue in intercession, knowing that God sees, and hears, and answers in His time and in His will.
Number two: not only the will to pray, but how to pray. In the discussion that followed after, our Lord speaks of importunity in prayer. When we know the will of God, we are to be importunate in our intercession. The sainted apostle John wrote in 1 John 5:14-15:
This is the confidence that we have in Him, that, if we ask any thing according to His will, He heareth us:
And if we know that He hears us… (then) we know we have the petition we desired of Him.
Praying in the will of God; we’re to continue. All of these are present linear action: ask, and keep on asking; and seek, keep on seeking; knock, keep on knocking. For he that asketh and keeps on asking, receives! And he that seeks and keeps on seeking, finds! And he that knocks and keeps on knocking, to him the door is open! [Luke 11:9-10]. Jesus calls that, in this passage, “importunity,” keeping on asking God [Luke 11:8].
There is such a thing, we’re taught in the Bible, as asking away from the will of God. In the one hundred sixth Psalm, verse 15: “They lusted exceedingly in the wilderness… and He gave them their request; but sent leanness into their soul” [Psalm 106:14-15]. The story refers to the children of Israel in the wilderness: they were fed manna; they were fed angel’s food [Exodus 16:14-15, 31; Psalm 78:24-25]. God gave it to them from heaven, and they got tired of it. And the Scriptures say they begin to lust for the leaks, and the garlic, and the onions, and the flesh pots in Egypt [Numbers 11:5-6]. And God listened to their request and sent them flesh, but leanness into their souls [Psalm 106:14-15]. It is possible for us to pray and to ask for, and God sometimes answers, but it’s a denial of His best purpose for us; and it brings leanness into our souls. It’s easy to ask for things that are not good for us, and to demand them from heaven.
When I was ordained as a teenager, Dr. J. E. Nun, who owned the Amarillo Daily News paper, Dr. Nun was one of the men on the ordaining council. And after I was set aside to the ministry, he said to me, “Young man, I hope that your life is a primrose path, but if it is, you’ll be worthless in your ministry.” Praying for a deliverance from a hard way, and a hard assignment, and a difficult task—I think of that passage. There are two of them in the Book of Hebrews describing our Lord:
Who in the days of His flesh… with strong crying and tears pled with Him who was able to deliver Him from death…And was perfected by His suffering, by His obedience.
I think of our Lord, and He said–when they suggested to Him that He oppose, and Simon Peter drew out his sword against those who were arresting Him [Matthew 26:51]—the Lord said:
Put it up! They that take the sword shall perish by the sword!—
then He added—
Could not I ask My Father for twelve legions of angels?—
seventy‑two thousand angels!—
Just one angel passed over the army of Sennacherib, and the next morning there were one hundred eighty-five thousand corpses [Isaiah 37:36].
Could I not ask My Father for seventy‑two thousand angels?—
enough to devastate the whole creation—
Would He not deliver Me? But how then would the will of My Father be done?
It is not right, in God’s sight, for us to ask for an easy task, to withdraw from a hard assignment. Maybe we ought to thank God that He matched our souls against so difficult a task. Another thing: it is hard not to ask God to shower us with all of the worldly gifts that this earth can bestow—wealth, and success, and popularity, and fame, and the thousand other things that everybody in this earth pants for, prays for, works for, seeks for, grasps for. And we’re just like that. “Lord, Lord, shower me. Give me…” and then we just name it; all of the things that pertain to the affluence of this world.
In the years gone by, I was preaching in Kilgore in East Texas, where the oil field—one of the greatest ever discovered in the world—came to blossom and to bless materially all of those farmers over there who owned that land in East Texas. If you have an oil well in Texas today that will produce fifty barrels, you have a wonderful oil well. Those oil wells over there around Kilgore flowed over ten-thousand barrels a day; it was an astonishing discovery! And there was no law at that time against how close you could put derricks together. And around Kilgore, it looks like a forest of derricks.
Well anyway, an old farmer and his wife took me to dinner. He had an old-time house and on the porch was an old-time swing. I don’t know whether many of you have ever seen one or not. From a chain on this side and a chain on this side, it hangs down; and you sit in it and swing—an old-time swing.
Well, the old farmer and I were seated there and we were swinging. And he pointed to me with a sweep of his hand like this, from horizon to horizon. And he said, “Preacher, do you see that great field of derricks, oil derricks?” I said, “Why, yes. It’s a phenomenal thing to me.”
“Well,” he said, “in the day when they discovered oil and they begin to drill and to build those derricks,” he said, “all of my neighbors, all of my neighbors became immensely wealthy. And as they drilled the wells and discovered the oil, they came closer and closer to my fence line.” And he said, “Preacher, do you see that fence line down there? That’s the beginning of my farm.” And he said, “With anticipation and with prayer, I was looking forward when they drilled on my farm, and I would be rich.”
“But,” he said, “when they came to my fence line, every well was dry—dry!” He said to me: “In those days, I was bitter toward God! God had passed me by! Look at all of my neighbors, rich, immensely wealthy and I grub out a living on this sorry East Texas cotton farm.”
“Now,” he said, “preacher, that was a long time ago.” He says, “You see all of that forest of derricks, and all of my neighbors, rich? They left the farms! They went to the cities!” He said: “Preacher, every one of them has divorced his wife; every one of them! Every one of them has broken up his home, every one of them! And every child in every family has been lost—they are prodigal, ruined by the riches that came to the family.”
“But,” he said, “preacher, my wife and I have been grubbing it out on this old cotton farm for over forty years. And she’s in there now, and we still have our home. And my children—you’ll meet them when dinner is served—every one of my children is a godly young man or a godly young woman.” And then he said: “Preacher, as I look on it now and look at that fence row down there at the edge of my farm, I now say the best thing God ever did for me was when He said, “That oil plays out at the edge of your farm.”
You think, “Lord, Lord, You are unkind, and unthoughtful, and un-good to me!” In some of the providences of life, when actually God may be taking care of you in a sweet and precious way that you never dream for:
I ask God for strength that I might achieve,
I was made weak that I might learn to obey.
I ask God for health that I might do great things,
I was given infirmity that I might learn to lean—
On the Lord, not on myself, on Him—
I ask for riches that I might be happy,
I was given poverty that I might be wise.
I ask for power that I might have the praise of men,
I was given weakness that I might feel the need of God.
I ask for all things that I might enjoy life,
I was given life that I might enjoy all things.
I receive nothing that I ask for
But everything I had hoped for.
Despite myself, my prayers were answered.
I am among all men, most richly blessed.
Praying in the will of God; I am no false suppliant when I bow before You and before the throne of grace and say, “Lord, I don’t know what is best. You tell me. You show me.”
And I believe God will give the best things to those who leave the choice to Him: if God can trust me with affluence, I will praise Him. If God were to keep me all my life like my parents, poor, poor, poor, I would praise Him. I just wish I could be as humble and good as they. If God can entrust me with health and strength, may I praise God with my health and strength. If it is God’s will that I be infirm and sick, may I praise God in infirmity and weakness. And if it’s God’s will that I be in the love and the heart of this wonderful congregation, Lord, Lord, there’s not a day that I go by, but I praise Your name for just letting me be a part of this wonderful, wonderful church! But Lord, if I had stayed out there in the country where I pastored for ten years, Lord, could I praise Your name with my little flock of eighteen, or forty, or sixty‑five. “Not my will, but Thine, be done!” [Luke 22:42]. O Master, that I could learn it, and observe it, and do it, and be happy in the choice of our Lord.
May I conclude now? Praying in the will of God, that was the beautiful model prayer you read: “Our Father who art in heaven…Thy will be done, Thy will be done” [Matthew 6:9-10]. And that wonderful, beautiful passage I quoted from 1 John 5:14-15, “This is the confidence that we have in Him, that, if we ask anything according to His will, He heareth us: And if we know that He hears us, then we know we have the petitions we desired of Him.”
Praying in the will of God [1 John 5:14]: what does God will for us, that I know is in His purpose of grace? We could be here the rest of the day naming them. Let me name three: number one; the passage out of which I’m preaching in Luke 11:
If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit unto them who ask Him?
That is the will of Christ for me, for us, that we be filled with the Holy Spirit [Ephesians 5:18].
Lord, Lord, why would I deny the Holy Spirit possessing my mind, and my thoughts, and my heart, and my emotions, and my will, and my hands, and my life? It’s a weakness of the flesh. Lord, Lord, that there might be less of me and that I could empty myself in order that the Holy Spirit might come upon me; and that my life and days might be directed by the presence of the Spirit of Jesus in my soul.”
I know that is the will of God—that I receive the Holy Spirit without measure [John 3:34]. “And the Lord Jesus breathed on them, and said, Receive ye the Holy Spirit” [John 20:22]. O Jesus, breathe upon me! breathe upon me! May the Holy Spirit, in grace and power, come upon me!
As I turn the pages of this Gospel, in Luke 19:10, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save that which was lost.” I know this is in the will of God—that we reach for, and seek after, and save the lost. The Lord God said in Ezekiel 33:11:
As I live, saith the Lord, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked would turn from his (evil) way and live: O, turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will you die?
I’m preaching at seven o’clock each evening from the epistles of Simon Peter. Simon writes in the third chapter of his second epistle, “The will of God is that all men everywhere come to repentance” [2 Peter 3:9]. He rejoices not in the destruction of any man.
God wills that all of us come to a saving knowledge of our blessed Savior. And when I give myself to the winning of the lost, I am in the will of God. I’m doing what God wants me to do. And may the Lord bless our testimony and our witness, our visitation, our knocking at the door, our teaching, our praying, our intercessions. May God bless us as we open our arms, seeking these for whom Christ died [1 Corinthians 15:3].
May I name one other? Praying in the will of God [1 John 5:14]: it is God’s will for us. And here again preaching from the epistles of Simon Peter, especially is it impressed upon my heart. The epistles of Simon Peter close with this word, this is the last verse, “Grow in grace, and in the knowledge—in the Christ likeness—of our Lord” [2 Peter 3:18]. I know it is God’s will for me that I be like my Savior; that I grow in grace; upward, and heavenward, and Christ-ward, toward Him—that I be like Him.
One of the strangest things I ever heard a missionary say in my life was this, about half-humorous but oh! had such an impact upon my heart. He was in the interior of the continent far, far, far, away from everywhere. And as he begin to speak to the people in the village there about Jesus, they said, “Well, we didn’t know His name was Jesus. Tell us again, what was He like?”
And the missionary described Jesus—the sweet, beautiful, precious, gentle Jesus.
And they said to him, “Why, he lives here in our village, He is here! He lives in our town! He is in our midst.”
And the missionary dumbfounded and astonished, as you would be, “You mean… you’re telling me that Jesus lives in your town, in your village?”
“Yes,” they said. “He is here! You’ve just described him. He lives in our town.”
Well, the missionary said, “Take me to him.” And the missionary was introduced to a godly Christ-like man, who had visited far, far away and had found the Lord as his Savior. And coming back home, in his native village, he so lived the beautiful life of Christ that when the missionaries came and described the Lord, they thought he was talking about that man, they just didn’t know his name was Jesus.
Well, why should I be so impressed by a providence like that? Because of this, I thought, “Lord, wouldn’t it be great if people could mistake me for Jesus?” We live so much like Him, and we are so like Him that a stranger listening to a description of our Lord would think they are talking about me. Lord, Lord that there might be less of the world in us and more of our blessed Savior until, as the Scriptures say, we have become conformable to the image of the Son [Romans 8:29]. We are just like Him.
O Lord, how I need and lean on Thy gracious goodness. Not I, as Paul would write, but Christ; more, more about Jesus, less and less about us [John 3:30].
May we stand in prayer?
Our precious and wonderful Lord, what a holy and heavenly example did You live before us in the days of Your flesh, kind and dear. Lord, Lord little children loved to come to You, and mothers loved to bring their babies to You that You could bless them and pray for them [Mark 10:13-16]. And publicans and sinners and lost people gathered round You listening to words of hope and forgiveness [Mark 2:16]. People in despair found a hope in Thee. Lost were saved by Thee. O Lord Christ, that we could be like Thee; less of what I am Lord and more of what Jesus is. “Not I, but Christ who liveth in me” [Galatians 2:20].
And while our people pray and wait, a family you, a couple you, a single you, a somebody you, “Pastor, today we have decided for God, and we are coming.” In the balcony round, down one of those stairways, in the throng on this lower floor, down one of these aisles, “Pastor, we have decided, and we are coming today. Want to take Jesus as my Savior, I open my heart to Him.” Welcome. “We have already been saved and baptized, and we are putting our lives in this wonderful church.” Welcome. “In obedience to God’s command, I want to be baptized just as He said in the Book [Matthew 28:19-20], and I am coming.” Or, “The Spirit of God has spoken to me, and I am on the way.” Make the decision now in your heart, and when we sing our hymn, on the first note of the first stanza, that first step will be the most precious you have ever made in your life; take it. And may angels attend you in the way as you come, while we pray, while we wait. And dear God, thank You for the harvest.
While we sing, amen, come, welcome.
came to understand there was a connection between marvelous life of our Savior
in public and His secret life of prayer
looked upon His kneeling form (Luke 11:1a, Hebrews
things bound up in the request
II. The will to pray
A. Our weakness
1. We depend on
ourselves (Proverbs 3:5)
2. We draw back
from the agony involved (Romans 15:30)
a. Why such agonized
i. Satan hinders (Zechariah 3:1, Ephesians 6:12)
ii. Our carnal nature (Matthew 6:6)
3. We become
faint, discouraged (Luke 18:1)
a. Delay is not denial (Romans 4:18-21)
III. The way to pray
A. In the will of God,
with importunity (Luke 11:2, 5-8, 1 John
B. Outside His will,
the peril of answered prayer (Psalm 106:15)
from a hard way (Hebrews 5:7-8, Matthew
2. Showered with
C. Praying in God’s
will (Matthew 6:9-10, 1 John 5:14-15)
1. That we be
filled with the Holy Spirit (Luke 11:13, John
we seek to save the lost (Luke 19:10, Ezekiel
33:11, 2 Peter 3:9, Matthew 28:18-20)
we grow in grace, Christ-likeness (2 Peter 3:18)
a. Missionary, far