Prayer is a matter that most of us readily endorse but, in reality, think of too little. I’m not talking about prayer in general, but prayer in the life and ministry of the pastor.
In the only letter we have from Jesus’ brother Jude, we find a passionate warning against false teachers who were invading and beguiling the church. Jude writes scathingly of them. After he describes and dismisses them, he turns in verse 20 to contrast the true Christians, and true leaders of the church, with these unspiritual men.
“But you, dear friends, build yourselves up in our most holy faith and pray in the Spirit.”
Jude’s great concern throughout this letter was that the church (or churches) be protected from false teaching and be built up in the truth. At the end of Jude, in verse 20, we read, “and pray in the Holy Spirit.” There are many places in the New Testament where Christians are exhorted like this to pray. (See Ephesians 6:18; James 5:16; and Romans 8:26–27). Why is that? There must be a reason for such prayer to be so frequently mentioned and urged in the pages of the New Testament. It must suggest to us something of the importance of prayer.
Now, this praying in the Holy Spirit isn’t a special kind of praying in tongues, or in particular ecstasy, that some Christians do and that others do not. This is, rather, the special kind of praying that true Christians do, that these false teachers do not. This is praying in light of the Holy Spirit’s power and the Holy Spirit’s will. This is praying in line with God’s express desires and with the truth of His gospel. This praying is in contrast with the false teachers, who, according to verse 19, do not even have the Spirit.
The battle against such false teaching, such divisions, such sin as these Christians faced could not be won on their own. They could not simply argue the church into being built up. God Himself must be involved in building the church, and so they needed to entreat Him for His aid and guidance, His presence and power with them. Christianity isn’t simply a mind game; it’s not just convincing yourself through argument or emotion. Rather, it is a matter of genuinely and really living in God. We Christians don’t look at the world through rose-colored glasses, ignoring reality, just hoping there is a supreme being. No! We live as we do because we are in fellowship with that God, because we know Him and live with Him.
Prayer focuses us on our dependence on God. Once, when Martin Luther’s puppy happened to be at the table, he looked for a morsel from his master. As Luther watched his dog begging, the dog’s mouth open and eyes motionless, Luther said, “Oh, if I could only pray the way this dog watches the meat! All his thoughts are concentrated on the piece of meat. Otherwise he has no thought, wish, or hope” (Luther’s Tabletalk, May 18, 1532).
Our prayer life is important in both its private and its public aspects. Privately, we must live out our trust in God, and much of that comes by the reality of prayer. In times that are good, we humble ourselves in prayer as we give the praise and thanks to God for all that goes well. We remind ourselves that we are only unworthy servants. We are God’s colaborers by His grace. In times that are hard, we encourage ourselves by praying, remembering that this is ultimately God’s work. We find that God teaches us through prayer. In a difficult situation, we may begin praying for God to remove the trial. But as we come to meditate more on the way of Christ, we often turn to praying that God will sanctify us through the trial. We are catechized by those trials, sent only with the express permission of our loving heavenly Father. That was Paul’s experience as he reported it in 2 Corinthians 12. From our own lives, we know various stubborn sins, unrepentant family members, worries, and cares that we will spend years of prayer upon, but the result of our perseverance is never our finally trusting God less, but rather coming to love and trust Him more. We see the gospel and its sufficiency. We come to appreciate what He has given us more than we care about what He has not. Where else, outside our prayer closets, do we learn such lessons?
Believing prayer praises God as faithful, trustworthy, caring, worthwhile, and good. It suggests that He has a real and important track record with us. It acknowledges that our ministry really has come from Him and will be returned to Him. It shows that we recognize Him as the Great Shepherd, that any flock we ever tend is His flock, and that we will, as Hebrews says, give account to Him for each of His sheep in that flock.
Public prayer builds us together in our congregations. As we lay out our needs before God, we’re turning to Him to rely on Him, to exult in His utter dependability. As we pray aloud in front of the congregation, our brothers and sisters hear something of our own sense of depending on God, rejoicing in Him and loving Him. We lead our people in loving and relying upon God as our Father. Our public prayer helps us to become the “lead trusters,” the lead glorifiers of God as we are examples of casting our cares upon Him and leaving them there. We can model careful, thoughtful meditation on God’s greatness, on our sins, and on interceding for others and for needs beyond our own congregations. Public praying reveals something of the pastor’s heart.
And in those times when you’re discouraged, brothers, go to God. One of my favorite Christian books is John Bunyan’s autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. At one point, Bunyan recounts Satan’s attempts to discourage him from praying. Here is Bunyan’s account, in his own words:
Now while the Scriptures lay before me, and laid sin anew at my door, that saying in Luke xviii.1, with others, did encourage me to prayer; then the tempter again laid at me very sore, suggesting, “That neither the mercy of God, nor yet the blood of Christ, did at all concern me, nor could they help me for my sin; therefore it was but in vain to pray.” Yet, thought I, “I will pray.” “But, said the tempter, your sin is unpardonable.” “Well, said I, I will pray.” “It is to no boot, said he.” “Yet, said I, I will pray.” So I went to prayer with God; and while I was at prayer, I uttered “Lord, Satan tells me, that neither thy mercy, nor Christ’s blood is sufficient to save my soul; Lord, shall I honour thee most, by believing thou wilt, and canst? or him, by believing that thou neither wilt, nor canst?” Lord, I would fain honour thee, by believing that thou wilt, and canst.
May God give us such perseverance in prayer!
To build ourselves and others up in our most holy faith we, as pastors and ministers of the Word, should certainly and especially give ourselves privately and publicly and regularly to pray in the Holy Spirit.