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The Power of Prayer
Rarely do we understand so much about a subject and practice it so little. This series on prayer can transform your life. Learn not only precepts about prayer, but how to pray in an effective, powerful manner that will elicit supernatural results.More from this series
I didn’t know Walt very well. I knew that he was a distinguished professor, that he was a good speaker in chapel, that he was someone that a lot of people admired, but, myself and three or four other pastors, and about four or five businessmen, ended up in Haiti with Walt. It was one of the red-eye specials.
We got off the plane, got up in the wee hours of the morning, and got on what they called a “bus.” Seven, all seven of us were on one row, and it would seat about four, comfortably. One seat back, a lady with a chicken was, it made the ride unusual. Seven and a half hours straight, I smelled things I have never smelled before. We got off that into a jitney; went into the interior of Haiti.
Walt had given twenty years of his life, and the deal that he made, when he came to teach at the seminary is that: “I’ve got to go back, every summer, for three months, and you have to let me take students, or I can’t take the job.”
He was setting up one of those trips, and I had the privilege of seeing the ministry. And as we were going through all that, I saw a ward of orphans that were totally abandoned that they were helping. I walked into an area where they were doing surgery, and doctors who had given their lives, and nurses, back in the middle of nowhere.
Late that night, after we’d traveled for about two and a half days, and I was absolutely wiped out, Walt said, “Let’s pray, Chip, before we go to bed.” Walt’s a big guy. He probably would have been a linebacker in the NFL, if he weren’t doing what he’s doing now. And we knelt down at this little bed, and we could look out, and there were these little grass huts.
And I know you’re not supposed to listen when people pray – you’re really supposed to be praying to God – but I couldn’t help myself. This man had given his life for these people. And he began to pray, and I realized I was in the presence of a man who knew God deeply and powerfully, and loved people, and had laid out his life. And as he prayed, then he took this big hand, this big paw, put it on my shoulder, and goose bumps went all over me. And I just prayed to God.
And I realized, as I listened to him pray, how he prayed, and what he prayed, were so different from the kinds of things that I prayed. And sometimes, listening to a person who knows God deeply, and for much longer than you and I, can really help us learn what God is like, and how to pray. And as we start this morning, I want to let you eavesdrop on a prayer of a man that God describes as being someone whose heart beats in the same rhythm as God’s, a man who has a heart after God Himself. Listen carefully to David, as he prays. Listen to what he prays. Hear the intimacy. Hear the desires of his own heart, and see what you can learn about God.
It’s a prayer that’s recorded in Scripture, in Psalm 101, and he says, “I will sing of lovingkindness and justice, to Thee, O Lord, I will sing praises. I will give heed to the blameless way. When will Thou come to me? I will walk within my house in the integrity of my heart. I will set no worthless thing before my eyes; I hate the work of those who fall away; it shall not fasten its grip on me. A perverse heart shall depart from me; I will know” – or “tolerate” – “no evil. I will get rid of anyone who whispers evil things about someone else, and I won’t tolerate a man who’s proud and arrogant.
“I will approve of those who are faithful to God, and I’ll let them live in my palace. Those who are completely honest will be allowed to serve with me. No liar will live in my palace; no hypocrite will remain in my presence. Day after day I will destroy the wicked in our land, and I will expel all evil men from the city of our Lord.”
I want to talk about three conditions that are essential for you to experience the kind of power in your prayer that we’ve talked about. The text for the day is 1 John chapter 3, and the core verses we want to look at are verses 21 and verse 22. And in these two little verses are three conditions, three things that have to be true in your life, and in your experience, or these promises aren’t for you.
See, here’s what happens. Can I be candid with you? Some of you have gotten excited about prayer, and a little pumped up, and so, you’ve said, Okay, God, now, Chip said you can have wisdom when you need it, and last week you said, Okay, Lord, I’ve got a big decision. I’ve got a big problem. I want You to give me this wisdom. And the truth is, you didn’t hear a lot. Of course, you don’t want to say that, because it might embarrass you.
And there are some others who said, Okay, I’ll tell you what. Boy, our finances are tight. I’m going to claim this promise. I’m going to line that promise up. And oh, God, Philippians 4:19 – I’m believing this. And you didn’t get any check in the mail this week, did you? In fact, your finances are about, roughly, where they were last week.
And some of you have a child that you want to see come back to the Lord, and some of you have a relationship, or a situation at work, and you’re praying. You’re really praying. And it’s been about a week, or two, and in your heart of hearts, down deep, you’re saying, “You know that line he said: Mark 11:24? ‘Ask anything in My name, believe that you’ve received it, and you’re going to get it’?” You’re just about at the point where you’re saying, “On Saturday night, or Sunday, when this guy gets up and talks about it, it sounds really good. But you know what? This isn’t working for me. This isn’t really working for me.”
I want to tell you, this morning, why it’s not working for you. What I want to tell you this morning is, there are three conditions that are essential. These promises about “ask anything in His name,” “believe what you’ve received,” they’re given to a special classification of people. They’re not for everyone. And if these conditions aren’t met, those promises don’t belong to you, and they don’t belong to me.
It’s like if you want to get a loan from the bank, and you walk into the bank and say, “I really need about five thousand dollars. There are some really important needs.” And they say, “Well, here’s the paperwork. Fill it out.” And you say, “Oh, I don’t like paperwork. I don’t do paperwork.” They say, “Well, we don’t do loans for people who don’t do paperwork.”
You see, I’m not talking about merit. I’m not saying you can do certain things, and they’re brownie points, and God’s going to answer your prayer because you do these certain things. I’m saying there are conditions. There are conditions that, if they’re not met, the old school talks about getting on praying ground. You’re not even qualified, you’re not even in the running for God to hear you, to answer, unless you meet these conditions.
And so, a bank isn’t evaluating and saying, “Well, we don’t know if we want to give you the money.” They don’t give the money to anyone who doesn’t do the paperwork.
And so, I want to talk today about: what’s the paperwork? What are the conditions that God demands to be true in your life, and in your heart, and in mine, so that these outlandish promises about asking anything in His name, believing that you’ve received them, and praying according to His will, can be true in your life, and you can see that power?
Verse 21 has the first condition. The last two conditions are in verse 22. Let’s follow along as I read. “Dear friends,” the apostle John writes, “if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and we receive from Him anything that we ask” – you might circle the next word – “because we obey His commands and do what pleases Him.” You can ask whatever, and you know you’re going to get it, if we keep His commands, and do the things that are pleasing to Him. Those are the two major conditions.
But verse 21 has one, also. He says, “Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God.”
This word, confidence, keeps popping up. The word meant, in ancient Greece, in the ancient Greek culture, “the most sacred right, or value, of a citizen.” The word has the meaning “to feel free to speak one’s mind, unhampered by fear or shame.”
It’s a picture of having this freedom, and boldness, and confidence, that you step right before God, and you know you belong here – no fear, no shame, no baggage. And when you speak, you know He’s going to hear. That’s what this word means. What stops that confidence? It’s when your heart does condemn you.
Condition number one – I’d like you to write in: “a clear conscience.” Those are the key words that I’ve left space for. Condition number one: a clear conscience. A clear conscience gives us boldness and confidence before God in prayer.
Now, you’ve got to ask yourself, How do you get a clear conscience? And the reference here, by the way – the whole context is a word of assurance. Now, there are times, and there are many of us, maybe most of us, this applies to is we’ve done some things wrong, and we don’t deal with things and we’re really, for some of us, God takes a bulldozer to get our attention.
But there are some of you – and this is what this passage is for – there are some of you that are very, very sensitive. You’re the kinds of people that you do nine things right, and you’re down on yourself because there’s probably a tenth you missed. You’re the kinds of people that love others, and are really caring, and we look at you, and we all wish we could be more like you. But you go to bed at night, and bow your head, and think, Oh, gosh, I forgot to call so-and-so.
You’re the kind of person that is generous with your time, you’re generous with your money, you’re caring toward others, but you always think, Well, maybe I should have prayed a little more. Maybe I should have given just a little bit more. Maybe I should have taken a little extra.
And so, what happens, there’s a group of people in the body of Christ that they’re guilt ridden. They’re always down on themselves. And when you feel guilty, deep in your heart, you don’t want to come and talk to God. You feel bad. You feel like there’s a wedge between you, and your relationship with the Lord.
And John, in this context, wants to assure you that there’s an acid test where you can know, for those of you that have a real strict conscience – and by the way, if you’re a bulldozer person, don’t listen to this. People like you and me take passages like this for license. This is for those really tenderhearted people.
Look at verse 19. The context explains it. “This, then, is how we can know that we belong to the truth,” he says, “and how we can set our hearts at rest in His presence” – how do you do that? – “whenever our hearts,” verse 20, “condemn us” – the word means “to accuse us” – “for God is greater than our hearts, and He knows everything.”
Well, the key phrase, here, is “this, then,” isn’t it? In verse 19. Whatever “this, then” refers to is the way that we can know that we’re of the truth – assurance – know that this is the way to set our hearts quietly, when our heart – and the idea of this phrase is when your heart is falsely accusing you, when you’re feeling guilty, but you’re not feeling guilty because God wants you to feel guilty. You’re feeling guilty because you’re just one of those people that feels guilty a lot.
What’s the “this, then”? Verse 18 explains the “this, then.” “Dear children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in action and in truth.”
The apostle John is saying that your assurance, that your right relationship is just to look at the habitual practice of your life. Do you have a loving lifestyle? Are there deeds, and habitual actions – not that you hit it all, all the time, but your heart, your desire. You’re giving. You’re loving. You’re caring. He says when the habitual practice of your life is a caring, loving person, and you hear these little voices inside that say, “You should have done more.”
And by the way, these little voices are almost always vague. They’re never specific. The Holy Spirit, when He wants to convict you, He doesn’t mess around. He doesn’t say stuff like, “You’re sort of a yicky person. You’re kind of a jerk. You’re selfish. Why don’t you get with the program?”
When He convicts you, He says – zap! – “You were rude to so-and-so last night at nine o’clock, and you need to make that right.” Because the Holy Spirit’s job is to draw you back close to God, not to make you feel bad.
But there are some of you that struggle praying, and the reason you struggle praying is because you’re so down on yourself. And the apostle John, this apostle of love, says, “Look, this, then, is how you can know.” Just look at the objective facts of your life.
God knows everything. He knows your desires. If it’s 11:30 at night, and you say, “Oh, I wanted to call her, and I wanted to encourage her, but it’s too late, and now I’ve blown it, and now God’s probably down on me” – no, He’s not. He knew what you wanted to do. He understands. He loves you.
And so, the first thing that most of you with really tender hearts need to know is: come to God with a clear conscience. Come, knowing, Hey, you’re My child. I open up heaven on the basis of the work of Christ. Those of you that habitually practice loving, you come on. Don’t be so down on yourself.
Now, the second two conditions appeal more to people like myself that God has to knock me a little bit over the head.
The second condition is an obedient lifestyle. An obedient lifestyle. Look at verse 22: “And we receive from Him anything that we ask, because we obey His commands.” God answers the prayers of those who keep His commands. It’s a condition. It’s filling out the paperwork.
See, the fact of the matter is, there are Christians, like you, and like me, and we have these dreams. We’ve got a child that we want to see start to walk with the Lord, and there’s a relationship in our family we wish God would heal. We’ve got financial pressure over here, and there’s a situation at work we’re really asking God for.
And we’re over here saying, “Oh, God, oh, God, oh, God,” and we’re really praying, and to be honest, we’re not seeing many answers. We’re not seeing the kinds of answers that I’m talking about. And then, we get ticked off at God.
But the fact of the matter is, is that there are multiple commandments that we know that we are just flat out not doing. We’re not doing them!
He says we need to keep His commandments. If you’re not in the Scriptures, you can’t know what they are. Basic areas of the Christian life, in terms of our thought life, our morality, our love for other people, we aren’t obeying, and yet, we’re asking over here. And then, you know what we have the audacity to do? Boy, God, You don’t come through with Your promises.
And what the Lord wants us to understand is that these promises He’s talking about, where He’ll supernaturally work, there’s some paperwork involved. You need to meet the conditions. You need to come with a clear conscience, and you need to come with an obedient lifestyle.
Now, some of you, at this point, I hope you’re asking, “Well, that sounds pretty open to interpretation. What’s it mean to have an obedient lifestyle? What’s it mean to obey His commandments?”
Well, he’s going to tell us. Look at verse 23. He explains, very clearly, what commands he’s talking about: “And this is His command.” Is that clear enough for you? There are two things. The first one is “to believe in the name of His Son,” and, “to love one another as He commanded us.”
The tense of the verb, here, for believe – it’s a verb tense that means: “at a point in time,” the very first thing you need to do to fulfill this commandment is that if you’ve never asked Jesus Christ to be the Savior of your life, if you’ve never looked to the cross and said, “Jesus died on the cross for me, His death paid the price for my sin, and He rose from the dead to forgive me all my sin and has offered that free gift” – if you’ve never received that free gift, he says that’s the first step of obedience. And until you’ve done that, this promise doesn’t apply to you. God’s not going to hear your prayer.
See, we’ve got this idea that God is a benevolent King of a democratic society, and that there are all these hotlines that go to heaven, and He answers them all the same. He doesn’t. Some people call, and He answers very regularly. Other people call and call, and He says, “I’ve left a few messages on your recorder. And when you take care of the few messages that I’ve left on your recorder, call Me back.”
See, we do have a part. And see, we don’t deal with that, and yet, we keep calling and calling and calling, and then we get hot at God because He doesn’t answer. He answers.
So, the first step is that if you’ve never asked Him to come into your life and forgive you, do that, today. In fact, I encourage you to skip out on the rest of this message, and glaze forward, like this, to make people think you’re listening, and have a private conversation with God, and ask Him to come into your life and forgive you.
The second thing, though, it says a different tense of the verb. This is present tense – ongoing, habitually. It says, what is the second part? What are His commands? “To love one another.” He says it’s in loving one another – that command needs to be fulfilled. There ought to be a love for one another, in the body of Christ, that is so radical, that that has to be fulfilled before you meet the condition for God to hear your prayers.
And at this point in time, again, that gets gray. What’s it mean to really love each other? I’m here today, aren’t I? I sang the songs.
Well, that is neat, but this passage will explain: what does it mean to love one another? Look up at verse 16. He gives us the definition of love – the measuring, the litmus test. “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down His life for us.”
Love is a choice. Love is radical sacrifice. Love is seeing the needs of someone else, and putting aside your wants, your desires, and extending your time, your energy, your resources, and even your life, if need be, to give to someone else. That’s what love is.
So, now, we’ve got to back it up and say, Am I loving people like that, or do I just love them when it’s convenient? Is my attitude in the body, “What do they have for me? Are you meeting my needs? I’d like a little bit more of this. Do you think you could start earlier, or start later, or whatever?” Did you notice the next line, in verse 16? “And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.”
Now, you think about this condition. See, the people that are seeing God do graphic, supernatural works of power in their lives are people that are radically loving their brothers and sisters in Christ, who are expending and giving their lives, their hearts, their time, their emotions, and their finances to meet the needs of other people. That’s who qualifies for this promise.
In fact, in verse 17, he gives us the first illustration. He says, “If that’s too vague, I’ll picture it for you.” Look at verse 17: “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?”
The apostle John, you can almost see him scratching his head. “You say that you belong to God, and that you are desperate. And God forgave you, and gave all that He had for you, and now you’re forgiven, and you’re a part of His family.
And here you are, a part of His family, and other people who are part of His family have these needs over here, and you’ve got this time, and these spiritual gifts, and these money resources. And you know they have needs, and you don’t share what you have with them?” And John goes, “Huh. How can God’s love be in you?”
See, the reason Jesus talked more about money, in the New Testament, than heaven and hell combined, is because the fact of the matter is, money will tell you: who is your god? And when other people have needs, and I can’t give of my time, or my emotional energy, or if I can’t give of my finances, off the top, to love other people, then the love of God isn’t operating in my life. I’m saying, “It’s my time. It’s my money.”
Who gave you the job? God did. Who gave you the health? God did. Who gave you the family? God did. Who gave you the home? God did. And then, we tell them, “But I can’t afford to give any of it back to you!” You can’t afford not to.
Because when we are not radically loving and giving, not just of our money, but of our energy, our time, then we’re not loving other people. And if you’re not loving other people, you’re not keeping His command. And if you’re not keeping His command, this promise does not apply to you. God will not hear your prayer. That’s a condition.
It’s like saying, “Oh, God, oh, God, I need a loan! I need a loan! I need a loan! I need a loan!” And He says, “Fine, have you filled out the paperwork?” And you say, “I don’t do paperwork.” He says, “Fine.”
When you do the paperwork, then you qualify to be a recipient of the eternal God of the universe, who wants to give you more than you ever dreamed, who wants to do stuff in your family, who wants to do stuff at work, who wants to do things in relationships – it would take a miracle! God has miracles.
I think heaven, we’re going to get to heaven, and we’re going to open a door – there’s the miracle room! And we’re going to say, “Wow! Those shelves are all full!” He’s going to say, Yeah, I tried to give them away, but people wouldn’t take them. They were going to work it out themselves. It’s a storehouse in here! The Old Testament says, “You test Me. I’ll pour out; I’ll open the storehouse of heaven. I’ll meet your needs.”
The third condition goes beyond a clear conscience, and an obedient lifestyle. Condition number three is – you can write the words – “a yearning heart,” “a yearning heart.” And what I mean is a heart that longs to please God.
God answers the prayers of those who do the things that are pleasing in His sight. Did you notice that, in verse 22? “And we know that we have whatever we ask, because,” one, “we keep His commandments,” and, two, building on that, “we do what is pleasing in His sight,” says the New American Standard.
See, there are some of us – and it’s part our personalities, and part our backgrounds – we want to find out where the lines are. “We’re supposed to keep these four rules? Okay, I’ll keep them. These five rules? Okay, I’ll keep them. Are there twenty-nine rules? I’ll get them. I’ll list them.” These people make charts, and then they check them. “Are you supposed to read the Bible? Okay, two chapters a day, pray for so long…”
And what God wants you to understand is that He wants a yearning heart, not rote, exterior, legalistic obedience. He wants you and I not just to do what’s right, to say, “Okay, I don’t do this,” or, “I don’t do this,” or, “I don’t do that.” But instead, He wants you to have a heart inside that longs to please Him, and your obedience flows not out of duty and obligation, but out of a love relationship. He wants you to go beyond just exterior obedience: “Well, I kept the commandments. Okay, God, You’ve got to come through. I filled out the loan papers.” He says, “It doesn’t work that way.”
I spent a good portion of the first two or three years of my Christian life finding out where the lines were. Having never read the Bible, I didn’t know many of the rules, nor did I know that God had them for my benefit. But here’s what I’d do. I’d find out, Okay, now, that line right here is sin. Okay. And this is what I did: “Okay, I’m not sinning! I’m not sinning! See, God, I didn’t break the letter of the Law!” That kind of heart doesn’t meet the condition for the God of the universe to answer prayer.
I remember, I had just begun to grow, and I started to get in the Bible. And then, I got into Bible study, and I started to share my faith, and a couple of guys at least prayed a prayer with me to become Christians. And then, I’d see them in the hallway, and they’d see me, and they’d duck, and turn, go down the other stairs. It was like I had cooties, or something.
And I was doing all the “right things,” but there was no fruit in my life. Nothing was happening. And then, I began to pray, seriously, God, how come You’re not using me?
And then, He convicted me about a relationship with my girlfriend. Oh, now, I wasn’t sleeping with her. We didn’t do “the big one.” But I’ll tell you what, our relationship did not honor God. And the things we did do did not honor God. It was not pleasing to God. Oh, I drew a line and said, “As long as don’t ‘have intercourse,’ I guess I’m okay.”
Let me ask you, is your focus, in the Christian life, trying to see how close you can get to sin, without sinning? Or is yours one of a child’s heart, running to the Father and saying, “I’m not sure if this is right or wrong. I want to do what You want me to do”?
You want to see a picture of that? Look back at the psalm of David. Do you remember how he’s described? He’s described as “a man after God’s own heart.” You want to hear his yearnings? You want to hear his heart? Listen to how he approaches God. This is why God answered his prayers. He met the condition. “I will sing of lovingkindness and justice, to Thee, O Lord, I’ll sing praises.”
Now, does that sound like someone who says, “Oh, gosh, it’s time to have a quiet time”? Is it duty, or is it delight? Do you get it? He wants to be with God! He says, “I will give heed to the blameless way. When will You come to me? I’ll walk within my house in the integrity of my heart.” Look at his character! He wants to be morally pure! He wants the inside of his heart to be clean – his motives, and his thoughts. Is that you? Is that me? That’s a heart pleasing to God.
He goes on, “I will set no worthless thing before my eyes. A perverse heart, it’ll depart from me.”
See, I think if David was living today, I bet he would put that on the front of his VCR, and his TV. “I will put no worthless thing before my eyes.” He wouldn’t say, “Okay, now, is this ‘G,’ or is this ‘PG,’ or is this ‘PG-13,’ or this an ‘R’ one that I heard is clean?” He wouldn’t play those games! He’d stick it on his TV and say, “Could I sit down on the couch with the Lord Jesus, and say, ‘Do You like this movie, Lord?’” Not, “Well, it’s okay, except for this, this, this, or that.”
See, I’m not talking about legalism here. I’m talking about longing to please God, instead of always seeing how close we can come. And I just can’t get the idea that the Lord would watch people’s heads getting blown off, and all the junk that we see, and say, Oh, boy, this is really encouraging, isn’t it? Ask yourself, does your heart yearn to please God in what you see, in what you do?
Notice verse 5. He says, “I’ll get rid of anyone who whispers evil things about someone else.” His relationships to others. Do you listen to gossip? It’s tantalizing, isn’t it? Do you know what David would say? “I don’t want to hear that trash. You got a problem with that person? You go talk to them. That’s ungodly. I don’t put up with that stuff.” Not, “Well, gosh, oh boy, I’ve heard the same thing. And if you talk to Betty, you’ll really find…”
Look at his relationships: “I approve of those who are faithful, those who are completely honest – no liars, no hypocrites.” He wanted to run with people that had a heart for God. Proverbs 13:20 says, “He who dwells with wise men will be wise, but the companion of a fool will suffer harm.” Who do you run with? Who do you hang out with?
Ask God to give you a desire and a yearning, because here’s the deal: God wants to do marvelous, supernatural, tremendous works in your life, but some of us have not filled out the loan papers. And you’re not on praying ground. When you pray, you haven’t put yourself in a position to realize God really loves you, and you can have a clear conscience. You haven’t put yourself in a position to obey His commandments because you honestly love, sacrificially, others. And you haven’t put yourself in a position where you can say, in your heart of hearts, God, I blew it.
And we’re not talking perfection. It’s up and down, and up and down, and struggle. But it’s that sense of, Oh, Lord, I want to be Your man. I want to be Your woman. I want to be a student that would really be pleasing to You, and I know I fail, and I know I struggle, and I know You understand that.
You see, the flow of New Testament Christianity, and Old Testament faith, has to do with abiding, deep relationship of fellowship – that obedience, and love, and expenditure of energy, and time, and resources flows out of love, not duty.
And if you don’t want to give, of yourself, of your time, and your resources, it just tells you a whole lot more about you than you really want to know. It tells you about your relationship, or lack of it, in your heart of hearts, with the living God. I would just hate to see all the miracles get stuck up in heaven that He’d like to open up for you.
Verse 24 summarizes it all, and it’s for you and me, as we meet the conditions. He says, “Those who obey His commandments” – are you ready for this? – “live in Him” – is that great? – “and He in them.”
See, when you live this way, the power, the sweetness, the fellowship, the grace of God lives in you, and you live in Him. “And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit which He gave us.”
God wants to do great, mighty answers to prayer, and what we need to learn this week – it’s not that He’s unwilling. It’s that a great majority of His people haven’t filled out the loan papers.