Originally preached at Calvary Assembly of God East Ridge
by Donnie Bryson
Tonight, you’re going to hear someone preach to himself. If you get anything — fantastic. But, I know at least one person this message is for – me. I’ve been repenting all week. I’ve been considering my prayer time to work time ratio. In other words, of the things I’m doing – coming to church, studying the Bible, playing music, teaching Royal Rangers, driving kids back and forth to church, whatever – what’s my ratio of work time to prayer time? Like Belshazzar, the handwriting is on the wall. I’ve been weighed in the balance and I’ve been found wanting.
I have the old alter that my Paw-paw Smith made at my house. It was originally made for Momma. The church used it in the Korean Church. You might have seen me carry it away our last night there. Guess where it ended up? Until Monday, it was next to my washer and dryer. It was a table. It had our bleach and detergent on it. This has been a week of repentance. I’ve cleaned it off and put a rug in front of it. Thank God, I’ve been using it all week. I don’t know your life, but I sure know mine. I’ll leave it to you to contemplate your own life as we look at the scriptures.
A lot of the pull on our prayer life comes from our culture. Our world is prayer poor. Even after 9/11, which promoted prayers in the America, A 2002 Christian Science Monitor poll stated that 25% of Americans pray less than twice a week. Nearly 10% don’t pray at all. That’s the general public. What about the church? My cousin Wesley Garren, who has been in Pentecost a lot longer than I have, told me recently that someone gave a prophecy at Azusa street many years ago. The Lord gave a word of prophecy, “there is coming a time when men will worship a God that they won’t pray to.” Look around. That day is on us with all the show time saints, all the slick choreographed charismatic dancing, all the big production praise, and all the Hollywood holiness. There is a time when men will worship a God that won’t pray to. The up-town Charismatics have hijacked Pentecost. Some 21st century Pentecostals don’t have a clue what it means to grab hold of the horns of the alter and pray through. But, I’m not preaching to them. I’m preaching to me. I vaguely remember what it’s like. I’ve nearly forgotten what it’s like to grab the angel until the early morning light and cry, ‘I won’t let you go until you bless me’. It’s so much easier to be selling birthright for porridge. Folks are willing to hunt for our daddy, we’re willing to fix him his favorite meal, but we’re not willing to wrestle all night in prayer. We’d rather be an Esau than a Jacob. “Jacob have I loved, but Esau I have hated.”
But, I’m not preaching to the world tonight. I’m not even preaching to the church. I’m preaching to me.
Contemplating why I stopped praying through, I came to two conclusions. I came to believe two lies of the devil: lie number one, prayer doesn’t change things, and lie number two, God wants short prayers.
Do we really believe prayer changes things? Let me tell you what I found in my heart this week – I really didn’t think prayer changed things. I believed that God was in control, that He had already made up His mind, and prayer was just a way for me to come to an agreement with His decisions. That sounds so good! In the movie, Shadowlands, C.S. Lewis said, “I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. It doesn’t change God, it changes me.” That sounds so good! It’s so logical. There’re even some scriptures that support PART of that argument. The children of Israel were on the outskirts of the Promised Land. Balak wanted them cursed – anyway, anyhow. He hired Balaam do to it. But, Balaam told Balak, “God is not a man, that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent: hath he said, and shall he not do it? or hath he spoken, and shall he not make it good?” Dr. John Gill, that great Baptist theologian that preached in Spurgeon’s pulpit before it was Spurgeon’s, said about that particular verse, “God never changes his mind, alters his counsels, purposes, and decrees, and never varies in his affections to his people.” The prophet Malachi said, “I am the Lord, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed.” The writer of Hebrews said, “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and forever.” A theologian calls this the immutability of God. Immutability, in its strict theological sense, is more restrictive than the normal everyday use of the word. The American Heritage Dictionary defines immutable as “Not subject or susceptible to change.” In other words, ‘usually doesn’t change.” A theologian doesn’t mean that. A theologian means God NEVER changes. In a real and meaningful way, in His eternal omnipresence, that is 100 percent true — God NEVER changes. But, that doesn’t mean what the devil would like for us to believe tonight. Our prayers can change the perceptible mind of God. It is the eternal secret will of God that never changes.
We must understand that the immutability of God is powerfully bound to His all-knowingness and to His stream of consciousness. God knows everything. God spans all time and space at once. He exists in all corners of the universe at the same time. God, the great “I AM”, is simultaneously present in the past, the present, and the future.
No wonder we have so much trouble understanding how God can be both unchangeable and prayer-answering. The communication theorist, Wilbur Schramm, said we only communicate at the point our experiences touch. If you tell me that you’re cold, I understand what you mean because I have been cold before. But, if my dad sent me back a letter telling me about how he felt his first day of heaven, I’d understand a lot less of what he meant than your coldness. I’ve never seen heaven.
We communicate at the point where our experiences touch. At what time were we omniscient? At what time were we omnipresent? At what time did we experience today and tomorrow at the same time? Friends, we have no frame of reference for fully understanding the immutability of God.
Here’s how Satan spread his lie – prayer doesn’t change things. I started from two true statements, but drew a wrong conclusion. God cannot change – that’s true. Prayer is sometimes asking God to change His mind – that’s true. But God does answer prayer. That is a classic error in logic called a complex cause. It happens when we ignore a lot of additional information when we draw a conclusion.
Let’s think about a teenager explaining a wreck to his dad. The kid tells his dad that snow caused the wreck. But, he doesn’t tell him that he was driving twenty miles above the speed limit, he doesn’t tell him he was drunk, he doesn’t tell him that it was midnight and his buddies busted his headlights. The full picture is a lot different than it was when we knew one thing. That’s a complex cause logic error.
That’s exactly the situation when we consider the immutability of God and answered prayers. Some of the dynamics we can’t understand this side of the grave, and a lot we’ll never understand. We’re never going to see the universe like God sees it.
All we can do is take the whole Bible at face value. Look at the 14th chapter of Numbers. Caleb and Joshua had returned with the other ten spies. The children of Israel said, “Would God that we had died in the land of Egypt! or would God we had died in this wilderness!” and then they said, “Let us make a captain, and let us return into Egypt.” But, Caleb and Joshua tried to talk some sense into ‘em. The children of Israel took up stones. Then the glory of the Lord burst forth out the temple. God told Moses, “How long will this people provoke me? and how long will it be ere they believe me, for all the signs which I have showed among them? I will smite them with the pestilence, and disinherit them, and will make of thee a greater nation and mightier than they.” Was God bluffing? Was God serious? Of course God was serious! If Moses had said, “Good idea Lord, better gene pool” — the only Jews today would be children of Moses. But, listen to what Moses said, “Pardon, I beseech thee, the iniquity of this people according unto the greatness of thy mercy, and as thou hast forgiven this people, from Egypt even until now.” God heard him — “I have pardoned according to thy word.”
God expressed one intention, but listen to the prayer of Moses and did something else. Those folks should be thankful that I wasn’t leading them out of Egypt.
Look at the 32nd chapter of Exodus. Moses was up on the mountain receiving the Ten Commandments. The children of Israel were at the foot of the mountain forcing Aaron to make a gold calf. God said, “I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiffnecked people: Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them: and I will make of thee a great nation.” Think about that phrase — “let me alone”. What’d you think would have happened if Moses had left God alone? The Psalmist had no doubt. The Psalmist said, “Therefore he said that he would destroy them, had not Moses his chosen stood before him in the breach, to turn away his wrath, lest he should destroy them.”
Moses could have just laid down and accepted it. But, he stood in the gap and reminded God, “Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, thy servants, to whom thou sworest by thine own self, and saidst unto them, I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven.” And the Bible says that, “the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people.” Moses prayed and on a real and meaningful level God changed His expressed intent.
Look at the 38th chapter of Isaiah. Hezekiah was sick unto death. God sent Isaiah to Hezekiah. Isaiah said, “Thus saith the LORD, Set thine house in order: for thou shalt die, and not live.” Isaiah left him to set his house in order. But, Hezekiah went to his prayer close. God, in a real and meaningful way, changed His mind from His expressed intent. He sent Isaiah back to the king, “Thus saith the LORD, the God of David thy father, I have heard thy prayer, I have seen thy tears: behold, I will add unto thy days fifteen years.” Listen to what God told Hezekiah – “I have heard thy prayer, I have seen they tears.” Your tearful prayer is the cause. God said that He would ADD – that means that God intended Him to die now, but the tears and the prayers changed the expressed intentions of God. It’s a good thing that Hezekiah didn’t pray like me. They’d be burying him.
Prayer changes God’s expressed intentions. Prayer can also change outward circumstances. The Bible is full of examples and plain directives. The Lord’s half-brother James said, “Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him. Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” The Lord Jesus Christ said, “if ye shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; it shall be done. And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.” Paul asked the Thessalonians, “pray for us, that the word of the Lord may have free course, and be glorified, even as it is with you: And that we may be delivered from unreasonable and wicked men.” Paul wasn’t asking for them to pray for him to accept being in their hands. He was asking for them to pray that circumstances would change The Psalmist commanded, “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.” The Psalmist wasn’t saying to pray to accept the violence in Jerusalem. Pray that circumstances will change. Jeremiah told the Jews as they went off into captivity to “seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray unto the LORD for it.” God wants us to pray and expect our circumstances to change.
But we should do more than just expect our physical circumstances to change. We should pray and expect people to change. The Lord told the apostles, “Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he will send forth laborers into his harvest.” We should ask and expect God to give folks the heart of a worker. Paul told the Corinthians “I pray to God that ye do no evil.” Pray and expect God to convict and change folks. Sure they have freewill. But, pray God will make them miserable until they change. Paul told the Philippians, “And this I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment; That ye may approve things that are excellent; that ye may be sincere and without offense till the day of Christ;” Someone a jerk? Pray and expect God to fill him full of Holy Ghost love. Paul told the Colossians, “For this cause we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to desire that ye might be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding; That ye might walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God;” Someone just doesn’t get it? Pray and expect God give them wisdom. Paul told the Thessalonians, “Wherefore also we pray always for you, that our God would count you worthy of this calling, and fulfill all the good pleasure of his goodness, and the work of faith with power:” Someone ineffective at church? Pray and expect a harvest.
But, we should do more than just expect others to change. We should ask for prayer and expect to change ourselves. James said, “Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” The writer of Hebrews asked, “Pray for us: for we trust we have a good conscience, in all things willing to live honestly.”
Now, look closely at I Thessalonians 5:24 and 25. It sums up everything that I said about that first lie of the devil. I Thessalonians 5:24 says, “Faithful is he that calleth you, who also will do it.” Verse 24 speaks to the immutability of God. It speaks of the faithfulness of God. Verse 24 is from that plane where only God exists – God the omnipotent, God the eternal, God the ever present, God the omniscient, God the omnipresent. But, verse 25 says, “Brethren, pray for us.” Verse 25 speaks to our plane of existence – the seeing through a glass darkly, the stumbling from point A to point B, the uncertainty, the growing old and feeble, the ever changing world we live in. Verse 24 is from God’s vantage point. Verse 25 is from our vantage point.
So, to quickly review what I’ve said about the first lie of the devil – prayer doesn’t change things. The Bible teaches that prayer can change the expressed intent of God. I don’t completely understand how that works, but I don’t have to understand everything. The Bible teaches that prayer can change circumstances. The Bible teaches that prayer can change other people. The Bible teaches that prayer can change us.
Now let’s turn to the second lie of the devil – God wants short prayers. This lie plays right into own nature – laziness. Prayer’s hard work.
But a couple of portions of scripture could be misunderstood to keep prayers short.
We see the image of Elijah resisting the prophets of Baal . Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal to a showdown. What was the challenge? Which God could light their own sacrifice? The prophets of Baal went first. They cried from morning to noon to Baal. Elijah started mocking them with, “Cry aloud: for he is a god; either he is talking, or he is pursuing, or he is in a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth, and must be awaked.” Then they started crying louder and cutting themselves until evening. Then it was Elijah’s term. He fixed his sacrifice and had them take four buckets of water and drench the sacrifice three times – one for Father, one for the Son, and one for the Holy Ghost. Then he just calmly said these few words, “LORD God of Abraham, Isaac, and of Israel, let it be known this day that thou art God in Israel, and that I am thy servant, and that I have done all these things at thy word. Hear me, O LORD, hear me, that this people may know that thou art the LORD God, and that thou hast turned their heart back again.” Then the fire fell and consumed the sacrifice, the stone alter, and dried up the twelve buckets of water. So we have the image of the pagans going on all day and the man of God just saying those few words.
That might seem to be what the Lord was referring to when he said, “But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.” But, it’s more likely that He was referring to the Rabbinical teaching that “everyone that multiplies prayer is heard; and whoever prolongs his prayer, his prayer does not return empty; and he that is long in prayer, his days are prolonged.” The key phrase in that verse is “vain repetitions” — it is not just repetition – but vain repetition. It’s VAIN because the person expects to be heard because of the number of words – not the intent of the heart.
Luke described the Lord’s prayer life. He said that, “it came to pass in those days, that he went out into a mountain to pray, and continued all night in prayer to God.” The Son of God himself needed to pray all night! Wonder how much we need to pray?
James, the one that said “effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much”, went into the Temple to pray for the people so much that his knees grew calluses like a camel. Folks affectionately called him camel knees. At least that is what was told by St. Jerome.
The Psalmist said , “Evening, and morning, and at noon, will I pray, and cry aloud: and he shall hear my voice.” Paul told the Thessalonians to “Pray without ceasing.” That phrase, without ceasing, ad-ee-al-ipe’-toce, according to Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, has the connotation of not having an intermission – it is more than just saying ‘don’t stop praying from time to time.” Paul was saying to pray without intermission. We are to be continually praying.
The Lord said, “Watch ye therefore, and pray always, that ye may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of man.” The phrase, “watch ye therefore, and pray always”, seems different in Greek to me — ag-roop-neh’-o oon deh’- om-ahee pas kahee-ros’— I read that to be ‘Always watch and always pray in every situation, circumstance, or time.‘ Adam Clark seems to agree with my little paraphrase. He said, “Indeed the word continually belongs equally to both watch and pray.”
The Lord told a parable about faithful praying. “And he spake a parable unto them to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint; Saying, There was in a city a judge, which feared not God, neither regarded man: And there was a widow in that city; and she came unto him, saying, Avenge me of mine adversary. And he would not for a while: but afterward he said within himself, Though I fear not God, nor regard man; Yet because this widow troubleth me, I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me. And the Lord said, Hear what the unjust judge saith. And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them? I tell you that he will avenge them speedily. Nevertheless when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?”
Of all people, Pentecostals should know how to tarry and pray through. It is our heritage. One of the news reporters back in 1906, thinking he was criticizing the folks at Azusa Street, said, it was a “disgraceful intermingling of the races … They have a one eyed, illiterate, Negro as their preacher who stays on his knees much of the time with his head hidden between the wooden milk crates. He doesn’t talk very much but at times he can be heard shouting, ‘Repent,’ and he’s supposed to be running the thing.” He thought that was a criticism – it wasn’t a criticism it was the cause for the great Revival! Brother Bartelmen in the A/G Pentecostal Enrichment Journal recalled that “Brother Seymour generally sat behind two empty shoe boxes, one on top of the other. He usually kept his head inside the top one during the meeting, in prayer.” What happened at Azusa Street was just a natural outgrowth of God’s promise, “If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.”
The folks at Azusa street took their cue from Jacob , they wrestled all night and cried, “I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.” The folks at Azusa street sang the old hymn by C.P. Jones, “When pangs of death seized on my soul, Unto the Lord I cried; Till Jesus came and made me whole, I would not be denied.”
I want to be a Jacob. I don’t want to be Esau. Jacob I’ve loved but Esau I’ve hated. Esau would do of rothers. He would hunt for his daddy. Esau would take care of business. But Esau wouldn’t wrestle until the morning light and cry – I won’t let you go until you bless me.