Can we misunderstand prayer? – 1 Thessalonians 5:17-18

Good morning church! My name is Jinson Thomas and I’m thankful to God for this opportunity to share God’s Word with you this morning.

I hope our time today would be an encouragement in your faith. If someone would’ve told me at the start of this year concerning all the events that I was going to witness in 2020, I wouldn’t have believed it!

A pandemic that would ravage the entire globe causing 6.4 million people to be infected & 3.8 Lac deaths!!! Our state alone has recorded the highest number of cases (80,000 approx.) in the country and we have been in lockdown for 11 weeks now affecting people’s livelihoods & causing tremendous hardships for those who relied on daily wages.

People who are on salaried jobs are forced to take pay cuts or unfortunately even being laid off. It is a painful and difficult time. On top of that our country has witnessed 2 cyclones & even an attack from the locusts on our fields in the past month!

In terms of national security – there is trouble brewing on the border with China. I say this not to harp on discouraging news but rather to acknowledge that we stand here today at the backdrop of unimaginable fear and anxiety.

And we can sense this all around us – be it at our workplaces or in our schools or on the news, or on social media or in our neighbourhoods or even in the innermost places of our hearts. And what I believe today’s passage is telling us is that God has given us a wonderful & powerful tool called “prayer” but yet it’s something that is so easily misunderstood.  We misunderstand the purpose of “prayer” when we make it out to be something that it was never designed to be. 

What is the true purpose of prayer then? I’d ask you to look with me at our main text –

1 Thess 5:17-18:

17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

4 observations on prayer & thanksgiving:-

1. Prayer is not about performance but about trust (v17)

17 pray without ceasing

In other words, “Uninterrupted, incessant, continuous prayers”. When we hear this instruction “pray without ceasing”, what naturally goes through our mind? If I’m not wrong, many of us automatically think about it in terms of “performance”.

We think Paul is talking about “unceasing prayer” so that would mean “uninterrupted prayer 24/7 or praying during every waking moment” and then we try to measure ourselves against that standard on the basis of the time we’ve spent in prayer.

When we think on this performance mentality, we pat ourselves on the back and “feel more accepted and loved” by God on days when we’ve spent more time in prayer. On the other hand, on days when we’ve spent little time or neglected prayer, we feel “unloved and unaccepted” by God. And the man-made solution we come up with is “I need to pray more to be loved and accepted by God”.

I love the way Jerry Bridges puts it – he says “Your worst days are never so bad that you are beyond the reach of God’s grace. And your best days are never so good that you are beyond the need of God’s grace”.

In other words, it’s not our “prayer performance” that makes God love and accept us, it’s God’s grace (God’s unmerited gift) that He has poured on us through His Son Jesus Christ. Okay, you may ask – so if we don’t pray to perform before God (to gain some brownie points), then why do we pray?

We pray because we exhibit our trust in God through prayer. We basically echo that God is strong and powerful and I’m not. I am in desperate need of God’s help. It’s not about performance but about trust.

I think this principle is illustrated beautifully in one of my favorite parables from the Bible – the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. Both of them go to the temple to pray.

The Pharisee (super religious Jew) sees prayer as a means of performing before God. During his prayer, he keeps bragging about him not being as bad as the robbers, the evildoers, adulterers and even the tax collector who is standing behind him. Not just that he then adds that he fasts twice a week and gives a tenth of all that he gets.

At the same time, the tax collector (in those days were known as dishonest and wicked people) stood at a distance and wouldn’t even look up to heaven. Out of his sorrow due to this sin, he beats his chest and says “God have mercy on me a sinner”. He has nothing to brag about. All he is holding on is the “mercy of God”.

It’s interesting that Jesus ends the parable by the saying that the tax collected went home justified. God answered his prayer because it exhibited trust in Him. The Pharisee’s prayer since it relied on his own performance had no trust in God.

Therefore, I want us to realize that when Scripture tells us to “pray without ceasing”, its objective is not to push us to performance but rather to trust God in prayer with all the areas of our lives.

Just like the tax collector’s posture, we come to God humbly in prayer desperately asking God for help in our relationship with Him (we don’t want to be cold or lukewarm but growing in our love for Him), ask God for help to be pure for Him (we need His help to fight sin), ask God to help us with our work (the tasks, meetings and responsibilities for the day), ask Him to help us in our marriages, if we are single where we ask Him to prepare us for marriage & help us be faithful in this stage of waiting, in this time of uncertainty where we desperately ask God for wisdom, provision and protection.

God is glorified when His creatures trust Him. He didn’t create us to be self-sufficient. He created us to be dependent on Him & therefore prayer a wonderfully powerful tool that God has given us to trust Him.

2. Prayer means that we have unlimited access to God (v17)

The other thing we realize about “praying without ceasing” is that it means that there is no limit to the number of times I can communicate with God. Many of us who have had some experience of working or being part of a hierarchical organization know that the larger the organization is, the harder it is to get connected with the CEO or super boss of the organization if you are a regular employee.

In order to approach the CEO or have an interaction with him, you would probably need to go through multiple managers and heads & then get their approval to get a few minutes with him. And even if there is a rare opportunity to meet with the CEO, it’s quite likely that the next interaction will take a while.

Unlike this case where the CEO is distant and disconnected from regular employees, the amazing truth of the gospel is that every believer has unlimited access to God who is the Creator of the entire universe!

There’s no restriction on the access. There’s no red tape. There’s no certain set of formalities or approval required. That is actually a humbling yet exciting truth!

The other assumption for “unceasing prayer” is that we as believers can be confident to go back to God again and again because God will respond and answer our prayers.

Although God’s answer might not always be what we desire or expect because we think temporarily but God thinks eternally of how we can be shaped into Jesus fully, but yet God always answers!

Another favorite parable of mine is the parable of “the persistent widow”. There was a town in which there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. No moral standards & no compassion and care towards fellow humans – not a great candidate to be a judge.

And there was a widow (oppressed and poor probably) who kept coming to him asking him to grant her justice. Now he kept putting her off but after a while he yielded to giving her justice because he didn’t want to be bothered anymore.

And Jesus uses this lesser to great argument. “If this unjust judge was able to grant justice to the widow, do you think God neglect the chosen ones who cry out to him night and day? I tell you, he will see that they get justice quickly.”

How awesome this is? To know that we have God who never denies us access to Himself & also to know that He earnestly desires & delights in answering our prayers.

3.  Prayer and Thanksgiving is not based on our circumstances

18a give thanks in all circumstances

Thanksgiving means expressing gratefulness. What we see in v18 is that thanksgiving was never meant to be a seasonal activity. It was never intended to be the case where we only thank God when things go well and cease from thanking God during times of pain and difficulty.

Well, you might say – it was easier for the Thessalonian church because they weren’t facing the same troubles or stress that I’m going through right now!

However, when we look at this young Thessalonian church probably a few months old at this stage, we see them as a church not birthed in prosperity but in persecution. They were extremely unpopular and falsely accused of revolting against Caesar by following “another king Jesus”.

Paul who was with their spiritual father & strong support wasn’t present with them because he was driven out of the city by these same persecutors. Think about it – each day remained to be a risk for them ever since they followed Jesus.

With the unpopularity they faced, they too faced a very uncertain future. And in the midst of all that was happening to them, Paul tells them to give thanks in all circumstances! Why does Paul tell them that?

Because what the Thessalonian church and what we need to hear the most in our toughest of times is not optimistic advice but we need to grasp a picture of “Who God is & what He has done for us”!

We need to know how big, strong, compassionate, wise, loving, patient, faithful to His promises, in full control of destiny He is. And that happens through “thanksgiving and remembering”. 

As a church in our daily readings we have been going through Deuteronomy and in that I’ve been encouraged to see the numerous times God reminds the Israelites of the time when they were slaves in Egypt and how God brought them out with an outstretched arm.

And these reminders were not to guilt the Israelites or manipulate them. These reminders were given so that they could thank God for what He has done for them and also remind them that He is more than able to fulfill all the remaining promises He made to them.

It could be a gospel song, it could be your own testimony that you remind your own heart about (how God totally transformed your life) or it could be by placing visual reminders of God’s promises in front of you or maybe journaling God’s faithfulness.

There are a variety of things you can do to bring to remembrance and lead your heart to thanksgiving.

4.  Thanksgiving and prayer is a command and an invitation from God

for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (v18b)

Do you want to know the will of God? God’s will for us is that we pray unceasingly and thank God in all circumstances! When we look at the word “will” in the Greek – it means a decree or command that’s being made by the highest authority.

But the word “will” also means “pleasure & intention” – which also tells us that God doesn’t want us to perform “prayers and thanksgiving” out of mere obligation but rather He intends that we do it in the context of a relationship with Him!   

I love that phrase “in Christ Jesus for you” because it reminds us that the basis of our relationship with God is because of Jesus Christ. In the beginning, God created us for a relationship with Him – to know Him, love Him and live for Him. But we willingly chose to go our own way running away from our Father toward our own pleasures & desires.

All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way (Isa 53:6) Like lost son or daughter, we found ourselves stuck in our own deep & dark pit of sin. The wages of sin is death (Rom 6:23). We tried several attempts to fix the problem and get us out of the pit of sin but each time we fell back in again.

We thought our good works, righteous deeds & number of prayers would be sufficient to save us but none of that could fix our broken lives. When we were dying in that pit, our Father came looking for us and seeing us dying there He came to rescue us. His rescue mission involved giving up His one and only pure Son on the cross to pay for our rebellion and our sins.

But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom 5:8) But the story doesn’t end there. Jesus Christ was buried and on the third Day He rose victoriously from the grave so that by trusting in Him we can not only be rescued from the deadly pit of sin but have a restored relationship with the Father forever.

But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God (John 1:12).

That’s so amazing that through Christ we are no longer enemies and slaves but are now children of God! Now through Jesus Christ, in our prayers we relate to the Father as “Abba Father” & as our “Papa”.

One verse that always stood out to me was Matt 6:7:  7 “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

Why would the Father want us to pray even though He knows what we need even before I ask him?

It’s because our prayers and thanksgiving are not to be viewed like a vending machine or as a burdensome command to obey. The primary purpose for prayer is not merely to get what we want but to know God intimately. It’s as though God is telling us – Son / Daughter, prayer is an invitation for you to grow in your relationship with me.

Undoubtedly this season in life could be one of most difficult times for us. But God has given us a powerful tool to call for divine help through prayer! But that means that we would need to set aside our misunderstandings & baggage regarding prayer. What I’d ask us all to do now is to spend a few moments repenting to God regarding the misunderstandings and what we have made prayer out to be.

1. Repenting to God for making prayer about a performance rather than trusting Him will the areas of our life

2. Repenting for unbelief – Repenting for not believing that God is a good God who will answer our prayers

3. Repenting for forgetting Who God is and What He is able to do. Ask God to give us a heart of thankfulness that is not dependent on our circumstances

4. Repenting for making prayer out to be a burden by not seeing it as an invitation to grow in a relationship

And in faith trust in God’s forgiveness in Christ and ask God for grace to revive our prayer lives and make it what God intended prayer to be.

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