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  • Writer's pictureRevShirleyMurphy

Pray and Obey

What hasn’t yet changed in your life because you haven’t started praying for it?

Prayerlessness, of course, comes in varieties. Some almost never pray, proving that prayer is nothing more than a formality, a greeting card to God when they have time. Others only pray when they have some desperate and immediate need, treating prayer like a crisis-response line (and largely neglecting prayer otherwise). Others may pray regularly, but their prayers slowly devolve into repeated phrases that taste stale, impersonal, removed from real life. Even the best among us can sometimes swing between treasuring prayer when we think we really need it and skipping prayer when life seems to be going well.

Prayer, however, is not a last resort, but a first line of defence, because God is not a last resort, but the one to whom we look first. Prayer is powerful because God is the most powerful agent of change in any of our lives.

Oh, what peace we often forfeit Oh, what needless pain we bear All because we do not carry Everything to God in prayer.

Jesus confronted the threat of prayerlessness in his disciples, and in a way that should land with gravity and hope in the midst of our own trials and burdens.

Prayer is not a conversation we start. Rather, God takes the initiative. First, he has spoken. He has revealed himself to us in his world, and in his word, and in the Word. And through his word, illumined by his Spirit, he continues to speak. “See that you do not refuse him who is speaking” (Hebrews 12:25). His word is not dead and gone but “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).

And in his word, and by his Word, he extends to us this stunning offer: to have his ear.

When Esther learned of Haman’s plot to destroy the Jews, a great barrier stood before her. Mordecai directed her “to go to the king to beg his favour and plead with him on behalf of her people” (Esther 4:8).

Easier said than done.

Esther knew these were life-and-death stakes, not just for the Jews but for her: “If any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law — to be put to death, except the one to whom the king holds out the golden sceptre so that he may live.” And she knew the threat that lay before her: “But as for me, I have not been called to come in to the king these thirty days” (Esther 4:11). Yet in the end, in faith and courage, she resolved, “I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish” (Esther 4:16).

One does not simply saunter into the presence of a great king “without being called.” And all the more with God Almighty. Not simply because it’s a great risk, as with an earthly king, but with God it’s not even physically possible. He is no man on earth, that one might slip past the palace guards and approach him. He is utterly unapproachable — “without being called.”

Yet in Christ, the throne of heaven has taken the initiative, and now holds out the golden sceptre.

The two great bookends (4:14–16; 10:19–25) of the heart of the epistle to the Hebrews (chapters 5–10) make clear why we can draw near and how.

Hebrews is set against the backdrop of God’s first covenant with his people, through Moses. What Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers say about “drawing near” or “coming near” to God is sobering. For one, the tabernacle, and the whole system of worship given at Mount Sinai, taught the people of their distance from God, with barriers between them, because of their sin. The people must stay back, lest God’s righteous anger break out against their sin (Exodus 19:22, 24).

First, Moses alone is permitted to come near (Exodus 24:2), and then Moses’s brother, Aaron, and his sons, serving as priests, may “come near” (Exodus 28:43; 30:20). No outsider may come near (Numbers 1:51; 3:10), nor any priest with a blemish (Leviticus 21:18, 21). Only the ordained priests may “draw near to the altar” to make atonement for themselves and for the people (Leviticus 9:7) — and only in the way God has instructed, as memorably taught in the horrors of Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10) and Korah’s rebellion (Numbers 16; also 17:13; 18:3–4, 7, 22).

But now, in Christ, “we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God” (Hebrews 4:14). In him, “we have a great priest over the house of God,” a priest who is ours by faith, and so we “enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh” (Hebrews 10:19–21). Not only does Christ enter God’s presence on our behalf, but he welcomes us in his wake. He is our pioneer, who blazes our trail. We now may “draw near” to God, “come near” to heaven’s throne of grace, because of Christ’s achievements for us, in his life and death and resurrection.

Then, to add wonder to wonder, we not only draw near to God himself in Christ, but we are invited, indeed expected, to do so with confidence — with boldness and full assurance. Since we have such a high priest as Christ, “let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).

In him, “we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus” (Hebrews 10:19). Not by our own value, status, or achievements, but his. We “draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith” (Hebrews 10:22), a faith looking outside ourselves to ask not “Am I worthy?” to approach God’s throne, but “Is Jesus worthy?”

It is almost too good to be true — almost — that we have access to God (Ephesians 2:18) and “access with confidence” at that (Ephesians 3:12). In Christ, the King of the universe holds out the golden sceptre. The question is no longer whether we can come, but will we, and how often?

Many barriers keep us from praying, but nothing kept Jesus from asking his Father, because Jesus knew that nothing was more vital and powerful than prayer. And he knew nothing was more vital and powerful than prayer because no one was more vital and powerful than his Father.

When Jesus says, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer,” he knew so from personal and persistent experience. He was tempted in every way as we are, but without ever indulging in prayerlessness. We know how dependent he was on God — rising early in the morning (Mark 1:35), getting alone with his Father (Mark 6:46), and pouring out his heart (Mark 14:35). And we know he did this regularly (Luke 5:16). He was not distracted by the crowds or undone by the fear of man. He was not intimidated by demonic warfare or discouraged by God’s timing. He knew the soul-sustaining, demon-defeating, mountain-moving power of prayer — and he wanted us to know it too.

Some oppression will not lift without prayer. Some wounds will not heal without prayer. Some trials will not end without prayer. Some sins will not die without prayer. Some relationships will not mend without prayer. Some things will not change, things we desperately want to change, unless we are consistently and persistently humble ourselves, kneel, and plead with our Father in heaven. The all-wise, all-loving, all-powerful God has chosen to do much in the world through our prayers, because prayer is part of his precious relationship with his children and exalts him as the listening and answering God.

We have access. God expects us to take hold on his Son by faith and approach his throne with confidence. Our God listens. He hears our prayers.

What are you waiting for?


Prayer: Where to start and how to keep going – Stephen Cottrell

Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer Paperback – C. S. Lewis

The Screwtape Letters – C. S. Lewis

How to Pray – Pete Greig

Praying the Bible – Donald Whitney

Power through Prayer – Edward M. Bounds

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