Once upon a time I used to be part of a Bible study group. We’d spend most of our time studying the Bible together. The problem was we often spent so long looking at the Bible and talking together that we rarely allowed much time to pray. So we changed the name to Prayer and Bible groups. And you know what? Prayer was still frequently edged out by everything else. I wonder if your experience has been much the same.
We want our growth groups to be relational communities. People connecting with each other, getting to know each other, taking an interest in what’s going on in each other’s lives. However, the primary relationships aren’t those that we share with each other, but the relationships we share with God. We gather because we belong to God. We’ve been adopted into his family and God is our Father. Jesus has given us access to his Father, so that we can relate to him as our Father. This is a wonderful privilege. We can come before our Father in heaven at any time and in any place, through the mediating work of Jesus. For this reason we desire to express our dependence upon God and our fellowship together in growth groups through prayer.
I want you to imagine a different scenario with me for a minute.
You are part of a company think tank, gathered in a boardroom to come up with plans and changes for moving the company forward, helping each person in the company to improve their contribution, and using the vast resources of the company to bring these things about. The name of the company is Microsoft (assume you are happy with this!) and Bill Gates has agreed to come to every think tank meeting, and authorise the use of his resources to enable every venture that will improve the company. You meet together, read over the company documents, talk things over, come up with some astounding ideas, realise you’ve used nearly all your time, forget that Bill is in the room, ask him for nothing, and head off to try and do everything yourselves.
What a mistake! Forgetting the most important person in the room! Failing to speak with him, ask for his help, draw on his resources… even when he’s promised to give you more than you could ever imagine! It doesn’t make sense, does it? And yet, isn’t that what we do with God our Father, every time we meet and fail to pray. It seems to me that the key to praying in our growth groups is to remember who God is, and to take seriously his invitation, in fact his command, to pray.
We will spend some time in this paper, looking at the Bible, seeking to understand our God, because it is God himself who invites us to pray. You could use these Scriptures as a guide for your growth group in approaching God in prayer together.
The God to whom we pray
The Holy God
The Bible reveals God to be a Holy God who will not tolerate evil. We cannot come into the presence of God without fear for our lives. It is no simple thing to come before God to pray.
Isaiah shows us the problem when he is brought into the presence of God, presumably in a vision…
1 In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. 3 And they were calling to one another:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”
4 At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.
5 “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” (Isaiah 6:1-5)
Habbakuk knows the dilemma of sinful people seeking to be heard by a righteous and holy God…
2 How long, Lord, must I call for help,
but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!”
but you do not save?
13 Your eyes are too pure to look on evil;
you cannot tolerate wrongdoing. (Habakkuk 1:2, 13)
God, himself, says through Isaiah to the people of Israel…
15 When you spread out your hands in prayer,
I hide my eyes from you;
even when you offer many prayers,
I am not listening.
Your hands are full of blood! (Isaiah 1:15)
And Isaiah speaks to the people about God…
1 Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save,
nor his ear too dull to hear.
2 But your iniquities have separated
you from your God;
your sins have hidden his face from you,
so that he will not hear. (Isaiah 59:1-2)
So what hope do we have? Our lives are tainted by sin and selfishness. How can we presume to come before God in prayer?
On the basis of God’s grace and mercy, love and forgiveness. This is how! And it’s the only way. God enables us to pray. It’s not something we can do for ourselves. We need a saviour.
God, in his kindness, has made it possible to come into a relationship with him. He has dealt with our sin, and invites us to trust him, submit to him, depend upon him, and speak with him.
God made it possible for Isaiah to stand before him…
6 Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” (Isaiah 1:6-7)
God makes it possible through the death of his Son, Jesus Christ, for each of us to be made clean, to have our sins forgiven, God’s judgment lifted, and to gain access to God.
Looking ahead to Jesus, God spoke through Isaiah announcing…
4 Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:4-6)
Because God is the Saviour, like the Psalmist, we should delight to call on him…
1 I love the Lord, for he heard my voice;
he heard my cry for mercy.
2 Because he turned his ear to me,
I will call on him as long as I live. (Psalm 116:1-2)
Jesus has given us access into the throne room of God. His saving work enables us to boldly approach God with confidence and ask him to help us in our weakness and need…
14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. 16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
Permission to pray is a wonderful gift from God. God invites us to enjoy a new relationship with him. And this is a special, personal, and familial relationship. We’re granted the privilege of relating to the Holy God as our Father.
Before Jesus leaves his disciples he prepares them for the relationship they are to have with his Father in heaven…
23 In that day you will no longer ask me anything. Very truly I tell you, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. 24 Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete. 25 “Though I have been speaking figuratively, a time is coming when I will no longer use this kind of language but will tell you plainly about my Father. 26 In that day you will ask in my name. I am not saying that I will ask the Father on your behalf. 27 No, the Father himself loves you because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God. 28 I came from the Father and entered the world; now I am leaving the world and going back to the Father.” (John 16:23-28)
17 Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” (John 20:17, my emphasis)
Paul reminds us that by God’s Spirit we are able to relate to God as our Father…
15 The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” 16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. 17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. (Romans 8:15-17)
As God’s dearly loved and adopted children, we have the privilege of coming to him in prayer. Jesus gave this model for prayer…
7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
9 “This, then, is how you should pray:
“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
10 your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us today our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.’
Jesus asks us to remember the all-surpassing goodness and generosity of our Father, and so to bring our needs before Him…
7 “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
9 “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!
Through Jesus Christ, and the work of God’s Spirit, we are brought into a relationship with God as our heavenly Father. He calls us to speak with Him, to bring our needs before him, knowing that he will shower his good gifts upon us. God is both willing and able to answer our prayers according to his perfect will. He has our absolute best interests at heart. There is nothing that can thwart his good plans and purposes. So why wouldn’t we pray?!
What to pray
When Jesus was asked how to pray, he responded by telling his disciples what to pray. The Lord’s prayer, as it has become known, gives us a template to pray, as Jesus instructed. We approach God as Father, we desire his honour in all things, we seek his will to be done, we ask him to shape our priorities, enable us to live lives that honour him and reflect him in this world. In other words, the first thing we discover about how to pray, is to have our prayers shaped by God’s own agenda.
According to God’s will
As we seek to pray as Jesus instructed, we desire to have our prayers shaped according to God’s revealed will in the Scriptures. Jesus, himself, submitted his will to the Father as he prayed…
42 “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42)
How can we know the will of God? By reading it! We should allow Scripture shape our prayers. The Bible reveals God’s plans and priorities. It reveals God’s wonderful promises. Scripture shows us how to live and speak and think in according to God’s revealed will. The Bible also contains many prayers, that give us an insight into what matters matter to God and his people. We can even pray the content of Scripture as we ask God to make it live in our hearts and minds.
As we study the Bible in our groups, allow the passage you have been examining to shape the prayers that follow. We don’t want to be mere listeners to the word, but people who put into practice what we’ve learned. Let’s ask God to transform us in the light of what we’ve just read.
Bring our needs before God
We’re invited to bring our anxieties and worries and requests to God. Even though God knows what we need before we ask, he calls us to open up to him…
6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. (Philippians 4:6)
16 Rejoice always, 17 pray continually, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)
6 Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. 7 Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. (1 Peter 5:6-7)
8 If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:8-9)
Nothing is too big or too small to bring to God. Whatever burden is on our heart, God invites us to hand it over to him. Whatever we need, God wants us to ask him for it. And God’s word equips us to ask in accordance with God will. The more we grow in our knowledge and love of God, the more we will understand how and what to pray for things.
These verses above give guidance about the attitude we should have as we pray. First, we should trust God rather than clinging to our worries. God is the one most able to resolve our worries, so leave them to him. There’s no point you and God doubling up! Secondly, we’re called to humble ourselves before God. He alone is God. He is the Holy and Righteous One. He is the Judge and the Saviour. He is the Creator and we are the creature. He is the Sovereign Lord over all creation. He is our Father in heaven. Our Father! Humility, requires first and foremost that we acknowledge our sin before him and seek forgiveness. Thirdly, we’re urged to be thankful as we pray. With all that we know of God, and what he has done and will do, we have great reasons for thanksgiving. So let’s ask God, with gratitude in our hearts.
Sometimes our needs are deeply troubling. Sometimes we just don’t know what to pray. Sometimes we’re unable to pray in our frailty and weakness. It’s a wonderful comfort to know that God will help us in these times, so don’t stress…
26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. 27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God. (Romans 8:26-27)
And what awesome promises follow these words…
28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28)
35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36 As it is written:
“For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. (Romans 8:35-37)
In our groups
As we focus on the will of God in bringing our requests to God, how should we actually pray in our groups? Here are some suggestions…
- Allow sufficient time to pray each week. This means limiting the time in the Bible, or chatting, or sharing prayer points, so that we actually pray. Sometimes we may wish to begin the time together with prayer, so as to give it priority. Some weeks we may set aside the majority of the time to focus on prayer for an extended period.
- Let our understanding of the Bible shape our prayers. Draw points for prayer from the passage we’ve been studying together.
- Show care for each other by inviting people to share their needs with the group, so that we can pray together for these matters. It can be helpful to write things into a prayer diary or leave them on the whiteboard for the following week. This way we can follow up on how God has been answering our prayers.
- Tune in to how comfortable people are with praying out loud in a group. Some may be unfamiliar or uncomfortable with doing this. It’s important not to put people under pressure. Going round the circle can make things awkward for people, so it might be better to seek volunteers to pray. Breaking into twos and threes can help our prayers to be more personal, and make it easier for the shy members of the group to contribute.
- Pray for needs outside the group; such as current events and issues, our communities, our governments, our churches, our pastors, link missionaries, and more.
- Pray for people to hear the truth about Jesus. Let’s ask God to change the hearts of our friends.
- Help people to understand we are talking to God, not seeking to impress each other.
Set an example
Prayer is unlikely to be a priority for the group if it’s not a priority for the leader. Let’s come before God ourselves, thanking him, confessing our sins, and bringing our needs before him. Let’s do this regularly and wholeheartedly. Pray for the members of our groups and, like the Apostle Paul, let them know we’ve been praying for them and what we’ve been praying.
Karen and Rod Morris, Leading Better Bible Studies, chapter 5
Colin Marshall, Growth Groups, chapter 8
Don Carson, A Call to Spiritual Reformation
Richard Coekin, Our Father
Graeme Goldsworthy, Prayer and the Knowledge of God
Phillip Jensen and Tony Payne, Prayer and the Voice of God