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Watch out For Prayer
August 15, 1976

St. Paul's United Methodist Church

ROMANS 8:14-27

Watch out for prayer! There ought to be a sign like those at an open manhole—“Danger! People at Prayer.” Prayer is dangerous. Prayer is risky business. For what you pray is what you get. Prayer is answered. Jesus said, “Ask and it shall be given you; seek, and you will find.” God answers prayer. He answers and you get that for which you pray. Most of us have asked for everything we have in life. Most of us have asked for everything we get. Whatever your situation, whatever your troubles, whatever your problems, whatever your tensions, whatever your anxieties, whatever your high moments, whatever your low moments, whatever the anguish, whatever the pain, whatever the struggle, whatever the burden, most of us have asked for it. You get that for which you pray. 

The best definition of prayer that I know is the one we've just sung. In the hymn with its very beautiful poetry, succinctly and compactly the whole realm of prayer is presented to us. Prayer in a very real sense, and in a very deep sense is expressed in the opening lines,  “Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire unuttered or unexpressed.” That’s powerful. Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire whether we utter it or not. Prayer in this sense is deeper than just our words, just our head trips. Prayer in this sense is deep down in our soul, whether it's ever uttered, whether it's ever expressed. What we most definitely desperately desire in life is our prayer. And God answers prayer. Prayer is powerful. Most of us have asked for everything we have. 

That may be a disturbing thought. Perhaps what I'm trying to say is easier to see in other people than in ourselves. Take a look at some hypothetical people and the way they live their lives. In this computer age, a good word to use is programming. We are all programmed. We have received input over the years from our parents, our environment, our society and our deep desires. And most of us are programmed to live, to react, to respond in certain ways. The central desire, the central focus, the central purpose in our life is our program. Take a hypothetical woman who's married to an alcoholic. Over the years, she's had a miserable existence, a miserable life with this man. But, her desire in life probably was, in this hypothetical instance, to be a mother to a little boy. She never looked for a husband. She never looked for a mate. She didn't seek and search for a peer with whom she could share life. She looked for a little boy that she could mother and she got one. Then she enjoyed through the years all the affirmation, the support she got from her family and her friends when they said, “Oh you poor thing. How do you put up with him? What a martyr!” 

Then in this hypothetical story, the man comes to his senses. He goes to Alcoholics Anonymous.  He repents, he has a conversion experience, he put his life back together on the road to recovery. But it's a difficult adjustment for the spouse because her little boy is now growing into a man. Alcoholics Anonymous discovered years ago they had to organize a group for the spouses. They organized Al Anon to help the spouse adjust to this new situation. It was a devastating experience for the spouse because the lifestyle completely changed around. All that sympathy, all that attention was now given to the husband. “Isn't it wonderful what he's doing with his life.” And she didn't know what to do with that. Her soul’s sincere desire, her aim, her focus in life to be a mother was answered. She got what she asked. Ask and it shall be given to you. 

Take a man, and haven’t you known people like this—failure after failure, lose job after job. His friends rally around, the community rallies around, the church rallies around and offers support. They buy him a new suit of clothes. Somebody finds him a job, sets him up. Now he's on his way but he either loses the job or he quits because he wants failure. He can't handle success; it’s too threatening. He is programmed to be a failure. His soul’s sincere desire is to be a failure, and his prayer was answered. 

Take a youth who is “stupid”. He has a poor self image and is programmed to be stupid. He is constantly doing things that will reinforce and support his poor self image so that he can proclaim to the world, “I am dumb.” 

Or take a tragic marriage that ends in divorce. Statistics tell us that the second time around, and the third time around, the chances for the success of a marriage grow slimmer and slimmer. Why? Because they marry the same kind of people over and over. They put themselves in the same kinds of situations over and over because that's their program.

Sickness often follows this pattern. A person learned in childhood how much attention one received when one was sick. So all through life—illness. You get that for which you ask. For what you pray is what you get. The Lord answers prayer. Martin Luther wrote, “Prayer is a powerful thing. For God has bound and tied himself thereto.” God has limited his freedom, has voluntarily limited his freedom to the desires of you and me. God lets us have what we want. God lets us do what we want to do. God has limited his power and has bound himself up in supporting our soul’s sincere desire. 

Noel McKinnis has written, “Oh Lord, I pray that if only I were somewhere else, I know my life would be much better there. My prayer was answered, but not my expectations. The place was new, but my life was just the same. Oh Lord, I pray there must be yet another place where life is better. Soon another place became my home but my life was still the same. I continued to pray and kept on moving, seeking out a better life but finding life no different anywhere I went. That was a few years ago. Today, you will find me settled in the better life I saw. I stopped all my running from place to place, from job to job, from person to person. I knew where to find what I was looking for the day I accepted the fact that everywhere I go, there I am.” His basic problem was himself, not his place, not a situation, not those around him. The basic problem was himself for he was getting that which he desired. 

Now, this is not meant to be a depressing sermon because the way out of such a situation, the way out of the life we don't want, the way out of an unhappy, unsuccessful life is prayer. As prayer got us into it, prayer can get us out of it for God answers prayer. The gospel, the good news of the Bible, the good news of Jesus, the good news of the church, the good news of preaching is that no one needs stay the way he or she is. That's the good news. That's the great and glorious good news. No one—you do not need to stay the way you are because God answers prayer. 

How? First, desire to really want to change your soul’s sincere desire. In the Bible this is called repentance—repent, turn from, really want to change. Over the years, I've talked to many people who when they get to a place where they say that they really need to do this, or they really need to do that, can't make that step. Because, at least in failure, they know what's going to happen next. And it's pretty risky to now suddenly change and take a chance on another way of life. 

Do you really want to change? Do you really want it differently? That's the question. Do you desperately want God's way? That's the crux. Will you repent? If your soul’s sincere desire is to repent, the next step is to understand what's been going on, understand the old game plan, understand the old style. You probably need help from someone, to talk with someone to find out what that is, to find out the game under which you've been operating, the game plan, the rules, the program out of which you've been living. To sincerely want to change, the next step is to understand what you've been doing so you know what you're changing from. And then to change, pray; for God will answer prayer. Prayer is powerful. Trust, be open for the Holy Spirit to move and to change you. 

If one doesn't know how to pray, if one really doesn't know how to take that step, let God do it. The beautiful verse in the book of Romans, which was read in our New Testament lesson is, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness for we do not know how to pray as we ought. But the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.” When we don't know how, the Spirit intercedes with sighs way below the level of words, way below the level of our head, way below our mixed up mind. Way down too deep for words, the spirit will intercede. 

Lee Phillips has written, “The power of the Holy Spirit is for those who in faith abandon all they know of themselves to all they know of God.” That's the power. Abandon, relax, trust. Abandon all we know of ourselves into the hands of God and let his spirit do our praying, let his spirit do our leading. Let God’s Spirit fulfill our soul’s sincere desire. For what you pray is what you get. And if you wonder what you've been praying for through the years, look at your life for you have that for which you have been praying. And if you're unhappy with what you have, if you're unhappy with what you've received, repent and let God do the praying.

© 1976 Douglas I. Norris