180703Odds and Ends

The armor of God isn’t quite enough

The following is a sermon on Ephesians 6:18-20.

I’ve read enough personal accounts from war to know it doesn’t matter how well-equipped or well-trained a soldier is when bullets are wizzing by his head. Suddenly, his confidence in weapons as well as his ability to use them disappears. More than a few devout atheists have turned to God in those moments, pleading for divine protection. With their life on the line, they’re struck by an overwhelming sense of helplessness.

When David stood against Goliath, he didn’t walk onto the battlefield without advanced weaponry and armor because he trusted himself to win. God was the source of his confidence. He knew God would be with him.

You may remember David took five stones with him which suggests three things to me. First, he didn’t trust his ability to kill Goliath on the first throw. Second, he didn’t know whether God would allow him to kill Goliath with one throw. Even so, third, he trusted God. He may have taken more than one stone, but he still took stones to fight a huge, well-trained warrior who possessed the most sophisticated weaponry of the day. That’s an insane thing to do unless you believe God’s providence will intervene on your behalf.

There is something every soldier needs beyond his armor and weapons. Whether he knows it or not, he needs God. God holds the soldier’s life in his hand. The atheist who suddenly prays while ducking for cover in a foxhole instinctively knows his fate is outside of his control. He senses his helplessness in those moments of great danger and he turns not to his gun, himself, or his fellow soldiers, but to God.

When the Christian soldier prepares for battle, I suppose he (or she) is turning to God when he puts on his armor, that is, the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, and so on (Eph 6:14; 16). But Paul specifically adds one item to this list for which he doesn’t even bother to create a metaphor. He simply says, “Praying at all times in the Spirit” (Eph 6:18). “Put on the whole armor of God,” he says, “then start praying” (Eph 6:11). God may supply your armor, but you will still need to go to him continually in prayer.

If you ask me, prayer may be the best way to evaluate our spiritual well-being. God saves us to become a part of his family. Romans 8 says, “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Ro 8:17-17). If God saves us to become his children, it stands to reason that we would enter into fellowship with him. Romans 8 also says, “You have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Ro 8:15). Salvation brings us into fellowship with God where there is communication between us and our heavenly Father.

If we don’t pray as we should, however, what does that say about our spiritual well-being? Maybe we think we’re carrying the shield of faith, the sword of the Spirit, and the rest of our armor, but a lack of prayer indicates broken fellowship between us and God (Eph 6:16-17). Without that fellowship, we’re just a bunch of crazy people going to war against the devil with a pocket full of rocks. We may be carrying the kind of weapons one who trusts God would carry, but what good are they if we don’t have a meaningful relationship with the one who makes those weapons effective?

For example, I’m sure many Christians think they are mighty wielders of the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God (Eph 6:17). They are master theologians who read the Bible daily and can discuss Scripture with the best of them. Is that enough to stand against the schemes of the devil? (Eph 6:11). Certainly not. I suspect the devil knows Scripture better than any of us. He’s surprisingly good with a sword. Look at what he did in the garden of Eden. It takes a lot of skill to twist the word of God so that Eve didn’t even notice he wasn’t quoting the word of God anymore.

We can’t defeat the devil simply because we know the truth. We can’t defeat him because we’ve committed ourselves to righteous living. We can’t defeat him because we claim to know the gospel of peace (Eph 6:15). We need these things, of course—put on the whole armor of God (Eph 6:11)—but we also need God himself. We need the divine warrior of Isaiah 59 who puts on righteousness as a breastplate and a helmet of salvation on his head as he goes out to fight for us (Isa 59:17). We need the one who pierces to the division of soul and of spirit even when his sword is in our hand (Heb 4:12).

In other words, we need God with us at all times on the battlefield. We need to maintain our intimate fellowship, our closeness with him which can usually be gauged by how well we pray. A person who is in close fellowship with the Father will pray often and quite naturally. One who is not will struggle to pray. His prayers will seem empty if he prays at all.

Paul says we should be praying at all times (Eph 6:18). That may be the Bible’s most frequent instruction concerning prayer. First Timothy 2:8: “I desire then that in every place the men should pray.” Luke 21:36: ”Stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place.” The example of the early church in Acts 2 says they devoted themselves … to the breaking of bread and the prayers (Ac 2:42). Acts 10 tells of Cornelius … a devout man who feared God … and prayed continually (Ac 10:1-2). In many of his letters, Paul urges the churches to regularly devote themselves to prayer. To the Thessalonians, he writes, “Pray without ceasing” (1Th 5:17).

On the other side of the coin, the Bible reminds us that God is always listening. In Psalm 55, David says, “Evening and morning and at noon I utter my complaint and moan, and he hears my voice. … God will give ear” (Ps 55:17; 19). No matter when we pray or how often we pray, God will give ear. He turns his head to listen to every word we speak.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones once said, “Our ultimate position as Christians is tested by the character of our prayer life.” I believe he came to the same conclusion I have. We may not have a more vital spiritual discipline than prayer.

Jesus prayed, ”This is eternal life, that they [the disciples] know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (Jn 17:3). Salvation creates a relationship between God and his people—perhaps I should say it restores the relationship broken by Adam’s sin—and prayer should be a natural extension of that relationship.

Think of it in terms of a marriage. Let’s say a husband and wife rarely talk to one another. They hardly communicate. They’re more than willing to tell others they’re married—Hello. Have you met my wife?—but a fly on the wall in their home would tell you something is missing. In the mornings and after work, they don’t talk. It’s as though they barely know each other. Would anyone call that a healthy marriage?

We may boast about our salvation. We may tell people we’re Christians. But to be a saved Christian is, according to Christ, to know … the only true God, and Jesus Christ, his Son (Jn 17:3). Perhaps you say, “I am a Christian. Of course, I know God and his Son.” The follow-up question is, and only you can answer for yourself, how often do you speak to the God you claim to know? By the way, the word know implies intimacy. The Jews used the word as an idiom for the physical relationship between a husband and his wife. If you know God, your communication with him should be frequent to say the least. It should be deep, profound, and constant.

Obviously, to pray at all times does not mean our prayers will always be formal where we kneel on the floor in complete isolation and speak to God for hours (Eph 6:18). We don’t want our prayers to become overly ritualized ceremonies. Jesus warned against heaping up empty phrases as the Gentiles do (Mt 6:7). The New American Standard Bible uses the phrase, meaningless repetition. You wouldn’t turn to your spouse and say, “Okay, honey, I’m going to speak to you now. I’ll speak for about thirty minutes, then I’ll be back six more times today to do it again.” That’s hardly an intimate approach to communion with one another.

To be praying at all times is to be constantly, consistently conscious of God where we live with an acute awareness that our heavenly Father is with us, guiding us, and providing for us. We see him everywhere we look. His very existence shapes the way we think and how we perceive the world around us. When we meet someone who doesn’t know God, our first thought is, I want him to know my God. When calamity strikes, our first thought is, God, deliver me. When something good happens, our first thought is, God is gracious. When we see suffering, our first thought is, God, help the meek. Show me how to help the meek.

Elsewhere, Paul says, “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on the earth” (Col 3:2). By doing so, we enter into a perpetual state of prayer even though our prayers may not always be formal. Ultimately, the gospel, as John says in his first epistle, brings us into fellowship … with the Father and with his Son Jesus, and prayer is a vital means by which we experience that fellowship (1Jn 1:3). To quote Augustine, “Longing desire prayeth always, though the tongue be silent. If thou art ever longing, thou art ever praying.” In short, salvation is to know God. Continual prayer, then, is an expression of our desire to know God.

Paul adds a brief qualifier here. He says, “Praying at all times in the Spirit” (Eph 6:18). Again from Romans 8, Paul tells us:

We do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Romans 8:26-27)

It would seem communicating with God is so profound that we’re not even capable of doing it. Paul essentially says our prayers will always fall short. They’ll always be incomplete. We can never express the fullness of what our hearts long to communicate, but the Spirit knows what we’re trying to say and intercedes on our behalf.

Ultimately, it’s God’s Spirit within us who allows us to have the kind of fellowship with the Father we seek. Practically speaking, it means our prayers are more than words. There is a deep longing implied. We are conforming to the image of God as we experience intimate communion with him. When we pray, we crave God and we crave to be like God. We crave to be near him as we strive to align ourselves with his will. Needless to say, “in the Spirit” is a loaded phrase (Eph 6:18).

Next, Paul adds, “With all prayer and supplication” (Eph 6:18). The idea here is that our prayers will have variety. It’s similar to what Paul told Timothy: “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercession, and thanksgivings be made for all people” (1Ti 2:1). In other words, there’s a unique prayer for every situation, making the empty phrases of the Gentiles meaningless (Mt 6:7).

Our prayers should have intentionality behind them. We’re not reciting words to earn religious points with God. Again, we’re communicating in fellowship with our Father. Prayers, supplications, intercession, thanksgivings—these are all just slight variations of the same thing, but they suggest there isn’t a one-size-fits-all prayer.

Paul continues. “To that end,” he says, “keep alert with all perseverance” (Eph 6:19). Let’s not forget the context. We’re in the midst of an intense spiritual battle against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (Eph 6:12). If we are to be successful, our fight requires vigilance and determination. Our prayers require vigilance and determination.

Do you remember the parable of the persistent widow in Luke 18? Let me read it.

And Jesus told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.'” And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:1-8)

I’m afraid that many of us don’t approach prayer with that kind of determination. Perhaps we recite a brief prayer in passing as though we hardly believe God has the ability to answer it. Jesus promised, ”Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do” (Jn 14:13). The parable in Luke 18 goes even further. We don’t merely ask once. We go to him over and over and over again. As I like to say, we pound on the doors of heaven until he answers.

Along these lines, I also encourage you to be specific when you pray. We have a bad habit of praying with utter vagueness. God, I ask that you would bless the world. That’s like calling 911 to say, “Someone is hurt somewhere. Send help.” What’s really on your mind? Be specific. Paul even gives an example here: “Pray also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel” (Eph 6:19). He doesn’t say, “Pray for me that God will bless me.” He says, “I need God’s help to preach the gospel. Specifically, I need his help to preach it with the boldness it deserves.”

If you hear nothing else this morning, please hear this: We need to get serious about prayer. Our most significant problems will always be spiritual, so we need to embrace this all-important spiritual means of getting help. Everything about us as Christians should be characterized by our dependence on God as well as our fellowship with him. Both inevitably demands constant, consistent, specific, determined prayer.

Recently, I came across a written prayer from years ago which I found to be quite inspirational. I’m not sure who wrote it. Listen:

O Lord, in prayer I launch far out into the eternal world, and on that broad ocean my soul triumphs over all evils on the shores of mortality. Time, with its amusements and cruel disappointments, never appears so inconsiderate as then. In prayer, O God, I see myself as nothing. I find my heart going after Thee with intensity, and I long with vehement thirst to live with Thee. Blessed be the strong winds of the Spirit that speed me on my way to the new Jerusalem. In prayer all things here below vanish and nothing seems important but holiness of heart and the salvation of others. In prayer all my worldly cares and fears and anxieties disappear and are as little in significance as a puff of wind. In prayer my should inwardly exalts with thoughts of what Thou art doing for Thy church, and I long that Thou shouldest get Thyself a great name from sinners returning to Thee. In prayer I am lifted above the frowns and flatteries of life to taste the heavenly joy. Entering into the eternal world I can give myself to Thee with all my heart forever. In prayer I can place all my concerns in Thy hands to be entirely at Thy disposal, having no will or interest of my own. In prayer I can intercede for my friends, ministers, sinners, the church, Thy kingdom, with greatest freedom and brightest hope as a son to his Father and as a lover to his beloved. And so, O God, help me to pray always and never to cease.

Amen.

That’s a remarkable prayer, but it’s also a brilliant description of what prayer should be for God’s people. Prayer is a place where we find ourselves lifted above this world into a heavenly realm, a place where we walk and talk with God himself. We leave behind every fear, anxiety, discomfort, and sin. They simply vanish. The best part is, God has given us this place to enter whenever we want. Why wouldn’t we go there as often as possible?

I can think of at least one reason: shame. It’s not so much that we avoid God because we’re ignorant of his grace. We know if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins (1Jn 1:9). We tend to avoid God when we know we’re not qualified to confess our sins and be forgiven because we have no intention of giving up our sins. It’s difficult to crave the fellowship of prayer when we’re living in unrepentant sin. If I’m describing you, all I can do is urge you to turn to God anyhow. Confess your sins and humbly beg him for the willpower to overcome those sins. If the Spirit of Christ dwells in you, there’s a substantial part of you that wants to be free from sin and walk with God. Pray. I encourage you to pray.

Finally, Paul reminds us to remember others when we pray. “Make supplication for all the saints,” he says. If we learn anything from the book of Ephesians, it’s that God doesn’t call people to isolation. He joins his people together as a unified body. We are made (or remade) to be members of one another who live together, serve one another, and, of course, pray for one another. To some degree, we are spiritually dependent on one another. After all, who wants to go into battle alone?

Our lives should be so intertwined that we instinctively and frequently mention one another in our prayers. The Christian’s entire life should be marked by selflessness, and prayer is no exception.

As we reach the end of this passage on the armor of God, we learn of this one element which needs no metaphor, that is, prayer. We need the whole armor of God to conquer our enemies and win the daily spiritual battles we face, but we also need to be soldiers who pray (Eph 6:11). In every sense possible, we must walk with God on the battlefield. We must rely on him. We must speak with him often.

May God be with us as we fight the good fight of faith (1Ti 6:12).