We aren’t given any details about the prayers of the early church but it shouldn’t be any surprise that prayer was one of their priorities. After all, Jesus modeled a life of prayer. In the final moments before He was arrested and ultimately taken to the cross, Jesus was praying with His disciples.
Even though Acts 2 doesn’t give us specifics about the prayers of the early church, we have a lot written about prayer elsewhere in the Old and New Testaments. We have a formula for prayer given to us in the Lord’s Prayer. We have instances of people crying out to God when there is no one else to turn to. We have examples of asking God for our needs. And we are told to be praying continuously which means that we’re just talking to God about whatever is on our mind.
There are many things that prayer is and many more things that it is not. This article can’t possibly cover everything regarding prayer. One thing I want to emphasize though is that prayer is about relationships.
Quite simply if you have a friend that you don’t communicate much with, you don’t have much of a relationship. Maybe they don’t live nearby any longer and you only see them once a year. The fact is that if you don’t communicate, it’s not much of a relationship.
The same is true with God. If we don’t communicate with Him, what kind of relationship do we really have?
James 4:2-4 tells us why our prayers go unanswered sometimes, despite our relationship with the Lord.
You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.
It’s easy to take this out of context. This is the way many people treat prayer – you do not have because you do not ask. Some preachers teach that God wants everyone to be happy and healthy and wealthy. In fact, if you’re sick it’s your own fault because you haven’t asked God to heal you or you didn’t have enough faith. If you’re poor, it’s because you haven’t asked God to bless you or you haven’t had enough faith to believe that God will do it.
But praying like that ignores the second half of the passage. Basically, what are our motives in asking? Do we ask to be wealthy so that we may spend it on ourselves or so we may bless others with it? Do we ask for health when we’ve already squandered our time chasing after vain or even sinful things?
God has promised to answer our prayers but this isn’t a blank check that He’s written. As God blesses us, we must choose to bless others. This doesn’t just mean that if God gives us a raise or a new job that we have to increase our giving to others. Most of the prayers that God answers aren’t monetary at all. When God answers a prayer we need to recognize it and praise Him for it. Others are blessed and their faith is strengthened when we praise God for what He’s done for us.
James is addressing a group of people who asks God with selfish motives. What they ask for is to get ahead in the world. James tells them that the world shouldn’t be their concern but rather God. It’s not wrong to have stuff and it’s not wrong to ask for stuff, but why do we want it and why are we asking?
So much of Christianity comes down to what’s internal. Our worship is a reflection of our attitude toward God. Our giving and our sharing is a reflection of our faith in God. And our prayers are a reflection of our faith and also our attitude about earthly things.
Jesus railed against the Pharisees because of the way they lived. It wasn’t because they were blatantly sinful. It was just the opposite. The Pharisees thought they had it all together. They did everything by the book and they believed that they met every requirement. But their attitude was wrong. Even if they were completely following the law – which they weren’t – they did so because they thought they were earning their salvation and they boasted about their own righteousness.
People and churches fall into the same problem. It’s very hard to diagnose outwardly. We worship, we pray, we give and everything looks ok. And we wonder why things aren’t quite as they should be. It comes down to attitude and motive. You can worship and pray and give and if it’s with the wrong attitude it is worthless.
Prayer comes down to motives and James warns his readers that their motives were self seeking.
Jesus gives further explanation on how prayer should work as part of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7:7-8.
“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.”
Jesus talks about asking as well. He give us some more instructions on how to ask however.
There is a progression built into this passage. While it is repeating the idea that God will answer prayer it also builds upon the previous thought. Each step in the progression demonstrates a deeper relationship with God.
Ask – You can ask anyone, anything. If you ask a stranger on the street what time it is, they will likely tell you. No relationship is needed to ask a person a question. The nature of the question and our relationship with the person will determine the answer we get. While we can ask a stranger for the time and get a positive response, we would not get a positive response if we ask for $20. If we ask a friend for $20 we are more likely to get a favorable response. We can ask anything of God but our relationship with him determines the response.
Seek – You can seek anyone or anything but you have to know what you are seeking. If you lose money, you won’t seek for it unless you know it is lost. You also need to know where to look for something when you seek it. If you are seeking your car keys, you know that searching for them in the dishwasher probably isn’t going to help. When we seek God in prayer, we recognize that He is the one who can provide what we are looking for.
Knock – We don’t let strangers in our homes too often, certainly not in this day and age, but God says that if we knock he will open the door. The only people we are likely to allow in our house are friends. This implies fellowship with God. If we go to God in order to fellowship with Him he will never reject our request. But if we are living our lives like we do not know God and are no friend of His, should we expect God to welcome us as a friend of His?
Matthew 7:9-11 says, “Which one of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 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!”
This is a fourth progression in relationship. We started with anybody we encounter, then someone we knew enough about to search for, then somebody we knew well enough to let us in their house. We end with a healthy family relationship. Not everyone has a strong relationship with their father or the rest of their family but God is the ideal Father who wants to have a quality relationship with us. Likewise, we should want a quality relationship with Him.
When we have a relationship with God we can expect that He, as our Heavenly Father, will give us good gifts when we ask. This isn’t a blank check for anyone to grab. It is not by coincidence that the term Father is used. An actual ongoing relationship with God is a requisite for a person to lay hold of this claim.
I believe that often Christians don’t have their prayers answered because they don’t have a true relationship with God. If we don’t speak to our parents for a long time and then call when we run into trouble how likely are they to bail us out?
These requests aren’t just anything but these are for needs. If you look above at the context of Jesus’ statements in Matthew 6 you’ll see that Jesus is speaking about trusting God for your daily needs. If you ask God for a new job because you don’t like your current one this verse isn’t a promise that God will give you what you ask because you may not need a new job – but if God decides you need a new job, then He will answer your prayer according to His promise.
We don’t know what prayers the early church was praying but it seems safe to say that these prayers were being answered. They were being answered because they were asked with proper motives for God’s glory. And they were being answered because of their relationship with God. They weren’t asking as strangers but rather as friends.
For further study on the topic of prayer see Spreading Light Ministries