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Sermon illustrations

Prayer

All Flame

There’s a story told in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers…Abba Lot said to Abba Joseph, “Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?”

In answer to Lot’s question, Joseph “stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven.” As he did so, “his fingers became like ten lamps of fire,” and he said to Lot, “If you will, you can become all flame.”

Andrew Arndt, All Flame: Entering into the Life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, NavPress, 2020.

All Types of People Pray, Even Atheists

Even deliberately nonreligious people pray at times. Studies have shown that in secularized countries, prayer continues to be practiced not only by those who have no religious preference but even by many of those who do not believe in God. One 2004 study found that nearly 30 percent of atheists admitted they prayed “sometimes,”and another found that 17 percent of nonbelievers in God pray regularly.

The frequency of prayer increases with age, even among those who do not return to church or identify with any institutional faith. Italian scholar Giuseppe Giordan summarized: “In virtually all studies of the sociology of religious behavior it is clearly apparent that a very high percentage of people declare they pray every day—and many say even many times a day.”

Timothy Keller, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God, Penguin Publishing Group.

Backsliding Atheists

Seventy-one percent of Americans pray regularly. Even atheists backslide from time to time. I read somewhere (but I find it hard to believe) that a whopping 20 percent of agnostics and atheists sheepishly admit to praying daily! Take Henry, a sixty-four-year-old who describes himself as being “at the skeptical end of agnosticism.” In 2018 he told British pollsters ComRes, “I certainly wouldn’t classify myself as religious,” before describing a nightly routine of kneeling down by his bed to recite the Lord’s Prayer and pray for his loved ones.

Pete Greig, God on Mute: Engaging the Silence of Unanswered Prayer, Zondervan, 2020.

Charlie Stoltzfus

One of my favorite stories about intercessory prayer comes from Tony Campolo.  A prayer meeting was held for him just before he spoke at a Pentecostal college chapel service.  Eight men took Tony to a back room of the chapel, had him kneel, laid their hands on his head, and began to pray.  That’s a good thing, Tony wrote, except that they prayed a long time, and the longer they prayed, the more tired they got, and the more tired they got, the more they leaned on his head.  “I want to tell you that when eight guys are leaning on your head, it doesn’t feel so good.”

To make matters worse, one of the men was not even praying for Tony.  He went on and on praying for somebody named Charlie Stoltzfus: “Dear Lord, you know Charlie Stoltzfus.  He lives in that silver trailer down the road a mile.  You know the trailer Lord, just down the road on the right-hand side.”  (Tony said he wanted to inform the pray-er that it was not necessary to furnish God with directional material.)  “Lord, Charlie told me this morning he’s going to leave his wife and three kids.  Step in and do something, God.  Bring that family back together.”

Tony writes that he finally got the Pentecostal preachers off his head, delivered his message, and got in his car to drive home.  As he drove onto the Pennsylvania Turnpike, he noticed a hitchhiker.  I’ll let him tell it from here:

We drove a few minutes and I said: “Hi, my name’s Tony Campolo.  What’s yours?”  He said, “My name is Charlie Stoltzfus.”  I couldn’t believe it!

I got off the turnpike at the next exit and headed back.  He got a bit uneasy with that and after a few minutes he said, “Hey mister, where are you taking me?”  I said, “I’m taking you home.”  He narrowed his eyes and asked, “Why?”

I said, “Because you just left your wife and three kids, right?”  That blew him away.  “Yeah!  Yeah, that’s right.”  With shock written all over his face, he plastered himself against the car door and never took his eyes off me.

Then I really did him in as I drove right to his silver trailer.  When I pulled up, his eyes seemed to bulge as he asked, “How did you know that I lived here?”  I said, “God told me.” (I believe God did tell me) …

When he opened the trailer door his wife exclaimed, “You’re back!  You’re back!”  He whispered in her ear and the more he talked, the bigger her eyes got.

Then I said with real authority, “The two of you sit down.  I’m going to talk and you two are going to listen!”  Man, did they listen! … That afternoon I led those two young people to Jesus Christ.

John Ortberg, The Life You’ve Always Wanted: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People, expanded edition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2002).

Christ Came Down

In 1938…I was suffering from splitting headaches; each sound hurt me like a blow…. I discovered the poem…called “Love” [by George Herbert] which I learnt by heart. Often, at the culminating point of a violent headache, I made myself say it over, concentrating all my attention upon it and clinging with all my soul to the tenderness it enshrines. I used to think I was merely reciting it as a beautiful poem, but without my knowing it the recitation had the virtue of a prayer. It was during one of these recitations that Christ himself came down and took possession of me.

Simone Weil, Waiting for God.

Find Out About Prayer

When a doctoral student at Princeton asked, “What is there left in the world for original dissertation research?” Albert Einstein replied, “Find out about prayer. Somebody must find out about prayer.”

Philip Yancey, Prayer. Zondervan, 2006, p.11.

The Hedge of Protection: Slow Growing, Easily Jumped, Not Nearly Enough Protection for these Crazy Times

I think the uber-popular Christian prayer request for a “hedge of protection” is in the Bible, but I’m not sure. It sounds like something David would have written in the book of Psalms. He very poetic and our most Bono-like writer. But a friend of mine once revealed that he’s always found that to be an inadequate security measure. As a child, when his mother would pray that he would have a hedge of protection or a hedge of angels around him, he would think, “Anyone can jump a hedge. How hard is that? Forget the hedge of angels; I’m praying for a dome of angels.”

At first I laughed at that story, but the more that I thought about it, the more it made sense. These are troubling times, and I’ve never seen a hedge and thought, “That thick collection of bushes is both terrifying and impenetrable.” Maybe instead of praying for a hedge of protection, we should pray for:

  • A Beaded Curtain of Wasps
  • A Trampoline Moat of Lions
  • A Rugby Scrum of Angels

Jon Acuff, Stuff Christians Like, Zondervan.

Henri Nouwen on Ceaseless Prayer

To pray, I think, does not mean to think about God in contrast to thinking about other things, or to spend time with God instead of spending time with other people. Rather, it means to think and live in the presence of God. As soon as we begin to divide our thoughts into thoughts about God and thoughts about people and events, we remove God from our daily life and put him in a pious little niche where we can think pious thoughts and experience pious feelings.

Although it is important and even indispensable for the spiritual life to set apart time for God and God alone, prayer can only become unceasing prayer when all our thoughts – beautiful or ugly, high or low, proud or shameful, sorrowful or joyful – can be thought in the presence of God. Thus, converting our unceasing thinking into unceasing prayer moves us from a self-centered monologue to a God-centered dialogue. This requires that we turn all our thoughts into conversation. The main question, therefore, is not so much what we think, but to whom we present our thoughts.”

Henri Nouwen, Clowning In Rome: Reflections on Solitude, Celibacy, Prayer, and Contemplation, Image, 2000.

The Hidden Mystery of Jesus’ Ministry

In the midst of a busy schedule of activities—healing suffering people, casting out devils, responding to impatient disciples, traveling from town to town, and preaching from synagogue to synagogue—we find these quiet words: “In the morning, long before dawn, he got up and left the house, and went off to a lonely place and prayed there.”

The more I read this nearly silent sentence locked in between the loud words of action, the more I have the sense that the secret of Jesus’ ministry is hidden in that lonely place where he went to pray, early in the morning, long before dawn. . . . In the lonely place Jesus finds the courage to follow God’s will and not his own; to speak God’s words and not his own; to do God’s work and not his own. It is in the lonely place, where Jesus enters into intimacy with the Father, that his ministry is born.

Henri Nouwen, Spiritual Formation (New York: HarperOne, 2010), p. 20.

How To Practice the Presence of God with a Full Schedule

In his excellent book, An Unhurried Life, Alan Fadling shares the powerful story of the missionary Frank Laubach:

Frank Laubach, a missionary to the Philippines known for his Letters by a Modern Mystic, began to experiment with practicing God’s presence when he first arrived on the mission field. In those early months, Laubach described himself as “a lonesome man in a strange land.” He had a lot of time on his hands with which to give focused time to noticing God’s presence and work. After a while, the demands of ministry began to increase, and Laubach was with people every moment of every waking day. In that context, he wrote:

Either this new situation will crowd God out or I must take Him into it all. I must learn a continuous silent conversation of heart to heart with God while looking into other eyes and listening to other voices. If I decide to do this it is far more difficult than the thing I was doing before. Yet if this experiment is to have any value for busy people it must be worked under exactly these conditions of high pressure and throngs of people.

Taken from An Unhurried Life: Following Jesus’ Rhythms of Work and Rest by Alan Fadling Copyright (c) 2013 by Alan Fadling. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Is Prayer Useless?

The writer Oscar Wilde said, “Art is utterly useless.” Notice he did not say worthless. He was critiquing the utilitarian impulse of our world that measures worth based on usefulness or practicality. Does it accomplish something? Does it get stuff done? Wilde criticized a world that did not see art as valuable because they did not see its usefulness.

Our modern world isn’t much different. Art isn’t practical; it doesn’t give us tangible results. It rarely earns us anything. Could this be part of why prayer is difficult for our modern world? Do we find prayer useless because it’s not useful  ? Maybe we’ve walked away from prayer and wondered, Was that a good use of my time? Could I have gotten something done instead of praying? Do my prayers accomplish anything? The Bible challenges our utilitarianism.

Taken from The Possibility of Prayer: Finding Stillness with God in a Restless World by John Starke Copyright (c) 2009 by John Starke. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Leaving the Letters up to God

There is a story told about a Jewish farmer, who ended up stuck in his field for the Sabbath. As the sun went down, the farmer realized he would have to remain in the field until sunset the next day, for according to the laws of the Sabbath, travel was prohibited. This resulted in him missing both the synagogue services and the family’s Seder meal.

Arriving home the next evening, he was met by his angry wife and a fuming Rabbi. The Rabbi began to lay into the farmer for not taking the sabbath more seriously. Finally, he asked, What did you do in the field by yourself all day? Did you at least pray?”

“Rabbi,” the farmer answered, “I’m not a very smart man and I don’t know many prayers. All the prayers I knew, I said in five minutes. What I did the rest of the day was simply recite the alphabet. I left it up to God to make some words out of all those letters.”

Stuart Strachan Jr, Source Material from Ronald Rolheiser, The Restless Heart, The Crown Publishing Group. 2004, p.35.

Looking for Feedback

Praying to an invisible God does not bring forth the same feedback you would get from a counselor or from friends who at least nod their heads in sympathy. Is anyone really listening? As Ernestine, the nasal-voiced telephone operator played by comedienne Lily Tomlin, used to ask, “Have I reached the party to whom I am speaking?”

Philip Yancey, Prayer. Zondervan, 2006, p.15.

The Methodists’ Prayer

The early Methodists devoted themselves entirely to God with a covenant prayer. It’s worth adopting and adapting. 

I am no longer my own, but Thine.

Put me to what Thou wilt, rank me with whom Thou wilt; put me to doing, put me to suffering; let me be employed for Thee or laid aside for Thee, exalted for Thee or brought low for thee;

let me be full, let me be empty; let me have all things, let me have nothing;

freely and heartily yield all things to Thy pleasure and disposal.

And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Thou art mine, and I am Thine.

So be it. And the covenant, which I have made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.

Mark Batterson, All In: You Are One Decision Away From a Totally Different Life: Zondervan. 

From Staretz to Staretz (Hermit to Hermit)

One of the best known examples of the desire for unceasing prayer is the nineteenth-century Russian peasant who wanted so much to be obedient to Paul’s call for uninterrupted prayer that he went from staretz to staretz (hermit to hermit) looking for an answer until he finally found a holy man who taught him the Jesus Prayer.

He told the peasant to say thousands of times each day, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” In this way the Jesus prayer slowly became united with his breathing and heartbeat so that he could travel through Russia carrying his knapsack with the Bible, the Philokalia (an anthology of Eastern Christian Mystical writings), and some bread and salt, living a life of unceasing prayer.

Henri Nouwen, with Michael J. Christensen and Rebecca J. Laird, Spiritual Direction, HarperOne.

The Old Man and the Chair

Brennan Manning tells the true story of a father dying from cancer who struggled to pray:

The old man’s daughter had asked the local priest to come and pray with her father. When the priest arrived, he found the man lying in bed with his head propped up on two pillows and an empty chair beside his bed. The priest assumed that the old fellow had been informed of his visit. “I guess you were expecting me,” he said. “No, who are you?” “I’m the new associate at your parish,” the priest replied. “When I saw the empty chair, I figured you knew I was going to show up.” “Oh yeah, the chair,” said the bedridden man. “Would you mind closing the door?”

Puzzled, the priest shut the door. “I’ve never told anyone this, not even my daughter,” said the man, “but all my life I have never known how to pray. At the Sunday Mass, I used to hear the pastor talk about prayer, but it always went right over my head. Finally I said to him one day in sheer frustration, ‘I get nothing out of your homilies on prayer.’

“‘Here,’ says my pastor, reaching into the bottom drawer of his desk. ‘Read this book by Hans Urs von Balthasar. He’s a Swiss theologian. It’s the best book on contemplative prayer in the twentieth century.’ “Well, Father,” says the man, “I took the book home and tried to read it. But in the first three pages I had to look up twelve words in the dictionary. I gave the book back to my pastor, thanked him, and under my breath whispered, ‘for nothin.’ “I abandoned any attempt at prayer,” he continued, “until one day about four years ago my best friend said to me, ‘Joe, prayer is just a simple matter of having a conversation with Jesus.

Here’s what I suggest. Sit down on a chair, place an empty chair in front of you, and in faith see Jesus on the chair. It’s not spooky because He promised, “I’ll be with you all days.” Then just speak to Him and listen in the same way you’re doing with me right now.’ “So, Padre, I tried it, and I’ve liked it so much that I do it a couple of hours every day. I’m careful, though. If my daughter saw me talking to an empty chair, she’d either have a nervous breakdown or send me off to the funny farm.”

The priest was deeply moved by the story and encouraged the old guy to continue on the journey. Then he prayed with him, anointed him with oil, and returned to the rectory. Two nights later the daughter called to tell the priest that her daddy had died that afternoon. “Did he seem to die in peace?” he asked. “Yes, when I left the house around two o’clock, he called me over to his bedside, told me one of his corny jokes, and kissed me on the cheek. When I got back from the store an hour later, I found him dead. But there was something strange, Father. In fact, beyond strange—kinda weird. Apparently just before Daddy died, he leaned over and rested his head on a chair beside his bed.”

Brennan Manning, Lion and Lamb: The Relentless Tenderness of Jesus, Revell/Chosen, 1986, 129–130.

On the Side?

In his thoughtful book, Our Good Crisis: Overcoming Moral Chaos with the Beatitudes, Jonathan K. Dodson shares a funny, yet poingnant encounter with a man who wanted to keep religion private:

I had the crazy idea that going on a five-hour field trip to NASA with fifty fifth-graders would be a good idea. As a chaperone to three kids, I was tasked with not letting them out of my sight. On the way to NASA, one of them told me about a summer camp he went to.

He said, “I didn’t really like it because they made us sing to God every night and listen to someone talk about him. I mean, I believe in God, but I just think you should keep him on the side.”

I thought about what he said and replied, “If God is the most important person in the world, don’t you think he should be more than ‘on the side’?” He stared at me blankly for a moment, then looked away and said, “I guess.” When we sideline God, something has to take his place. Up sprouts the Big Me.

Taken from Our Good Crisis: Overcoming Moral Chaos with the Beatitudes by Jonathan K. Dodson Copyright (c) 2020 by Jonathan K. Dodson. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

The Parable of the Two Servants

In this modern day parable, Alan Fadling describes a king and his two servants. Each of the servants desires to do the will of the king, but they approach their work very differently:

One of the servants, for fear of not pleasing his master, rose early each day to hurry along to do all the things that he believed the king wanted done. He didn’t want to bother the king with questions about what that work was. Instead, he hurried from project to project from early morning until late at night. The other servant, also eager to please his master, would rise early as well, but he took a few moments to go to the king, ask him about his wishes for the day and find out just what it was he desired to be done. Only after such a consultation did this servant step into the work of his day.

…The busy servant may have gotten a lot done by the time the inquiring servant even started his work, but which of them was doing the will of the master and pleasing him? Genuine productivity is not about getting as much done for God as we can manage. It is doing the good work God actually has for us in a given day. Genuine productivity is learning that we are more than servants, that we are beloved sons and daughters invited into the good kingdom work of our heavenly Father. That being the case, how might God be inviting you to wait for his specific direction?

Taken from An Unhurried Life: Following Jesus’ Rhythms of Work and Rest by Alan Fadling Copyright (c) 2013 by Alan Fadling. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Performance-Oriented Worship

We have become so performance-oriented that it is hard to see how compromised we are. Consider one small example. In many of our churches, prayers in morning services now function, in large measure, as the time to change the set in the sanctuary. The people of the congregation bow their heads and close their eyes, and when they look up a minute later, why, the singers are in place, or the drama group is ready to perform. It is all so smooth.

It is also profane. Nominally we are in prayer together addressing the King of heaven, the sovereign Lord. In reality, some of us are doing that while others are rushing on tiptoes around the “stage” and others, with their eyes closed, are busy wondering what new and happy configuration will confront them when it is time to take a peek.

D.A. Carson, The Cross and Christian Ministry: An Exposition of Passages from 1 Corinthians Baker Publishing Group.

The Power of Silence in a Prayerful Life

The Desert Saint John Climacus focused heavily on the role of silence in the life of prayer. In his guidebook to the spiritual life, he had this to say:

Intelligent silence is the mother of prayer, freedom from bondage, custodian of zeal, a guard on our thoughts, a watch on our enemies, a prison of mourning, a friend of tears, a sure recollection of death, a painter of punishment, a concern with judgment, servant of anguish, foe of license, a companion of stillness, the opponent of dogmatism, a growth of knowledge, a hand to shape contemplation, hidden progress, the secret journey upward.

John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, “Step 11: On Talkativeness and Silence”, Paulist Press, 1982), p.158.

Putting Faith in Action

Several years ago I was part of a small group with a friend who was working with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at Georgetown University. As we shared prayer requests at the end of one of our meetings, my friend said their ministry needed a computer and I said I’d pray for him. I started praying that God would provide a computer, and then I felt as if God interrupted me.

It’s hard to describe the tone I heard from God. It was stern but not unkind.

It was as if the Holy Spirit whispered these words to my spirit: Why are you asking Me? You’re the one with the extra computer! So I quit praying mid-sentence and decided to do something about it. I told my friend I had a computer that I wanted to give him. And I became the answer to my own prayer. Why ask God to do something for us when it is within our power to do something about it ourselves? There are some things you don’t need to pray about.

You don’t need to pray about whether you should love your neighbor. You don’t need to pray about whether you should give generously or serve sacrificially. You don’t need to pray about whether you should bless someone when it is within your power to do so. God has already spoken. What you need to do is quit praying and start acting. Fill out the application. Make the call. Pack the U-Haul.

Mark Batterson, Wild Goose Chase, 2008, pp. 26-27, The Crown Publishing Group.

Timothy & Jessica

When my friend Wayne and his wife, Diane, were expecting their first child, they started praying for their baby. They believed prayer was their primary parental responsibility, so why wait till their baby was born? Every evening, Wayne would lay hands on Diane’s stomach and pray the promises in Scripture that they had circled for their baby. During the early stages of pregnancy, they came across a book that said it was never too early to start praying for their baby’s future spouse.

At first it seemed odd praying for a spouse before they even knew the gender of their baby, but they prayed for their baby and their baby’s spouse day after day until their due date. Wayne and Diane decided to wait until birth to discover their baby’s gender, but they prayed that God would reveal what the baby’s name should be. In October 1983, the Lord gave them a girl’s name. It was spelled Jessica. Then in December, the Lord gave them a boy’s name, and they started praying for Timothy.

They weren’t sure why God had given them two different names, but they prayed circles around both Jessica and Timothy until Diane gave birth. On May 5, 1984, God answered their prayers, and the answer was spelled Timothy. Wayne and Diane continued to circle their son in prayer, but they also kept praying for the girl that he would one day marry. Twenty-two years and two weeks of accumulated prayers culminated on May 19, 2006 — the day Timothy’s bride walked down the aisle. Her name? Jessica. Here’s the rest of the story.

Their future daughter-in-law was born on October 19, 1983, the same month that God gave them the name Jessica.

A thousand miles away, Wayne and Diane were praying for her by name. They thought Jessica would be their daughter, not their daughter-in-law, but God always has a surprise up His sovereign sleeve. For Wayne and Diane, Jericho has two spellings — Timothy and Jessica — but the same last name. In case you’re wondering, Timothy was allowed to date girls who weren’t named Jessica! Wayne and Diane didn’t even tell Timothy that God had given them the name of his future spouse before he was born until after he was engaged.

Mark Batterson, The Circle Maker: Praying Circles Around Your Biggest Dreams and Greatest Fears, Zondervan, 2016, p.25.

Using “Let me Pray About It” as a Euphemism for “No”

I love when someone asks us to help out at church and instead of saying, “No,” we say, “Let me pray about it.” Really? I asked you to help me clean up tomorrow night after youth group, and you feel like that’s something you need to run path the Savior of the world? He’s going to give you the thumbs-up for thumbs-down on whether or not you can help me stack chairs for seven minutes”

Jon Acuff, Stuff Christians Like, Zondervan.

What Your Prayers Reveal

A pastor and friend of mine, Jack Miller, once said he could tell a great deal about a person’s relationship with God by listening to him or her pray. “You can tell if a man or woman is really on speaking terms with God,” he said. My first response was to make a mental note never to pray aloud near Jack again.

I’ve had years to test out Jack’s thesis. It is quite possible to become florid, theologically sound, and earnest in your public prayers without cultivating a rich, private prayer life. You can’t manufacture the unmistakable note of reality that only comes from speaking not toward God but with him.

Timothy Keller, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God, Penguin Publishing Group.

See also Illustrations on Discipleship, Growth, The Holy SpiritMaturityWorship 

Still Looking for inspiration?

Consider checking out our quotes page on Prayer. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!

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