There are very few topics in the realm of religion – especially Christianity – to which has been devoted more time, focus and attention than the topic of prayer. Countless sermons have been preached, lessons taught, books and articles written, and seminars or conferences held on the subject of prayer. The abundance of information that one can find just by doing a basic search on this topic is mind-boggling. Yet, in spite of all that I just mentioned above, prayer is – in my opinion – one of the most misunderstood, misapplied and misappropriated biblical practices among believers today. This observation is, in itself, very puzzling; because prayer is supposed to be a very fundamental and elementary principle in the Body of Christ.
Due in part to the self-centered teaching that plagues churches today, as well as the narcissistic mentality that has become the spirit of this age, there are many believers today who think and act like prayer operates in some kind of spiritual vacuum, void of any sense of personal responsibility. And even though most of us would deny it, we have equated prayer with some sort of magic which attempts to control or manipulate the divine will in order to induce it to grant one’s wishes. We take the promises of God regarding answered prayer (Matt. 7:7-11, Mrk. 11:24) and try to use or quote them as a spell for immediate results.
I remember some time recently when a gentleman who claimed to be a Christian called the ministry to request prayer on his behalf. When I inquired of him regarding the nature of his request, he proceeded to complain to me that his electronics or appliances started breaking down on him rather suddenly, one after the other. First it was his television, then his washing machine, and then it was something else. He wanted me to pray a prayer for him that would put an immediate stop to his stroke of “bad luck”. When I further questioned him on his obedience to the requirements of God to be integrated into a Kingdom community (local church) and connected to other believers, and whether or not he had been faithful to honor God with his substance, he began to make excuses, but still wanted me to pray. I told him that I was not a magician and that I could not help him until he was ready to help himself, and he tried to argue with me. He wanted to continue in his disobedience and have me wave my magic wand and immediately fix his condition while he continued living his life as “normal” without taking any personal responsibility.
Sadly, this is the prevailing mentality of many Christians today and the reason why I always take time to inquire of the petitioner whether or not they are making a legitimate request and, if they are, whether or not they are faithfully positioning themselves for an answer to that request.
Another case in point happened several months ago when a woman called the ministry to request prayer for a “need” she had. As I inquired concerning the need, I was told that she needed a job and she wanted me to pray that God would “move her” to fill out the applications she had gathered. I was so surprised by the request that I paused for a while because I was trying to determine whether it was someone trying to play a prank or joke on me. When I realized that she was serious, I responded by saying that it would be a waste of everyone’s time (including God’s) to ask Him to do for her what she had the power to do on her own. I went on to tell her that if it was motivation she needed to fill out the application forms, just wait a few weeks (or months) when the rent and bills were due and she was facing eviction. Or when the refrigerator was empty and there was no food. She would find plenty of motivation then!
This next particular request happened fairly recently, and was sent to me by way of email. The requester had, seemingly the night before, had sexual relations with a woman that was not his wife. After committing his sinful act, he became fearful of two things: 1) That he had impregnated the woman, and 2) that he may have caught a STD (Sexually Transmitted Disease). In his email he sounded desperate and anxious, demanding that someone pray immediately and respond to his message so that he could have the peace that he was delivered from the possible consequences of his actions. There was no sense of remorse, godly sorrow, or repentance for his actions; and no sense of fear that he had violated the righteous commandments of God. Instead, his only concern was that he escape unscathed from any negative outcome. I deleted the email!
Jesus said, “It is written, My house shall be called a house of prayer…” (Matt. 21:13 NKJV; Emphasis mine). Jesus was actually quoting from Isaiah 56:7 where God promises to bless and welcome those who were previously rejected – the foreigners and eunuchs – into His house or temple, who honor and obey God, as well as keep His covenant.
Thus says the LORD:
“Keep justice, and do righteousness,
for soon my salvation will come,
and my righteousness be revealed.
 Blessed is the man who does this,
and the son of man who holds it fast,
who keeps the Sabbath, not profaning it,
and keeps his hand from doing any evil.”
 Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the LORD say,
“The LORD will surely separate me from his people”;
and let not the eunuch say,
“Behold, I am a dry tree.”
 For thus says the LORD:
“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast my covenant,
 I will give in my house and within my walls
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off.
 “And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD,
to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD,
and to be his servants,
everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it,
and holds fast my covenant—
these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
for all peoples.”
(Isaiah 56:1-7 ESV)
It is quite obvious in this passage that from God’s point of view, there is a deep and profound connection between prayer and obedience. Whatever this house of prayer represents, it is used in a context that stretches far beyond the utterance of corporate prayers or personal petitions, and could only be accessed from a place of covenant faithfulness and personal obedience. The key here is that they could not be welcomed or integrated into God’s house without the prerequisite of obedience. When Jesus quotes this verse in His particular context, He is using it in a similar manner in response to the disobedience and corrupt practices taking place at the physical temple.
Prayer is associated with that of a house because it has a form and structure. When Jesus taught His disciples how to pray in Matthew chapter 6, He was teaching them the proper form and structure of prayer from a Kingdom perspective (Matt. 6:5-15). But more than a formula for prayer, Jesus was actually releasing powerful insight and technology regarding the Kingdom of God being established in the earth (We examined some of these principles in detail during our podcasts on The Model Prayer – Principles of the Kingdom).
The fact that God’s house is called – which is indicative of its nature, character and destiny – a house of prayer, with a clearly defined form and structure, alludes to the principle that it must also have a foundation which determines the strength and accuracy of the structure. Therefore, when Jesus boldly opposes the corruption and commercialization taking place in a part of the Temple complex otherwise known as the Court of the Gentiles, His main grievance was not the lack of formal or liturgical prayer taking place in the courtyard, but the lack of obedience (the foundation) which nullified the accuracy and true nature of the house so that it conformed to the nature of a den of thieves.
Let me interject here by pointing out that all of the house or temple was to be called a house of prayer, not just a particular part (we will discuss this principle in greater detail later on). This particular temple, known as Herod’s Temple, had numerous chambers, courts and rooms connected to it, the most significant of which Jesus never had access to since He was not a priest in any earthly religious system. Jesus, like most of the Israelite population, could enter no further than the courts surrounding the main temple (or Temple proper). The particular area known as the Court of the Gentiles where Jesus made this pronouncement was never a place for liturgical prayer gatherings or any other kind of organized or structured religious activity, so it would be virtually impossible to prove that this is what Jesus had in mind when He made this statement, yet this is exactly the way that many of us have interpreted it. The fundamental issue that Jesus is dealing with here is the issue of obedience, and it has everything to do with prayer!
It is often repeated, especially in Christian circles, that there is power in prayer. This popular idiom is misleading, however; because if this was actually the case Muslims would be the most powerful group of people on the earth. I have Muslim friends and relatives, so I know for a fact that they’re much more disciplined and devoted to their religious practices, especially when it comes to prayer, than the vast majority of believers and self-proclaimed “Christians”. So if there is power in prayer alone, they are the undisputed juggernauts.
It takes faith to make prayer potent (James 5:15). Faith, as many of us know, comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God (Rom. 10:17 NKJV). So if faith only comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God; then faith can only be exercised by doing, and being obedient to the Word of God! In other words, you can only receive faith by hearing, but you can only exercise faith by doing. Therefore faith is nullified without corresponding acts of obedience and, by extension, so is prayer (James 2:14-20).
True prayer is built upon a foundation of faith and obedience. It doesn’t matter how long or how hard you pray; if biblical faith and obedience are absent, it’s like trying to start a car without an engine – it just won’t work.
 “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock.  And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.  And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand.  And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”
(Matthew 7:24-27 ESV)
You will notice that the word house is mentioned several times throughout this passage. It is not the exact Greek word used in Matthew 21:13; however, it is a female derivative of the exact male noun translated house and can be applied in a similar dimension.
Houses must have a foundation, which effectively determines its strength and longevity when tested by the elements. Both the wise as well as the foolish will have their houses tested, but the key is in the foundation. Even though both the wise as well as the foolish heard the words being spoken by Jesus, only the wise was fortunate enough to have what he had built not fall into ruin because he was willing to put into practice what he heard. The foolish man was not that fortunate because even though he heard everything the wise man heard, he was never obedient so his house fell into ruin.
When this principle is applied to the issue of prayer as it relates to a house or community of Kingdom Citizens and blood-bought saints (1 Pet. 2:5; Heb. 3:6), we understand that for prayer to be effective and not fall flat, there must be a readiness to hear (which produces faith) coupled with a willingness to obey (which is how we exercise faith).
21 Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence toward God. 22 And whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do those things that are pleasing in His sight. 23 And this is His commandment: that we should believe on the name of His Son Jesus Christ and love one another, as He gave us commandment (1 John 3:21-23 NKJV emphasis mine).
14 Now this is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us (1 John 5:14 emphasis mine).
According to John, prayer is both impotent and ineffective when there is a lack of obedience or a lifestyle that is not pleasing to God. We should not expect to receive anything from God when we are operating from a place of disobedience. Prayer and obedience are inseparable; therefore, a lack of obedience – disobedience – nullifies prayer! I should mention also that this refers not only to outward acts of obedience but to internal heart issues as well, which we will examine shortly (Ps. 66:18). I wish to also point out that biblical obedience is expressed in our love (not just in word but in action) for one another.
Another important issue identified by John in the text above is the issue of knowing God’s will. You can’t ask or pray according to God’s will if you don’t know what it is. Therefore, you first need to know and understand what God’s will is before you can accurately pray according to it. It is commonly stated that faith begins where the will of God is known. So if you’re ignorant of God’s will you can’t have faith, and without faith you won’t have the corresponding acts of obedience to make prayer powerful and effective.
Therefore, not only does disobedience nullify prayer, but so does ignorance, because it nullifies the faith by which prayer is powerfully activated. So actually the key to God hearing us is us hearing God! Your prayer will never go beyond your ability to hear and obey. The Word of God must be given preeminence in everything we do.
Unfortunately, this is where many of us fail. Many of the people I know who claim to be “prayer warriors” and “intercessors” are the most biblically illiterate or semi-illiterate. Many of them claim to be “prophetic” when in reality they’re mostly pathetic. Your ability to accurately discern the voice of God will never exceed your knowledge and understanding of Scripture – The Written Word (but that’s another topic). Your prayer will never be any more effective than the Word it is built upon. Therefore our emphasis should always be placed upon the Word, both in increasing our understanding as well as in obedience.
God, through the mouth of Hosea the prophet, declared:
My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge;
because you have rejected knowledge,
I reject you from being a priest to me.
And since you have forgotten the law of your God,
I also will forget your children.
(Hosea 4:6 ESV)
During a time of spiritual depravity, God attributed the destruction of His people not to a lack of prayer, but to a lack of knowledge. I can assure you that religious prayers were still being offered up quite frequently by priest and people alike as they gathered corporately or petitioned God privately in their homes, yet they were still being destroyed because they had neglected the foundation and the principle of erudition. God would not accept their priestly prayers, sacrifices, offerings or ministry because of their Scriptural neglect.
While I was writing this I received a call from a woman requesting prayer. She began to relay to me how she lived in a certain housing development that sounded like a housing complex or gated community with different units or condos sharing the same property. She had a neighbor who had a dog(s) who lived right next door to her, but the neighbor would not clean up after her dog when it was out in the yard or shared compound, and the caller was offended by this because the smell was invading her air space. She complained to the housing authorities as well as the neighbor and requested that she purchase some sort of product and use it in the areas that the dog had sullied. The neighbor, I was told, rudely refused and slammed the door shut in her face. There was now strife between the neighbors and she wanted me to pray because she didn’t have any peace.
My immediate response was, “This is not an issue that requires prayer – at least not from me – it requires obedience!” I told her that if she was expecting me to pray that her neighbor would be more understanding and acquiesce to her request, I couldn’t do that. The Kingdom of God doesn’t operate that way, only satanic covens and witchcraft. We never pray prayers to try to manipulate or control the free will of others.
I informed her that her biblical response was not to try to enforce her “rights”, but to lay aside her rights in a demonstration of love and long-suffering towards her neighbor. I reminded her of Jesus’s command to love our enemies, which includes blessing and praying for them (Matt.5:43-48). And I instructed her to make peace with her neighbor (it was also suggested that she bake her a cake or purchase her a present of some sort) so that she would see the love of God demonstrated through her instead of bitterness or resentment. By so doing she would melt the ice, win a neighbor, accurately reflect the Kingdom, and eradicate strife. She agreed and I prayed that God would cause the light of His love to shine brighter and brighter through the caller’s life so that she would be an effective witness and ambassador of Christ within her community. Upon completion of this prayer we ended the call.
The point of this story is to show the precedence of biblical understanding and obedience, as well as point out how many of our perceived problems can be fixed if we would simply take the time to focus on the same. It is not enough to keep rehearsing religious prayers. You can “bind” the devil and “loose” whatever you want, but nothing is going to change until you receive faith from His word and learn to exercise it in obedience.
I know some preachers and “prayer warriors” who would have taken that woman’s request and tried to bind the “spirit of strife” or “demon” working through the neighbor that was trying to hinder the peace of the caller. Some would have even gone so far as to pray that she changes her attitude, that judgment would fall upon her and/or her dog(s), or that she was removed from the premises so that a more peaceful or godly neighbor occupied her home. Not only are such prayers inaccurate and void of the love of God, but they’re satanic in origin and have no part in the Kingdom of God.
An effective prayer life is not necessarily one that spends 2-3 hours or more petitioning and crying out before God (Matt. 6:7; 23:14). An effective prayer life is one that spends ample time in the Word, is growing in understanding, and continually walking in obedience. Their very life becomes a prayer so that there is no disconnect between what they say and what they do. Their 15 minutes of oral prayer will accomplish much more than the 15 hours of the one with a poor or inaccurate foundation.
If you’re accustomed to spending 2-3 hours in oral prayer, you should be spending double that time in the Word. It doesn’t matter how much time you spend trying to beautify or work on the structure; as long as the foundation is weak it will all come toppling down!
It doesn’t matter how good your aim is if you have no bullets in your gun. And if you do have bullets in your gun you better learn how to aim. When your focus is on growing in understanding and obedience you will notice that you accomplish more with less. It doesn’t mean that you spend less time with God, but your time with Him will be much more profitable and effective. You’ll be more focused on Him reproducing Himself in you than on you uploading a bunch of carnal requests to Him. You’ll learn to listen more and talk less. You’ll stop praying silly prayers. You’ll learn to operate within the boundaries of your spiritual authority. And most of all, you won’t be blinded by selfishness or carnal pursuits.
When we operate from this dimension we become healed from our hypocrisy. No longer will we ask God to do what we have the power to do on our own. This means that when my brother or sister has a need, I don’t just offer up vain prayers to God on behalf of them and their need when I have the power to fulfill it. Why pray for my brother who is believing for a vehicle to get to work when there are two or three cars parked in my garage? Why pray for your sister to get her rent and electric bill paid when there are thousands of dollars nestling in your bank account? How can you claim to have faith to see someone’s need met when you have the means to meet it yourself but you’re unwilling to? Faith works by love and prayer works by faith, so if you’re not willing to act on their behalf you’re displaying neither (Gal. 5:6; Jam. 2:14-26).
Dennis L. Okholm, “Prayer”, in Baker Theological Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1996), 622.
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