A faithful and fruitful prayer life doesn’t always come easily. How should we talk to God? What should we pray for? How do we approach a Holy God in our sinful state? Alistair Begg addresses these questions and more in this full-length interview on the subject of his new book, Pray Big: Learn to Pray Like an Apostle.
Drawn from his study in book of Ephesians, Alistair explains, “One of the great privileges of reading the letters of Paul is that we are able to gain a window into the very center of his being, to see what was on his heart. We are able to look in on him not as he is up on his feet, going about the activities of his day, but as he is down on his knees, coming to God in prayer.”
Truth For Life announcer Bob Lepine and Alistair Begg discuss how to pray big, like an apostle.
Bob Lepine: Why do you think prayer is such a challenging discipline for all of us?
Alistair Begg: Well, first of all, it’s the front line of spiritual warfare. And the Evil One is aware of the fact that God has decided that prayer is a means of fulfilling some of His purposes.
And I think we’re aware of that warfare.
It’s always amazing to me how, when you settle down to pray and the phone rings or someone comes and knocks at the door, prayer is disrupted. And also, in my own heart, I want to read the newspaper rather than pray. I want to check the scores rather than pray. I want to study my Bible rather than pray. So, it seems like everything militates against prayer. And I think it’s the essential reason that we have divine prayer to bring down strongholds. Since the strongholds are the Evil One’s strongholds, he’s really committed. Beyond that, our own self-preoccupation works against praying, I think.
Bob: When we put our prayers and the prayers we find in Scripture side by side, what do we find?
Alistair: Well, the discrepancy is usually pretty big, except for very short prayers that we can probably approximate to. But the way in which we find Christ Himself praying in John 17, or the prayer of Daniel, or Nehemiah’s prayers at the beginning of that book—we’re introduced to a dimension of engagement with God that, if it doesn’t encourage us to press on, may actually be the source of real discouragement to us. We may find ourselves saying, “Well, I can never pray like that,” or “I don’t pray like that, so maybe I should just stop.”
Bob: Can we use the prayers we find in the Bible to help recalibrate how we pray?
Alistair: Well, I hope so. I’ve tried to do that when I find it difficult or when I feel that I’ve become routine in what I’m saying. I’ll often go to the Psalms, or even to a prayer like Daniel’s prayer, because it gives us a much bigger framework and a sense of the grandeur and of the greatness of God. Scripture helps us, at least, move into the arena without starting directly with ourselves and what we want to ask God for.
Bob: Talk about the grandeur and greatness of God. How important is it that our theology is intact as we begin to communicate with God?
Alistair: Well, when we speak to people, we speak and listen to them in relationship to our knowledge of them. When we come to God, unless we understand God to be God as He’s revealed Himself in creation and in His Word, then we may actually be tempted to come to Him in a way that, if we put it just in one sense, does an entire disservice to Him.
He is God. He is not us. He is the God that was encountered by Moses, and Moses took off his sandals. He is the God that Isaiah met in the temple and was completely flattened. He is the God who reveals Himself in Jesus on the boat, and the disciples essentially say, “Depart from us, we are sinful.”
That’s very, very different from the kind of “Hey, it’s me” approach which, if it doesn’t happen in private, very quickly can creep into the kind of tenor of public prayer when congregations gather together. And the outsider might be tempted to think that God is just like us and that we may approach Him as if we were approaching anybody else, when in actual fact, we can’t. We shouldn’t. We mustn’t.
Bob: So, God is a friend who is closer than a brother, but He is high and holy and beyond us. We have to keep both of those in tension as we approach Him, don’t we?
Alistair: Yes. That’s the wonderful thing about the doctrine of the Trinity, in part, in that God who is transcendent and holy and outside of time has, in the person of Jesus, stepped down into time. He has become for us a High Priest who, as Hebrews puts it, is touched with the feelings of our infirmities—so that in the old hymn there is “No throb nor throe that our hearts can know; but He feels it above.” I’m not sure what all of that really comes out like, but it encourages me to be very honest in my prayers and not to feel that I have to get dressed up, as it were, to come to Him, or put on my best face because after all, he knows me thoroughly. He knows the words of my mouth before I even speak them, and yet He still wants to hear from me.
Bob: You talked about spiritual warfare being a part of the challenge of prayer. Is prayer something that comes naturally or a skill that needs to be cultivated and developed?
Alistair: Well, we cry out, don’t we? Often, on the golf course, I’m amazed at how many times my secular friends seem to have an interest in divinity. The cry of the human heart is often the cry of despair—the cry of a child in search of answers. So, in one sense, our spirits long after that which we do not really grasp—that God has set eternity in our hearts, and He’s done so in order that we might be able to seek Him.
You have the context in Athens when Paul encounters people and they clearly are searching for something. And then when we come to know God in Jesus, the Spirit comes to live within us and enables us, as Paul says, to cry, “Abba, Father”—to call Him “Dear Father.” And again, this is something that separates us from the unbelieving world.
I find that people will often say “Oh, God!,” or “Oh, something!,” but I haven’t heard anyone other than a genuine believer say “Oh, Father!” They may use “Father” in the Lord’s Prayer because they’ve come to learn it at school, but that awareness of the fact that I have a Father and that He has bid me come to Him helps me then to grow in my approach to Him and to prepare to come into His presence.
I find, as well, prayer books are helpful. The Book of Common Prayer—I don’t use it all the time, but I use it a lot more than people would imagine. Baillie’s Diary of Private Prayer, I find that really helpful as well. And the wonderful book Valley of Vision by Banner of Truth is tremendously helpful.
Bob: One of the things you address in the book, Pray Big, is the issue of how prayer deals with our dependence on God. We live under the illusion of being in control—the masters of our own fate, our own destiny. Prayer is a way to remind us that we’re not in control, isn’t it?
Alistair: Well, yes, and to the extent that we don’t pray, we continue to live with the illusion that we don’t need to. So, God in His mercy actually uses things in our lives in order to remind us that we’re not the masters of our own destiny. We’re not the captain of the ship. And whether that comes in the gift of a child and we realize the magnificence of it, or whether it comes in the awareness of how finite we are in relationship to the magnificence of the universe—“the heavens declare His glory, the firmament shows His handiwork”—or whether it comes in the awareness of our own human frailty, such as in the loss of a friend or a loved one, or in the experience of pain and suffering and difficulty, or perhaps we’ve become unbelievably depressed and overwhelmed and we know that there must be someone, there must be something, somewhere—God uses these things in order to bring our attention to where it needs to be.
Bob: It’s almost instinctive in humans and in nations during times of calamity and trial to respond by crying out to someone who is in control when we’re not.
Alistair: Yes, and it’s quite amazing, isn’t it, when you think about that even in the history of our own country—how that has taken place, how that has happened? You need to go back through two or three or four presidents to get back to the last time I really remember it happening. But that is true here. It’s true, certainly, in the history of Great Britain. And it speaks to the very point that you’re making.
Bob: So, the issue of dependence and this abandoning of the illusion of control… how can we model our prayers to remind us of the fact that God is sovereign, but also to realize that our prayers still have meaning when we’re talking to a sovereign God?
Alistair: Right. Well, you know, first of all, I think it’s good for us to recognize that we’re in good company when we feel this way. The disciples come to Jesus and they say, “Lord, teach us to pray.” They don’t say, “Hey, we have this.” They know that they need help, and so it’s a good starting point to say, quite honestly, “I’d like to be able to pray more sensibly, more knowledgeably, in a genuine spirit of repentance and expectation. So where shall I go to find help in this?” Well, let’s go to the Bible. And let’s see how others have approached God.
And that’s really how this [book] came about—because by observing Paul’s approach, I was struck again by the fact that although he’s in prison and his circumstances are not exactly what we would call wonderful, his prayers are striking. They’re striking not so much in what he prays as in what he doesn’t pray. He doesn’t ask to be removed from jail. He doesn’t have a long list to the church—you know, “You can’t believe how bad it is in here! I hope I can be out soon. Please pray this.” No, it’s something far greater.
Now, you say, “Well, that was the apostle Paul!” Yes, it was. But he has set us an example that we can follow in his steps, and also, he’s given us an indication of what it really means to pray big prayers.
Bob: Explain for us what the difference is between a small prayer and a big prayer.
Alistair: Well, I think in the context that I’m suggesting in this book, it’s just the difference between starting with ourselves and our limited horizons and beginning with God and His glory and His grandeur and His purposes. I mean, Paul’s first prayer in Ephesus only comes after the amazing beginning which starts in eternity past, and the immensity of God’s love that He has chosen us before the foundation of the world—that He’s been purposing in this way.
So, Paul is already well advanced, if you like, as he then comes and says, “And now I’m praying for you in light of what I know of God: that he has chosen you in Him, and some of you, you heard the Word of truth, the Gospel of your salvation, you believed, you’re now in Christ, and therefore you’re no longer what you once were. You were once dead, you’re now alive. You were once trapped, you’re now free.” This is immense, he says, “and now it is in this context that I want to pray the things that are on my heart for you as a church and for you as individuals.”
So, in other words, Paul’s own prayers emerge out of the vastness of the reservoir of his personal understanding of God. One of the reasons that my prayers are as poor as they are is because my reservoir is not full enough. It’s not as grand. It’s not what it might be. The answer to this is not a book on prayer. The answer to this is coming to know God, and coming to be aware of the fact that I am known by Him and that He is able to do immeasurably more than I could ask or even imagine.
Bob: You mentioned being struck by the things that Paul didn’t pray for while he was in prison. The things we do pray for are often those immediate trials, those challenges, our anxieties, our fears, our frustrations. Is it wrong to bring those things before God?
Alistair: No. We would be wrong to say it was wrong. For example, one of my favorite Bible quotes is Philippians 4:6—I think that is where it says, “Don’t worry, do not be anxious” and so on. Kenneth Taylor paraphrased it, “Don’t worry about anything”—which is jolly hard to do!—“pray about everything. Tell God your needs. And don’t forget to thank Him for His answers.”
Well, that’s good instruction, and that’s from Paul as well—paraphrased, but nevertheless, that’s what Paul is saying. So, we know that is the invitation of God for us to cast our burdens upon Him. Therefore, it would be very wrong to say that we’re not going to pray about these pressing issues.
Earlier today, we’ve had occasion to pray together along those very lines, and someone could say, “Well, that’s a rather small prayer.” Well, it may be a very small prayer, but it’s to a very big God. And the reason that we prayed it is because of what we know of God and what He’s promised us—not that He will promise necessarily the answer that we’ve asked for, but because He is so kind, and because He is so big, and because He’s able to do beyond our asking or our thinking, we feel confident to bring this thing to Him.
Bob: Your book, Pray Big, helps us take what might be our impulses of prayer and make them bigger by broadening our vision or our sights. One of the things you talk about is understanding the riches that are ours in Christ and praying for those riches.
Alistair: Right, and that again is Paul. He says, “You know, I want you to understand that one day you’re going to be very, very rich. You haven’t fully entered into the entire inheritance, but it is yours, if you like. And it is yours not because of who you are but because of who Christ is, and because of your union with Christ.”
I think one of the things in Paul’s prayers that comes across most forcibly is the fact that everything that he’s really saying is tied to this understanding of the believer’s union with Christ. We have been united with Him in His death and in His resurrection. His Spirit has been given to fill our lives, and so the riches that are ours in Jesus are actually ours. And it’s a tragedy when some of us live as spiritual paupers when in point of fact we have all of these resources at hand.
One of the ways in which this is, of course, corrupted is in the kind of teaching that suggests that God is in the business of just making sure that we all become financially very rich. To teach that is really to teach from a closed Bible… and a bit of an empty head. God chooses to bless certain people in certain ways, and He gives us all things richly to enjoy. But the riches about which Paul is praying are spiritual riches, which are ours in Jesus.
Bob: Those who are experiencing challenges with material wealth—what’s the right way to pray for your material needs in those times?
Alistair: Well, when James gives us encouragement along these lines, remember he says, “If anyone lacks wisdom, let him ask of God.” And you know, the first prayer that we have in that respect is probably a prayer for wisdom.
Some of us get ourselves in those positions because of a lack of wise choices. We have actually put ourselves in that predicament. And we may now be coming somewhat presumptuously to God asking for some kind of miraculous intervention. In point of fact, He may choose not to do that in the same way that we may choose not to bail our children out—not because we’re unwilling to do so, but because we know that it is harmful for us to do so. What they need is not what they want. What they need is in order to think sensibly about decisions that have been made, and in many cases that calls for just a complete recalibration of the way in which we view the temporal things of our lives.
This relates to what we believe is a sensible use of resources, our place of work, saving money, and all those things. And if I disregard the clear instruction of the Bible in many of those areas, and then come and suggest that “since God is able to do exceedingly abundantly beyond, God can do anything He wants,” I’d say to that, “Yes, He can, and He will. And He will act according to His good pleasure.”
Bob: I’ve had the experience of God recalibrating my thinking as I brought my requests to Him—that in the context of praying, sometimes the answer comes in my own words as I just say them out loud.
Alistair: Right. And that actually is one of the other aspects of prayer: we are not only talking, but we’re also listening. We’re not listening in a vacuum, but we’re listening to God speak in the means whereby He always speaks, which is through His Word.
And that’s why our knowledge of the Bible is vital. I remember when I used to take exams and my father would pray in the car before I got out, “Dear Lord, please bring to Alistair’s remembrance the things that he has learned”—which was always a bit of a binder, because I hadn’t learned that much! And if He was only going bring to mind what I could remember—what I had learned—that’s a short essay! I was looking more on the miraculous level, like, “Bring to his mind things he’s never learned!”
And God is able to do those things too, but by and large it is in the reservoir, again, of His truth brought home to us by the Spirit. Like you say, we get answers to our own questions as we come humbly into His presence instead of coming in demanding or with the answer already in mind.