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: You write in the book about praying for power. Power has gotten a bad rap in our day—we should be releasing power rather than praying for power. What do you mean?
Alistair Begg: What Paul was talking about was the very power of the resurrection which raised Jesus from the dead and that is with those who are united in Christ. To go back into the Old Testament, where Jehoshaphat is there before the armies that come against him, and he stands in the public arena with the adults and with children who can understand, and he says, “Lord, we do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you”—and now he looks for a power that is entirely outside of himself, a power that will enable him to think properly about the dilemma that he faces and then will then enable him to lead the people who are under his care and will allow him to not violate anything that he knows of God’s character and His purposes.
You have a similar thing with Paul, with the thorn in the flesh. It seemed to him that it was legitimate to pray on three separate occasions for the removal of that. And what is the answer that is given? God says, “No, my grace is sufficient for you. For my power, or my strength, is made perfect in weakness.”
And so, you have this amazing juxtaposition, whereby it is when we are weak that we are strong. So, that’s what we’re thinking about in terms of power. It’s the power that enables us, when someone says “Now, don’t you go to that church up there by the golf course?” to say, “Well, yes I do,” when in fact we want to recoil and not get into it. Inside you’re saying, “This is terrible. I’m so weak at this,” and “Lord… power… I need something here.” And He comes through.
Bob: Talk about how we should understand the sovereignty of God with the reality that our prayers somehow affect the outcome of circumstances.
Alistair: Yes, of course. It’s not uncommon to discover that there are certain people who think they believe in the sovereignty of God, but they’re actually fatalists. You know, when I’ve been in Islamic countries, I’ve been staggered to see how many people are prepared to drive in the most reckless of manners—I mean, the wrong way on the freeway on the opposite side of the road! Why? Because they believe that if it is in the will of Allah, they will be dead, and if it isn’t in the will of Allah, they will get there. That is not an understanding that the Bible gives us. The Bible says, “No, you’re supposed to be sensible.” That’s why we have these rules, and we have the left and right side of the road, and so on.
But what we do know is that God always accomplishes His purposes. God had a purpose for His people that they could not fathom when they found themselves in the doldrums. This fellow called Joseph could never really have put the pieces of the puzzle together in the immediacy of it all. And the cries of his own heart, which are not really recorded for us in the Bible, must often have been cries like, “Lord, what are you doing here?” Looking through the rearview mirror, he realizes.
And the short answer, I think, is this: that not only does God ordain the ends that He has appointed, but He ordains the means to those ends. And part of the means to the ends of the accomplishing of His purposes are, as you say, mysterious in the fact that our prayers are part of that. Otherwise, there is no point in praying ever at all. I mean, if prayer is just an exercise in deep breathing, well, I have a thing on my watch; it tells me every so often: “Breathe.” And some people think that’s what prayer is—even Christians. That’s why many of them have succumbed to all kinds of meditative practices with a vague Christianized dimension to them. But it’s not what Paul is talking about doing when he cries out to God in Ephesians. And that needs to be our pattern, not this other stuff.
“ It’s not what you have to say about yourself that matters, it’s what God has to say about you. And there’s nowhere where that’s more obvious, I suppose, than in our interaction with Him in personal devotion.
Bob: You’ve prayed audaciously, asked God for miraculous, big things that some would scoff at. It’s not wrong to do that, is it?
Alistair: No. I mean, the only caveat to that is… I have somewhere in my notes a quote from Calvin’s Institutes where Calvin, who wants us to come to God with that sort of expansive sense, warns against—I can’t remember his phraseology, but it’s like, basically allowing our minds just to go crazy. “Foolish, pretentious, and presumptuous illusions,” he says. That neither speaks well of the person who’s praying, nor does it speak well of God.
Leaving that aside for the moment, it would seem to me that the prayers of the early church were prayers that did not have many of the caveats that we have apparently decided to introduce to ours. They were earnestly in prayer for Peter, who was in the jail. And their prayer was pretty straightforward: “Could we please have Peter out of the jail?” And, of course, he came out of the jail. And then they were surprised, because obviously they didn’t ever think he would come out of the jail—which, again, is true of most of our prayer meetings, you know, asking God for things while thinking, “Now, it’s never going to happen, you know.” So, we don’t really believe.
I’m challenged in this. I don’t know if I have to keep using the same phraseology, because I do know that God does things according to His will. I know that. And I know that Jesus in the garden said, “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done.” That was a very, very personal moment in the interaction of divinity itself. Clearly, God knows that it is His will that needs to be done, and not my will. I’m not sure I need to remind Him of that.
So therefore, why can’t I pray, “Raise this baby, Lord, from this illness. Please! You are the God who can do this. Please!”? Now, if He chooses to, then we’ll thank Him. If He chooses not to, then we’ll thank Him. Why? Because we know that He’s too kind to be cruel, and He’s too wise to make mistakes, and because He’s our Father, He knows what’s best for us. In the same way, my son may say, “I want a 650-cc motorbike, Dad.” “You’re not getting one.” “Oh, you’re a mean dad.” “Well, I may be a mean dad, but I’m also a wise dad. And I’ve seen you fall off your bike so many times, I can’t imagine what you’re going to do with 650 cc’s.” In the same way, our Father knows best.
Bob: In that regard, hope is a part of praying. It’s one of the things you talk about in the book, Pray Big. How do we understand the relationship between biblical hope and our prayers?
Alistair: Well, it’s a very important question, and it comes up all the time, doesn’t it? People say, “Well, if it’s hope, how can it be certain, because hope means ‘I hope it won’t snow before I fly out tonight’?” There’s no way of controlling that at all.
But when Peter says we’ve been “born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,” he’s not talking about being born again to a living possibility. He’s talking about being born again to a reality. Now, that reality which is ultimately ours, eventually in a new heaven and a new earth, is reserved in heaven for you. It’s got your name on it, if you like. It’s yours.
So, hope speaks of a reality that has not yet been enjoyed—has not yet been experienced. And that’s why, in the words of committal at the gravesite that I use—I don’t know if everyone does, but I always say, “…and in the sure and certain hope to the resurrection of eternal life through Jesus.” And how can it be “sure,” “certain,” and “hope” unless hope is that which is promised to us but not yet experienced?
Bob: So how does that help those who have prayed maybe for decades and seen those prayers not yet answered? What do we do with that kind of challenge to our prayer life?
Alistair: Well, it’s hard. And I’ve had times in my life when, quite honestly, I’ve been driving in the car and saying out loud, “Lord, I don’t even know if oughta keep up with this. I mean, how many times shall I ask you this?” Now, I don’t say that presumptuously. I don’t even like mentioning it, to tell you the truth, but I’ve had enough in my own life to know the reality of unanswered prayer—unanswered in the sense that there is no immediate response that would give me a yes or a no.
So, is then the delay on God’s part capricious? Can’t be. Is it purposeful? Must be. Therefore, what must I do? The answer is: pray on. And in certain cases, I have to believe that the covenant promises of God will be fulfilled, if not in my lifetime, nevertheless fulfilled—and that for some of us, there will be joys in heaven that are peculiar to the discovery of the answer to our prayers which we never saw before we left. Because God will fulfill His purposes. That’s the best I can do.
Bob: You start the book, Pray Big, with a quote from nineteenth-century Scottish preacher Robert Murray M’Cheyne. Tell us a bit about M’Cheyne, and then share the quote.
Alistair: Well, M’Cheyne was clearly a peculiar young man inasmuch as his whole life was lived and ended by the age of 29. He packed into those years more than many of us have packed into a regular lifetime. He was godly. They said that his preaching was like a rapier wielded by God to cut open the hearts and lives of people. He obviously was somebody for whom prayer was foundational.
M’Cheyne went as far as to say—and I think this is the quote—that what a man is on his knees before God, that is what he is, and nothing more. Which, of course, is a profoundly challenging notion. And most of the time, when people want to introduce us, there never is any of this, of course—what could they know about us in the privacy of our own homes? It’s usually about other stuff that makes us who we are—things like, “He did this,” “He went there,” “He accomplished that,” “He wrote this.”
And M’Cheyne is saying essentially what Paul says—that it’s not what you have to say about yourself that matters, it’s what God has to say about you. And there’s nowhere where that’s more obvious, I suppose, than in our interaction with Him in personal devotion. So, God, I suppose, could say, “Well, I’m not that impressed with how much Begg talks, because proportionately he doesn’t really talk that much to me.”
Bob: Talk about your own prayer life.
Alistair: It’s hard to. A fellow was once writing a thesis on me, explaining to his readers that the only explanation for what I do is tied to my devotional life. Well, how he came up with that as a strategy, I don’t know. He was well into it by the time I met him. He wanted to do an interview with me, so we Skyped. And he essentially said, “Now, I know that it is because of this that this.” And I said, “How do you know that?” And he said, “Well, I assumed that.” And I said, “Well, that’s quite an assumption, isn’t it?” And then he said, “So why don’t you tell me?” I said, “No, I don’t want to tell you.” And he said, “But it’s my thesis.” So, the poor guy was paralyzed at the other end of the thing.
But I said to him, “Look, let’s suppose I tell you and that it’s amazingly impressive—it’ll sound like I’m blowing my own horn. Unless I tell you it’s horribly bad—then you’ll lose all confidence in your thesis and the whole thing will go south.” I said, “So I’ll tell you this: it’s patchy. It’s like my exercise program—it’s fits and starts. It’s periods of immense devotion followed by significant sessions of chronic inertia. It is deep resolve. It is short-term engagement. It is all of the above.” It’s like a relationship. And I don’t know if I want to find solace in this and thereby absolve myself of the absence of a kind of punctiliar discipline which I see in other people.
I have friends, they have daybooks; they put in the thing, they tick it off, they cross things off, red for that, yellow for this. There’s no point in me even starting one of those. We don’t need to have a program. We don’t have to notch it up in ten-minute increments. We can just sit, listen to music, talk, whatever else it is. Periods of silence. Books you’ve read. Things you’ve done. It all unfolds. That’s what I’m trying to discover in my devotional life. That’s why I’m reaching for the Psalms. That’s why I’m reaching for a Christian biography, trying to learn from others.
Bob: Your book, Pray Big, is a call for all of us to grow in this discipline of prayer. If you could make one or two adjustments in how most of us do our praying, what would those adjustments be?
Alistair: Well, you know, on a corporate level, having grown up with prayer meetings, a couple of immediate adjustments would be just to clean up the vocabulary of prayer. And I don’t mean just the standard clichés about, you know, “Brother Reynolds, who’s laid on one side,” and stuff like that, and “Please get Mrs. Jenkins out of her bed of sickness,” which is a horrible picture.
But the whole notion of “Lord, we just pray that you will be with Zachary. You know where he is. You remember that his aunt is staying with him at the moment.” Now, we’re actually not praying to God at all in this, but we’re giving a report on the fact that Zachary’s mother went to California, and his aunt has been staying with him since Tuesday, and now God has actually turned the sound off already Himself, and we’re just left in the room going, “Hey, if you wanted to tell us about Zachary’s aunt, you could have done that. Why are you calling it a prayer?”
And furthermore, God is with him, so why keep asking for Him to “be with him”? And furthermore, don’t say “just be with him,” as if somehow or another you’re embarrassed to even ask. That kind of thing, on the corporate level… which, whenever I mention it, scares everybody into complete silence! Nobody ever prays, because they’re so full of “be withs” they can’t even stop it!
Bob: You end the book asking the question, “Who should we pray for?” and you say there are three dimensions of our prayers. What are those?
Alistair: I think we say, first of all, given all that we’ve said earlier, that we do pray for ourselves. It would be weird if we didn’t. God expects us to bring our needs to Him. We bring our praise to Him, so we pray for ourselves even as Jesus prayed for Himself in the garden.
Paul also prayed for others: “I pray, Father, for them.” And we pray for others as we have the privilege of entering into their lives. It’s both a responsibility and a privilege at the same time. And those circles of engagement may be tight and fairly limited, or they may be very large. I think you and I both know what it is to receive literature from people that we’ve never met, and may never meet, and they tell us on a consistent basis that they’re praying for us. So, we in turn have the privilege of doing that then.
And then, the third thing that we mention to the close of the book is that Paul was actually praying for our sake, for their sake, for His sake. He’s praying to the end that God will be glorified—that His purposes will be fulfilled and that His name will be honored. And if you think about it, that really fits within the framework of the Lord’s prayer itself. The order may be a little different, but nevertheless those dimensions are there.
Bob: Those three dimensions, I think, help us not stay focused in one area—our needs, but broaden it and say, “I need to be thinking about, meditating on, and asking God for His will to be done in these areas as well.”
Alistair: Yeah, it really is a learning curve. I find myself consistently with the disciples saying, “Lord, teach me to pray.” Because if you pray in the kind of shopping list approach, it just becomes relentless in its asking. When you pray as a group, asking people to come home from work, and get in their cars, and drive out, and go in a room, and sit down to pray, and then all we do is rehearse a bunch of health requests when in point of fact you can hardly find anything in the Bible about praying about people’s health—and yet it’s like the number one thing! I catch myself all the time in public prayer. I say, “You know, the only way to get prayed for in this church is to have a heart attack or get a diagnosis, and then they’ll pray for you.” But what about all the people that didn’t have a heart attack—people who are well and who badly need prayer?
So, yes it does. When we pray big kingdom prayers—you know, “May your kingdom come”—unless we actually say, “and it is for this reason that we’re praying about Malawi today; it is for this reason that we’re praying for the persecuted church in Egypt today,” then the idea of the kingdom can be just like—hey, who knows what it is?
So again, that’s where leadership in prayer comes. We’re very exercised about it as a church. It’s actually quite timely that this book will come out, because we have said as a leadership, partly as a result of our studies in Ephesians, “better get serious here about what the Bible is saying concerning the nature of prayer and encouraging each other to pray big.”
Bob: Do you think if we all prayed bigger, we’d see God move in our world, in our circumstances?
Alistair: Well, I think our reading of church history would at least allow us to see that, through the rearview mirror, at least, the dramatic, radical shift—for example, in the darkness and deadness of England—was not answered politically, but was answered spiritually as a result of people that we have never met and who prayed along these big lines for God to radically alter the circumstances—and hence Wesley, hence Whitefield.
In other words, God’s answer was the gift of a baby. And who knows, I always say—who knows but that the children that are here and in our nursery…? We may only be keeping our foot in the door for a generation, or for two generations, because of what God has in purpose in the thing. Does it matter if we see it or if everyone says we did it? Well, to our ego it matters, but in terms of the scheme of things, no. No.
Bob: One of the things you do in the book is offer sample prayers at the end of each chapter. You want to close with one of those prayers?
Father in heaven, I thank you for the gift of prayer. Even though there are some things that are a mystery to me, I know that this is a necessity. And I exercise the privilege fully confident in both your ability and willingness to do far more than I could ever imagine or guess. So help me, then, to ask for big things for the sake of your glory and through your matchless power. Enable me to pray big for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Bob: Thank you.
Alistair: Thank you.