You might object to this title. “Prayers don’t move God. Instead God moves prayers.” Although I can respect your rebuttal, I still think that we can say that there are prayers that please God – prayers are worship and must be conducted in spirit and in truth – while others are a turn-off.
Just take the prayer of the Pharisee who entered the temple. His prayer was a self-righteous abomination, according to Jesus:
- To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men--robbers, evildoers, adulterers--or even like this tax collector.’” (Luke 18:9-11)
This was a prayer that God wouldn’t hear. It was a prayer about the Pharisee’s “own righteousness;” it was “about himself” (“with himself;” KJV; suggesting that it wasn’t even a real dialogue). Jesus concluded that because the Pharisee sought to exalt himself, God would humble him. However, those who humbled themselves to acknowledge their need for mercy, would find mercy (Luke 18:14).
All of the great prayers of the Bible are characterized by humility – the acknowledgement of sin and the overwhelming need for mercy. Now, let us regard the three great chapter-nine prayers: Ezra’s, Nehemiah’s and Daniel’s.
In all of these prayers there is found a confession of sin – a recognition that Israel deserved nothing from God but judgment. Ezra’s starts this way:
- "O my God, I am too ashamed and disgraced to lift up my face to you, my God, because our sins are higher than our heads and our guilt has reached to the heavens.” (Ezra 9:6)
Far be it from Ezra to minimize the weightiness of Israel’s sins or to make light of them. If sin is not trivial in God’s eyes, then it mustn’t be trivial in our eyes. We must treat sin with the seriousness with which our Lord regards them. They are so weighty that only His blood could atone for them. Therefore, Ezra didn’t say, “OK God, we sinned, but what do You expect of us mere mortals living in this fallen world!”
Nehemiah starts his prayer by exalting God (Neh. 9:5-15), and then contrasts God’s faithfulness with the unfaithfulness of Israel:
- "But they, our forefathers, became arrogant and stiff-necked, and did not obey your commands. They refused to listen and failed to remember the miracles you performed among them. They became stiff-necked and in their rebellion appointed a leader in order to return to their slavery.” (Neh. 9:16-17)
After God would bless the people, they would become arrogant, convinced that they knew better about their own welfare than God. Consequently, “they refused to listen,” and brought destruction upon themselves.
Once again, Nehemiah made absolutely no attempt to justify Israel’s sins and no suggestion that perhaps God had been unduly harsh with Israel. In the view of both Ezra and Nehemiah, God had been perfectly just, even though Israel had endured extreme hardships at His hands. Why did they retain such a view in light of Israel’s suffering? They had no doubt that Israel’s sins deserved even worse!
Today, we lack a necessary awareness of the seriousness of our sins and the extent of our guilt. We tend to trivialize our sins with many rationalizations:
- “Well, God knows my heart. He knows that I am trying as hard as I can.”
- “God is love, and so He doesn’t want us to feel guilty.”
- “God knows that I’ve been through a lot.”
- “I’m better than most people!”
- “I am a good person, and people like me!”
- “No one is perfect!”
- “Well, this is a fallen world! What can God expect of us!”
Of course, if we trivialize our sin like this, we also have little respect, taste or understanding for the righteousness and judgments of God. Instead, we might regard Him as slightly tyrannical. We then wonder why we do not feel intimate with a God we regard as a tyrant!
Although we might acknowledge that God is merciful, it is imperative to first realize that we need His mercy, and lots of it! Instead, we try to mitigate our guilt and think, “Well, I really don’t require that much mercy, since I’m really a good person.” This attitude is unacceptable. It minimizes God’s great sacrifice at the cross, and it also minimizes His mercy. It demeans His gift. It is as if someone gave a homeless person a house, and he responds, “I don’t really need your house. Since you gave it to me, well, I am willing to make use of it.”
We must never minimize God’s gift of grace by minimizing our sins. Daniel certainly didn’t:
- "O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with all who love him and obey his commands, we have sinned and done wrong. We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws. We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes and our fathers, and to all the people of the land. Lord, you are righteous, but this day we are covered with shame--the men of Judah and people of Jerusalem and all Israel, both near and far, in all the countries where you have scattered us because of our unfaithfulness to you. O Lord, we and our kings, our princes and our fathers are covered with shame because we have sinned against you. The Lord our God is merciful and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against him; we have not obeyed the Lord our God or kept the laws he gave us through his servants the prophets.” (Daniel 9:4-10)
Is God pleased with such prayers? Evidently! While Daniel was still praying, the archangel Gabriel appeared and informed him:
- “As soon as you began to pray, an answer was given, which I have come to tell you, for you are highly esteemed.” (Daniel 9:23)
Today, our church – the Bride of Christ – is so weakened. We have become arrogant and have strayed. We no longer meditate on the Word day and night (Psalm 1: Joshua 1:8). Rather, we have compromised and have adopted the ideas of the world, instead of His ideas. We have sought self-confidence rather than God-confidence, and now we are being brought low.
Pray that our Savior would revive His church. It must begin when the church humbles itself to grieve and mourn over its sins and to cry out for the promised mercy of our Lord – mercy that will wipe our sins clean and fully restore us (1 John 1:9).