How to Pray with Humility
By Brian Bill
This morning we’re going to focus on how to pray with humility. Most of us are much better at excusing our sins and failures than we are at confessing them. We’re quick to point out other peoples’ mistakes, but we have a hard time admitting when we’ve blown it. Here are some actual excerpts from insurance companies where individuals who had accidents explained what went wrong.
* Coming home, I drove into the wrong house and collided with a tree that I don’t own.
According to the results of our Spiritual Needs Survey, that was distributed in March, 70% of people at PBC pray more than 5 times a week. That’s pretty good, but it could be better. As we begin this morning, let me ask you a very personal question: On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate your prayer life? John Owen, a Puritan writer, has said: “What an individual is in secret on his knees before God, that’s who he really is, and no more.”
Let’s take a look at 6 significant truths about effective praying from the Old Testament prophet Daniel.
1. Pray Biblically (vs. 1-2)
Notice verses 1-2: “In the first year of Darius son of Xerxes, who was made ruler over the Babylonian kingdom in the first year of his reign, I, Daniel, understood from the Scriptures, according to the word of the Lord given to Jeremiah the prophet, that the desolation of Jerusalem would last seventy years.”
I picture Daniel reading and studying his copy of the Scriptures. He was an old man, approaching 90 years of age. He had been sent to Babylon almost 70 years earlier and had proven himself as the prime minister under 3 successive kings. Here’s what he was reading from Jeremiah 29:10-12: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you.”
We know that Daniel and others had been taken captive in 605 B.C. and that it was now 538 B.C. and so Daniel has been in captivity for 67 years. He recognizes that his people are only 3 years away from returning to Jerusalem. He also realizes that they are not spiritually prepared, so he is driven to his knees in prayer, simply from reading and understanding the Word of God.
Although things looked humanly hopeless and it appeared impossible that the exile would end soon, Jeremiah now had a firm word from the Lord. Are you facing anything that looks hopeless right now? If so, stand on the promises of the Word of God and pray like Daniel did.
I think there was probably a step between his reading of the prophet Jeremiah and Daniel’s prayer. I picture Daniel reading the Scriptures and then spending some time meditating upon what he had just read. He rolled these truths over in his mind. Then he prayed. Meditation is often the missing link between Bible intake and prayer.
There’s good application for us here. We should start by reading a passage of Scripture and then meditate on it, allowing time to take what God has said to us by thinking about it and digesting it. It may even be helpful to write it down. Then, after we’ve read and meditated, we can move into prayer. The focus of our prayer should be what we’ve encountered in the Bible, now personalized through meditation. John Bates has said this: “The great reason why our prayers are ineffectual, is because we do not meditate before them.”
And so, we begin with reading the Word. We then move to meditation and then end in prayer. I think it’s better to read a chapter or a short passage and meditate on it than it is to read several chapters and not think about them at all.
Even though God announces what He is going to do in Jeremiah 29, He also indicates very clearly that He will bring it about through prayer. As His people pray, He will accomplish what He is going to do. Prayer is so important that God will often delay what He says He will do until we start responding in prayer. Prayer is not a way to get God to work for us it’s His way of involving us in what He intends to do.
2. Pray with Humility (vs. 3)
Look at Daniel 9:3: “So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes.”
Daniel takes off his beautiful oriental robes and jewelry and dresses himself in a simple gown of rough burlap. The term “sackcloth” is used 46 times in the Bible and was a symbol of deep grief and mourning.
Spreading ashes on the head was more of a statement of guilt and symbolized deep repentance. When you’re covered with ashes, you don’t feel clean because they represent something that is burned or lost. In the Bible, the penitent person often covered their entire body with filthy ashes. Basically, when you put on sackcloth and ashes, you aren’t comfortable, and you don’t feel clean. It was an outward sign of inner pain and agony.
Fasting is another act of humility that enhances prayer. You fast because you are so serious about prayer that you don’t have time to eat. Fasting also teaches you to say “No” to your bodily appetites so that you can focus on prayer.
Daniel did not do any of this as a public display of spirituality but as a private expression of his sincerity. When we are humble before God, others will see it, but we aren’t doing it for their sake, it’s for God. Have you ever put on sackcloth and ashes? Have you ever fasted? If you have, don’t talk about it, or you’ll spoil it. But if you wonder why your prayers don’t seem to be getting past the light bulbs, perhaps your pride is getting in the way.
Someone has said, “The true way to be humble is not to stoop until you are smaller than yourself, but to stand at your real height against some higher nature that will show you what the real smallness of your greatness is.” D.L. Moody put it this way: “Be humble or you’ll stumble.”
The story is told of two ducks and a frog who lived happily together in a farm pond. They were great friends and enjoyed playing together. When the hot days of summer came, however, the pond began to dry up. They soon realized that they had to move. This was no problem for the ducks because they could just fly to another pond. But the frog was stuck. So they decided to put a stick in the bill of each duck that the frog could hang onto with his mouth as they flew to another pond. The plan worked well so well, in fact, that as they were flying along a farmer looked up in admiration and said, “Well, isn’t that a clever idea! I wonder who thought of that?” To which the frog said, “I did…” Be careful of pride it can cause you to fall!
3. Pray with Intensity (vs. 3)
Verse 3 says that Daniel “pleaded with the Lord.” That’s a Hebrew word that means, “to wrestle” like Jacob did with the angel in Genesis 32. Then verse 4 says, “I prayed to the Lord my God…” The Hebrew word “prayed” is an emphatic imperative that denotes extreme intensity.
So many of our prayers are just vain repetitions. My own prayers seem anemic compared to Daniel’s. Many of us are like the little boy who said his prayers one night and got confused with his rhymes, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If he hollers let him go . . . eeny, meeny, miney, mo.” What?
Some of our prayers are so dull and lifeless that we could just say, “Dear Lord, yadda, yadda, yadda.” Daniel’s prayer was filled with urgency and fervency. Ten times he says something like, “O, Lord” or “O My God.” The word “O” is actually an untranslatable word that represents a groan. Romans 8:26 says that when we are praying in the Spirit there are often groans that can’t be uttered. Have you agonized in prayer? Have you wrestled and groaned when you prayed?
A couple weeks ago, the elders and deacons met to discuss plans for our Family Life Center and our Time to Build Campaign. After talking about the specifics of the building and some of the plans, we went outside where the Family Life Center will be constructed, held hands in a circle, and prayed with intensity. I’ll never forget that experience as we called out to God for continued growth at PBC and for Him to raise up people who will give joyfully and sacrificially to this project.
4. Confess Sins Specifically (vs. 4-14)
Daniel pours out his heart to God in verses 4-5: “Oh 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.”
He doesn’t make excuses; instead he admits that the nation of Israel has gotten exactly what it deserved. He does not blame anyone else for their misery. Drop down to verse 13: “Just as it is written in the Law of Moses, all this disaster has come upon us, yet we have not sought the favor of the Lord our God by turning from our sins and giving attention to your truth.” This is a prayer that needs to be prayed in our church and throughout America today!
When you read Daniel’s prayer you notice that his confession is both personal and collective. He speaks about his sin even though Scripture does not record Daniel doing anything wrong. He recognizes that he is part of a community of sinners when he says, “We have sinned.” He didn’t say, “Oh, Lord they have sinned.” Have you ever noticed how easy it is to confess other peoples’ sin?
Daniel recognizes that he is part of a group that has been punished by God for their shared sins. While Daniel may not have been personally liable for the sins that caused his people to be sent to Babylon for 70 years, he took responsibility. Friend, have you ever taken that kind of responsibility for the sins of our nation?
We are much better at making excuses than confessing sin. We live in a “no-fault” culture where you can get “no-fault” insurance, and a “no-fault” divorce. The mantra of our modern culture is, “Hey, it’s not my fault.” And we’ve come up with some pretty names to excuse our sin. We say, “I goofed” or “I blew it” or we talk about “mistakes” or “weaknesses.” What we call an “affair,” God calls “adultery.” What we call “a little weakness,” God calls “wickedness.” What we call “a mistake,” God calls “madness.” Proverbs 28:13 says, “He who conceals his sins does not prosper, but whoever confesses and renounces them finds mercy.”
Do you spend time regularly confessing your personal sins to Jesus or do you spend more time concealing your sins from others? Daniel was not only willing to confess his sins; he was willing to repent, that is, to change his behavior. There can be no true confession without repentance. They are spiritual Siamese twins that can’t be separated. If you think you can continue to sin and then just run to God and say, “Oops, sorry I did it again,” then we don’t really understand the holiness of God.
A Sunday School teacher once asked a class what was meant by the word “repentance.” A little boy put up his hand and said, “It’s being sorry for your sins.” A little girl also raised her hand and said, “That’s true, but it’s being sorry enough to quit.”
True confession always starts with the general and then proceeds to the specific. Notice what Daniel said in verse 5: “we have sinned and done wrong.” That’s general. Then he gives some specific examples of how they had done this: “we have rebelled” – “we have turned away from your commands and laws” – “we have not listened to your prophets.” Drop down to verse 11: “All Israel has transgressed your law and turned away, refusing to obey you.”
It’s important to get detailed with God, because in confession you aren’t informing God of your specific sins, you are agreeing with God about those things you have thought, done and said.
Daniel admits that the mess they are in is their own fault. I really believe that one of our major hindrances to prayer is that some of us are angry with God. You might not want to admit this especially in church — but it may be something you feel deep inside. Maybe you feel like God has let you down.
Not so with Daniel. You can’t find a trace of anger towards God in this prayer. Daniel puts the blame where it belongs on himself and on his people.
There is perhaps nothing harder for us to do than to admit we are wrong. Do you remember how Fonzie on Happy Days struggled to admit he was wrong? “I was wrrrrrrrrrrr…wrrrrrrrr…I was not right.” Denial is not just a river in Egypt. Some of you may be in trouble spiritually because you are floating down the river of denial be careful because that river flows into the ocean of disaster.
I’d like us take a minute or so right now to silently confess any personal or collective sins to God. As the Holy Spirit brings them to mind, own them, confess them, and repent of them.
5. Ask for God’s Glory (vs. 15-19)
Notice verse 17. Daniel says that his prayer is “for your sake.” 19 different times in this prayer reference is made to God while man is referenced only 11 times. So many of our prayers are focused on our needs and concerns. Daniel prayed this prayer for the return and rebuilding of his nation and he died before these events were fully implemented. We have no record that he ever returned to the Holy Land. He wasn’t praying for himself because He was praying for God’s glory.
The Bible is full of humility and doxology. The healthy heart bows down in meekness and rises in praise and adoration. I’ve noticed an alarming tendency in evangelical circles where we think of God as just being there for me. The fact is that we are here for Him. Daniel’s petition is not for God to act in the way that best “meets man’s needs,” but rather for God to act in His own best interest.
Daniel’s prayer then concludes with a crescendo of boldness as he pleads with God to act. Look at verses 18-19: “Give ear, O God, and hear; open your eyes and see the desolation of the city that bears your Name. We do not make requests of you because we are righteous, but because of your great mercy. O Lord, listen! O Lord, forgive! O, Lord, hear and act! For your sake, O my God, do not delay, because your city and your people bear Your Name.”
Daniel’s confession was the result of his deep sense of the majesty of God as displayed in His divine attributes. In verse 4, he calls God “great and awesome.” In verse 14, he refers to God as being “righteous in all he has done.”
James 4:3 says, “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” Could it be that one of the reasons our prayers are so ineffective is because we’re praying with wrong motives? Try praying with the Glory of God as your goal, not your personal gain and watch what God does!
6. Expect an Answer (vs. 20-23)
Daniel received an answer to his prayer even before he finished praying. While it doesn’t always happen this way, many times when we pray, God answers us before we get up off our knees. That’s what happened here.
Look at verses 20-21: “While I was speaking and praying, confessing my sin and the sin of my people Israel and making my request to the Lord my God for his holy hill – while I was still in prayer, Gabriel, the man I had seen in the earlier vision, came to me in swift flight about the time of the evening sacrifice.” Wow! That was quick! Answers to prayer are the fastest things in the world. Isaiah 65:24 gives an amazing promise: “Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear.”
We know that light travels at over 186,000 miles per second. The prayers we pray and the answers to our prayers go even faster than that because they travel at the speed of thought. Before Daniel could say ‘Amen,’ the answer was there. Friends, when we pray, we often receive the answer while we are still praying! Has that ever happened to you? Have you ever asked God for guidance and direction and while you were asking Him, the answer came?
God always answers prayer. Sometimes the answer is yes, sometimes it’s no, and sometimes it’s wait. But He always answers prayer.
To summarize, this prayer begins with praise for who God is and for what He does. It then moves into confession, which leads to petition. Sounds a lot like the structure of the Lord’s Prayer, doesn’t it?
Friends, let’s pray the same way. Begin with the awesome character of God, move into confession and then finish with your requests. Base all of this on your study and meditation of the Word of God. When you do, you’ll pray like Daniel did and receive answers like He did.
There are so many ways we can apply this passage today but I want to just mention one application. God’s people had really messed up. They had sinned repeatedly and were sent to another country as a direct result of their disobedience. But, God never forgot about them, did He? He had plans to bring them back, plans to prosper them and to give them hope again.
Friend, no matter how much you have sinned, there is always the promise of mercy, grace and forgiveness as you turn to God in humility and confess your sins. Someone has asked the question: “How far can you go in sin before God will no longer forgive you?” Answer: “No one knows because no one has ever gone that far.”
Last Sunday something incredible happened at the end of the service. 156 people came up to the front and signed their names to this “Declaration of Dependence.”
I’m wondering this morning how many of you want to sign-up to pray like Daniel did. Did you catch why Daniel’s prayer was answered so quickly? Take a look at 9:23: “As soon as you began to pray, an answer was given, which I have come to tell you, for you are highly esteemed…”
God answers our prayers because He highly esteems us. It’s nothing that we do. God’s love is poured out on us through Jesus. Romans 5:8 says, “But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
God longs to give us good things when we pray as Romans 8:32 states: “He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all how will He not also, along with Him, graciously give us all things?”
Friend, if you’ve never put your faith in Jesus for forgiveness of sins, you need to do it. God answers the prayers of those who are highly esteemed you can become that by putting your faith in Jesus. You can have your name recorded in God’s Book of Life. Once you are born again, Jesus Himself will write your name in His book. Are you ready to be signed up?