Prayer cannot truly be taught by principles and seminars. It has to be born out of a whole environment of felt need. If I say, “I ought to pray,” I will soon run out of motivation and quit; the flesh is too strong. I have to be driven to pray.
Too many Christians live in a state of denial. “Well, I hope my child will come around someday.” Some parents have actually given up: “I guess nothing can be done. Bobby didn’t turn out right—but we tried; we dedicated him to the Lord when he was a baby. Maybe someday.”
The more we pray, the more we sense our need to pray. And the more we sense our need to pray, the more we want to pray.
Prayer is the source of the Christian life, a Christian’s lifeline. Otherwise, it’s like having a baby in your arms and dressing her up so cute—but she’s not breathing! Never mind the frilly clothes; stabilize the child’s vital signs. It does no good to talk to someone in a comatose state. That’s why the great emphasis on teaching in today’s churches is producing such limited results. Teaching is good only where there’s life to be channeled. If the listeners are in a spiritual coma, what we’re telling them may be fine and orthodox, but unfortunately, spiritual life cannot be taught.
Pastors and churches have to get uncomfortable enough to say, “We are not New Testament Christians if we don’t have a prayer life.” This conviction makes us squirm a little, but how else will there be a breakthrough with God?
If we truly think about what Acts 2:42 says—“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer”—we can see that prayer is almost a proof of a church’s normalcy. Calling on the name of the Lord is the fourth great hallmark in the list. If my church or your church isn’t praying, we shouldn’t be boasting in our orthodoxy or our Sunday morning attendance figures.
In fact, Carol and I have told each other more than once that if the spirit of brokenness and calling on God ever slacks off in the Brooklyn Tabernacle, we will know we’re in trouble, even if we have 10,000 in attendance.
Jim Cymbala began the Brooklyn Tabernacle with less than twenty members in a small, rundown building in a difficult part of the city. A native of Brooklyn, he is a longtime friend of both David and Gary Wilkerson and a frequent speaker at the Expect Church Leadership Conferences sponsored by World Challenge throughout the world.
I didn’t realize how guilty I was of the sin of having defiled ears until I was on a preaching trip to the British Isles. My son Gary and I were being driven to a preaching event by a pastor who politely asked how our meetings had been going. When I tried to answer, he interrupted me to talk about his own preaching. This happened several times and each time, he “one-upped” me with stories of having bigger crowds and visiting more countries than I had.
Finally, I decided to just shut up and let him talk. At one point, I looked at Gary and rolled my eyes, thinking, “What a boastful man. This preacher is a nonstop talker.”
Then I felt the nudge of the Holy Spirit whisper to me, “Think about why you’re upset, David. It’s because this man isn’t listening to you. You wanted to do the talking and now that you’re hearing his stories, you want to brag about your own ministry. You may have stopped talking, but you have a boastful spirit in your heart.”
What’s more, I had defiled my mouth. Notice that I didn’t speak anything terrible about this man. In fact, I hadn’t said a single word about him. Yet, by merely rolling my eyes, I had slandered him to my son.
I can speak about holiness, I can expose society’s sins, I can preach on the victory of the New Covenant. But if I allow my ears to be defiled—if I shut out another person by focusing on my own interests, if I can’t listen to him with respect—then the life of Christ isn’t prolonged in me. I am no longer leading a life that satisfies my Lord and I am not bearing the fruit of His travail.
“He wakeneth mine ear to hear as the learned. The Lord God hath opened mine ear, and I was not rebellious, neither turned away back” (Isaiah 50:4-5).
“Mine ears hast thou opened” (Psalm 40:6).
“The Lord God hath given me the tongue of the learned, that I should know how to speak a word in season to him that is weary: he wakeneth morning by morning, he wakeneth mine ear to hear as the learned. The Lord God hath opened mine ear, and I was not rebellious, neither turned away back” (Isaiah 50:4-5).
Note the last verse: Jesus was awakened every morning by the Holy Ghost. And the Spirit attuned His ear to hear the Word of His Father. When Christ testifies, “I was not rebellious, neither turned away back,” He is saying, “When I was on earth, I was taught what I should say, do and hear. And I never turned away from it.”
Beloved, I need this kind of spiritual wake-up call every day. I must have a reminder from the Holy Spirit, “David, close your ears to all slander, gossip and filth. Keep yourself from being defiled.”
Jesus’ own disciples had defiled ears. On one occasion, He told them, “Let these sayings sink down into your ears: for the Son of man shall be delivered into the hands of men” (Luke 9:44). He was saying, in other words, “Pay close attention, because I’m about to give you an important revelation. I am going to be crucified. Now, let that sink deep into your ears. It’s something you need to know.”
So, how did they react to this? Scripture says, “They understood not this saying” (9:45). Why couldn’t they hear what their Master was telling them? Because their ears had been defiled by self-interest. Immediately we read, “There arose a reasoning among them, which of them should be greatest” (9:46).
Here is proof positive that defiled ears cannot receive the deeper revelations of God’s Word. These men couldn’t hear Jesus’ voice, even as He stood before them in the flesh, speaking to them plainly. Instead, Scripture says, “It was hid from them, that they perceived it not” (9:45). I have to wonder: Would the disciples’ experience at the crucifixion have been different if they had been able to hear Jesus?
The truth is, anyone who is engrossed in his own interests cannot see that fact about himself. And if he did, he wouldn’t admit to it. That’s why the disciples couldn’t hear what Jesus was telling them. They were so self-centered, so bent on boasting about themselves, they couldn’t hear the voice of Christ.
Psalm 50 spells out the sin of the unclean use of the mouth and its consequences. Many in God’s house have taken His Word lightly on this matter.
“Thou givest thy mouth to evil, and thy tongue frameth deceit. Thou sittest and speakest against thy brother; thou slanderest thine own mother’s son. . . . Thou thoughtest that I was altogether such an one as thyself; but I will reprove thee, and set them in order before thine eyes. . . . Whoso offereth praise glorifieth me: and to him that ordereth his conversation aright will I shew the salvation of God” (Psalm 50:19-23).
So, why don’t we fear and reverence God’s Word on this matter? Why do we so easily speak of others with vain words? Why do we continue to use words carelessly, with an uncontrolled tongue? This psalm tells us why: “Thou thoughtest that I was altogether such an one as thyself.”
Simply put, we make God out to be like ourselves. We bend His Word to reflect our own tendency to judge the outward person. And we ignore God’s ways of considering the hidden, deeper issues of a person’s heart.
Now the Lord is telling us here in Psalm 50, “I’m going to reprove you, because I want you to set this matter in order. You have to see your defilement the way I do: as wicked and evil, a serious danger to your soul.”
As a minister of the Lord, I want Christ’s life to flow out of my preaching. And as a husband, father and grandfather, I want it to flow out of me freely to my family. Therefore, the fountainhead of Christ’s life in me cannot be polluted. I cannot allow any poison in the spring, or any roadblocks to hinder its free flow in me.
But this must be a conscious decision on my part. I must cry out to the Holy Spirit continually, “Lord, convict me each time I defile myself.” David made this kind of determination. He wrote, “I am purposed that my mouth shall not transgress” (Psalm 17:3). “Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth; keep the door of my lips” (141:3).
You may wonder, “Is it really possible to control the tongue, to purpose not to sin with the mouth?” David answers with this testimony: “I said, I will take heed to my ways, that I sin not with my tongue: I will keep my mouth with a bridle, while the wicked is before me” (39:1). He’s saying, in essence, “Every time I mount a horse, I have to put a bridle in its mouth. And as surely as I do that with my horse, I have to do it with my tongue.”
James warns the church, “The tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity; so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell” (James 3:6).
We read a similar warning in Isaiah: “Then shalt thou call, and the Lord shall answer; thou shalt cry, and he shall say, Here I am. If thou take away from the midst of thee the yoke, the putting forth of the finger, and speaking vanity” (Isaiah 58:9). The Hebrew meaning of vanity here signifies rudeness, irreverence, disrespect.
Isaiah is making an astounding statement. The very reason we pray, fast and study God’s Word is to be heard in heaven. But the Lord attaches a big “if” to this. He declares, “If you want Me to hear you on high, then you must look at your issues of the heart. Yes, I will hear you—if you quit pointing a finger at others, if you stop speaking about them disrespectfully.”
It’s a great sin in God’s eyes for us to speak in ways that tarnish someone else’s reputation. As we read in Proverbs, “A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches, and loving favour rather than silver and gold” (Proverbs 22:1). A good reputation is a treasure that is carefully built up over time. Yet I can quickly destroy anyone’s treasure with a single defaming word from my mouth.
Now, we wouldn’t dare rob somebody of his gold watch or bank account. Yet God states clearly that slandering someone’s name is robbery of the worst kind. And we can do it in the subtlest of ways: by pointing an accusing finger, questioning one’s character, passing on tidbits of gossip. Indeed, three of the most damning words we can speak are, “Have you heard?” The mere suggestion of the question robs a person of something valuable. And it defiles our own mouth.