Do you ever wish you were better at praying? I do!…Maybe we’re overthinking it. Maybe we’re making prayer harder than it needs to be. Maybe, a great prayer is simply, “Help!”
Walk-up Song: Help! By the Beatles.
Help! Great song! And a great prayer! Help! In fact, I pray this prayer more than any other. Help! Isaac Singer said, “I only pray when I’m in trouble; fortunately, I’m always in trouble.” How many of you identify with that? Me too. And when I’m in trouble, this is my prayer: “Help!”
Do you ever wish you were better at praying? I do! When Jesus’ disciples asked Him to teach them to pray, Jesus gave them what we call “The Lord’s Prayer.” It’s a prayer marked by its brevity and simplicity. Short and simple. Which makes me wonder…Maybe we’re overthinking it. Maybe we’re making prayer harder than it needs to be. Maybe, a great prayer is simply, “Help!”
Today we’re going to talk about this prayer, take a look at some examples in the Bible, and then practice it. We’re going to pray some “Help” prayers for ourselves and others.
One of the prayers we’re going to talk about in this series is “Wow!” And here’s a wow moment: last weekend you gave over $90,000 to the work of Spring of Hope.
1. “The first great prayer”: Help!
In Anne Lamott’s thoughtful, honest and often funny book, Help, Thanks, Wow: the three essential prayers, she calls this “the first great prayer.” Help! It’s the first great prayer because it’s what most of us think of when we think of praying. What is prayer? We ask God for help. Pete Greig, in his wonderful book, How to Pray: a Simple Guide for Normal People (highly recommended), writes:
Prayer means many things to many people, but at its simplest and most obvious, it means asking God for help.
Prayer means many things: thanksgiving (Michael talked about that last weekend), worship, surrender, praise, lament, even complaint. But at its simplest and most obvious, “the first great prayer” is asking God for help. Help!
I’ve listed some Bible references on your outline—these are only a sample of prayers for help—I could have filled up the page. This prayer is everywhere in the Bible. Let’s take a look at a few.
Exodus 2:23 The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God.
When the Israelites were in slavery in Egypt, they cried to God. Help! And He did. God sent Moses and delivered them. What do you do when you’re enslaved, addicted, trapped, stuck? Cry for help!
Later when the Israelites were escaping Egypt, Pharaoh sent the Egyptian army to destroy them, and they cried for help again.
Joshua 24:7 But they cried to the Lord for help, and he put darkness between you and the Egyptians; he brought the sea over them and covered them.
God heard their cry for help and set a dark cloud between them and the Egyptian army and then split the Red Sea and led them through to freedom. What do you do when you’re about to be overwhelmed? Cry for help!
After they reached the Promised Land, the Israelites began to stray from God, and foreign armies invaded and conquered them. Time and again, they cried for help.
Judges 6:6 Midian so impoverished the Israelites that they cried out to the Lord for help.
God heard this cry and raised up an unlikely leader named Gideon who led the people to an unlikely victory over the Midianites. The invading army was “like a swarm of locusts, impossible to count.” Gideon gathered an army of 32,000 men but God whittled it down to 300—so they would know that it was God who delivered them, and not themselves. Help comes in unlikely packages!
Daniel prayed this prayer when the Persian king, Darius gave an edict that anyone who prayed to any god other than him would be thrown into a den of lions. By the way, do you know the difference between you and God? God never thinks He is you! Darius evidently didn’t understand that: “Everyone must pray to me.” The king had been tricked into making this edict by a group of men who wanted to eliminate Daniel.
Daniel 6:11 Then these men went as a group and found Daniel praying and asking God for help.
Knowing he was being set up, Daniel prayed to God anyway. And what was his prayer? Help! But Daniel was arrested and thrown in the lions’ den. He must have thought he was a dead man. Where’s the help? It turns out the help came in the lions’ den. God protected him and brought him out unharmed. Help comes at unlikely times!
Then there’s Jonah, the prophet who ran from God and was tossed overboard in a storm at sea and was swallowed by a whale (a great fish). Can you guess what Jonah prayed from the belly of the whale? What would you pray? Get me outa here! Help!
Jonah 2:2 He said: “In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me. From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help, and you listened to my cry.”
And you know that instead of being digested, Jonah was burped up on a beach and completed his mission. Evidently rogue prophets cause indigestion.
Then there are the Psalms—Israel’s songbook—a book of prayers. There are dozens of psalms that are cries for help. Let’s read these—and pray these—together
Psalm 5:2 Hear my cry for help, my King and my God, for to you I pray.
Psalm 12:1 Help, Lord, for no one is faithful anymore; those who are loyal have vanished from the human race.
Psalm 18:6 In my distress I called to the Lord; I cried to my God for help.
Psalm 79:9 Help us, God our Savior, for the glory of your name; deliver us and forgive our sins for your name’s sake.
Psalm 108:6 Save us and help us with your right hand, that those you love may be delivered.
Help! Help! Help!
Finally, there is, as I’ve already mentioned, the Lord’s Prayer.
Matthew 6:9–13 (p. 831)
9 “This, then, is how you should pray: “ ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, 10 your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 11 Give us today our daily bread. 12 And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.’
Notice two things. First, it’s short and simple. This is Jesus’ model for prayer. Not long, wordy speeches to God. In fact, look at verses 7-8:
Matthew 6:7–8 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
You don’t need to pile up words to convince God. You don’t need to talk Him into anything. He already knows what you need. Instead of many words, one word will often suffice: Help! Short and simple.
Second, much of the Lord’s prayer is asking for help. We need bread, daily necessities—help! We need forgiveness and we need to forgive others—help! We need to overcome temptation and evil—help! Help! Help! Help!
This first great prayer can be prayed for ourselves—Help me. Or it can be prayed for others—Help them (or us). Let’s look at a couple stories for each and see what we can learn—and we’ll stop to practice.
2. Help me!
I pray this prayer every day—multiple times a day. I prayed it as I walked onto stage to give this talk. Help me, Lord. And if it’s not very good, I invite you to pray it for me: “Help him Jesus.” Here’s the first story:
Matthew 14:25-33 (p. 840-1)
Jesus has just fed the 5000. He and the disciples are exhausted so He put them in a boat and sent them away across the lake while He went up on a mountain alone to pray. Shortly before dawn, Jesus decides to join the disciples who are still in the middle of the lake, struggling to make progress. When they see Him walking towards them across the water, what is their reaction? They are terrified! “It’s me,” Jesus says. “Don’t be afraid.” Then Peter says, “Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water.”
Peter, what are you thinking? It’s a dark stormy night, wind, waves—it’s a good time to stay in the boat! I’d say, “If it’s you, Jesus, come on over and hop in the boat with us! Give us a hand. Help!” But evidently Peter is up for an adventure. And when Jesus says, “Come,” Peter gets out of the boat.
I’d love to see the instant replay on this one! The look of wonder and terror on Peter’s face as he throws one leg, then another, over the side of the boat. The look on Jesus’ face as He watched Peter (I think He was smiling broadly). The “are you crazy” look on the disciples’ faces as they watched the whole thing unfold. Then Peter taking those tentative steps across the lake to Jesus. So cool…
Until it wasn’t. Somewhere on this water-walk, Peter noticed the wind and waves (just now, Peter?) and he became afraid and began to sink. And in that moment, sinking into a dark stormy sea, Peter prayed. His prayer is in verse 30.
“Lord, save me!” Let’s pray it together. “Lord, save me!” Help! In that moment, Peter didn’t have time to compose a prayer, didn’t have time to be wordy or eloquent. All he had time for was, “Save me! Help me!” And that was enough. Jesus reached out His hand and saved him. Jesus didn’t say, “Peter, that wasn’t a good prayer.” It was good enough. It worked.
Friends, there are so many moments in our days when there is not time for a long or eloquent prayer—it’s time to simply pray, “Help me.”
- When your spouse or kid is going ballistic and you don’t know what to do, whisper “Help me.”
- When you’re facing that deadline at work or school, and don’t have time for leisurely prayer, it’s ok to just say, “Help me, Lord.”
- When you’re sinking in despair and have nothing left in the tank, cry “Help me.”
ILL: A recently released study showed that life expectancy in the US is declining and that we’re the only developed nation where that is happening. Why? It is due largely to increases in drug and alcohol deaths, suicides, overeating and hypertension—these are being called “deaths of despair.” We are the largest economy in the world, and growing numbers of people are dying of despair.
Anne Lamott wrote: “When my friends and I have run out of good ideas on how to fix the unfixable, when we finally stop trying to heal our own sick, stressed minds with our sick, stressed minds, when we are truly at the end of our rope and just done, we say the same prayer. We say, ‘Help.’”
Feel like you’re sinking? Overwhelmed? Pray this: “Help me Lord.”
The other story is in Mark 10:46-52 (p. 869). (Leave your marker here.). Jesus is leaving Jericho on His way to Jerusalem to give His life for the world, for you and me. A blind beggar named Bartimaeus is sitting near the city gate—a prime begging spot. Bart hears a commotion and asks what is going on, and someone tells him that Jesus of Nazareth was going by. Bart has heard stories about this young rabbi—miraculous stories, stories of healing all kinds of diseases, even blindness. So what’s he do? Look at verse 47.
He began to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.”
“Help me, Jesus! Help me! Have mercy on me!” And when people told him to be quiet—because, after all, he was a nobody, a blind beggar, at the very bottom of the Jewish social ladder, and Jesus was a VIP—he just shouted louder, “Have mercy on me!” Help! Help!
Jesus heard him and stopped. I love this. Jesus, on His way to do the most important thing ever done, to give His life for us, stopped for a nobody who asked for help, and healed him.
Friends, Jesus is here. He’s among us today. What do you need? Just ask for His help. You might think, “Why would He bother with me? I’m nobody. In fact, I’m a sinner. I don’t deserve His help.” Neither did Bartimaeus. Neither do I. None of us do—but He hears us and stops anyway. You’re sitting in a room full of undeserving people—we’re all cracked pots, works in progress. We’re all blind beggars. But some of us know it, and aren’t afraid to cry out, “Help me! Help me!”
We’re going to take a couple minutes to pray this prayer. Bring your need to Jesus and just say, “Help me.”
3. Help them/us!
When I pray “Help me” that is sometimes called petition. When I pray for others, “Help them” that is called intercession. But don’t let the big names fool you—it’s as simple as crying, “Help!” Help me. Help us. Help them.
Here’s the thing: It is easy for my prayers to just be about me. Help me, help me, help me. Me, me, me! But if we love people—and I know you do—we can’t help but pray for them. Richard Foster writes in his book, Prayer: “If we truly love people, we will desire for them far more than it is within our power to give them, and this will lead us to prayer. Intercession is a way of loving others.”
Help them! A couple stories: Mark 9:14-29 (p. 867). Jesus and three of his men come down from the mountain where they’ve been praying, and walk straight into chaos. Sound familiar? A father has brought his demonized son to Jesus’ disciples for healing, but they couldn’t do it. Jesus asked the father some questions, and then the father said:
Mark 9:22–24 “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” “Help us!” This is a desperate father praying for his son. “If you can, please, help us.”
23 “ ‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.”
24 Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” From help us to help me. “Does it take faith—then help me with that too; help me to have enough faith for my son. Help us!”
Here’s what I love about this story. First, when people we love need help, this is what we naturally do: we cry, “Help them. Please Lord, help!”
ILL: Anne Lamott writes: Help. A lifelong friend, a staunch agnostic, has asked me to pray for her daughter, Angie, who has young children and a diagnosis of aggressive lung cancer, the kind that continues to grow tumors in the midst of chemotherapy. I close my eyes and say in silence, “Help! I hold this family in Your light. I pray for them to get their miracle, and to have stamina, for them to be okay today, for their love and amazing senses of humor to help them come through, although if You have a minute, I’d like to know: What on earth could You be thinking?”
Help, Lord! Help them! I resonate with Anne’s prayer here. When my friend and fellow pastor Steve Perry got aggressive stomach cancer at 39, I prayed like crazy. Help, help, help! I also argued with the Lord, “What on earth could You be thinking? Why would you let a guy like this—a pastor with young kids—die of cancer at 39? Lord, if you need someone to smite, I can give you a list, but he wouldn’t be on it.”
When this father asked Jesus to help his son, Jesus did. Jesus healed him and set him free and gave him back to his father. His prayer worked as the father hoped it would.
Mine didn’t. Steve died—and I still have questions. But that didn’t stop me from praying, “Help him!” And help me too when I don’t understand. I still pray that, knowing that God welcomes our honesty, our questions and doubts. Don’t let those keep you from Jesus. Bring them to Jesus. “Lord I believe, help me overcome my unbelief.”
And that’s the other thing I love about this story. The man’s faith wasn’t great, but that didn’t stop Jesus. The father had enough faith to ask, and that was enough. Of course, Jesus wants our faith in Him to grow, and of course we want that too. But that starts by simply coming to Jesus as we are and asking, “Help us. Help me.”
Did you know that when you pray for others, “Help them,” that you are joining Jesus and the Holy Spirit in their great work?
Hebrews 7:25 Therefore he (Jesus) is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.
Jesus is interceding, praying for us. “Father, help him. Help her.” And whenever you whisper that prayer for someone, you are praying with Jesus—that’s a pretty good prayer partner. I like our odds!
Romans 8:26–27 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. 27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.
The Spirit helps us in our weakness—we don’t know what to pray for—and the Spirit intercedes for us with wordless groans according to God’s will. The Holy Spirit is praying for us in accordance with God’s will. “Help him. Help her.” Whenever you whisper that prayer for someone, you are praying with the Spirit—that’s a pretty good prayer partner. I like our odds!
Pete Greig wrote: To be in Christ is to be drawn up into his intercession for the world.
When you pray this simple prayer—Help them!—you are joining Jesus and the Spirit in their prayers, and I like our odds!
One last story: Matthew 15:21-28 (p. 841). Jesus and His disciples withdraw from Israel to Tyre and Sidon, a Gentile region. Most likely, they were on vacation—taking a break and getting some much needed rest. But a Canaanite woman—not Jewish—heard that Jesus was in town and came with her need.
22 A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.” Have mercy on me! Help me! But really, she’s saying, “Help us. Help my daughter.”
23 Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.” She was persistent—so persistent that the disciples came to Jesus and said, “Please, this is embarrassing!”
24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
25 The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said. There she is again—persistent—help me. Help us!
26 He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
27 “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” She’s saying, “I know that You are so powerful that I don’t need to take the children’s bread; just a crumb of your power will be enough.” I think Jesus smiled.
28 Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.
Please don’t be troubled by Jesus’ initial refusal—He was trying to be consistent with the mission God gave Him, which was to go to Israel first. What I want you to notice is that even though this woman didn’t fit the profile—she wasn’t Jewish, but Gentile—and even though it was beyond the scope of His current mission, Israel, Jesus still answered her prayer. “Help us!”
Bartimaeus was on the bottom of the Jewish social ladder, and Jesus stopped for him. This woman wasn’t even on the ladder! She wasn’t on the margins—she was outside them! Maybe you feel that way, and think that Jesus won’t hear your prayer. He will. “Help us Lord! Have mercy on us!”
And don’t ever think that your persistence will put Him off. When Jesus told us, “Ask and you’ll receive,” the word “ask” is in the present tense and could be translated, “Keep asking and you’ll receive.” Help, help, help!
ILL: The great preacher Dwight L. Moody carried a list of one hundred non-Christians for whom he prayed daily. Over the years, whenever one of them gave their life to Christ, Moody would cross his/her name off the list. By the time of his death, 96 of those 100 people had become followers of Jesus. And the remaining four surrendered their lives to Christ at Moody’s funeral. All one hundred came to Jesus because of Moody’s single-minded determination to pray, his refusal to give up. Help them. Help them. Help them.
So let’s take a couple minutes and pray again. This time, ask God to help some folks you love. “Help them Lord.”