Spiritual Disciplines: Prayer
I’ve always seen myself as the easy-going type. Many of us might like to think of ourselves in that way, identifying as more go-with-the-flow than against-the-tide, more stable than high-strung. Whether I’ve been living underneath the illusory truth effect — repeatedly saying something about myself in order to increase my own belief in its truth — or my temperament has actually changed over the years, I’m coming to terms with the fact that I have type A written all over me. When I lay out the evidence, it’s painfully clear. I feel like I’ve failed if I sleep past 6:30 am; I break into an active sweat if I’m late for a scheduled event (i.e. less than 5 minutes early); I live by a full and aggressively color-coded Google calendar; I literally drink my coffee in a mug that allows me to set its exact drinking temperature. I love control. However, I recently read something that led me to pump the brakes on my neurotic hunger for it: the Lord's Prayer.
One product of our humanness is that what should be life-altering truths can enter one ear and promptly exit the other hundreds of consecutive times before they actually land anywhere. That being said, I’ve read the Sermon on the Mount on countless occasions but still missed both the power and practicality of the given template for prayer:
"And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then like this:
'Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.' - Matthew 6:1-13
In this excerpt from his sermon, Jesus gives clear guidelines for prayer underneath the assumption that his followers would regularly put them to use. He and his disciples modeled prayer consistently throughout his ministry and the adverb "when" emphasizes that this discipline is not optional for the Christian life but central to it. We open up this blog series by diving into the imperative to pray, but where do we even begin? This is the question that paralyzes many who have "tried it" but come up bored and empty. Beyond our 5-bullet grocery list, we may wonder, What do I pray for and how? The beauty of prayer is that there are many types and whether we pray freely, from scripture, or from the words of someone else, "...the prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective" (James 5:16). Just appeal to God — over a morning cup of coffee, on your commute, before bed, in the shower — in some fashion every single day. In case you love outlines as much as I do, here is a blueprint that may provide more practical direction:
1. Adoration and Thanksgiving:
Before every Sunday service at Ruah, we meet to pray together, typically from a Psalm. Several months ago, we decided to pray from a "praise only" prompt, which meant that we would not ask for anything or speak of anything concerning ourselves, but only use the text in front of us as a launching pad to magnify the Lord. When we finished praying through the Psalm, someone commented frankly, "Well that was fast". The weight of that statement was significant; Isn't it so much more natural to make ourselves the centerpiece of our prayers than the one to whom we are praying? A prayer of petition would have been much more lengthy.
His praise should roll fluently off our lips before anything else does. The Lord's Prayer begins with, "Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name." Even Jesus knew that before lifting up any other requests, he must stand in awe of God and set him apart as holy. In response to a Creator who is so much higher than us, we declare his goodness and sovereignty over every area of our lives. Prior to asking for our daily bread, we first acknowledge that we already have everything that we need in Him. Worship should be the bookends of our prayer.
2. Confession and Repentance:
John Owen, a 17th-century pastor and theologian, said that “A minister may fill his pews, his communion roll, the mouths of the public, but what that minister is on his knees in secret before God almighty, that he is and no more.” In concordance with this, Ole Hallesby describes prayer and helplessness as inseparable, as it humbles us and orients us to where we truly are in reference to God. There is arguably no better avenue for self-knowledge. I often fail miserably at prayer, starting at a dead sprint into my requests then spiraling into the abyss of my random thoughts or else running out of steam altogether and giving up. Prayer is just one more manifestation of my failure, across the board, every single day. There will never be a morning on which I do not wake up broken and I need to bow before the Father in prayer. We ask, "forgive us our debts, As we also have forgiven our debtors" because we need daily repentance and supernatural strength to extend grace to our neighbors. In Psalm 51, David confesses his sin of adultery and pleads for a renewed spirit. Similarly, we must pray for forgiveness from our present sins as well as protection from future sins, "And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil".
I've complained about being exhausted by prayer, but how could I not be when I've reduced it to my capacity to find the right words day after day? I'm guilty of lobbing vague requests and hollow praises into the air, treating it like a cosmic counseling session in which I vent or simply "worry in God's direction", as Augustine said. However, prayer should be much less about the quality of my linguistic concoctions than about communion with God. It is also worth noting that we can't expect to pray to a God whom we don't even know. If I talk to a friend every day without ever taking the time to learn anything about them, the relationship will quickly become all about me or else dissolve completely. When prayer and scripture reading work in tandem, we know Him more fully and pray with variability and richness that can't come from within ourselves. What we read begins to work its way into our heads and hearts and he cultivates fruit in our outer lives. Immersion in the word of God breeds fluency in prayer.
3. Petition and Intercession:
Prayer is ultimately not about us, but by the grace of God we are still able to ask, "Give us this day our daily bread". Later in the sermon on the mount, Jesus says, "Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!" (Matthew 7:7-11). Prayer changes things, and even when the outcome is different than what we expected, it still changes us. It is a process of awe, repentance, and wrestling by which we are drawn closer to him. Like Jacob (Genesis 32:22-32), Job (Job 7), and David (2 Samuel 12:15-23), we should not be afraid to struggle honestly in prayer. "No creature is hidden from his sight" (Hebrews 4:13), so why put on a front with God?
Present your every request to God, whether food on the table, reconciliation in broken relationships, provision in a new job, or relief from physical pain. Take to your knees for yourself and for your neighbor, but know that prayer is not the means by which we get things from God but by which we get God himself. Lastly, we pray, "Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." In all things, our highest desire should be for the advancement of the good news of Jesus Christ in and through our lives, at whatever cost. Jesus was still praying for the Father's will to be done on his way to the cross: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” (Luke 22:42).
At the very least, I owe him the hours of my days. When I let the God of the universe be God over my life, I am eternally secure. When I hand him control, I am most free."What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer."