Last week I wrote of the importance of the Word. This week we take up prayer—the spontaneous complement to Bible reading. As I noted once before, the two go together. God offers his heart in the Scriptures and we share our hearts, in return, through our prayers. As in any conversation each party must have a voice.
As a starting point, however, we need to face a tough reality: for many people prayer is a useless exercise.
Jesus made the point when he scolded the religious leaders of his day who loved to wear their doctoral garb on a regular basis, to be greeted in public as important figures, and to be given prominence at public feasts—all while defrauding the local widows. One of their devices in sustaining a pretense of holiness was to offer “long prayers.” Yet, in reality, all they could look forward to from their prayers would be “greater condemnation” [Luke 20:47].
And his point was applicable to a broader audience—not just the leaders. The same motive that made hypocrites of the leaders was also at work among the people. They would all twist Scriptures to suit their own ends. So too they misused prayer: “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me” [Matthew 15:8; Jesus is citing Isaiah 29:13]. This distance-of-heart problem is certainly what explains the sharp point Jesus made to the superficially religious but inauthentic listeners of his day [Matthew 7:21]:
Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many might works in your name?” And then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.”
So the great problem with inauthentic prayer is that it’s a one-sided effort to move God to grant favors and bestow gifts while we still retain an affective independence from him. In such cases we don’t really “like” God but hope to find ways to use him—to get him to support our ambitions. But such silly efforts at manipulation never work. It’s like a child who wants to fly by hopping in the air and flapping his arms.
We then ask, “Okay, then, how are we supposed to pray properly?”
The answer is no mystery: if we want to pray effectively we need to pray affectively. Prayer must always be heart-to-heart. Listen, for instance, to the relational context in what we’ve cited already. Jesus spoke of God as his “Father” and ours—as in his instructions for us to begin prayers with “Our Father in heaven . . .” And of a personal bond as the basis for prayer: to be those who “know” him.
This latter point is critical as Jesus disclosed in his prayer of John 17, “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” [v.3]. The whole point of Christ’s coming was to embrace a people for himself from out of the world that had despised God from Eden onward.
So let’s pause and think again about the same starting point we found to be crucial last week: what went wrong in Eden? There the serpent offered an alternative and competing word to God’s promise about the forbidden fruit: “In the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” versus Satan’s “You will not surely die.” With that conflict of claims there also came a conflict of ambitions and identity. The serpent promised, “your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” [Genesis 3:5].
God, however, never meant for us to have such a free will of this sort—to try to stand alongside him as smaller versions of divinity in our own right. We are always free to choose, of course, but we are made to always make our free choices in a heart-to-heart alignment with him. In repentance we return to our newly beloved Creator as the one who made us for good works, works that we delight to discover and express as we maintain our life-of-communion with him. Our life is only meant to be lived within the sphere of his life and love, never apart from it.
What Satan offered Adam and Eve, then, was autonomy—a presumed capacity to be self-ruled; to assert a freedom to choose for themselves what is good and what is evil. It was this new basis of “life” lived apart from God that Jesus certainly had in mind when he spoke to religiously active people who were actually “workers of lawlessness” despite calling him “Lord, lord”.
The relational piece is crucial. To “know” the triune God is to share in an intimate bond of love with him—to reciprocate the love he is always initiating towards us. Throughout the Bible, in fact, the word “know” is a common euphemism for sexual intimacy—the epitome of mutual love in a marriage. To know Jesus and the Father is to be completely bonded to him. It doesn’t allow for independence any more than a branch can be fruitful by becoming independent from a vine.
For us to pray properly, then, we need to have the same devotion the Son displayed towards his Father—even in his most difficult trial: “not my will but your will be done.” And when Jesus told his closest followers to ask for whatever they wanted in his name—with the assurance that the prayers would be answered—he was speaking in the context of this relational bond. The apostles knew his heart, shared his heart, and sought to delight him in all they did: this, alone, is the basis for proper prayers, prayers that are certain to be answered.
What, then, are some practical suggestions? Let me offer a few thoughts from my own experience.
First and foremost, always keep our prayers and our Bible reading closely linked and fully aligned. I find myself always wanting to pray after I’ve been in the Bible. Each morning I spend about forty minutes in my Bible reading and then I go out for a walk—often in the wet weather of winter months—and spill my heart as a response to what I’ve just read. I also have a lot of folks I’ve committed to pray for over the years. I mention all of them each morning, asking God’s grace and care to be at work in and through them: my folks, my brothers & sister, their spouses & children; and my various friends. If I have any recent news from them, it supports more specific prayers.
I also regularly pray the prayer of Psalm 139: that God will search my heart, see and expose any false directions in it, and then lead me in his own ways. I ask him to coach me, correct me, and to show off his love through me. Life is always an adventure: what I think is secure can be tipped over in a second—so I ask him to keep me fully dependent on him, no matter what the day offers.
Much of what I do in my prayers is to say “thank you, Lord” as my most basic form of worship—see Romans 1:21. I review a host of things that support my thankfulness and I mention them aloud to him. Speaking of which: more than once as I’ve been praying out loud in my morning walk I’ve had someone I hadn’t seen coming intersect with me as I’m talking aloud. They probably think I’m either crazy or talking on my earphone. No matter, it’s a joy to have a tangible time of walking and talking with Christ.
I’ve also discovered the enjoyment of what Paul called “praying always”: I talk to Christ freely and spontaneously throughout the day. I ask him questions. I complain. I tell him what I’m worried about. I mention people to him who come to mind “from nowhere” and ask for his providential care to be at work in their lives. That all comes with my sense that he loves me and wants me to involve him in every step of life.
Finally, I expect him to answer me. Not in the sense of collecting benefits from him. In fact I rarely ask him for “things.” He’s supplied me with all I need for the basic issues of life. What I ask for most often is wisdom and applied insight—about how to deal with relationships, with life challenges, with planning ahead, and so on. Then, after I raise an issue in my walking-and-talking prayer I’ll move on with whatever I’m doing. Later, when I begin to have further thoughts—maybe after an hour or two, or even a day or two later—I give the Spirit credit for stirring me to think in new ways about the items I’ve raised with him. I regularly find the new thoughts to be aligned with my recent Bible reading: the one stirs and supports the other.
So, in summary, let’s pray boldly and often, and always with a sense that we are with One who is eternally in conversation both within himself and with all who share his heart. It’s a wonderful way to enjoy life!