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Prayer: When You Don't Know What to Say...

A man sitting against a tree, prayingFor many of us, prayer is like mowing the lawn. We know we should, and we feel better when we have. But we don’t really look forward to it, and find excuses to put it off as long as possible.

Are church-group situations the only times you pray, following along with well-worn mechanical prayers? Perhaps your major contribution is to add an “Amen” to someone else’s prayer.

Is that enough? The Bible instructs Christians to be “faithful in prayer” (Romans 12:12), to do it “continually” (1 Thessalonians 5:17), and that the prayer of a righteous person is “powerful and effective” (James 5:16). In other words, prayer is an important part of the Christian way of life.

But what if you aren’t good at it? How do you learn to have a closer, more intimate relationship with your God? Because this is what prayer is all about — a  meaningful, personal relationship with your Father in heaven. Of all our many relationships, this one we need the most.

We all need someone who really knows us and cares about us. Someone to whom we can turn to pour out our worries, insecurities and frustrations. Someone to whom we can confess our sins and inadequacies. Someone who will strengthen us so we can help others.

We need a friend to guide us through the problems of the present toward the certainties of the future, who will accept us, reassure us and believe in us. Even when—especially when—we have been misunderstood, or found out, or when our best effort isn’t good enough.

Jesus Christ taught his disciples to have this personal and intimate relationship with God. He showed us how we can have it, too.

Don’t pray like that!

Jesus’ teachings about prayer strike deep at some popular misconceptions. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day had a distorted example of what prayer should be like. They took it seriously, but in doing so made it into a spiritual obstacle course.

They placed great emphasis on ritual—the right combination of words or the correct positions of their hands. They then turned their carefully crafted, well-rehearsed prayers into a public spectacle. Such rigid formalism and outward displays of piety intimidated the average person. He or she felt inadequate. If praying properly was this complicated, better leave it to the professionals.

Jesus changed that. He came to reconcile the human race to God. He removed all the obstacles that get between us and the friendly, loving, productive relationship that God wants us to have with him.

Jesus reminded us that our Father in heaven seeks those who will worship him in spirit and truth (John 4:23). So Jesus exposed these wrong ideas about prayer, even though it meant treading on some self-righteous toes.

“When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites,” Jesus Christ explained. “They love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men” (Matthew 6:5).

They have their reward

No wonder the Pharisees winced. And no wonder ordinary people pricked up their ears. Jesus was calling these men who seemed to take their religious responsibilities so seriously, hypocrites.

Jesus removed all the obstacles that get between us and the friendly, loving, productive relationship that God wants us to have with him.

Jesus went further. He said their display of devotion was futile. The admiration of the people was all the reward they would get. God wasn’t listening. “I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full,” Jesus said (verse 5).

So, if the religious leaders were setting the wrong example, what should we do?

“When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you,” Jesus Christ said (verse 6). Here, then, is the first key. Prayer should be primarily personal and private. That doesn’t mean prayer can never be done in a group. There are many examples in the Bible of people praying together, sometimes with spectacular results. Jesus Christ himself occasionally prayed with a group.

A Timeless Example

The Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) is not a substitute for our own thoughts and words. But it is a valuable checklist of what concerns us. We can use it to organize our thoughts as we seek God’s help in our lives and the lives of others.

·  Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. We need to remind ourselves that our Father is the supreme and Holy Lord of the universe.

·  Your kingdom come. We look to the establishment of God’s rule in our lives now, and eventually in all humanity.

·  Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. The kingdom has come for those who have submitted their lives to God. We need God’s help to do his will on earth with the same enthusiasm and willing obedience as it is done in heaven.

·  Give us today our daily bread. Bread—not cake! Pray for your needs—not your greeds. And if God already has provided for your daily needs, remember others less fortunate. Pray for them, too. What can you do to help them? Ask God to present you with opportunities to help others.

·  Forgive us our debts. Is there something on your conscience? Tell God what you are sorry about. Ask for forgiveness.

·        As we also have forgiven our debtors. But if you expect forgiveness, have you forgiven others? Or are you harboring a grudge, anger, resentment? Is there someone out there whose feelings you have hurt? What are you going to do about it? Remind yourself of Jesus’ instruction in Matthew 5:23.

·        And lead us not into temptation. Of course, God won’t lead you into sin. But you need to ask him to lead you away from temptation. We are weak and do not always follow the prompting of the Holy Spirit working in us.

·        But deliver us from the evil one. This is a reminder that Satan’s evil influence is a fact of Christian life. Satan will try to draw us away from God, even as he sought to tempt Jesus. We need God’s help to resist.

·        For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen. A reminder that God is in charge, and he will triumph over all opposition to his sovereign rule. The problems and trials of life are thus put in perspective.

But group prayer is a supplement to, not a substitute for, personal prayer in a private place. Prayer doesn’t have to be done in a special room. The Greek word translated “room” means an ordinary storeroom or closet. The room doesn’t need to be specially decorated. Anywhere you can be by yourself for a few minutes is a good place to pray.

Most of us can find somewhere to pray, if we really want to. Frankly, the biggest difficulty many of us have about praying in private is not where, it’s what — what do I say? How do I fill up the time? And how much time do I have to fill up?

Jesus anticipated such questions, too. “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them” (verses 7-8).

In all “due” respect

A non-Christian friend once asked me to visit his temple with him. I watched as he went through his devotions. He and the other worshipers were prostrating themselves before images of their deities, offering fruit and flowers, burning paper money and chanting prayers.

Many gods were represented in that temple, and they all seemed to be getting plenty of attention. It was an impressive display of devotion, but something was missing.

As we left, I asked my friend, “Do you all love these gods?”

“Some people come here every day to pay their respects,” was his response.

“Yes, they respect them. But do they love them?” I persisted. “And do they feel the gods love them?”

My friend gave me an odd look. The temple was a place to fulfill your obligations, and then demand that the gods fulfill their obligations to you. But gods and people have a relationship and love each other? It was as if the thought had not occurred to him.  

This is precisely why Jesus Christ emphasized sincerity rather than form and ritual. You come to God, not just as another routine client with a carefully orchestrated ritual. Otherwise, you might as well fill in a form!

God wants us, as his sons and daughters, to go to him as a Father and discuss what is most important to us. He promises he will listen. And he will answer, even if sometimes the answer is “no” or “wait.” “No” or “wait” does not mean you are out of favor, or that God is punishing you. However, he may be helping you learn a lesson.

Be yourself. Talk naturally. Discuss what is important and interesting to you. If even you become bored with your own prayers, why should God be interested in them?

Junk mail

Every day, I get a pile of mail. Much of it is slick advertising fliers addressed to me “or occupant.” The sender doesn’t really care who gets it. Most of the mail goes straight into the trash.

But when, amid this flood of junk mail, catalogs, magazines and official-looking envelopes demanding to be opened right now because I “already may have won,” I see a humble, ordinary envelope, hand addressed, with a personal return address, I read that first.

Perhaps that is how God feels about a prayer. He gets plenty of impersonal junk mail. So hand address your prayer. Use your own words. Power and eloquence do not necessarily make a prayer more effective. One of the most effective prayers recorded in the Bible came from a distraught father who admitted, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).

What do I pray about?

Pray about anything and everything. Remember that “your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:8). God won’t be surprised or offended when you discuss with him your human needs and frailties. He knows the kind of things we need— love, hope, health, encouragement, insight and the physical means to keep body and soul together.

Jesus Christ explained that God is more ready to give us good things than we are to provide our children their needs and wants. Like us with our children, God does not want an impersonal relationship, but one built on love.

Jesus taught us to pray in a way that would build a lasting personal relationship with God. Jesus Christ showed us that prayer is not difficult, complicated or something that only good (or very bad) people need to do.

Praying soon becomes warm, friendly and personal. You’ll look forward to spending time with God who cares, who understands you, and who wants to hear from you.

Well, that’s enough talk about prayer. Isn’t it time you did something about it?

John Halford

Recommended reading: At your local Christian bookstore, you can find several books on prayer. Three that you might find helpful are:

Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, by Richard J. Foster. HarperSanFrancisco, 1991.
A Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, by Richard J. Foster. HarperSanFrancisco, 1981.
The Best of E.M. Bounds on Prayer, by E.M. Bounds. Baker Book House, 1981.


A Day to Pray

The National Day of Prayer actually traces back to 1775, when the Continental Congress (right) called for a day of prayer. In 1952, the United States Congress approved a joint resolution establishing a National Day of Prayer.

Since 1988, the first Thursday in May has been an annual observation—a day “the people of the United States may turn to God in prayer and meditation.” Each year, organizers plan hundreds of events to take place nationwide on the National Day of Prayer.

In spite of the publicity, many Americans won’t know about the event, others will ignore it, and still others will protest it, claiming it violates the principle of the separation of church and state.

Those who believe in the value of prayer, however, know the benefits of focusing public attention on the need for prayer, especially in times like these when much that is righteous and holy is open to secular assault.

One doesn’t have to be extremely observant to see that the United States, like other nations, is in deep trouble spiritually and morally. This contributes to many social and economic problems.

In Gallup polls, nearly two thirds of Americans surveyed responded that they were dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States. Two thirds of those polled felt that religion is losing its influence on how people really live. Still, nearly two thirds thought that religion could answer all or most of today’s problems.

The basic idea behind a day of nationwide prayer is that we as a people collectively turn to God and seek his guidance in our lives. History proves that earnest, believing prayer works.

Effective prayer, according to the Scriptures, is not just a list of requests—give us this and give us that. Effective prayer includes confessing our sins, with a humble, repentant attitude and a worshipful approach.

In 2 Chronicles 7:14, we see how a people should pray when seriously wanting an answer. Though specifically addressed to ancient Israel, the principles apply to any nation. God said if people “will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”

A people united in humbly and earnestly calling out to God for help—we need a National Day of Prayer just like that.

Clayton Steep

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