This post represents the confessions of someone who struggles to know how to pray but is learning.
If I was given a few pounds or dollars (I don’t take euro’s!) every time over the last few decades I have said I want to improve my prayer life I would be a rich man. But I would be much richer still if I had been given money for the times I had either forgotten to pray, or perhaps worse, had remembered to pray but had no clue what to say. In many ways I really don’t envy the atheists doing their 40 day prayer experiment at the moment. I love Jesus, I really do, yet I often struggle to know how to pray. It must be hard for them speaking to the God they don’t believe in. One of them did get saved before they started, however, so we should definitely be praying for them all right now.
When I think about how often I find prayer difficult, about the only thing that keeps me sane is that I know that I am far from the only one. In fact I would venture to suggest that no Christian, except perhaps a complacent and lazy one, is ever really satisfied with their own prayer life. I choose to be pleased with that dissatisfaction, however, as to me that tells me there really is a pull in my heart towards a better prayer life, and a deeper relationship with God. I suppose it is a good thing that I am not content to settle for the mediocrity of the present.
I am aware also that God is fortunately not some kind of heavenly headmaster checking my prayer attendance records to determine whether I get a good grade or not! The wonder of prayer is that we don’t have to do it in order to please God, because Jesus has already made the father pleased with us! But almost like a teenager who may be embarrassed to go out with the parent they do still love, we are prone to wander. If we could just remember how much God loved us, perhaps we would find it easier to pray.
Really quite recently, it has come back to me with fresh impact that God has given us a fantastic tool to help us with our prayer life. This tool is one that I have not made enough use of in the past. So, in the hope that it might help a few people as it is beginning to help me, I thought I would share how the Bible teaches us to pray.
In the front of my Bible (an ESV Journalling Bible) I have a little section where I am handwriting in things to pray for, all taken from the Scriptures. What better place to begin than to look at the so-called Lord’s Prayer. It is the simple prayer Jesus gave his disciples to pray (he of course never needed to pray it!). Many evangelicals like me do not like to simply repeat the prayer by rote, though I do wonder if we have thrown the baby out with the bathwater on that sometimes! But, as over the years I have often heard taught, there is within this prayer an example for us to copy.
I have seen this described in many ways over the years, but I share here an alliterative version, which I don’t remember hearing elsewhere exactly like this. If you are wanting to pray, and simply cannot think how to do it, or what to say, this is a model that you would do well to use as I have been a bit lately. When Jesus was asked in Luke 11, “Lord, teach us to pray” here was his answer, and I do think that there is much wisdom in the order:
“Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be your name” We begin by worshiping him, getting our eyes onto him, focussing on his heavenly exaltation, power and glory, and yet parental care of you and I! He is our Father, and he is in heaven! Here we could rehearse his many wonderful attributes, or even thank him for what he has done for us (something we so often forget to do!). Holy be his name! In fact, a cry “let your name be glorified!” swiftly moves onto the next item.
2. Prophetic Proclamation
“Let your kingdom come, let your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” Here we call the eternal and future reality into the present here and now. We prophetically declare that the King has come and is already ruling. We call on the powers of this age to bow to the powers of the age to come. We recognise that the world is not currently as it ought to be. We see the pain, and rather than merely empathising with the suffering we see all around us we proclaim “Let this world reflect the world to come! Let healing flow! Let suffering cease! Let sinners repent! Let guilt be gone! Let marriages be restored! Let addictions be defeated! Let love replace hate! Let peace replace fear! Let hope replace despair! Let joy replace sadness! Here we do well to stir ourselves, not to worry about our needs, or the troubles around us at this point (that is coming) but instead to boldly remind ourselves that this world is not our home, and that we can and do experience foretastes of the world that is coming.
“Give us this day our daily bread” This is the time for us to ask God for specific things. Knowing how prone we are to worry he calls us to cast our cares onto him for he cares for us. I love the focus on today, rather than tomorrow or next year. This is not to be obeyed woodenly (we can pray for the future!), but teaches us to consider the needs we have of the moment. If we were to walk with God on a day to day basis and ask him for everything we need at work, at home, and in church, we would do well. My pastor Tope often says that one of his most frequent prayers is simply this “give me wisdom!” Of all the daily bread needs we have, perhaps wisdom is the greatest. Or maybe it’s just me who is just not very wise without Jesus!
4. Personal Pardon
“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” As John Piper said recently “The only sin you can conquer is a pardoned sin.” It is too easy to jump straight to confession and hence the beginning of our prayers only serve to depress us even more. By moving though the steps we already have, we have seen the wonder of our God, we understand his care for us, we realise that the world is not as it ought to be, and now this is our time to confess to the part we ourselves play in that rebellion against God. We are recognising that his kingdom has not always come in our own lives. We are truly repenting, recognising the gravity of our sin against this eternal glorious God, but counting on his fatherly love for us, and the work of Jesus, so that we can come to the place of being truly pardoned. We pray at this point to be at peace with God, and at peace with our brothers and sisters. Indeed Jesus told us elsewhere that if we realise we are not at peace with someone else we should stop our prayer and go and fix it with them if we possibly can. It is important to remember that forgiveness doesn’t always mean restored relationships, however.
“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” There really is an enemy who is seeking his next victim to devour like a lion. Many have fallen before us. Many who are complacent after years of apparently following Christ faithfully fall away. This is where we ask God to make sure we are not one of them. It is where we recognise afresh our desperate need for him. Where we say “I believe, help my unbelief” or “Without your grace to sustain me, I cannot walk this walk.” It is where we are humble enough to ask him to keep us safe, and where we also commit ourselves not to pray this prayer then foolishly stumble our way into dangerous places that could lead us astray. Perhaps this prayer is last so it is foremost in our minds as we go out into the world. Who could seriously pray this prayer, then put on a film you know to be basically pornographic for example? Some temptations we cannot avoid, others we can run from as vigorously as Joseph did!