70 Words that Keep Changing Me
I know you don't pray much. When you do, you struggle.
You’re not sure what to say.
You pray before bed and fall asleep.
You start praying and then you’re distracted by a squirrel, a cloud, the TV, a thought.
As we struggle to pray we ask, “Why pray at all?”
From “Our” to “Amen” the Lord's Prayer is 70 words. Jesus prefaced this prayer in Matthew 6:5-8. Not only does he tell us why we ought to pray, but ways we shouldn't. Here are three misuses of prayer, and three reasons to pray vigorously.
In our struggle to pray, here are three common misuses of prayer:
To Get from Others
Jesus tells us that one misuse of prayer is to get something from others. He said, “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” (Matt. 6:5).
To be “seen by others” is to put on a public appearance, to project a certain face. “Look at me.” Prayer, piety, and "right behavior" are a means we often use to get respect, acceptance, admiration, and honor.
To Get from God
Another misuse of prayer is to get stuff from God. “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think they will be heard for their many words” (Matt. 6:7).
In this scheme, prayer is a way to manipulate God. Jesus describes repetitive, superstition incantations. Like a magical spell, if you just say the right words over and over, you can get God to do what you want.
This is particularly dangerous because it uses God as a means to an end. We've all flirted with this. "If I just say the right thing or do the right thing . . . maybe God will do what I want him to."
A third misuse is to neglect prayer altogether. Jesus said, “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matt. 6:8). We may not verbalize this question, but if God knows what I need before I ask, why pray at all?
When we have so much to do, it’s easy to justify neglect. “Hey, God knows what I need.” It’s easier to Tweet and check Facebook than pray. It’s easier to watch TV. To take a nap. To get work done.
So why pray?
1.) Jesus commanded it.
Jesus invited his followers with “Pray then like this . . .” When Jesus tells me to do something, I do it. This command alone should suffice. But if you need further reason to pray . . .
2.) The Father knows more than me.
Yes, the Father knows what I need even before I ask. But most of the time, I don’t know what I need. So by praying, I come to discover what I need. The Lord’s Prayer re-centers me. By praying it, I find out what the Father knows and what I don’t.
When I pray to get what I want, he shows me what I need. When I thought I needed a new toy, he reminded me of daily bread. When I had a list of personal preferences and self-serving requests, he reminded me of his kingdom and his will.
3.) Prayer is about personal relationship.
Most of us would say that our relationship with God is the most important in our life. So do you speak with him? Are you in regular conversation?
Notice the language of the Lord's Prayer is personal. It is first person to second person language. “I” and “You.” It’s not impersonal, or the third person - “he” and “them.”
Our Father/my father Your name
Give us/me daily bread Your kingdom
Forgive us/me Your will
The nature of this language means that we are given direct access to God in prayer. There is no need for a mediator when Jesus invites us to call "our Father."
This kind of language is not talking about God. It is talking to and with God.
Last fall I visited some pastors and congregations in California. I wanted to learn what they were doing in a different context. You know what one of my key findings was? They pray. One person in particular, an Ethiopian pastor, demonstrated this.
I often pray formally, hands folded, head bowed. I admit that I often pray out of duty or obligation. And I must admit that I often expect very little of God. And subconsciously I think, “Nothing will change, but I guess I’ll give it a try anyway.”
My Ethiopian brother prayed differently. First, he spoke as if God’s ear was right before his lips. Martin Luther talked like this about prayer. He said “Prayer is crawling up into the lap of your Father and whispering into his ear.” My brother had God’s ear. And so he called on God earnestly, seriously, vigorously.
He prayed with his hands open as if he expected something to drop out of heaven into his hands. In other words, he actually believed God heard him. And he anticipated a response. He asked for things on my behalf on that October day. Now it’s April, and I tell you that God has given to me what he prayed for.
Let this be an encouragement to pray - regularly, expectantly, vigorously.
When you don’t know what to say, he gives you the words. Call on him!
When you’re exhausted and at a dead end. Call on him!
When you’re confused. Call on him!
When you think change is beyond the realm of possibility. Call on him!
When you’re messed up, hurt, or disappointed. Call on him!
OK, enough talk about prayer. Let's go and do it . . .
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