Regardless of our depth of belief, our faith in God’s existence and His ability to answer our prayer, most of us come to God in prayer at those times in life when we have nowhere else to turn. But let’s be honest, it’s hard to find the right words to talk to God and ask Him to meet our needs and solve our problems.
“Hey God, can you get me a job?” just doesn’t sound right.
“Almighty creator of everything, I stand before you in humble supplication and ask you to let the Texas Rangers win the World Series next year. It’s about time you cut them a break.”
So how should we pray? Some can pray out loud with poetic expressions of devotion and worship, often to the chagrin of those of us who lack the confidence and vocabulary to mumble even a word of thanks at the table. Others offer preachy words of instruction disguised as prayer and intended to guide the thinking of anyone within earshot. Not really prayer at all.
When it comes to prayer, Jesus knew we’d have trouble separating our egos from our words and actions, and that we’d likely miss the whole point of it, so He took the time to tell us how to pray.
In Jesus’ well-known Sermon on the Mount as recorded in Matthew 5:6-13, He first addresses the topic of prayer by telling us not to pray like the hypocrites. In those days, there were some who liked to pray on street corners (there are still a few around today), and they would stand up in the synagogue sprouting their wonderful prayers for all to hear and admire. Jesus pointed out that God prefers us to pray privately – it’s just between you and Him – and God rewards those who pray like that.
Does that mean you shouldn’t post your prayers to The Christian Prayer Network? No it doesn’t. When you post a request there you’re simply asking the CPN Prayer Warriors to pray with you. You’re not necessarily posting the prayer itself. You say your own prayer in private, to God. The Prayer Warriors will also pray to God privately, for you.
In Matthew 5:7, Jesus goes on to say that we shouldn’t pray with empty phrases, adding that our Father knows what we need before we ask Him!
When you go to bed at night you might utter the prayer poem,
“Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
And if I die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.”
This is a nice, cutesy nod to God, often taught to children, and it’s a great example of the empty phrases Jesus refers to in His lesson. Repetitive prayers without genuine content are a waste of words. God knows our needs and can’t be prodded into action by vacuous recitations arisen from popular culture.
Anticipating the next logical question, Jesus continues in verse 9 by telling us how to pray, and He gives us the words of what is known as The Lord’s Prayer. The English Standard Version of the Bible records it as follows:
Matthew 6:9–13 (ESV)
9 Pray then like this:
“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
10 Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread,
12 and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
Jesus doesn’t say, “Pray this,” or “Say these words,” He says, “Pray then like this” (emphasis mine).
So what does He really mean? Let’s take a look at the prayer.
We start out with, “Our Father…” which means that in our prayers we are to acknowledge our relationship with God. A family relationship, meaning that if we are to pray to God we must be a child of God. Not an agnostic who is hedging his bets by tossing a prayer up now and again. A true child of God having faith that through Jesus Christ, our prayers will reach God (Hebrews 9:24).
The next words are, “…in heaven, hallowed be your name.” In this we’re establishing that there is difference and distance between us. We show concern for God’s name that stands for His person and honor. There’s a subtle caution here about over-familiarity with the Almighty God, our creator. Our prayers should be toned accordingly.
“Your kingdom come,” speaks to our desire for God’s rule on earth. Our prayers should align with the rule and reign of Christ and the furtherance of God’s kingdom in the world. So a prayer that Leonardo DiCaprio should win an Academy Award for his role in “The Wolf of Wall Street” wouldn’t exactly meet this criteria.
“…your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” God’s will is obeyed perfectly in heaven, and our prayers shouldn’t conflict with a desire for similar obedience here on earth. In this we’re also acknowledging that not all prayers are answered the way we expect or hope. We prayerfully ask for things in the humble knowledge that regardless of the outcome, our desire is for God’s will to prevail. This can be difficult and requires a good measure of faith. But as we place our trust in the Lord and experience His will in our lives, our faith is strengthened.
Our prayers should include requests for God’s provision of our daily needs as in, “Give us this day our daily bread,” The emphasis here being, daily – this day! Jesus is telling us that we should ask God to take care of us on a day by day basis. Don’t worry so much about tomorrow, rely on God for what you need today. That’s not to say that we can’t pray for long-term outcomes in broader matters, but when it comes to food on the table, shelter and other creature-comforts, God will be there for us each day as we pray for His provision.
Next we must ask for forgiveness, “…and forgive us our debts”. When we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, the debt for our sin is paid in full and we receive forgiveness from God. But as we continue our lives in this fallen world, we don’t remain sinless and we must acknowledge our sins, our debts, to God and ask His continued forgiveness in accordance with Christ’s once-and-for-all act of atonement. To me, this means that when I pray I must confess to God my awareness of my sin and my need of His forgiveness through Jesus Christ. A clearing of the air, so to speak, so we can communicate on other matters in a state of reconciliation.
We ask for God’s forgiveness, “…as we also have forgiven our debtors” which implies that we too must aspire to a state of reconciliation with our fellow mankind. The suggestion is that our own prayers might be hindered by unresolved bitterness or ‘bad blood’ between ourselves and others. I think most of us know from experience that it’s hard to talk with God when we’re in open conflict with a partner, friend or loved-one.
Jesus tells us to ask God to, “…lead us not into temptation” which means that our prayer should include a request for help in navigating the minefield of opportunity for sin in this fallen world. Events just happen to us in our daily lives, and we must try to do the right things as they play out. So we ask God to guide us along the way. And at the same time, “…but deliver us from evil.” When the enemy attacks and we encounter evil, we need God’s help to get out of harm’s way, or whatever the situation. Jesus tells us to ask God for such help in our prayers.
So rather than reciting the Lord’s Prayer in a ritualistic effort to gain favor with God, it’s clear that we should instead look upon those words as our guidance from Jesus Himself regarding the subject matter, content and context of our prayers. I don’t believe we need to explicitly compartmentalize our prayers into all the required components – It’s more a case of coming before God in a proper state of mind, in humility and reverence, in the full knowledge that we are reconciled to Him through the saving grace of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
You know what it is that you need to pray for, and Jesus has given perfect guidance on how to frame your prayer.