Teach Us To Pray

NickImage

Mark Twain is supposed to have said that everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it. Among Christians, almost the same thing could be said about prayer. We know that we ought to pray. We know it is important to pray. We talk about prayer, preach about prayer, and even publish books about prayer. For most Christians, however, not much praying gets done.

Indeed, most Christians have little idea how to pray. Usually they have been told that prayer is “talking to God.” That is true enough, but how many of us can carry on much of a conversation with an invisible, inaudible partner? Sure, we know that we are supposed to talk to God, but what are we supposed to talk about? What are we supposed to say?

This perplexity is not unique to modern Christians. Evidently Jesus’ disciples experienced something like it. After observing the Lord in His conversations with His Father, they presented Him with a petition: “Lord, teach us to pray” (Lk. 11:1).

Jesus did not despise their request. He neither rebuked nor ridiculed His disciples. Instead, He taught them to pray. He even provided them with a template, a model prayer into which they could insert their own concerns and locutions.

Jesus’ disciples had to be taught how to pray. Prayer did not come naturally to them. They did not intuitively know how to do it. If even the disciples had to be taught how to pray, then it is not unreasonable to suppose that Christians in the twenty-first century also have something to learn. Praying is not something that we do by instinct, the way that geese migrate to their destination. If we are going to pray effectively, we must be taught how.

We know that prayer is important. We also know that prayer has to be taught. Consequently, we might suppose that the Christian world would be filled with mature believers who are training younger believers in the life of prayer. If that were what we expected, however, we would certainly be disappointed. Even among Christians who pride themselves upon their allegiance to God and to the gospel (not to mention their separation from compromise), prayer is rarely taught in any systematic or formal way. Contemporary Christians operate plenty of colleges and seminaries that train pastors and missionaries, but hardly one of them requires any formal instruction in prayer. Is it surprising that these institutions have produced a generation of leaders characterized by haphazard prayer lives?

Of course, some do learn to pray. Typically, however, they learn, not because they are taught, but because they are driven to prayer. Providence permits such adversity and hardship in their lives that they have nowhere to turn but to God. The affliction of their souls floods out of their hearts in their cries to the Almighty. They batter at the outer barricades of heaven (or so they feel) until they discover that they have actually been standing in the holy place the entire time.

Desperate people learn to pray. Under the compulsion of circumstances they search the Scriptures for teaching about prayer. Once they begin to pray in earnest, they receive answers. More than answers, they also receive a more acute awareness of the character of the God to whom they pray. They also become increasingly sensitive to His presence in their lives—indeed, all of life becomes part of their conversation with God.

As we have seen, some learn to pray because they are forced by circumstances. To be fair, a handful are also drawn into prayer by their reading of Scripture. Others fall almost by chance under the mentorship of some praying Christian. These few learn to pray.

That they are few, however, is beyond dispute. We require no polls from Gallup or Barna in order to know that. All that we must do is to eavesdrop on the prayers that are actually being uttered within the churches.

The notion of a prayer meeting is, of course, long since defunct. Even those churches that pretend to hold prayer meetings almost always have altered the format of the meeting into a Bible study. Prayer time is relegated to a fraction of the meeting, and most of it is taken up with the verbalization of requests to one another rather than to God. We spend more time asking each other to pray than we actually spend praying.

The prayers themselves are appalling, though we might consider it bad manners to say so. Critiquing other people’s prayers is thought to be rather like criticizing their selection in deodorants or underwear—far too personal to be any of our business. Nevertheless, if people got into the habit of wearing their underwear on the outside of their clothes, we might well have something to say about what was appropriate in its effect upon the assembled saints. The same is true of prayer: what is uttered in public is no longer merely personal, but affects the entire body of praying believers.

Besides the prayer meeting, almost no other public venue offers such a display of speech disfluency. We may believe that prayer is simply talking to God, but the proportion of thoughtless repetition, empty clichés, and non-lexical fillers would stultify a normal conversation. Even the utterance of genuine heresy is accepted with bland indifference (e.g., “And, Father, we thank you for shedding Your blood for us on the cross. In Your name we pray, amen”). In normal conversations, this level of thoughtlessness would be taken as discourteous or even insulting.

Contemporary Christians appear to face two problems related to prayer. One is that many simply do not pray. The other is that, when they do pray, they pray badly. By no means are these problems confined to isolated instances. They are pervasive.

One wonders what would happen if contemporary Christians experienced a sudden outbreak of prayer. How would we change? How might God respond? What answers might we see? We will only know if we actually pray, and we will only pray when we know how.

Lord, teach us to pray.

Hark! The Voice of Love and Mercy
Jonathan Evans (1749-1809)

Hark! the voice of love and mercy
Sounds aloud from Calvary;
See, it rends the rocks asunder,
Shakes the earth, and veils the sky:
“It is finished!” “It is finished!”
“It is finished!” Hear the dying Savior cry;
Hear the dying Savior cry.

“It is finished!” O what pleasure
Do these precious words afford;
Heav’nly blessings, without measure,
Flow to us from Christ the Lord:
“It is finished!” “It is finished!”
“It is finished!” Saints the dying words record;
Saints the dying words record.

Finished all the types and shadows
Of the ceremonial law;
Finished all that God had promised;
Death and hell no more shall awe:
“It is finished!” “It is finished!”
“It is finished!” Saints, from hence your comfort draw;
Saints, from hence your comfort draw.

Tune your harps anew, ye seraphs,
Join to sing the glorious theme;
All in earth, and all in heaven,
Join to praise Emmanuel’s Name;
Alleluia! Alleluia!
Alleluia! Glory to the bleeding Lamb!
Glory to the bleeding Lamb!

[node:bio/kevin-t-bauder body]

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There are 11 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Lots of good stuff to think about here.
I've been interested for some time in solutions to these problems though... I'm short on those.

Ed Vasicek's picture

Although Dr. Bauder has put his finger on a problem, he offers no realistic solution.

How can I teach someone to pray, as though there were some official, universally recognized version of what "good prayer" is. The Jews typically use a variety of memorized prayers, particularly the Amidah, of which the Lord's Prayer is a shortened version.

And prayer is not just about petition, which is the real problem with most public prayer. And it is not just about healings needed or relational problems; most prayer meetings, when people actually pray, are reciting lists to God. We need some of this, but it kills a meeting, particularly when we are praying for people we do not know.

Like Aaron, I see nothing practical here.

"The Midrash Detective"

Mike Harding's picture

I am going to look for and retrieve my notes on the "Theology of Prayer" presented us by Dr. Rolland McCune while in seminary. It was one of the best studies on prayer I ever encountered. I have been thinking about this subject lately for our church. We are meeting as pastors tonight to pray and we have changed our prayer meeting on Wednesday to include more time for prayer. This article was motivational for me and convicting.

Pastor Mike Harding

Jim's picture

I'll be the one for the first to admit that there is plenty of room for improvement in my prayer life.

My several comments:

If we pray "in secret" ...

Quote:
And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly (Matthew 6:5-6)

Re:

Dr Bauder wrote:
For most Christians, however, not much praying gets done. Indeed, most Christians have little idea how to pray

But one would have to be omniscient / omnipresent to know how deficient "most" are in prayer. Caution there Dr Bauder!

Re:

Dr Bauder wrote:
Even the utterance of genuine heresy is accepted with bland indifference (e.g., “And, Father, we thank you for shedding Your blood for us on the cross")

My guess (and I've personally witnessed this scores if not hundreds of times!) is that this defective expression is not genunine http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patripassianism ]Patripassianism but rather the public prayer getting mentally befuddled. They are most probably addressing God as Father (as they have been taught (Matthew 6) AND inadvertantly switching persons of the Godhead)

Matthew Olmstead's picture

This was a helpful reminder to me. It would be profitable for local churches to focus more on prayer at the midweek service.

Father of three, husband of one, servant of the Lord Jesus Christ. I blog at mattolmstead.com.

Ed Vasicek's picture

Matthew Olmstead wrote:
This was a helpful reminder to me. It would be profitable for local churches to focus more on prayer at the midweek service.

Matt, the reason most Wednesday "prayer meetings" have morphed into Bible studies is that churches are more concerned about keeping a Wednesday activity going that is called "prayer meeting" so that it looks like a church is a praying church. In many instances, when the meeting is truly focused on prayer, it dwindles to a handful. That's how ours died: I said if we are going to call it prayer meeting, let's pray.

I think we do a better job praying in our flock groups or as part of gender-segregated meetings.

People find prayer boring partly because of the grocery list thing and praying for people who are not part of the church and not IMMEDIATE family to those who are. People are not enthused about praying for Sam's second cousin by marriage in New Jersey who has gallstones.

Also, some people dominate meetings by loading the request board with prayer needs galore. We need rules and standards when it comes to intercession, but we need to do more than intercede in prayer. We need to pray prayers of spiritual warfare, we need to praise God in prayer, we need to offer thanksgivings, etc. Most prayer meeting requests reduce down to physical needs and an occasional spiritual one (and I think it is very important to pray for the salvation of loved ones).

Bottom line: Do NOT connect the presence of a church's prayer meeting on the schedule with how much the people of a church pray. Do not confusion a possible token meeting with reality, image for substance.

"The Midrash Detective"

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Part of what "we've been taught" is that it's selfish to ask for prayer for yourself. So requests tend to always be of the "safe" kind... someone's sick; somebody's having surgery... always somebody else in need. I'm glad we have a few at Grace who don't look at it that way and they ask for prayer for the challenges they are facing themselves.
I probably have myself to blame as much as anyone for "organ recital" prayer lists... that is, though I don't go into medical details, I don't often ask for prayer for myself either. It feels weak and humiliating... which is probably why it's right (among other reasons). This is our faith-family we're talking about.
(But I know that some congregations struggle with the opposite extreme: people use prayer time to publicly recite all of their private failings. They find it cathartic I guess... or just dramatic? So there is some kind of balance to find.)

Matthew Olmstead's picture

Ed Vasicek wrote:

Matt, the reason most Wednesday "prayer meetings" have morphed into Bible studies is that churches are more concerned about keeping a Wednesday activity going that is called "prayer meeting" so that it looks like a church is a praying church. In many instances, when the meeting is truly focused on prayer, it dwindles to a handful. That's how ours died: I said if we are going to call it prayer meeting, let's pray.

I think we do a better job praying in our flock groups or as part of gender-segregated meetings.

People find prayer boring partly because of the grocery list thing and praying for people who are not part of the church and not IMMEDIATE family to those who are. People are not enthused about praying for Sam's second cousin by marriage in New Jersey who has gallstones.

Also, some people dominate meetings by loading the request board with prayer needs galore. We need rules and standards when it comes to intercession, but we need to do more than intercede in prayer. We need to pray prayers of spiritual warfare, we need to praise God in prayer, we need to offer thanksgivings, etc. Most prayer meeting requests reduce down to physical needs and an occasional spiritual one (and I think it is very important to pray for the salvation of loved ones).

Bottom line: Do NOT connect the presence of a church's prayer meeting on the schedule with how much the people of a church pray. Do not confusion a possible token meeting with reality, image for substance.

I don't know whether you're correct in your interpretation of the reason, but there is no disputing Wednesday night attendance numbers being a mere fraction of the Sunday morning gatherings. That is why I'm thinking of doing a once-a-month, focused-on-prayer session in small groups (as small as Wednesday nights have become in some churches they could well be called small groups anyway!)

Your reference to prayer being boring is precisely why people need to be taught to pray! Most "grocery lists" are based more on habit than on the ethos of scripture.

Thanks for the interaction!

Father of three, husband of one, servant of the Lord Jesus Christ. I blog at mattolmstead.com.

Ed Vasicek's picture

Matthew Olmstead wrote:
I don't know whether you're correct in your interpretation of the reason, but there is no disputing Wednesday night attendance numbers being a mere fraction of the Sunday morning gatherings. That is why I'm thinking of doing a once-a-month, focused-on-prayer session in small groups (as small as Wednesday nights have become in some churches they could well be called small groups anyway!)

Your reference to prayer being boring is precisely why people need to be taught to pray! Most "grocery lists" are based more on habit than on the ethos of scripture.

Thanks for the interaction!

Good for you, brother!

"The Midrash Detective"

christian cerna's picture

I think that one of the main reasons why the act of praying seems unattractive, or even boring to many Christians, is because there is a general ignorance of Scripture in today's Churches. Someone who continually reads and meditates on the Scriptures(especially Paul's Epistles), can see the reasons why we should pray, and the proper attitude of thanksgiving and joy that we should all have, as we pray for one another. Often times, we think that we should only pray when we are in great need. But Paul teaches us that we should pray night and day, remembering our brothers and sisters, giving thanks in everything to God the Father, through Jesus Christ.

Ultimately we should pray, not because we feel like doing it, but because we are thus commanded to do by God himself.

christian cerna's picture

in other words...

when we think of prayer meetings, we think of somber, silent meetings, or a room full of loud, sorrowful voices, and someone reading a long list of prayer requests for people we don't know. but a prayer meeting should be like a Thanksgiving meeting. a time to give thanks to God for all the good things He gives us, and to bless one another, and encourage one another, and to make our requests to God with a glad heart, knowing that if we ask anything according to God's will, that He hears us.

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