Prayer

Don't Pray Like This

NickImage

No one in the Bible was more interested in prayer than Jesus. Prayer was a natural and regular part of His life. He could speak to His Father spontaneously and almost conversationally. He could also devote long periods to planned prayer. Not surprisingly, prayer was one of the important matters in which He instructed His disciples.

A substantial portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 6:5-15) focuses on prayer. It occurs in the middle of a discussion of spiritual exercises, which is part of a larger discussion of idolatry, which in turn is part of a larger discussion of the meaning of God’s law. The positive side of Jesus’ instruction takes the form of the Lord’s Prayer, which is designed to provide a template for His followers to employ in their prayer lives. Immediately before the Lord’s Prayer, however, Jesus offers words of negative instruction. Before He teaches His disciples how they should pray, He describes two ways in which they should not.

First, Jesus tells His disciples not to pray like the hypocrites. This warning follows the pattern of Jesus’ instruction about giving and fasting. All of these spiritual exercises can be performed hypocritically.

How does one pray, give, or fast like a hypocrite? According to Jesus, spiritual exercises become hypocritical when they are performed in order to impress people—as the King James Version puts it, to “be seen of men” (Matt. 6:1, 5, 16). The reason is simple.

No one can serve two masters (Matt. 6:24). One must choose between God and money. In the same way, one must choose between God and human praise. When money and praise are pursued as ends, they become idols. Spiritual exercises performed in the pursuit of idols are idolatrous.

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The Heart of the Life of Prayer

NickImage

The opening chapter of the Fourth Gospel tells how two of John’s disciples turned aside from following the forerunner in order to follow Jesus. The story includes an exchange that is frequently overlooked. The two disciples asked Jesus where He lived, to which Jesus replied “Come and see.” The disciples followed Jesus to the place where He was living, but the day was fast waning. According to the text, the two “lived with Him that day” (John 1:37-39). Indeed, they never stopped living with Jesus—they became His companions throughout the rest of His ministry.

The idea of living with Jesus comes up again in John’s gospel. In John 6, Jesus used the metaphor of eating His flesh and drinking His blood as a way of referring to saving faith. He commented that someone who does these things “lives with Me, and I with him” (John 6:56).

This idea is deepened in John 14, where Jesus comforted His disciples in the face of His imminent departure. He stated that His Father’s house contains many “living places,” the future homes of His followers (John 14:2). Jesus also intimated that the Father lives with Jesus, and was the one who works through Him (14:10). He further stated that if someone loves Him and keeps His words, then the Father will love that person. Both the Father and Jesus will come to that person and “make our home” with him (14:23; the word for “home” is the same as the word for “living-places” in verse 2).

For over three years the disciples had been living with Jesus. Now that He was about to go away, this intimate relationship seemed to be threatened. Jesus assured His disciples that His temporary departure guaranteed a place where they would live together with Him forever. In the meanwhile, Jesus pointed to the inner, spiritual presence of the Father with Him as an analog for the spiritual presence of Jesus and the Father with the disciples. In other words, intimacy with Jesus was not merely an eschatological promise, but also an ongoing possibility during Jesus’ bodily absence.

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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.

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Prayer's Perversion, Perplexity & Pleasure

Republished, with permission, from Voice magazine, March-April, 2011.

By Dan Fredericks

Prayer. Who doesn’t believe in it? Who doesn’t, in some form or another, engage in it? With the exception of a few self-deceived and self-deluded atheists/agnostics, prayer is universally accepted and valued, or so it would seem. Even the seemingly hardest-hearted, unbelieving atheist would actually welcome prayer on his behalf, despite his unbelief. After all, the adage, “There are no atheists in fox holes” largely holds true.

For the most part, I am encouraged by our national and local leaders who speak of the importance of prayer and even call upon the nation to pray. When tragedies shock the nation, expressions soon follow of “thoughts and prayers” on behalf of all impacted. Yet at the same time, I harbor a healthy skepticism, knowing that not all prayers are created equal.

Among true believers, it seems ironic that those who most vocally espouse prayer often neglect its practice. The “prayer meeting” seems to be dropping off the local church calendar at an alarming rate. And those who still hold a midweek prayer meeting often clutter it up with any number of other time-consuming activities so that little praying actually takes place. Admittedly, at times I have been guilty of this.

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Of God and Basketball Victories

On the evening of March 30, 2002, in the city of Atlanta, Georgia, the Indiana Hoosiers upset the Oklahoma Sooners in a “Final Four” contest of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Following the game, Indiana coach, Mike Davis, credited God for giving Indiana University the victory. “I have a lot of people praying for me,” he told the press, “God has placed His favor on me.”

Let me be the last to object to any praise going to God in the media. A man steps up to the microphone and declares that God factors into his view of the world, including the world of basketball—I’m with that! I lauded Mike Davis’ courage to proclaim his faith to the world on that occasion and I laud him still.

But I must admit, as a man of faith, that I’m growing increasingly uncomfortable with the array of athletes and coaches announcing through a microphone their euphoric gratitude to God moments after an athletic victory over their opponents. My discomfort has nothing to do with bringing God into the sports world—he’s there anyway, kudos to those who acknowledge reality. My discomfort stems more from the message that seems to be subtly communicated by such public expressions of divine adulation.

I fear the message is conveyed that God plays favorites, dolling out victories like a cosmic vending machine to those willing to acknowledge Him publicly as the dispenser of their triumphs. I’m also troubled by the fear that thoughtful viewers may well ask why God refuses to hear prayers offered in behalf of losing teams? And why did, in this instance, coach Davis and his Hoosiers lose the championship game two nights later? Did their prayers fail between Saturday and Monday evenings? Did God’s favor, which rested on Davis’ head on Saturday, dissipate by Monday night? Did Coach Davis, his team, or some obnoxious Hoosier fan somewhere do something wrong on the Sunday sandwiched between those two game days?

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