Live The Life! - Learning How To Pray
I. Wanting To Know The Way To Pray
One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.” (Luke 11:1). The disciple making this request knew that prayer is a necessity. Having lived with Jesus and seeing what He did showed that to be so. But what he asks here, is this: How do I pray?
This is something that is relevant also in our age. We all need to be taught how to pray. Yet unfortunately, unlike this disciple, we don't all realise this need. There are many Christians who have somehow come to believe that there's nothing to be learned about prayer and praying. Because of this, their prayer-life stays childish. We have to learn how to walk, how to ride a bicycle, and so many other things. Why should we think that prayer is different?
We just need to look to Jesus in this regard. It was He who “…offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears…” (Hebrew 5:7). It was He who throughout all this was an inspiring example, leaving us with much rich material on the subject of prayer.
But, above all else, it was Christ who, through His completed work on our behalf, sent His own Spirit to be our Helper and Teacher, also in this area. As the apostle Paul described it, “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.” (Romans 8:26).
The Holy Spirit is not only ours as individual believers. He lives within the whole fellowship of Christ. So it is that His teaching often comes to us through fellowship. Many saints following Christ's example have gone before us, and have left a rich deposit of wisdom and experience. We also have to make use of this heritage. That same Spirit that spoke to saints long ago can also “teach us to pray” through their wisdom.
II. Looking To When & Where We Pray
God's people in the Old Testament offered up each morning and evening the daily sacrifice. In the New Testament this principle is further reinforced. The apostle Peter, for example, says to the early Church: “…you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 2:5).
Every Christian, as a part of the Body of Christ, is a priest, with the privilege of offering up on the altar of his or her heart the spiritual sacrifice of worship. This naturally is a continual offering - to be done every day again.
If this worship is to be done in the right way every day, it follows that if must be done in a set pattern. At this point, we must be very definite and practical. Our relationship with God will only be a name if we don't make it ours by making time to talk with Him. If we don't set aside definite times, we'll quickly find that the Lord is squeezed out of our lives by the pressure of this modern world we live in. And if we were able to look at what each Christian does, we would find that prayer is neglected. This is certainly not because Christians don't believe in it. Rather, it's because they have never set aside definite times for it.
Already in our chapter on Scripture Reading we have seen how important it is to allow enough time to do it, and at a convenient but regular time. Some Christians suggest that prayer together with Bible reading should be done in the morning and the evening. Perhaps it could be before breakfast, or together with the family after breakfast. But once you have settled on a time, stick to it! We have to see this time of prayer and Bible reading as part of our loyalty to Christ, for prayer is not a daily duty, but a personal relationship with the Lover of our souls.
As to the place of prayer - this will usually depend on family arrangements and the size of the house. Ideally, a quiet room other than one's bedroom is best. But if such a room isn't available, the bedroom is recommended.
It's helpful to have a desk or small table, on which you spread out your Bible and other devotional books. Sometimes we may be able to pray at some quiet spot in a park. The essential thing, though, is to be in a quiet place free from interruption. As our Lord told us: “When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.” (Matthew 6:6)
III. What Helps Us To Pray
Many Christians have a lot of difficulty knowing what to say in their prayer. Isn't it often that we find ourselves repeating the same phrases and ideas? It's easy to get into the habit of using these pious “catch-phrases” which have little meaning. It's easy to say to God the same kind of thing each day, until it loses all its meaning. Yet we don't speak in a boring repetitive way with our best friend, do we? So, in our relationship with God, who is far more than a good friend, we cannot help but be real and sincere in His presence. If we speak to God about the different parts of our daily life, with its variety and its interest, prayer is unlikely to become stale and unreal.
As well as speaking to the Lord of what happens to us in our everyday lives, our prayer can also be enriched by making good use of the heritage of our Christianity. We can use these prayers of fellow Christians, which are found throughout Church History, as a help for our prayers.
There are two extremes to be avoided in our prayers. On the one hand, there's the danger of depending upon the written prayers of others. This makes things very mechanical and can quench the freedom of the Spirit. On the other hand, there's the danger of depending totally on speaking as we `feel led'. Many Christians follow this path. But their prayer life soon becomes narrow and monotonous, and changes depending on how you feel at a particular time.
The best solution to avoiding these two extremes is to use these other prayers as a framework for our own prayers. Let's then look at what there is to help us. The material available to help us in prayer can be grouped in four ways:
1) The Holy Scriptures. All prayer-life should be based upon and related to the Bible, for we are to speak to God on the basis of what He says to us in His Word. In this way prayer becomes a dialogue, instead of a monologue. Bible reading and prayer are very closely related, as we saw in a previous chapter. So it is that prayer without the Bible becomes without substance, and unreal, and in the end - unchristian.
2) The Book of Psalms. This has been the praise and prayer book of temple, synagogue and church in all ages. And so every Christian should learn how to use it in everyday prayer. Make your own collection of psalms for personal prayer - marking them in your Bible. This will be helpful because not all the psalms are suitable for using in this way. And as you use these prayers make them your own. Perhaps sometimes you could read them out loud. Or pray them on your knees.
3) The Hymn Book. This may seem a strange thing for prayer. Yet it has a good collection of prayers of all kinds. For whatever situation we're in, there will be a hymn to sing - whether it be praise, thanksgiving, suffering, or confession of sin, Yes - sing your prayer! Or if you're a little apprehensive about your own voice you can pray the words of that particular hymn.
4) Books of Prayer. There are many books of prayer, but the following are particularly suitable:
The Piety of John Calvin, Translated and edited by Ford Lewis Battles.
A Chain of Prayer Across The Ages, Edited by S.F. Fox.
Prayers for Young People, by William Barclay.
Prayers for the Plain Man, by William Barclay.
Three helpful books about the prayer life are Richard Pratt's Pray With Your Eyes Open, Frans Bakker's Praying Always, and Edmund Clowney's CM (Christian Meditation).
IV. The Different Parts When We Pray
When a ray of sunlight is passed through a triangular glass prism, it is broken up into all the colours of the spectrum - from red to yellow to green. In the same way, the white heavenly light of prayer can also be broken up by the human mind into eight main parts. Each of these parts should be included to complete a Christian's prayer life:
1) Praise or adoration is the expression of pure love to God. It delights in His being and His attributes. It acknowledges His supreme work (compare Psalm 145). As we do this, we find that the psalms and our hymnbook are our two main helps.
2) Thanksgiving is our showing of gratefulness because God has given us “every good and perfect gift” through the ultimate gift - Christ Jesus Himself. This is saying “Thank You” to God. And we should do this every day so that we don't take God for granted. (Psalm 136 is a clear example.)
3) Penitence. Man always approaches God as a sinner in need of forgiveness, through the redeeming work of Jesus Christ. True penitence includes self-examination (the searching of the heart before God cf. Psalm 139:23-24); confession - which is making known in words our sin to God (this should be done in full detail cf Psalm 32:1-5); and asking for pardon. This pardon should be consciously received while you are praying, since you are trusting in the merits of the Saviour (see 1 John 1:8-10).
4) Intercession is praying for other people. Here the believer joins in the prayers of his exalted High Priest, who “always lives to intercede” for us (Heb.7:25). In fellowship with the Lord, we, “a royal priesthood”, intercede for our Christian brethren, and for the whole world. In this connection, it's helpful to keep a list of the people whom we ought especially to pray for, and to mark opposite each name the date on which prayer was last made for that one.
5) Petition is making our own personal requests to God the Father, who wants to know and satisfy the needs (not wants!) of His children. These requests must therefore be according to the will or purpose of God. In that way, we can pray believing that God will give us what we ask for (Matt.7:11).
6) Consecration is the offering or dedication of our total selves as a “living sacrifice” to God (Romans 12:1). This is the high point of all prayer. And so it is that each morning the believer should do this dedicating of him or herself to God for the coming day.
In the above six forms of prayer the believer addresses God. But Christian prayer is not a one-way conversation. God also speaks to us in a properly directed prayer time. And so to these six types of prayer we must add two more:
1) Meditation of Scripture. This is when God speaks to us through the Holy Spirit, placing convictions in our minds and hearts.
2) Guidance. This describes when God helps us to consider what's about to happen before Him, in prayer. So if there's a problem or difficulty, it's placed before God in prayer. In His time, whether then or later, God gives us the sanctified common sense we need to deal with that situation.
These eight parts should all be used in our daily prayers, and they can be arranged and combined in different ways. So we are able to make our own daily orders of prayers and change them from time to time. Sometimes it's even valuable to spend a whole prayer time on one of these aspects e.g. Saturday evening prayer might consist completely of “Penitence” - a full self-examination, followed by confession.
Here is one pattern for every day that you can use:
1. Praise/Adoration (from Psalms or Hymn Book, or in your own words)
2. Scripture Reading, and meditation on that passage
3. Petition (for the coming day)
1. Scripture Reading
2. Quiet review of the day - this will help you reflect on:
3. Penitence (confession of any sin you knowingly or unknowingly committed
4. Intercession (for those you have met or those in need)
5. Thanksgiving (for blessings received today)
Through this clear order, our prayers stop being a jumble of unrelated sentences. Instead, the mind has a clear understanding of just what is being done at each stage.
V. To Pray Is To Go All The Way
The first and greatest commandment of our prayer-life, as it is of all our life, is that you are to: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). Man must worship and serve God with the whole of his personality, and not just with a part of it.
A common mistake in this area is to imagine that prayer is completely a matter of feelings or emotions. This is when we say things like, “I only pray when I feel like it.” So the idea is that prayer is only real in certain situations. This is a disastrous mistake. The feelings of anybody are always changing and inconsistent. They rise and fall like the temperature chart of a very sick person. To build our prayer-life on our feelings is like building a house on shifting sands.
Of course, our emotions do play a part - but the part is never the whole, and we must never rely upon what is the most unreliable aspect of our human nature. If we do that, we are caught in a pit of despair - we become the victim of our own changing moods. To counteract this tendency, we need to discipline ourselves to praying at fixed times, in spite of what we may feel. We are here to worship God, regardless of how we feel.
That's why our will is so important. When we love the Lord with all our “hearts”, that doesn't mean an emotional response. Heart in the Hebrew language refers to our wills. Since the worship of God begins with the will to worship Him, this must also show itself in a regular, ordered, systematic devotional life. The will is the rock upon which the house of the prayer-life is built.
But the will is not the only act of prayer. Without the mind or intelligence the will easily becomes formalism - just a tradition without meaning. Instead we are to offer to God a “reasonable” sacrifice - using thought and imagination to the utmost in our prayers.
This total prayer, like total war, can never be an easy thing. But let's never forget that we have two divine Helpers. In the first place, through our prayers we draw near by faith to the Holy Place, where our Saviour is always interceding for us. And then, in the second place, we have the Holy Spirit who prays within us and through us. In the power of that Spirit, which is ours because we've been united with Christ, we unite our prayer with the powerful, all-successful interceding of our Advocate with the Father.
And so we will make that total self-offering which is the high point and the fulfilment of all prayer - “offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God - which is your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1).