Of the many questions I receive as a chaplain, there is one question that I get fairly regularly. After a sermon or two, I always have someone ask for a little bit of my time to answer a question that has been on his or her mind for quite some time. Most are nervous when they ask and don’t know quite how to ask the question. All seem to start the same way by saying that they have been a Christian for some number of years but really don’t know how to pray and would like to know how to pray.
That question is the same question that the disciples asked of Jesus. They wanted to know what to say and how to say it. It is a very common question for Christians. When you think about all of the great prayers that are often used during ceremonies or that you have read, each prayer is full of words like “thee”, “thou” and “thine”. Pastors and men who have devoted themselves to a lifetime of biblical study write these wonderfully inspirational prayers that sound more like speeches. Don’t get me wrong. Some of them are very beautiful and they truly come from the heart while others are written to impress. I am not here to judge the words of men nor am I here to critique their prayers.
In chapter eleven of the Gospel of Luke, the disciples, after Jesus was finishing his prayer, asked, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”
Jesus teaches them a very simple, moving prayer that will later become known as the “Lord’s Prayer”. This prayer is the model prayer for all of us. It has not only been immortalized in the Gospels but also in song.
Jesus, in chapter six of the Gospel of Matthew, says, “When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them. I tell you the truth, that is all the reward they will ever get. But when you pray, go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father in private. Then your Father, who sees everything, will reward you. When you pray, don’t babble on and on as the Gentiles do. They think their prayers are answered merely by repeating their words again and again. Don’t be like them, for your Father knows exactly what you need even before you ask him! Pray like this: Our Father in heaven, may your name be kept holy. May your Kingdom come soon. May your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Give us today the food we need, and forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who sin against us. And don’t let us yield to temptation, but rescue us from the evil one.”
Notice the key things that Jesus teaches us about prayer. The first is to find a private place to pray. Isolate yourself away from everything and focus on God in your prayer. If you are sitting in a room with the television or radio blaring, it is not very easy for you to keep your mind centered on God. We have a very short attention span and if we have all sorts of distractions going on, it is very easy for our minds to wander.
Now, you may be wondering at this point about public prayer. If Jesus tells us to go to a private place by ourselves and pray, why do we pray out loud in church?
Take a close look at what Jesus says about those who pray in public. He calls those individuals “hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them”. These types of individuals only pray in public and do it not for the glory of God but for the accolades of men. They babble on and on to hear their own voices and are only repeating words that they have thrown together.
When we pray in church and raise our voices, it should be done in such a way that it praises God and lifts up the hearts of all those present in His house. One who is voicing that prayer is the single voice of all of the hearts in God’s house. That person gives words to the feelings of all. The words should be humble and come from the heart of not only that one person but also from each individual heart.
Some will pray for recognition and look for the compliments of men. That is all the reward they will receive. They have been recognized here on earth and that is all they will receive.
Jesus goes on to tell us that God already knows our needs before we even say them in prayer. We can ask God to fulfill our needs, but we should not treat God as a vending machine that dispenses items when we say or do the things we believe are right.
Jesus, in chapter seven of the Gospel of Matthew, tells us, “Keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you.”
This doesn’t mean that all you have to do is wear God down and He will give you what you want. The first thing that we need to realize is that when we ask for something we should only ask for those things that are needed. I have heard so many people ask for mansions and expensive cars when they only need a roof over their head and a means of transportation. They figure that God will give them only the best. That is true to an extent. The best thing that God provided us with is salvation through His son, Jesus. That was the best gift we could have received. It far surpasses a fancy house or expensive car.
When you look at the prayer that Jesus shared, it is simple and only asks for food to sustain us for today. It does not ask for other material things. It also teaches us to ask for forgiveness and the ability to forgive those around us. In none of the translations of this model prayer do we see Jesus praying for earthly things like cars, cash and fancy homes.
When you look at Daniel and his faith, you see a man of wisdom and prayer. He sets aside a time and place to pray. The prayers that he offers come from the heart and soul and are infused with his love for God. In fact, in chapter six of the Book of Daniel, it tells us that Daniel prayed to God three times a day. He would bow down on his knees to pray and praise God. He even devoted a portion of his home, an upper room, just for him to go and pray.
In order to answer that often-asked question of how to pray, I tell each person to be humble in your prayer. Don’t use big, fancy words. Let the words come from your heart and soul. Set aside a time and place for prayer and isolate yourself when you do. Make sure that God is the focus of your prayer. You shouldn’t go on and on about your life and what is going on in it. God already knows all those things you are facing. Be thankful for all of the gifts you have received from His hand. Ask Him for forgiveness and the strength to forgive others.
At the conclusion of each service, I, as a pastor, ask each member to pray silently. I tell them that this part of the service is the most important. It is their opportunity to have a moment with God and have a little talk with Him. With all the things that are happening in this world, we need to have that moment of silent prayer with our Father. When we can humbly bow down before Him and truly devote our hearts and souls to Him as we pray, we can rest assured that we can stand firm in His grace.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.