We are in the middle of a series we are calling “Dialogue: Recovering the Lost Art of Communicating with God.” And that is just our fancy way of saying we want to spend a few weeks talking about prayer. We began the series talking about why prayer is necessary. If we aren’t careful, we can get caught in the trap of thinking praying doesn’t matter, that it doesn’t do anything or change anything, so why bother?
But what we saw was that it does matter. God has invited us to be a part of his work in the world. He gives us a chance to take part. And taking part begins with prayer. We find that, as William Temple, a bishop in the Church of England, said, “When I pray, coincidences happen, and when I don’t, they don’t.”
We look to Jesus as our example. Being both fully God and fully man, Jesus saw prayer as a very necessary part of his time on earth. And if Jesus saw a necessity for prayer in his life and ministry, how much more should we see the necessity for prayer?
Last week we looked at what can be some troublesome passages regarding what to ask for when we pray. Do we ask for anything? Do we ask everything? We saw that we need to pray in ways that glorify God, but that also our faith and obedience to God are part of the process as well.
We also saw that instead of worrying about whether or not we should pray this or that, we need to just do it. Just ask. Ask what is on our hearts. Ask big. And allow the Holy Spirit to be the editor of our prayers after we’ve poured out of hearts.
Today, we move to more of what I would call the mechanics of prayer, or Authentic Prayer. I don’t know about you, but if you grew up like me, prayer was one of the things that could be more than a little intimidating. With a dad who was a pastor, I grew up in church. Every Sunday, people were called upon to pray out loud in front of the whole congregation, which in and of itself could be a frightening proposition.
What I remember about a lot of those who prayed was that it didn’t seem like they talked like I talked. Instead, I remember prayers like this: “Our most loving and gracious Heavenly Father, We thank Thee for Thy bounty that Thou Hast Bestowest uponest us-eth. Be Thou with the sick and afflicted. Guardest Thy our hearts that wandereth far from Thee. In Jesus-eth Nameth. Amen-…eth.”
Ok, I may have exaggerated there…a little. But it wasn’t far off. Week in and week out I heard these types of prayers and I was intimidated. I could never pray like that. It seemed to take a new vocabulary. You’ve got to add a lot of Thees and Thous and put some “eths” and “ests” on the endeth ofest youreth wordests.
From childhood, many of us are taught, bow your head and close your eyes, hold your hands, start every prayer with “Dear God” or something similar, and end with “In Jesus name,” and “Amen.” Is this what prayer looks like? Does posture matter? You start to wonder if there is a class you need to sign up for where they teach Proper Praying 101: Your Guide to Proper Words and Postures of Prayer.
A Prayer Parable
In the New Testament, Luke shares a parable Jesus told one day to let everyone know what matters most when it comes to our prayers. Look with me at Luke 18 starting in verse 9.
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.”
So, we begin the story with two individuals. A Pharisee — a deeply religious individual. And a tax collector —The worst of the worst in society of that day. Tax collectors were were crooked and cheated people out of money. They were very hated people.
Let’s keep reading.
The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”
Now catch what this guy is doing. Normally in this culture, prayers were either silent or in a low voice. You could pray aloud but too loudly was seen as rude. But here is this guy, and he steps up beside someone in the front of the church. And after he takes some time to put this guy down, he proceeds to tell God, “God, just in case you’ve forgotten, I’m pretty amazing.” And he lists why: fasting twice a week. Fasting is the discipline of denying oneself food for a period of time. In this culture, the rules that he would have followed only called for fasting one day a week. But this guy, he did TWO days a week! Talk about above and beyond.
And then he reminded God of how much money he gave: a tithe, or a tenth of all he got, not on his net income but on his gross income and what he made off garage sales, and off the quarter he picked up in the HyVee parking lot. He gave a tenth of it all. This guy was pretty special. He was doing all the right things, checking all the boxes. Surely God would sit up and pay attention when someone like this prayed.
Let’s look at the other guy.
But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
So, this guy is a scum bag and he knows it. He is ashamed of who he is and he cries out for mercy. When comparing these two, it would seem like the one who spent his life following the rules and obeying the religious laws would have the most effective prayers. The other guy is a mess. He’s got sin in his life. And we know God is a holy God so surely he won’t have anything to do with such a horrible person.
Jesus brings it home in the final verse of the parable.
“I tell you that this man [the tax collector], rather than the other [the Pharisee], went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Wait. What? The guy who went to church every week, gave money to the church, served on the hospitality team, who never cussed, smoke, or drank. . . his prayer wasn’t heard? But the guy who cheated people out of money, could barely bring himself to go to church, was so ashamed he wouldn’t even look up toward God. . . that’s the guy whose prayer gets heard? Yes.
Jesus highlights for us a profound principle that we need to understand when it comes to praying. Authentic prayer is more about the heart than anything else.
Misconceptions of Prayer
Some of us listen to this story and feel confused. It goes against what we think should be. But what Jesus does in this story is highlight for us some of the misconceptions we have about prayer. The first misconception is: Doing the right things equals being the right person.
There is a difference between doing and being and if we think that just doing good things, possibly even the right things, will make our prayers effective, we are very wrong. There is something deeper at work here.
A second misconception is: My spirituality only needs to be better than those around me. Let’s be honest. We all do this. We size up the competition. Ladies, a woman you don’t know walks into the room. You look her up and down. What is she wearing? How much did it cost? How much can she eat to have that figure? And before the guys start nodding in agreement, we do it before the other guy walks in the door. What did he drive to get here? How much did that set him back? What impressive title does he have at work?
We seem to think that because we size one another up, God must do the same. And so as I look to my left and my right, as long as I am viewed as more spiritual than them, then God will certainly here my prayer. But Jesus is telling us that prayer is not a contest.
A third misconception we find here is the lie that tells us: I must be perfect. And if I am not perfect, what’s the point of praying? God won’t listen anyway. So, what I will do is work really hard to clean myself up, get my act together, then I will get right with God. Then I will start praying. Unfortunately, when you start down this path, you find that after you leave this misconception, the other two quickly come into play.
This Pharisee thought he had it all together. Even in his prayer, he basically tells God how grateful he is for himself. “Thank you God that I am so AMAZING!” You get the idea. God should be honored that this man is willing to be on God’s team. But what Jesus points out, as one commentator put it, “Position in the temple means nothing, position of the heart means everything.”
How to Pray
So, if this story shows us some of our misconceptions, does it show us how we are to pray? Absolutely.
It begins with humility. This is probably one of the greatest differences we see between the two men. One thinks he is God’s gift to the world and to God. The other realizes who he is and cries out to God.
If we approach God from a position of pride, we can forget about effective prayers. And before we think this might not be our problem, let’s think back to the misconceptions. Do we do good things in an effort for God to make hear us? When we “perform” or serve God from a heart of pride, do we do so thinking that God owes us something? Do we believe God owes us because of how good we are? Our good deeds become like a bargaining chip.
But this can also go the other way. Several months back, I talked about pride and used a definition by CS Lewis to describe it. Lewis writes, “Pride is the ruthless, sleepless, unsmiling concentration upon self.” (Screwtape Letters, 9) Pride can cause us to think so poorly of ourselves that it keeps us from even approaching God at all. The tax collector came in humility, but did not let his feelings about himself keep him away from God either.
Augustine said, “you must account yourself desolate in this world, however great the property of your lot may be.” Before we can worry about what to pray for or even how to pray it, we must take care of the pride in our hearts. Humility doesn’t mean groveling before God. It means understanding who we are and who God is and not getting those two things reversed.
Do we feel unworthy when we pray? Sure. I do all the time. But as this parable highlights, God doesn’t just listen to good people. All through the Bible we see God listening to the prayers of people who we would also classify as unworthy. Moses was a reluctant leader with a hot temper. Samson liked the ladies a little too much. David was an adulterer and murderer.
As Phillip Yancey writes in his book on prayer, “A sense of unworthiness hardly disqualifies me from prayer; rather it serves as a necessary starting point.”
Over and over in the Bible we read things like “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:6) or “Humble yourself before the Lord and he will lift you up.” (James 4:10) So, we begin with humility.
The second part of this continues an idea that I shared a couple of weeks ago. You might remember that I called prayer one of the great paradoxes of faith. We talked about how God is in control and yet somehow our prayers do matter and can change the world. This is a paradox.
How we are to pray is also part of the paradox, because we should not only pray with humility, we should also pray with boldness. Humble boldness is what we see modeled in the tax collector’s prayer. The writer of Hebrews in the New Testament talks about this boldness in prayer. Hebrews 4:14-16 says,
Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
This passage is so important in how we pray. A little background: in the old way of doing things, in the Old Testament, the only person allowed to enter the presence of God was the high priest and that was only one day a year, on the day of atonement. He would go into the temple and present an offering for the sins of the people.
But because of Jesus, his death on the cross, and his resurrection, there is a new way, a way for you and me to be able to approach God on a continual basis with unabashed openness. No longer do we need a human to go between between us and God. Jesus doesn’t even stand between us and God. He takes us to God removing all barriers and obstacles. We don’t have to slink in hoping to be noticed by God. The door is open. And in humility, we can boldly approach God.
Formulas and Posture
Now many of us want to talk about formulas when we talk about prayer. Formulas like A.C.T.S. (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication) Or we want to talk about posture. Do we fold our hands? Lift them up? Or we want to talk about the words we need to use. What about “In Jesus’ name, Amen?” Just how important are the words?
There is no formula. If something like A.C.T.S. help you, use it. But don’t become so beholden to it as if that is the only way to pray. If it becomes mindless or passionless, stop. Do something different. When we are dispassionate about praying, it has become a duty. Change it up.
What about posture? There are a multitude of postures mentioned in the Bible. Peter knelt. Nehemiah sat down. Abraham prostrated himself. Many stood. There is no right way.
And as far as the words, they are important. The Bible tells us not to go on and on babbling like the pagans. (Matthew 6:7)
The Bible also tells us there will be times we don’t even know what to say. Sometimes we just need to sit in the presence of the Almighty and allow the Holy Spirit to pray what we are unsure to pray.
In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. —Romans 8:26
Do we have to say “In Jesus’ name”? Sometimes we view that phrase as the fairy dust we sprinkle on our prayers hoping that is the magic that will get them answered. I personally think “In Jesus’ name” is good if for no other reason than it reminds us how are prayers are able to be heard in the first place: because of what Jesus did on the cross.
Most Importantly. . .
These questions are good and important, but what we don’t want is for anyone to be intimidated by prayer. The best answer to the how of prayer is best summed up this way: apart from authenticity, which we have described today as humbleness and boldness, there is no prescribed way to pray. Everyone of us is unique and how each of us prays will be unique as well. As Philip Yancey put it, “Jesus’ teaching on prayer reduces it down to three principles: keep it honest. Keep it simple. And keep it up!”
Don’t get hung up on the how if you have already addressed the heart, because authentic prayer is more about the heart than anything else.
So, what attitude do you bring with you pray? Do you come as one who thinks because of your goodness that God owes you something? Does your prayer look more like the Pharisee’s than the tax collector’s? Remember, Pharisees come in many packages. We must be on guard against pride shaping our prayers for our own benefit rather than praying for the glory of God.
Or maybe as we talk about prayer you are ready for this series to be over. You are intimidated by prayer. You know you should pray and you carry around enormous guilt and shame about your prayer life. I hope today you have seen that we do not have to be intimidated by prayer. God desires our prayers. He wants us to come boldly before him. Don’t allow fear and intimidation keep you from communicating with the One who desires to speak to you through prayer.
Let me encourage you on this dialogue journey: keep it up. If you have been praying, pray more. Push and stretch yourself in prayer, not out of obligation or because I said it, but because God desires it and wants to communicate with you. Keep using that journal to write down your prayers, your requests, and especially how God answers. This is something sometimes we have to push ourselves in. Our tendency is to drift away, rather than to pray. But remember the words of the prophet Jeremiah:
Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know. —Jeremiah 33:3