The secret to praying well is to know that God is ___ (praiseworthy). As Christians we pray in Jesus’ name because He’s our great High ___ (priest). Well done. Now that we’ve looked at why we pray and how we pray we can turn our attention to what we pray, or perhaps to be more accurate, where we start. And I’d like to begin talk with a quote by Richard Foster.
“Today the heart of God is an open wound of love. He aches over our distance and preoccupation. He mourns that we do not draw near to him. He grieves that we have forgotten him. He weeps over our obsession with muchness and manyness. He longs for our presence.” (Prayer, pg. 7)
That’s a pretty radical thing to say – that God longs for our presence. Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Doesn’t Psalm 42 say, “As the deep longs for the water brooks so my soul longs for you, O God?” And of course the answer is yes. The author of Psalm 42 understands that we all long for the living water that only God can give, even if we search for that water in empty wells, like achievement and sex and recognition and money and power and reputation. In fact, I’d say that behind every sin is a longing for God. Augustine long ago noted, “our souls are restless O Lord until they rest in thee.” But, according to Foster and according to the Bible, God also longs for us. His soul is restless until we rest in Him.
And because God longs for us, prayer is an invitation – an invitation by God to come back home. Like the prodigal son we’ve left home and made a mess of our lives but our Father is good and He invites us back to the feast. And that’s why prayer, above all else, is an ongoing intimate love relationship. It’s about learning to long for God and about knowing that He longs for us. And so to be effective pray-ers, we need to learn how to love. Real prayer isn’t about rolling up our sleeves and just resolving to do it. Real prayer is about falling in love.
But where do we begin? Everyone’s got their theory, their technique, their approach to prayer. And so where are we supposed to begin?
Well, a lot of us never learn to pray because we think we have to get our lives in order before we can start praying – that having it all together is a prerequisite to prayer. In other words, first we fine-tune our lives or learn the different prayer techniques or kick our addictive behavior and then we can start to pray. But that’s wrong.
You see prayer isn’t like calculus or physics and it’s not something we master. It’s something that masters us. When it comes to prayer we’ll never be competent and we’ll never be in control. After all, we’re children and children aren’t in control of anything.
The truth is that in prayer each one of us brings mixed motives to God. We’re full of love and anger, goodness and selfishness, good motives and bad. And I know this may come as a surprise, but it’s not our job to sort all that out. In fact God forbids us to even try because (1) we’re not smart enough and because (2) God’s big enough and gracious enough to take us as we are. We don’t have to be smart or pure or full of faith to pray. That’s why there’s something called grace. And as Christians we’re not just saved by grace. We live by grace and we pray by grace.
And so once again, where do we begin? Well, all prayer begins with the most basic and primary form of prayer there is, which is often called “simple prayer.” Simple prayer is about bringing ourselves before God “as is” – our wants, our desires, our fears, our frustrations. Like a child sitting on Santa’s lap we open our hearts and tell God what we’re feeling. We make known our requests. Without pretension or forethought we simply share our concerns.
We pray for good weather. For help with our test. If we’re lonely we pray for friends. We tell God how frustrated we are with our roommate and how excited we are about our date Friday night. In a very real sense, we are the focus of simple prayer – our needs, our wants, our concerns. Simple prayer is mostly about us.
Now I know what you’re thinking, “that sounds selfish. I thought Christianity was about losing our lives for others – not about treating God like Santa Claus.” And of course you’re right. There’s no doubt a lot of pride and vanity and egocentricity that comes with simple prayer, but I want to ask you this. What alternative do we have?
Just for fun, suppose we try filtering our prayers. Let’s say we work really hard to sort out what’s worth bringing to God and what’s not. Let me ask you this. Does a child do that? And if we do take matters into our own hands and try filtering out what’s worth bringing to God and what’s not, do we really believe in grace? And on top of that, do we really think God doesn’t know what we’re up to, and could God really be pleased that we find Him so unapproachable and that our coming before Him has to be so planned?
To filter our prayers; to only pray about those things we think God wants to hear; to pray for world peace when all we care about is our toothache; this doesn’t come from a high view of God. It comes from a low view of God. It’s fake humility. You see God is perfectly capable of handling our anger and frustration and disappointment and selfishness. As C.S. Lewis once noted, prayer is about laying before God what is actually in our heart. Not what we think ought to be in our heart. Simple prayer, if nothing else, is honest. And that’s why we have to begin with simple prayer. Because prayer is about falling in love, it’s about a growing into a personal relationship. And without honesty a relationship isn’t possible.
Now of course God wants his children to grow up. It’s really cute when a three-year-old girl asks her dad for a pony but it’s really weird when a 33-year-old woman asks her dad for a pony. And so yes – as we grow in grace we’ll move beyond simple prayer. That being said, the only way to move beyond simple prayer is to go through simple prayer, not make a detour around it. We’re born into this world as infants, and we’re born again into God’s world as infants. And even as we grow up, we’ll never leave simple prayer behind completely because genuine prayer is about conversing with God about the real condition of our heart.
And so we shouldn’t be surprised to find that simple prayer is the most common form of prayer in the Bible. For example, consider Moses’ prayer to God when the Israelites rebel in the wilderness. Here’s a paraphrase of Numbers 11. “God, why’d you burden me with these losers? Did I give birth to them? Then why are you asking me to lug them around like a mother nursing her baby?” The Bible describes Moses as the most humble man that ever lived and yet here he is laying before God his anger, his sarcasm, and his frustration. That’s simple prayer. Another example. The prophet Elisha goes bald and some kids make fun of him. As II Kings tells us, Elisha prays for bears to come eat them. That’s simple prayer. The author of Psalm 137 finds himself taunted by his Babylonian captors. How does he respond? By praying for the death of their children. That’s simple prayer – bringing to God what’s actually in us, even if it’s ugly. Not what we think ought to be in us.
Now with that in mind let’s look at Jesus’ teaching on prayer in the Sermon on the Mount.
Matthew 6 & 7 (selected verses)
And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. Your Father knows what you need before you even ask Him. Therefore Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!
There’s a lot of wisdom here for getting started with prayer. First, don’t be a hypocrite, a word meaning “play-actor.” In other words, don’t act or put on a show. Don’t ask God for world peace when all you care about is your tooth. Second, don’t pray to be seen. If prayer is our tool for becoming more popular and admired by others then it isn’t prayer. Third, God knows what we need before we even ask Him. That’s encouraging. No one’s more in tune with our wants and needs than God. Fourth, God tells us to ask anyway. Yes He knows but God wants to be asked. Fifth, even though we’re evil God is still good and God’s desire is to give his children good things.
Now you might be wondering. If God already knows our needs before we ask then why on earth do we have to ask? In other words, why doesn’t God just give us what we need? Well, it goes back to our first “p” from two weeks ago. The God we pray to is personal and petition, or asking, is at the heart of all personal relationships. At the heart of prayer is “the request” – addressing God as our Father and asking Him to do something for us. And of course the request works both ways – as prayer becomes more natural we’ll learn to hear God when He’s asking us to do something for Him, and He will. But the God we pray to is personal, and because of that God wants to be asked.
And so back to our question – when it comes to prayer where do we begin? The answer is simple – we begin right where we are. We speak to God about what concerns us – our families, our classes, our friends, our dreams, our disappointments. I know it sounds trivial but this is the most profound truth you’ll ever hear about God. We worship a God that freely chooses to enter our world, our reality. And so if your reality right now is a toothache – that’s the only reality God wants to enter.
Do you remember the story of Moses and the burning bush? Moses is going about his daily life as a shepherd in Midian and God comes to Moses and says, “Moses, take off your shoes.” God wants Moses to know that the world he inhabits is holy. The scandal of Christianity is that God enters our world and that as we go about our life burning bushes are everywhere. Think about it. When God entered our world He chose a small, smelly stable. His mom was an unwed teenage girl and the first people to admire him was a group of shady shepherds. And so don’t think that your life is too ordinary for God or that He’s just not interested in you. That’s not being humble. From God’s perspective, it’s just being rude.
And so when it comes to prayer, God wants us to begin right where we are – with simple prayer. And so for those of you eager to get started I’ll leave you with four pieces of advice.
1. Remember that prayer is first and foremost an ongoing and growing love relationship with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And because of that no one has any advantage. The bruised and the broken can enter simple prayer just as freely as the wealthy and the wise. The only thing we need to get started is desire.
2. When you begin to take prayer seriously don’t get discouraged by how bad you are, or at how difficult you find prayer to be. Our hunger for God is actually where prayer begins. In other words, wanting to pray is the beginning of prayer. The very desire to pray is a gift of the Spirit and in time our desire will lead to practice and that practice will then increase our desire. And so don’t get discouraged.
3. Don’t try praying too hard. There is a natural progression in the spiritual life. We don’t take occasion joggers and expect them to run a marathon. In the same way we don’t take spiritual children and expect them to pray for hours at a time. In other words, don’t be spiritually greedy. If prayer isn’t a fixed habit for you instead of starting with 30 minutes a day start with 3. Pour all your energy into those three minutes and then tell God you need a break. Trust me, He’ll understand.
4. Learn to pray even when you’re sinning. If you struggle with anger or lust or greed or ambition don’t isolate these things from your prayer life or take a break from prayer until you beat them. Instead, talk to God about them. It warms God’s heart that we trust Him enough to bring our mess to Him in prayer. And so pray, even as you sin.
If we’re going to learn to pray we have to start where we are. At first, we will be the center and the subject of our prayers. But then in God’s time and in God’s way our hearts will begin to change. We’ll stop thinking of God as a part of our life because we’ll come to see that we are a part of His.
“The heart of God is an open wound of love.” As the deep longs for the water brooks so God’s soul longs for us. We don’t have to clean up before we go back home. We just need to go back home and trust God to clean us up.