Lord, teach us to pray…. (Luke 11:1)
One of Jesus’ disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray; he apparently felt that he didn’t know how. We don’t know which disciple this was, nor do we know exactly what he had in mind. Apparently he had observed John the Baptist teaching his disciples to pray, so maybe he was thinking of what words to use or what structure prayer should take.
I, on the other hand, have always felt I know how to pray. After all, I was brought up in the church, and I have heard people pray either formally or informally all my life. Yet as I get older I find myself questioning if I have ever really known how to pray. That may sound pretty shocking, coming as it does from someone who has served in pastoral ministry for over thirty years; but I think we could all say that to one degree or another, especially if we equate prayer with the mere words and mechanics and fail to appreciate what really is at the heart of prayer.
There are many things that we do routinely; I mean we say grace before a meal, or pray when asked before or at the close of Sunday school, and hopefully each morning for our personal devotions. Or perhaps we participate in praying for success for a certain event for the church or other ministry related event, or perhaps for God’s healing for someone with a serious health issue. You know the routine; “Lord, just bring a lot of people to our program.” Or “Lord, just heal Aunt Sally and help her get better.” Of course, we conclude all our prayers with the words, “In Jesus’ Name. Amen.” I’m not saying such endeavors at prayer are a waste of time, but I wonder if we aren’t missing something important.
Bryan Chapell, in his book, Praying Backwards, challenges us to begin by praying Jesus’ priorities first. If we do, our prayers will change. They will become less self-oriented, and more Christ directed, and ultimately more satisfying to our own hearts. When we treat prayer like a “surefire wishing star”, as Chapell puts it, we limit God by the wisdom of our wishes and tether him to the leash of our understanding. And if perchance God doesn’t answer our prayer as we might desire, it forces us to the conclusion that “prayers, like wishing wells, are fantasies.” How sad if that’s the conclusion we reach.
I am by no means saying that we should not bring our personal requests no matter how big or how small to the Lord, but it is important that we begin with the conviction that God already knows us. He knows our present needs and longings, but he also knows our future and what he hopes to accomplish in us; and when we pray we are asking him (not that he needs our permission) to exercise his wisdom and grace in us, both for our good and for the sake of his Kingdom.
I have to say I’m encouraged as I find myself being moved in the direction of a deeper prayer life, and as I also see many of you simultaneously moving in the same direction. Charleen and I have begun using Chapell’s book for our daily prayer time. At least one of you has spoken to me of using Tim Keller’s book, simply titled, Prayer. Others have used Paul Miller’s, A Praying Life. We will even be starting a new adult Sunday school class on prayer next Sunday, using Eugene Peterson’s study guide, Psalms: Prayers of the Heart. All of these books are good and I heartily endorse all of them. But the most important thing is prayer itself.
“Lord, teach us to pray.” And may we really become a praying church.
Pastor Tom Bridgman