bits from bob....

He prayed a good prayer...

by Robert J. Young
©, 2006, Robert J. Young

[permission is given to reprint with credit noted]

In James 4, we read these words: You ask and do not receive because you ask amiss. Perhaps two things are in view: we don't know how to ask; we don't know what to ask.

What is a good prayer?

We usually think of a good prayer as one that gets us what we want. That is certainly the view of children. But we know as adults that that can't be right because selfishness can't be good prayer. How can we avoid the identification of prayer with asking? Or should we try to avoid that connection?

Rubel Shelly recently wrote that selfish prayer is in reality pagan prayer, not spiritual or Christian prayer. That description has good biblical foundations in the words of Jesus: When you pray, don't keep on babbling like the pagans do. Jesus continued to observe that the pagans think they will be heard because of their many words. I wonder if at times our prayers should like babbling to God. John Calvin said that the prayers of humans are as baby talk to God. Certainly one does not have to listen long to our prayers to hear the repetitions-whether they be the tendency to frequent address (Our Heavenly Father) or our repetitions in handling our prayer lists ("Be with...."). Are these contemporary examples of multiplying words?

Obviously the subject is very sensitive, for we hesitate to accuse people who sincerely pray from the heart of repetition, much less of vain repetition. Yet, there is a need for us to talk seriously about prayer and how we communicate with God the hopes of our hearts. How do we ask in belief, in faith? So much prayer in our churches, like pagan prayer, is a game of chance, hoping that God will see fit to grant what we ask. Some have even dared (seldom in public prayer) to ask for riches, or the ability to pay bills, or money for needs (which may be more accurately described as wants). One may even hear the televangelist encourage such an approach to prayer. To reflect Shelly again, the idea is that you wish hard, close your eyes, and spin the wheel. If you're lucky, you get what you want!

Christian prayer is more than asking. Christian prayer is seeking God's agenda in my life (or in public prayer, in the life of the body of believers). Christian prayer is seeking the will of God, and thoughtful requests that reflect some of the possibilities God might have in mind. It is not spinning a wheel of fortune or playing a game of chance. It is the adoration that prostrates our wills before him. This is very risky, because we often discover that God doesn't want the same things we want.

I can think of nothing that would do more to help us in meaningful prayer than to add new phrases and thoughts to our prayers (both public and private). Toward that end, I make the following suggestions.

Perhaps you can add to the list as you think about the real needs in the lives of God's people.

If you've not personally experienced the powerless prayers of which I write-Christians who ask for blessings but get the same problems as everyone else, let me put you on guard. And when it happens in your life, please do not accuse God of injustice. Read your Bible to learn that the experiences of the real world have always been such, and that faith lived in a real world has always been God's antidote.

My hope is that our prayers might be authentic and spiritual, with the capacity to change us and bring our hearts more in line with the heart of God.

This is not to suggest that you shouldn't pray about the things that concern you, but learn to pray without dictating to God. Seek the blessings from God which God is most apt to want to provide, given what you know of God's nature. Seek his presence and power, for protection, strength, and sustenance in life's challenges. Seek his will and way. And boldly ask that you might learn and be changed for his glory-even if it doesn't work out in the precise way you think would be most desirable.

Finally, learn the prayer of silence. Silence which submits because there's nothing to say, pleads from the heart, listens expectantly, and waits patiently to see to glory of the Lord. This kind of prayer won't often characterize the Sunday morning shared prayer of God's assembled people, but it is the only kind of prayer that really matters in the realities of Thursday morning life.

And while I want our corporate prayers to be accurate expressions of God's nature, of our own hearts, and to focus on God more than on self, I know that what is even harder is the personal submission that brings my entire life before God's throne daily. I know that the latter is harder because I still want to pray selfishly.

Go to Articles Index

Return to Home Page
Last updated November 7, 2006