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The ABC of prayer

October 2014 | by Roger Fellows

Do you pray? Do you realize that prayer is important? I’m sure some will respond, ‘Of course we do! We’ve heard that numerous times’.

Yes and doubtless you will hear the same thing time and again. The fact is there are many things we need to hear repeatedly. The proof of that is the number of times we read similar exhortations in the Bible. How many times do we hear of the need for holiness or love? And likewise we read numerous times of the need for prayer.

In Matthew 6 Jesus is teaching his disciples about religious duties, and he deals at some length with prayer: ‘And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward.

‘But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.

‘And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words. Therefore do not be like them. For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask him’ (vv. 5-8).

Basic principles

These verses remind us of some basic principles. First, we must pray. Jesus doesn’t say ‘if you pray’, but ‘when you pray’. If we are Christians, we will pray. If you don’t pray, you can’t be a believer. Prayer is as natural and vital to a Christian as breathing.

However, the fact you pray does not guarantee that you are a Christian. Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus pray. Most people pray at times. Even those who don’t normally pray will often pray when in trouble.

The soldier who normally scoffs at Christianity will probably pray when the bullets are whistling over his head or the bombs are dropping around him. The farmer who has no interest in the gospel will likely pray in time of drought, when he faces losing his livelihood. Why is that? Because we have a built-in sense of our dependency on God, and in times of stress we recognise it.

Second, they tell us how not to pray. Our Lord gives some negatives here. We are not to pray so as to impress others; we are not to be hypocrites. Devout Jews would pray three times a day and, if they were out in public on one of those occasions, they would pray where they happened to be. In many cases it was to impress others.

We probably wouldn’t do that, but there are ways in which we can direct our prayers more to people than to God. Some can pray eloquently and let others know their understanding of theology. Some prayers are more like sermons!

Pitfalls

On the other hand, keeping quiet in a prayer meeting can also be because of others. Some don’t pray in public because they are afraid that their prayers will not be as eloquent as others’. The devil is very subtle. His great aim is to stop us praying, but if he can’t do that then he will try to make our prayers ineffective.

If we pray to impress others then the only effect will be to get their praise: ‘Wasn’t that a lovely prayer?’ ‘Doesn’t she pray beautifully?’ If we gain that, then we have our reward; there will be no other. The corruption of our fallen nature can affect even our devotional life. When sin creeps into holy things, it has its most profound effect.

Third, prayer is to be directed only to God. We are not to pray to impress others, but pray alone to God.

Of course, the Lord does not mean that it is wrong to pray together. There are many examples in the New Testament when the disciples met for corporate prayer. However there are times — very important times — when we need to be alone with God.

For some, that might be difficult. Perhaps you share a room with an unbeliever. Then you might need to find a quiet spot in the house — the cellar, or even outside. You might need to get up an hour earlier. It’s a matter of priorities.

How important is prayer to us? We would probably all say it is important, but the measure of that importance, at least in part, will be the time we give to it.

Through Christ

Although Jesus does not mention it here, it is good for us to remember that our prayers to the Father are to be in the name of the Lord Jesus. We have no other ground to expect our prayers to be heard, but on the basis of the work of our blessed Saviour (see John 15:16).

Fourth, we are not to use vain repetitions or empty phrases. Here is another negative. We are creatures of extremes. Because of these words, some would argue that we should never repeat prayers; we should pray once, in faith, and then wait for the answer.

But Scripture gives us examples of persistence in prayer, such as the parable of the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8). What Jesus is actually forbidding is empty repetition.

Buddhists have their prayer wheels; Muslims have their standard prayers; Roman Catholics their rosaries; and Protestants are not exempt. We can utter the same prayers with little or no thought to the meaning, whether saying grace before meals or repeating the Lord’s Prayer.

Let’s pray in faith, yet with persistence. We have a good example with Elijah in 1 Kings 18:41-45. He prayed for rain. He expected the Lord to answer, but he kept praying. At the same time, he sent his servant repeatedly to look for the first signs of the coming downpour.

Fifth, God knows our need before we ask him. We don’t have to pray in desperation, because God knows what is best for us and has already determined what to give us.

The natural question arising then is, ‘If that is true, why bother to pray?’ Well, think of your own children: often we have decided what we will give to them, but we still like them to ask; it teaches them manners and a sense of dependence.

Blessing

So the Lord wants us to pray. Prayer increases our dependence on him, knowing that we cannot supply our own needs. It brings us into the privilege and blessing of communion with God.

Prayer also strengthens our faith. Is there any greater blessing than seeing our prayers answered? A God who has answered our prayers obviously has a vital interest in us and will surely answer other prayers.

But let’s think some more about God’s sovereignty. If God is sovereign and has decided what will happen anyway, why should we bother to pray?

We have many statements in the Bible making it clear that God does exactly what he pleases, such as, ‘Our God is in the heavens, he does all that he pleases’ (Psalm 115:3).

Yet at the same time it is clear that prayers are answered. Take the example of Elijah referred to earlier. He prayed and ‘the heaven gave rain’ (James 5:18). Would there have been rain if Elijah had not prayed? It seems unlikely.

We sometimes hear the expression, ‘Prayer changes things’. That is true, but not because people decide what they want to happen and bring it about by prayer. The reason that prayer changes things is that God has ordained it should happen that way.

God-ordained

He has decided not only what will happen, but how it will happen, and frequently he has planned that what he has ordained will come to pass using human instruments.

Just as he has determined who will be saved, so he has ordained that generally people will be saved by the preaching of the gospel. Also, in many cases, things come about because people pray and God ordains it so.

We have an amazing and encouraging truth here. Just think that the Lord has ordained that his eternal purposes come to fruition, in part, because of our prayers! How important then are our prayers!

We should never regard prayer lightly, and obviously we should never neglect prayer. Although the truths we have thought about here are simple and basic, they remind us that prayer is vital. We need to say to Jesus with the disciples, ‘Lord, teach us to pray’.

Roger Fellows

The author ministers in Baptist churches in Ontario