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Teach us how not to pray

August 2017 | by Gary Clayton

‘But He has to do it; it says so in His Word!’

I’m pretty sure it was the worst prayer meeting I’ve ever attended!

A friend had mentioned how people in the flat above were making life intolerable with their door-slamming, aggressive language and loud music. At the end of her tether, she needed prayer.

Our hearts went out to our friend. Then another church member leaned forward. ‘Right! We all know this has gone on too long and their behaviour is totally unreasonable’. We nodded.

‘So, as we’re all in agreement, let’s pray the landlord throws the people out. The Bible says when two or three agree together, God will do what they ask. That’s what his Word says, so he has to do it! Let’s pray!’

Real prayer?

With little energy to disagree, we closed our eyes to pray. But even though I was a fairly new Christian, I felt uncomfortable. This couldn’t be right, surely? Had we really committed the situation to God, discussed the problem, and looked to him for guidance? No!

Yet how often do we ask God how he would have us pray, or consider what Scripture says that might help guide us to pray? And do we take time to ensure that we have the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16) and are all in agreement?

Of course, the church member’s approach to prayer was particularly bad. God, the creator of the universe, our Lord, Master, heavenly Father, Judge, High Priest and King became, through faulty exegesis, a kind of heavenly slot machine: put your prayer coin in and the desired result automatically comes out!

Do we approach God in reverence and humility or are we so keen to get what we want — like spoilt children rooting about for sweets that will rot our teeth — that we forget who he is and treat him (as the example above suggests), as if he’s an obstructive landlord, who needs a reminder of what it says in the small print and is held accountable for it?

The example I’ve quoted is clearly extreme. Yet is there a tendency for us to view the promises of God as a blank cheque we can cash, whenever it suits us; or when enough of us are in agreement, that we can twist God’s arm to do whatever we want?

Real spirituality?

But then there’s another approach to prayer that I’ve found equally toxic. Many years ago, having acknowledged that the result of a general election was in God’s hands, a group of us turned to prayer.

‘Oh, Lord’, one of our number prayed, ‘you hate iniquity, pride and arrogance. You hate those who oppress the poor. So we pray that this wicked, heartless Conservative government will be swept away and a party dedicated to social justice and the interests of the poor will be established in its place’.

After a shocked silence, a second saint said, ‘Dear Lord, we know there is no authority except that which you establish. So we praise you for this God-appointed Tory government and ask that you strengthen its hand, prevent the godless opposition from gaining any further seats, and return the Conservatives to power with an increased majority!’

Both prayers were equally heartfelt. But did either of them express the mind of Christ or a submission to his lordship?

Do we sometimes forget that prayer is essentially communion with God: an opportunity to adore, thank and converse with our heavenly Father? A time to confess our sins, knock, listen, seek and serve. It’s not a party-political broadcast, aimed at canvassing the vote of the Almighty.

Whatever party, sports team or anything else we support, is it really right to put a spiritual gloss on our allegiance and invoke God’s help in promoting our cause? We need to pray for the right outcome and for his will to be done. But it’s not our job to tell God how he should run the world.

Real humility?

And what about the petty quarrels we have with fellow believers? Do we forget, as we seek to canvass God’s support, as we ask his help in vindicating our position, that as we pray for victory against those with whom we’ve fallen out, that they’re probably praying to our Father in heaven about us?

Do the words we use sometimes reveal the calloused state of our soul? Do we forget that our blood-bought intimacy with Christ gives us responsibilities as well as privileges?

But there’s a third type of prayer meeting I’ve attended. Although the two examples of inappropriate prayer meetings happened many years ago, I can more or less remember the exact words that were used.

But a truly blessed time of prayer, which occurred not so long ago with two Christian  friends, was totally different. We all had needs and concerns that we wanted to bring before God, but, before we did, we felt it only right to spend time worshipping, praising and thanking him.

I can’t remember what we prayed about, even though it was a few months ago. What I can remember, quite distinctly, was an almost tangible sense of God’s love and holiness; a desire to remove our shoes and kneel, as if we were on holy ground.

Real communion

‘God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few’, Ecclesiastes 5:2 tells us. We forget at our peril that God is the potter and we are the clay. ‘But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God?’ (Romans 9:20).

It is not our place to demand, cajole or insist, but to accept God’s Word, interpret it correctly, listen to it humbly and follow its leading.

Gary Clayton is married to Julie and is the father of Christopher (13) and Emma (10). He worships at Hayes Lane Baptist Church, served for 15 years as managing editor of the Hudson Taylor mission OMF, and is now copywriter and editor at MAF UK. To learn more about how MAF aircraft help some of the world’s most isolated people, visit

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