On Sunday, March 10, I gave a talk to our Wyldlife group. Wyldlife consists of the local seventh and eighth graders. When I originally planned to write this post, I intended it to be geared for a slightly older crowd, but I still used a lot of the same research/quotes/scriptures, so I thought I’d share with you all. I’m also calling this the “Director’s Cut” as there are a few areas here that were dropped from my talk (for time reasons).
I have read that there are 650 prayers in the Bible (including references to and actual prayers)…so it’s kind of important. Romans 12:12 says that we are to be devoted to prayer. Acts 1:14, 2:42, 6:4, and Colossians 4:2 also mention being devoted to prayer. 1 Thessalonians 5:17 tells us that we should pray without ceasing. John Piper says that believing “a life without prayer would result in an eternal life with Christ was like believing that you could spend as much time underwater as you could above it.”
We know it’s important, yet we still don’t pray. Why? There are loads of excuses (let’s face it, that’s all they are), but today I just want to focus on one: We don’t know how. Many people don’t pray because they feel like they don’t know how to pray.
Truthfully, who could blame them? Many people learn through observation. What kind of prayers have they observed?
- The Long-Winded Prayer: “Lord … we just pray that You’d just have thine way, Lord. We just know that it’s all about You, Lord. Just help us to be worthy. We just want to thank You, Lord, for just being in our lives. Just have thy way, Lord. Just help us just be just in all our ways.” Thy, thou, thou, thine. On and on and on. This is the person that prays until the Thanksgiving meal is cold.
- The Silent Prayer: The person just drops their head and the room has an awkward silence for a couple minutes.
- The Inappropriate Prayer: “Dear, sweet Lord, baby Jesus...”
- The Crying Prayer: Where the one praying is so moved by the spirit that they break down throughout.
- The ADD Prayer: “Lord, I thank you for today. All of my students turned in their essay on time, and the first few that I’ve looked at have been really good. This is a solid class. I’m really enjoying class every day. In fact, I should tell them that tomorrow. It’s good to point out the things that they do well. That reminds me, I need to thank my wife taking care of dinner while I read those first few essays. That really saved me a lot of time. She’s awesome about helping out when...”
- The Ritualistic, Pre-Meal Prayer: “God is great, God is good, let us thank Him for this food.” I love something Mark Driscoll says. He hates the line, “Lord, let this food nourish our bodies.” What else is it going to do? Make you blow up? That’s like saying, “Lord, make this water wet.” Driscoll even points out that it’s okay to pray after a meal. Thank God for the parts you liked. “Lord, thank you for the chocolate. You didn’t have to make chocolate, but you did. I love you, and I love chocolate. Amen.”
Do you pray with your head down? Up? What do you do with your hands? Pressed together? Clasped? Palms to the sky? Should you stand when you pray? Kneel? Sit? Close your eyes? Leave them open? You can pray alone, with a small group, with the church, with your family, with your boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse.
It’s a nightmare. No wonder so many people are intimidated. (For the record—all of these prayers are okay if that’s what you’re comfortable doing.)
I’m going to focus on the individual prayer. The one just between you and God. To me, there are two ways to pray privately to God. There is the free-and-easy prayer (I call them “mini-prayer bombs” or “texts to God”). This prayer you can do anywhere, anytime. Just a quick, five second prayer. It could be for a praise (Thanks, God!!). It could be for forgiveness (Sorry, God!!). It could be for a need (Help, God!!).
Then there is formal prayer. This is where you devote a chunk of time to God and only God. Make it a point to do this at least once a day. I’m not talking an hour...maybe five minutes is all you need. Francis Chan says, “Try it. Pray for five minutes. Just five. Turn off the TV. Turn off the computer. Turn off the cell phone. Turn off the iPod. For five minutes, don’t think about the outside world around you. Just talk to God. Give those five minutes to Him. Trust me, you’ll be different after just five minutes. You’ll feel different.”
Meanwhile, it’s okay if you feel that you don’t know how to pray. The disciples didn’t. They had to ask Jesus, who gave them what we call The Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:9-13: “‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our sins, as we also have forgiven those who have sinned against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.’”
Does this mean that we are to say these exact words? Of course not. What Jesus has given us, however, is an outline (for you English people out there). A formula (for you math/science people). From this, the A.C.T.S. method of praying formed. There are many other methods, but A.C.T.S. is a popular way of praying for beginners. It stands for: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication.
First, recognize how Jesus begins: Our Father. God is our Father. Our Dad. “If you really want to know how to pray, look at how a child speaks to a father who loves them. Not disrespectful or dishonorable, but like you’re talking to your dad. Kids talk to their dad about anything and everything. There’s not a lot of pretension. It’s not very formal. They just talk” (Driscoll).
While prayer doesn’t have to be any more formal than chatting with your dad, you should be respectful to him, so be respectful to God. Recognize the fact that you’re talking to the Creator of everything. Jesus said, hallowed be your name. Hallowed means sanctified. I think we often take the name God for granted. This is God. Let’s not forget that. Let’s remember that that name means something. Something powerful. Something awesome.
“Don’t call God ‘dude.’ Look...God is your friend, but He’s not your buddy. He’s a great King!! He’s the Maker. The Creator. He’s divine and ultimately holy. You are not equals, so don’t speak to Him like one. You don’t treat your boss like one. You don’t treat political leaders like one. You don’t treat celebrities like one. But you come before God and call Him ‘dude’? God is your friend. He is your Father. But He’s also worthy of your utmost respect” (Steven Furtick).
People don’t like confessing their sins to God because they feel embarrassed. Like He doesn’t already know? Like He’s up there going, “Wait...you did what? When?!” Let’s just get this out of the way. We are sinners. We sin—all the time. Sin is doing something you’re not supposed to do, but it’s also not doing something you’re supposed to do. Ignorance is not an excuse. Jesus tells us that when we pray, we are to ask forgiveness of our sins.
It doesn’t end here, though. Jesus says, Forgive us our sins, as we have also forgiven those who have sinned against us. He goes on to say in Mark 11:25, “‘And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.’”
Get it? Don’t expect forgiveness from your Father if you can’t forgive others. You have to forgive others who have wronged you. Why are you holding onto it anyway? Does it make you feel better to hold on to that anger? Are you screaming for vengeance? Think you’d like it if God treated you that way? Let it go. You’ll feel better and God will reward you.
Now, let me be clear. Letting it go doesn’t mean that you should pretend that it didn’t happen. It’s okay if it still hurts. It’s normal if it still hurts. Forgiveness doesn’t have to mean that you trust the person that wronged you. They have broken your trust. It’s something they’re going to have to earn back. I’m not giving the “forgive and forget” speech. We’re human. We’re going to remember. But let it go. Give it to God. Say, “God...I don’t want to hold onto this. Help me let it go. Help this person who wronged me.”
Some people will include this in the adoration part of their prayer. They put praise and giving thanks together, and that’s okay. Basically, this is where you thank God for all that He’s done for you. I mean, “Why would God bless you with something else when you don’t acknowledge what you already have?” (Perry Noble).
Think of it like this: You’re at an intersection. The light says WALK. As you begin crossing the street, a semi, whose driver hasn’t noticed his red light, comes bearing down on you. At the last second, you are shoved out of the way. Your life is saved. Your hero, however, is not so lucky. In the end, some stranger gave up his life in an effort to save yours. You go on to live another 50, 60, 70+ years. Wouldn’t you wake up every day and think, if it wasn’t for that person, I wouldn’t be here? If you had the chance to thank that stranger, wouldn’t you do so every day? Jesus Christ sacrificed Himself so that you could live for eternity…and you can’t find time in the day to say thanks? Thank God for all that He’s blessed you with in life. If you actually think about all He has done for you, you would never stop praising Him.
This is that part where you ask for stuff. For many of us, this is the only part we pray. Hopefully, you’re seeing what needs to come first. In the meantime, know that it is okay to ask God for the things that you need. Check out what Jesus tells us:
“‘If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.’” – Matthew 21:22
“‘Have faith in God. I tell you the truth, if anyone says to this mountain, Go throw yourself into the sea, and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him.’” – Mark 11:22-23
Awesome, right? All we have to do is believe, and we get what we want. All we have to do is have faith, and God just hands us stuff. Right? To demonstrate this when I spoke at Wyldlife, I ran into a wall. We had been building up club by telling the kids that I was going to run through a wall. Notice the verb: was going...not try. I displayed confidence. I displayed faith. I was going to run through a concrete wall. Needless to say...it didn’t happen, and I hurt my toe.
Why? If I was confident...if I believed it was going to happen...if I had faith, why didn’t it happen?
It was my will, not God’s. Running through that wall was for my glory, not God’s. It says in 1 John 5:14 that “...if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.” Jesus also says in Mark 14:36, “‘Everything is possible for you...Yet not what I will, but what you will.’” (emphasis mine)
While God wants us to ask Him for things—He tells us to ask for things—prayer is not about commanding God. It’s not like if you believe in God, and you follow the A.C.T.S. method of prayer, that He will just hand you whatever you wish. “Don’t turn God into a vending machine where you punch in these six steps and get what you want from God. Then you don’t need God anymore because you cracked the code” (Judah Smith).
Go back to the Lord’s Prayer: your will be done comes before give us.
“How many times do we want our way and not God’s? We stamp our foot at Him and say, ‘I. Want. My. Way.’ Sometimes, the all-knowing God will give us our way even though it isn’t the right way...so we’ll learn. Other times, the all-knowing God will say, ‘Trust Me. You don’t want your way. If I give you your way, you won’t like it.’ By praying your will be done, we’re saying, ‘I give up. I quit. You’re in charge.’ God knows what He’s doing. Our stupidity is thinking that we know what will give us the most joy when it’s God that truly knows what will give us the most joy” (Todd Nighswonger).
I’ve used this quote before, but it’s worth repeating: “God will always give you what you would have asked for if you knew everything He knows.” (Tim Keller)
After you submit to God’s will, then ask for what you need—and/or for the needs of others. Give us this day our daily bread means your physical needs. How do you ask Dad for something? Just. Ask.
Driscoll gives us this example: “You don't have to pray eloquently. Last night at dinner, my kids didn't come up to me for dessert and say, ‘Dearest father, we first would like to thank you for your kind provision in our former days. Furthermore, we know that you have the ability to grant requests, and we acknowledge that gladly. Furthermore, in addition, our sub-point is this: that we would beseech you, though undeserving as we are, that perhaps in your great mercies, we could have ice cream for dessert?’ No, my kids walked up and said two words: ‘Ice cream?’ That's it.”
You’re not done yet, though. Pay attention to how Jesus finishes the prayer: And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. These are our spiritual needs. There is evil in this world. Satan is real and he wants you. He wants to destroy you. This is a prayer of protection. Dad, help me to avoid my sins moving forward. Dad, give me knowledge so I learn of the sins that I’m currently ignorant of doing. Dad, protect me from Satan’s attacks.
Does God answer prayer? Of course God answers prayer!! When you ask your parents something, they don’t ignore you. God doesn’t either. He may not respond in some booming voice, He may not respond as a burning bush, He may not respond as Morgan Freeman…but He does answer prayer.
On the site Evidence for God from Science, it shows the results of three separate medical studies. In them, some patients suffering from similar ailments were prayed for, and some were not. In the end, the numbers showed that people had a slightly better “healing” rate when prayed for vs those that weren’t, but not enough to conclusively prove anything. However, those that were prayed for were medically cleared and discharged significantly sooner than those who were not prayed for, which led to this conclusion: “There is no ‘scientific’ (non-spiritual) explanation for the cause of the medical effects demonstrated in these studies. The only logical, but not testable, explanation is that God exists and answers the prayers of Christians. No other religion has succeeded in scientifically demonstrating that prayer to their God has any efficacy in healing.” (bold emphasis mine)
God does answer prayer, but how?
The same way our parents respond to our requests: Yes. No. Wait (or Later). Another Driscoll example (because he’s awesome at these): “Last night, it’s bedtime. Of my five kids, three of them make requests. One child comes up and says, ‘Dad, I’m hungry. Can I have some grapes? Answer? Yes. Another child comes up, 10:00 at night, ‘Dad, I’m thirsty. Can I drink a Coke?’ No. NO. There’s no bedtime Coke, right? Another kid came up and said, ‘Dad, I really had fun swimming today. Could we go swimming again right now?’ One of the younger children. Later. We’ll swim again, but not at 10:00 at night. That’s God. We come to God the Father. We pray in faith. He loves me. He hears me. He answers me. Yes, no, later are the answers.”
I think we need to look at ourselves when we claim that God isn’t listening or that He’s not answering our prayer. Did God fail to answer, or did you just not like His answer? Failure to receive what you asked for is not a lack of an answer. “Have you been around children? Children ask for things every day. Every hour. And there are times you have to tell them no. Children don’t have the ability to understand why not, so there are two ways they can respond: trust that the parent knows what they’re doing, so if they say no, there must be a reason, OR throw a fit. Now the question is: How are you responding to God’s answers to your prayers?” (Keller)
Persist in prayer. If God says Yes—awesome. Thank Him. If He says No—trust Him. He’s smarter than you. He wants to give you what you want…so if He’s saying no…there’s a reason. Sometimes what feels like a No is actually a Wait. If He’s telling you to wait—KEEP PRAYING. Don’t nag (How about now, God? Now? What about now? Can I have it now?). Be patient—you’re on God’s time—but don’t stop asking. In 2 Chronicles 7:12, God appears before Solomon in response to a prayer that Solomon had prayed for months—possibly years—earlier. God heard Solomon’s prayer, but it wasn’t time yet.
Meanwhile, be prepared to work. “It’s called the book of Acts, not the book of prayers” (Furtick). Sometimes, God will hand you a gift just for asking. Other times, He’ll want you to work for it. If you’re not willing to work, don’t blame Him if you don’t get what you asked for. God’s responses are in your actions. Don’t say, “Lord, I have a test tomorrow. Please help me get an A,” and then not study. Say, “Lord, I have a test tomorrow. Please help me stay focused while I study. Please help me understand the notes. Please make my little brother leave me alone for the next hour.”
Finally, there are two things that should come at the end of every formal prayer: 1) Listen. Prayer is a conversation…you have to listen as well. What kind of a relationship would you have with your friends if you did all the talking? If you want God to respond, you have to listen. Set aside a little time at the end of your prayer to just be quiet. Maybe Dad will respond immediately, maybe He won’t, but at least give Him the chance to talk to you. 2) You probably hear people close their prayer with some form of “…in Jesus’s name, Amen.” Why? First off, Amen loosely means “truth.” What you have said is true. Next, simply put, we pray in Jesus’s name because that is the only way we can come to God. Through Christ. Jesus tells us in John 14:13, “‘Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.’” (emphasis mine)
I want you to know that if you’re struggling with prayer, you’re not alone. We all do. I am really uncomfortable praying in front of others. Still today. I am terrible at setting aside daily time for structured prayer like this. So what do we do? First: Ask. Say, “God…help me with this. I want a better relationship with You. I want to be closer to You. Help motivate me to set daily time just for You.” Then: Practice. “Prayer is a trade to be learned…Practice, in this as well as all other trades, makes perfect” (E.M. Bounds). A-C-T-S. Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication. Give your Dad just five minutes today. Do this again tomorrow. The next day. Soon, you’ll be dropping mini-prayer bombs to Him all day long.