November 19, 2016
How, when, and with whom should I pray?
The Bible provides answers to those questions. I would like to begin with the with whom question.
Stated briefly, the answer to it may be given in two parts. First, there is a place for private prayer. The Lord Jesus teaches us to pray in secret (Matthew vi.5-6).Secondly, there is a place for social prayer. I refer to prayer with others. The people of God in ancient times prayed together. They met for worship. Note the call given at the beginning of Psalm 95: O come, let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation (Psalm xcvi.1). It continues: O come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord our maker (Psalm xcvi.6).
The temple is called a house of prayer (Isaiah lvi.7). The same term is used by Jesus (Matthew xxi.13). The Lord’s Prayer begins with the plural pronoun our, and includes the word us four times and the word we once (Matthew vi.9, 10-13). Paul instructs the Christians in Thessalonica to pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians v.17). And in Hebrews the people of God are taught not to neglect meeting together (Hebrews x.25). It is difficult therefore not to conclude that social prayer, along with secret prayer, is a feature of the life of a believer.
Are you a Christian? Do you pray? How often do you pray in secret? When did you last go to a prayer meeting? I could press the question further and ask, Do you meet with God’s people each week? Do you make it your aim to be with them whenever they meet? And do you see ill-health or an emergency as the only reasons for not being at a church meeting?
You do not have, says James the brother of our Lord, because you do not ask (James iv.2). How then can you expect to grow like Jesus Christ and see the growth of the Church if you do not ask? Those who do not ask in secret, and fail to ask for the same with other Christians, cannot expect growth.
Why do some neglect church prayer meetings? What do they do whilst their colleagues meet to pray? What activity is more important than time with God in prayer? Do they have the wrong priorities? Or is there another reason?
I sincerely hope that the fault does not lie with how a person prays in a prayer meeting. I do not say that all prayer meetings are perfect. I recognise that they are not. Christians are not yet perfect. Yes, God accounts them as perfect in Christ. That is what he does for all who are united to Christ through faith. But a state of personal perfection is not experienced in this age. Such is what believers enjoy after life on this world. It is what they shall enjoy in the new heavens and new earth for it is there that there is no imperfection, sin or death.
What faults should we seek to avoid when we pray together? I will mention just three.
First, some prayers may be too long. I am not saying that all prayers should be short. Nor am I saying that we should limit ourselves to but a few minutes. However it is better for those at a prayer meeting to want a prayer to be longer rather than shorter.There are a number of reasons why a prayer may be deemed be too long. One has to do with the attention span of others in a meeting. The longer a spoken aloud prayer is, the more likely it is that some in the meeting will lose track of the content of the prayer. Once that happens it increases the possibility that others will not be able to add a meaningful and heartfelt Amen at the end of the prayer. It is better to restrict a prayer to a clearly focused subject or topic than to meander without a distinct request or thanksgiving.
A second reason why a prayer may prove too long has to do with a needless narration of circumstances or details. Some are apt in their public prayers to give too much background information or to allow themselves to enlarge on minor aspects of the subject of the prayer. Again, it is better to err on the side of brevity rather than to risk losing others in details.
Thirdly, some prayers prove too long because they contain too much repetition. It has been accurately observed that some are apt to spin a prayer out when we have little to say. In those circumstances it is better to keep a petition or an expression of thankfulness short and sweet rather than to ramble. The shorter a prayer is the more likely it is that others will be able to join in the affirming of it with their voiced Amen at the end. Arrow prayers, as short petitions are sometimes called, are acceptable and commendable.
The idea that a long pray is a more valid prayer is a notion that should be critically questioned. What matters is that we have hearts prepared for prayer by the Lord. Those who pray sincerely are those who know by the Spirit of God that they are his children by adoption. Or as John Newton expresses it, The spirit of prayer is the fruit and token of the Spirit of adoption.
A second fault to be avoided is that of turning prayers into sermons. Whilst it is true that we are to address God in a humble and reverent manner, it is also true that we are not to make a prayer a stating of what we know about God. Yes, we will use his appropriate titles as we address him. And yes, we will also make reference to aspects of his character and his promises. But, in prayer, we are not to tell others what God has revealed in his Word. Rather we are to present before him the praise, petitions and penitence of his people. Yes, our prayers are to be biblical and evangelical in content and character. They are also to express the heartfelt desires, feelings and wants of the soul.
Books on prayer may, and frequently do, prove valuable to us. However we need to guard against learning to pray in a mechanical fashion. The whole person is to be engaged when we pray, not just our minds. When we pray we ought to take care that we draw near in a humble manner which properly expresses our complete unworthiness before God.
A third fault to be avoided concerns the tone and volume of our prayers. There are two extremes to be avoided: speaking too loudly and speaking too softly.
We need to take note of the place of prayer. Is it in a large room? If it is we will probably need to speak up if others are to hear.
We need to take note of the people with whom we pray. Are any hard of hearing? We will need to speak up. Are any very sensitive? We need to think about speaking more softly.
We also need to take note of the petition we pray. A prayer of confession prayed in a flippant or jocular fashion is irreverent. An earnest request for help in the face of adversity prayed in a half-hearted manner betrays an air of hypocrisy.
The liberty believers enjoy in Christ Jesus does not justify superficiality or familiarity in prayer. Rather, the free access we enjoy in him encourages us to approach God acknowledging his glory and admitting our total unworthiness.
As we learn to pray we shall learn to avoid vain repetition and pretentious length. We will watch the way we express our penitence, petitions and praises. And we will seek, not to preach to but to pray with others.
EPC 30 October 2016