Improving Our Praying
We all perhaps would have to admit that we do not pray as often as we should. That admission, while it may shame and grieve us, would probably not surprise us. However, what may surprise us is the fact that few, if any of us, pray as often as we think we do. This is so because not all of what we consider to be prayer is by our God considered to be prayer; and if He does not regard our words as prayers, then we are not praying, however piously we may think we are.
The Word of God alerts us to the humbling reality that we do not know how to pray as we ought. Read what Paul has to say about this in Romans 8:26,27. The fact that the disciples had to ask Jesus to teach them to pray (Lk. 11:1 ff), and that Jesus did so, giving them (and us) the Lord’s Prayer, also indicates to us that the matter of our praying is not as simple as our addressing ourselves to our God.
There are reasons why some of our prayers are not by God considered to be prayers. These reasons tend to fall into two categories: 1) our praying in ignorance; 2) the misguiding of our prayers. The disqualification of our prayers due to our ignorance can be remedied by our study of the Word of God that is full of model prayers. There are in Scripture recorded for our edification and emulation prayers of Moses, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Daniel. There are prayers abounding in the Psalter, and we have prayers of some of the apostles recorded in the New Testament. Supremely, we have some of the prayers of our Lord Jesus summarily recorded for us, especially His high priestly prayer in John 17. Finally, Jesus gave to us a specific form of prayer in the Lord’s Prayer, that, as our Larger Catechism question #187 rightly tells us, can be to us both a model prayer and a prayer we actually pray. In fact, the Larger Catechism deals extensively with prayer in questions 178-196.
With such abundant resources of knowledge at our disposal, our ignorance regarding how we are to pray can be rather quickly overcome. However, the correction of our misguided prayers is a more difficult matter. For example, in a formal sense the Pharisee’s prayer (Lk. 18:10-12) has some commendable elements to it. He addresses God with thanks for the manifold blessing of his supposed deliverance from the cursed way of sinners. Yet, because his heart was full of pride-as though he had attained his distinction by self effort and inherent worthiness-his prayer is significantly noted by Luke to be to himself and not to God. Even if he had addressed himself to God, who is opposed to the proud, the Lord would have rejected it. Such divine refusal of requests we assume to be prayerful is certainly different from our Lord’s granting or even from His denying our requests.
Perhaps an embarrassingly large amount of our praying is disqualified because we address ourselves to matters that our heavenly Father refuses to hear. James tells us that we lack answers to some of our prayers because we ask amiss (Jas. 4:3). More precisely, James tells us that if our own personal pleasure is the prompting and controlling feature of our prayer, then we can expect to receive no divine response to it.
Related to this, we can instructively observe in many of the psalms a significant shift taking place. The psalmist may begin in a rather self-regarding way, being concerned with, if not consumed by, fear of his enemies. Yet as the psalmist prays, his focus is turned from his foes to his heavenly Father. In Psalm 5, for example, David begins with cries about his enemies, but ends with comfort in His Lord. When Jesus gave us the Lord’s Prayer, He began with our heavenly Father and His glory, then moved on to the matter of our daily bread. Many of our prayers are misguided by carnal self-regard that never allows us to ascend to our having a concern for the glory of our God, or even for our own sanctification, but rather shackles us to an obsession with our own immediate and petty gratification.
The failure and futility of misguided prayers can afflict an individual, a family, a church, a nation. Surely, we as a nation would do well to pray less for the downfall of terrorists and the up-building of national defense, and more for personal and national repentance and righteousness that alone exalts a people. Again from Psalm 5, David prays: O Lord, lead me in Thy righteousness because of my foes (v.8). He does not ask the Lord for a greater army or more powerful weapons, but cries out to be shielded from his foes by his walking in a right way with his God. Who can say how disarmed the swelling number of Muslims who view our nation as the great Satan would be were they to behold how we, as a people, truly loved the Lord and one another, and devoted ourselves more to righteousness and less to our material riches.
Too much of our praying can be taken up with our outward circumstance. We cry to our Lord, asking Him to change the people surrounding us who do not affirm us, who ignore or afflict us. We ask God to supply what we perceive to be deficiencies in His wise, merciful, and abounding providence. While it is not wrong for us to ask our heavenly Father that He would regard and rectify wrong situations in the world around us, surely the Word of God leads us to an understanding that the prayer we should be more frequently offering with absolute assurance that our Lord would hear and answer it is: Lord, be merciful to me, the sinner.
Pastor Immanuel Presbyterian Church, Norfolk, Virginia
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