Prayer

The idea for this meeting was, as ever, to get down to brass tacks in the subject at hand, which on this occasion was ‘prayer’. Although the discussion was informal, there was a structure to it, in the form of questions, which went roughly as follows.

What is it?

‘Speaking to God’ was the simplest definition we came up with. Considering the variety of things we say to God, an acronym was suggested which might help people who ask for our help in knowing what or how to pray. ‘ACTS’ reminds us of A for Adoration; we start by addressing God’s greatness. We could then go on to C for Confession, whereby we acknowledge our sins, and confess our trust in the pardon Jesus secured for us at Calvary. T for Thanksgiving prompts us to think through some of the helps we’ve received since we last spoke to God. The final reminder can be used concurrently with the third: S for Supplication comes last, as our needs should rightly be seen as of lesser importance than the rest. Having said that, the Lord will listen to the saints’ prayers, even if they take a different form. Sometimes, of course, we are so burdened with our concerns that we rush in to God’s throne room without much thought about honouring him. Nevertheless, as long as this isn’t the norm for our prayers, we shouldn’t feel too bad.

Who can do it?

Everyone can start talking to God and, in terms of his omniscience, he hears everything. However, in another sense he doesn’t hear (i.e. ignores) the prayers of the wicked. One example was given where an unbeliever was being given the material things he prayed for, even though he didn’t really believe in God! This shows how many of the principles we see in the Bible are true only generally, and God often does something different in his own wisdom. Maybe the one in the example was elect. Another possibility mentioned was that God will give the unbeliever what he wants in order to add to his condemnation at the judgement. Another brother gave the example of the Hebrews in the wilderness. Although they were in rebellion against God, they were given the meat they moaned for, but God sent leanness into their souls.

However, there is clear reference in the Bible that God delights to hear the prayers of his own beloved people, and this should be an encouragement to us. There are occasions when there are conditions before coming to God in prayer, though, such as the need for reconciliation with your brother.

Some believers in the Bible, and in the history of the church, have complained that God is far from them, and that he’s ignoring their prayers. Unless these people are in wilful rebellion against God, we can be fairly sure that God is listening. However, he sometimes makes a person wait before making his presence known, and he does this for different reasons, which we can only begin to fathom.

How should it be done?

The Bible gives a number of examples where God was, if you like, pestered into answering requests! Jacob wrestling with the Son of God was one, and the same saviour’s own example of the man who knocked at his mate’s door late one night, harassing him to borrow some food for a visitor. ‘Importunity’, the Bible calls it, and there’s no doubt that we’re encouraged to keep asking God until he answers.

The boldness we’re to approach God with should be tempered with a constant awareness of who we’re talking to. Not only is he a father who loves us more than any person ever could, but he is still the holy God of heaven, and our attitude should reflect both.

This led us to think about whether we should seek God’s face in a spirit of joy for our salvation or mourning because of sin. Again, it was agreed we should be looking to foster a holy mixture of both.

What about people who pray to Jesus, or the Holy Spirit, rather than the Father? The guidance given by Jesus is clearly to pray to the Father, in Christ’s name, by the intercessory power of the Holy Ghost. Are there any examples of believers addressing the ascended Jesus? Two were mentioned: Stephen, as he was being stoned to death, and Paul on the Damascus Road. However, these were unusual circumstances, where Jesus was either appearing in a vision or speaking in an audible voice, so it wouldn’t be reasonable to use these as excuses to make praying to Jesus our usual method. Most of the men were of the opinion that it’s okay to sometimes pray to Jesus or the Holy Spirit, though at least one believed we never should.

Where should we pray?

The challenge of Jesus to pray in secret was aimed at a particular habit. Pharisees were showing off in their prayers, so they were told to pray in private. Doing so would deny them the glory they desired, so it was a great challenge. However, it shouldn’t apply to us! For that reason it’s okay to go to prayer meetings.

We should remember, though, the value of private prayer. In this, we can draw closer to God in a way which we usually can’t in prayer meetings. Most people feel they can really pour their heart out more in secret prayer than when with others.

Examples of locations for prayer in the Bible include bedrooms, gardens, rooftops and up mountains.

What position should we adopt?

While it was acknowledged that the Bible contains all manner of positions taken during prayer, there was some concern that a local church should not display them all, as it might constitute being disorderly. Others felt people should do whatever they are moved to do.

In scripture, we see people standing with their arms raised in the air, kneeling, and lying on the ground. Assuming these were all acceptable to God, none should be forbidden in the assembly of the saints; nevertheless, a couple of brothers still contended that a sense of uniformity should be evident.

It was generally agreed that we get into common habits in corporate prayer because of the culture we belong to, with the typical British man tending to be more reserved than, say, his brothers in African churches.

How often should we pray?

The fundamental question is this: do we have a right to censure people for not praying often enough? That brings us to look in the Bible, and there is no clear command to spend time on our knees for a certain number of times each year. So can we pray once a year and make it regular? Is that good enough?

If we were to counsel someone who asks for guidance for their prayer life, we could answer with the over-riding ‘without ceasing’ argument; but if they ask for a definite frequency of private prayer, we do have some guidance in the Bible we can pass on to them. Firstly, the model prayer given to us by Jesus includes the line, ‘Give us this day our daily bread’. Another example is the daily provision of manna to the Hebrews in the wilderness. Both examples encourage day by day reliance on God, and this should move us to pray on a daily basis.

If it is daily, when should we pray?

There are some examples for us in the Bible where people prayed in the morning, at noon, and in the evening, or even spent the whole night in prayer.

The recommendation to ‘pray without ceasing’ has given rise to a number of explanations from Bible students and commentators. Some say it means we should pray as long as we can throughout the day, though everyone admits that audible prayer throughout the day is not usually possible. Still, apart from private supplication to God, and in the gathering of the Lord’s people, we can still speak to God in our own hearts during the rest of the day. Remembering to do it, of course, is another matter.

How long should we spend in prayer?

Again, we cannot say to someone that their five minutes a day isn’t enough, any more than we should expect a certain length of time in Bible-reading from them. We are usually impressed by those who spend the most time in prayer, believing it tells us how ‘spiritual’ they are, which is unwise.

Martin Luther said he couldn’t get through the day unless he spent two to three hours in prayer in the morning! We think in human terms, whereby more time in prayer means less time remaining for other things. While this is true from man’s perspective, God inhabits eternity, and his daily provision is not limited by time. For example, he can see that you accomplish a task in a fraction of the time it would normally take, if he so desires. Some people have testified that the more time they spend in prayer, the more they get done in the rest of the day. Others may have never experienced this.

A frequent complaint is that prayer meetings sometimes contain individuals who pray too long. One brother pointed out that this might not be about others’ lack of enthusiasm for prayer. There are people, yes, who want to just get home as soon as possible every week. Others, though, might like to extend the prayer meeting for several hours. Their complaint is that, when individuals pray for too long (for fifteen minutes, say), it’s hard for others to maintain concentration. Sitting with your eyes closed for ten or fifteen minutes, while a monotone voice delivers a mini sermon, can have the same effect as taking sleeping pills.

Occasionally, there are those whose prayers are easier to listen to, but good practice should be that each person prays for a minute or two, and speaks again a while later if there’s anything else they want to pray for. This should make for a more enjoyable and lively meeting.

What should we ask for?

A quick word search for ‘pray’, ‘prayer’ and ‘praying’ doesn’t give every example of people addressing God; but it does furnish us with a pile of examples of things people asked for throughout Bible history. Some of these are listed here, but this doesn’t mean we should emulate them. Especially with Old Testament scriptures, care should be taken to view them in the light of the Bible’s later, clearer revelation. Prayers were made:

  • To heal people of physical disease and infirmity
  • On behalf of God’s people, including confession on their behalf
  • For God’s help, when persecution came
  • That God’s enemies would be confused in their scheming
  • For the supplicant’s death, so that their countrymen would be spared
  • To bring dead people back to life
  • Asking for God to destroy his enemies, that he might be glorified
  • Seeking the good of enemies
  • For God to raise up gospel preachers
  • For those in prison for Christ’s sake

We remembered Cromwell’s adage, ‘Put your trust in God, and keep your powder dry.’ Regardless of our opinion on the man, the saying is very much Biblical. The principle is that, when we have prayed, we should not neglect the use of means. The Jews rebuilding the temple in the time of Nehemiah prayed for God’s protection, then posted guards to keep watch night and day. Rather than being a lack of faith in God, it was a proper use of the common sense God gave them. The Lord himself told Joseph and Mary to flee to Egypt to escape the slaughter of the children by Herod.

On many occasions, especially in the Psalms, the prayer was begun with a request that God be willing to hear the petitions to follow. Interestingly, we also see again and again the saints reminding God about his promises or past dealings with them. This is another approach which might seem strange. God knows all, so doesn’t strictly need reminding of anything; but we know it’s a valid way to draw near to him. We could say, ‘Lord, you promised in your word to give the Holy Spirit to those that ask you, so I’m asking you now to do it.’ This use of God’s promises shouldn’t be thought of as holding God to ransom, but rather showing him you trust his faithfulness to do what he has said. You could also say, ‘Father, remember how you delivered Daniel out of the mouth of the lions? We ask you to deliver us now from this tribulation.’

These two examples brought us to think about a brother’s question: what if you’re not sure if you’re asking amiss? Should you pray for someone’s salvation, not knowing if they’re elect or not? This is a difficult question. All we can do is pray in this way according to the burden we have for them. Paul the apostle expressed his desire that the whole country was saved, even if it meant him suffering a lost eternity. (Such love!)

There is a clause we can use as much as we want when praying without knowledge of God’s will. Jesus gave the example when he prayed to our Father, ‘Let this cup pass from me…nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.’ We make our request, then confess that we want his will to be done, not ours, as his is always right.


APPENDIX: Top Ten Tips for good prayer meetings

There are a few things people should avoid in their corporate prayer, some of which were discussed during the men’s meeting.

  1. Don’t bore people with long prayers. If you have ten minutes’ worth of things to say, pray for a couple of minutes in three separate chunks, rather than one long prayer. We promise you: your prayer isn’t as interesting as you think, and we’re probably asleep anyway.
  2. Don’t use annoying repetitions. If the preacher does it, you complain. You expect him to make the effort to use different words—you know, mix things up a bit. The evangelical Christian’s all time favourite repetition in prayer is ‘Lord’. ‘This, Lord, that, Lord…’ You could use ‘God’, or ‘Father’ instead, or just stop addressing him every two seconds. He knows you’re talking to him, so doesn’t need constant reminders.
  3. Don’t use extra words for nothing. Padding things out is for Pharisees and lawyers. Avoid the famous, ‘Your own and personal saviour’, if you simply mean ‘Your saviour’. And using two words which mean the same thing is also just lazy padding-out. For example, ‘many and numerous’ mean the same thing, as do, ‘in any way, shape or form’, and so on. Just pick one.
  4. Don’t use words no-one understands. If you’re a whizz at English language, or you’re quoting things out of the Bible, you might be tempted to use language that no-one gets. One young English graduate prayed that we might enjoy ‘rhapsodic moments with God’. There’s no need for it. Use ordinary language that a well-versed ten year old could get. Overly flowery language was the art of the Victorian pulpiteer, and has no place in our meetings.
  5. Don’t praise people in the prayer meeting. This is mainly worded as thanks to God for helping Mrs. X do a fantastic job, etc. For a start, you’re embarrassing everyone—not least, the one you’re talking about. You’re also only telling half the story. You wouldn’t use the time to talk about all the sins they’ve committed, would you? Yet there’s probably a lot more material there!
  6. Don’t get into the habit of not praying. Your public prayers are an encouragement to the other believers, and are welcomed by God. Even if you think you’re no good at praying, it doesn’t matter; and don’t be worried too much by ‘Top Ten’ Lists for praying!  😉  The real believers won’t care if your prayer sounds like a struggle, as they were the same when they were new to it. Your prayers will ‘flow’ more with experience.
  7. Don’t eat a big meal before the prayer meeting. With a full belly, you’re far more likely to end up in the land of Nod, and we don’t mean the one in the Bible.
  8. Don’t talk loudly while someone else is praying. Sometimes, people will finish off scripture quotes, or thank God in response to something said, or occasionally say, ‘amen’ or ‘hallelujah’. This is great, as long as it’s not so loud that it puts off the one praying. This is mainly a problem in Pentecostal meetings, of course, and these sometimes have the entire congregation praying out loud at the same time!
  9. Don’t treat the brethren as a captive audience. We all know that some people’s prayers gradually change into a report about what they’ve been up to, who they’ve met, what the doctor said, and so on. They’ve stopped addressing God at this point. Sadly it’s often older, lonelier, people who do this. It’s a difficult one to tackle, without doubt.
  10. Don’t turn up to the meeting unprepared. The best prayer meetings are the ones where the people have prayed beforehand. Okay, we forget; but we need to ask God to be ready to hear us, prepare our hearts to pray aright, get us there safely, and so on. Preparing in advance can revolutionise the meetings.
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~ by Animus on January 18, 2012.

One Response to “Prayer”

  1. An objection was raised against one point made in this article. Someone suggested that recommending people put effort into making their prayers clear was likely to dissuade them from praying in public. I can see where they’re coming from, but I mostly disagree. Without doubt, we have no right to say these things to new believers. Let them break all the “rules” (as I pointed out in the original post!); but after twenty or thirty years of being a Christian, are these suggestions so objectionable?

    Hear what CH Spurgeon had to say about the issue.

    “Among the faults, which have largely disappeared from prayer-meetings as they used to be conducted in my early days, these were the principal ones. First, the excessive length of the prayers.

    “Cant phrases were another evil…[concerning silly metaphors]…Very many other perversions of Scripture, uncouth similes, and ridiculous metaphors…are a sort of spiritual slang, the offspring of unholy ignorance, unmanly imitation, or graceless hypocrisy; they are at once a dishonour to those who constantly repeat them, and an intolerable nuisance to those whose ears are jaded with them. They have had the most baneful effects upon our prayer-meetings, and we rejoice to assist in bringing them to their deserved and ignoble end.

    “Another evil was mistaking preaching for prayer…We hope that good men are leaving this unhallowed practice, and are beginning to see that sermons and doctrinal disquisitions are miserable substitutes for earnest wrestling prayers.

    “Monotonous repetition frequently occurred, and is not yet extinct.

    “…the man would be hardy, not to say foolhardy, who should affirm that there is now no room for further improvement. “Advance” must still be our motto, and in the matter of the prayer-meeting it will be found most suitable. Our brethren will excuse our offering them advice, and must take it only for what it is worth.”

    (Taken from his writings, ‘Only a Prayer Meeting’, at http://www.prayermeetings.org/Only_a_Prayer_Meeting.html)

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