It’s a fair bet that most Christians would see prayer as a vital component of our relationship with God. We can bring our worries and troubles to our Father, we can ask for anything in Jesus’ name, we can be confident in our approach to God because of the blood of our saviour—these are all things we affirm and love.
This is good. Because each aspect of prayer to the Father is the gospel of grace in miniature. I have done nothing to earn the ear of the creator of the universe; quite the opposite, in fact. The relationship I now enjoy in prayer with my Lord is entirely his gracious gift.
So how is it that we can be so often and so easily deceived about and diverted from prayer? Well, for a start, we’re sinful creatures. And often lazy. Distractible. Not yet transformed into glory. Very often more interested in shiny things (or glowing screens) than the invisible, immortal God.
Taking advantage of our less-than-perfect features is the Deceiver—his title is a giveaway; he is very good at concocting lies. A very quick look at a couple of passages in the Bible will be sufficient for us to see Satan’s methods: Genesis 3 and Luke 4. Forewarned is forearmed, as they say; recognizing how the enemy works can give us insight into how to resist temptation when it comes.
In the garden of Eden, Satan starts out by appealing to a distortion of the truth, grounding his lies in something that is easy to believe if we’re not thinking straight. With Eve he works with the situation at hand: the fruit of the tree looks good to eat (Gen 3:6). He opens with a misquote they can both agree is wide of the mark: “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” (Gen 3:1). Eve over-corrects: “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die’” (Gen 3:2-3). This is the chink in the armour—not being entirely sure of God’s word. Pouncing on this, here comes the flat out lie: “You will not surely die” (Gen 3:4), and a suggestion that makes the lie attractive: “You will be like God” (Gen 3:5).
When he meets Jesus in the desert, Satan once again appeals to the situation: knowing Jesus is hungry, he tempts him to use his power to turn stones into bread (Luke 4:3). Answered this time with complete confidence in God’s word, the devil then moves to two subtle distortions of truth. Firstly, he offers Jesus the chance to share his authority (Luke 4:6-7)—but whatever authority the devil can claim over this world will not last forever, and most certainly pales in comparison to the authority Jesus has this side of his resurrection (cf. 1 Cor 15:20-28). Secondly, he appeals to the Scriptures themselves and tempts Jesus to put them to the test (Luke 4:9-11).
Clearly the two situations are different. In the abundance of Eden humanity wants more and falls; in the barrenness of the desert the ultimate human knows what he already has and resists. But notice how Satan approaches. Flat-out contradictions of truth would (hopefully) be easy enough to spot, but that’s not always the way that lies about prayer come to us. Often they’re distortions, with elements of truth twisted out of shape so that they appear to be something worth believing. They are, in fact, paths away from God. The devil doesn’t masquerade as an angel of light because he likes the look—it’s a means to the end of deceiving and blinding people to the glory of God.
So let’s look at some of the lies you and I might be tempted to believe about prayer.
You have no right to speak to God
“Just who do you think you are, to ask the ruler of the universe about something so insignificant as Jill’s flu, or the youth group outing next Friday? Remember your sinfulness—yes, especially that time last Wednesday…?”
Like the best lies, this one has some element of truth. I am unworthy, aren’t I? (Not just me, you too.) I’m not holy and good—and God cannot look upon anything that’s impure. It’s easy to see how this lie gets some traction.
The problem is that it leaves off a few extra words at the end of the sentence that significantly change the meaning.
During the late 1970s and 1980s, Microsoft grew from a hobbyist pastime to one of the most pervasive companies in history. The vision they had was “a computer on every desk and in every home”. Well, that was the vision they communicated to the outside world; internally the vision was “a computer on every desk and in every home running Microsoft software”. Those three extra words were critical to properly understanding their vision.
“You have no right to speak to God” is a sentence that’s missing some key words for it to be true. “You have no right to speak to God on your own terms”, or “You have no right to speak to God apart from Jesus Christ” would be true statements. But for Christians, because we trust in Jesus’ death for us and his resurrection as our Lord, we don’t approach God on our own terms, on our own authority, or even simply on our own:
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. (Heb 10:19-22)
Because of Jesus’ sacrificial death for us, and because he is the risen and ascendant Lord of all, we can confidently approach the Father. We don’t come alone; we have one who speaks to the Father in our defence with us. We don’t come on our own terms, we come because of Jesus’ blood, shed for us. So talk to your Father; his Son has made it possible.
Prayer doesn’t really do much
“Forgot to pray today? Don’t worry. You can get to it tomorrow. I mean, it’s not like it does anything anyway. It’s just a safety blanket to make you feel a bit better about life.”
‘Prayer just makes you feel better’ is a too-small view of prayer that, oddly, can come from two quite different ideas about God. If you think that God is not the complete ruler over creation, and not able to do whatever it is that he wills, then it makes a lot of sense that you would conclude that prayer doesn’t really do much. A too-small view of God creates a too-small view of prayer.
The obvious problem with this is that it’s quite contrary to what the Scriptures teach. Jesus himself, for example, tells his followers that he will do whatever they ask in his name—he is able to do it, so the disciple’s act of asking is therefore effective:
“Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.” (John 14:13-14)
A similar feeling of ‘prayer just doesn’t really do anything’ can also come from quite a different picture of God—one acknowledging him as the ultimate ruler. It is astonishingly easy to take something about God that is true, and apply it in the wrong way, to the wrong area of life.
Here’s how the logic can go: We trust in a sovereign Lord. He is absolutely in control of all things. Nothing is outside his grasp. He decided on the history of the world before it even began, so it doesn’t matter if I pray, because it’s not going to change anything.
What we’re missing here is the context of prayer, putting just one possible purpose at the centre of everything. Being the pragmatic people we so often are, we elevate the outcome of prayer (i.e. changing a situation) over what prayer is (i.e. communication that is an expression of relationship). I’d be disappointed if my daughter thought it wasn’t worth talking with me just because I’d already decided on dinner. That would be an extreme example of putting the outcome (“I want ice-cream for dinner”) over the relationship (“Let’s talk about tomorrow, or what’s troubling you, or what you did today that made other people happy”).
Prayer is more than asking for certain outcomes. Look up some of Paul’s prayers. You’ll find thanksgiving (Col 1:3-8; 1 Thess 1:2-3) and praise and glory (Eph 3:20-21; Phil 4:20) alongside requests for people and situations. Paul’s prayer is expressive of his love for others and his deep confidence that his heavenly Father is the one able to establish, confirm, and grow his people (Eph 3:14-19; Phil 2:9-11; Col 1:9-14), and spread his gospel (Eph 6:19-20; Col 1:3-6). Paul is an excellent example of both delighting in the relationship he has with God, and being confident in the outcome of prayer, because God is sovereign and good.
Jesus and his apostles delighted in prayer, and were confident that God had decided to use the prayers of his saints in bringing about his will. In his sovereignty God includes and uses our prayers—why else would James say, “You do not have, because you do not ask” (Jas 4:2)? If we end up with a consistent practice of not bringing all things before our Father in heaven because it doesn’t make any difference, then we’re doing it wrong.
Spontaneity is the important thing
“‘Authentic.’ ‘Genuine.’ ‘Real.’ How could you write out a prayer—or worse, take a prayer written by someone else a long time ago—and think that reading it out in prayer could possibly be an authentic, genuine, heart-felt expression of who you are and your relationship to God?”
As the first item of defence against this particular lie, I submit the Lord’s Prayer as exhibit A. Is Jesus’ pattern of prayer an inauthentic expression of faith? Is it somehow less than ideal?
Writing something down doesn’t exclude the possibility of it being heart-felt and genuine. For lots of us, because we don’t practice prayer very much (I’m looking hard in the mirror as I say this), relying on what we think of at the time is an excellent way to ensure that what we say is relatively shallow and careless. Now this isn’t an argument for necessarily writing out prayers word-for-word, always and everywhere; I just want us to be thoughtful about who and what we pray for. I want us to lift our eyes from the everyday to what God is doing in the world, and pray about all of it.
I’m self-centred and forgetful, so the things that come readily to mind when I pray are largely about me. And, if you’re lucky enough to be in my close circle of family and friends, or in my quite recent past, maybe about you too. It’s very easy to not think beyond my immediate concerns. The Lord’s Prayer, in contrast, gets me to praise God for who he is (“hallowed be your name”) and pray about the grander purposes for this world (“your kingdom come”). I do pray about my concerns (“give us today our daily bread”; “forgive us our debts”; “lead us not into temptation”), but it’s clear there is more to prayer than personal things.
This self-centredness isn’t great for personal prayer, but when it comes to praying in public (e.g. in a church gathering) it turns into real disservice to others. Jesus’ pattern of prayer modelled dependence on God with a wide scope. Paul’s prayers are similarly broader than day-to-day concerns. If my congregational prayer is only for the things at the forefront of my mind, then I’m modelling a too-narrow version of prayer.
It may be that reading out a prayer (at church, or in a growth group, for example) sounds too formal and too unlike your normal voice. If so, I suggest that rather than ditching writing things out, maybe practice reading them well. At the very least, if you prefer to be more extemporary, think carefully about what you want to pray and jot down some notes to guide you. Then you won’t distract others into thinking about how weird/formal/boring you sound, but they’ll be able to concentrate on what you’re saying, be encouraged to pray likewise, and say “Amen” as you finish.
Distraction’s okay; God knows what you need
“Jen sent you a message on Facebook. That report is due tomorrow. Have you called Leo yet? God knows your heart; he knows that you need to get through this to-do list. Prayer can wait.”
Busy? Join the club. Getting distracted from prayer because of other things is one of the easiest things in the world. There’s a real discipline in setting aside time to pray (just as there is for any other relationship).
You might have encountered a variation of this kind of distracted busyness in a growth group. On one of those nights where you’re pushed for time (aren’t they all like that?), and the members of the group share points for prayer, you all realize that you’re out of time to actually pray. Someone says “Don’t worry, God’s heard it all”, and you head home.
It’s not untrue, but not strictly helpful, either. Remember, prayer isn’t a transactional exercise where we get a certain outcome by asking for it; it’s expressive of a real and living relationship. So running out of time and therefore neglecting prayer because you spent too long talking to your friends—or working, or writing on Facebook, or whatever—is not the best showing.
What to do about this particular temptation? Pray now. Don’t put it off and get distracted and forget what you were going to do. If necessary, put this magazine down now and go pray. I’ve started adopting a habit where, when I can, I don’t respond to prayer requests with “I will pray for you”. Instead, I say “I’ve just prayed about this” (it only counts if you actually prayed). It makes me stop and pray then, rather than forget to do so later.
Your needs are really important
“Okay, fine, pray. But do remember to pray for yourself. After all, you’re dealing with a lot right now. Maybe you should make a list of all the things in your life you’d like God to deal with. Carve out some space, because this is going to take some time to work through.”
This temptation is what often happens when we’re thoughtless about the content of our prayers. We fall into praying mainly for ourselves and our needs, neglecting other things that we ought to pray about. Why is this a problem? It’s a pattern of thought by which we effectively claim that our needs (wants, usually) are more important than others.
Jesus taught us to pray for our daily bread, and used life itself and clothing as examples of how God cares for his children (Matthew 6). Absent from this description of what we are promised is comfort, happiness, a fulfilling career, or even personal safety (cf. the life of the Apostle Paul). So spending all our time praying for the things we want, let alone the things we need, is a rather self-centred way of speaking with the Lord Almighty.
I’m not saying that asking for things from God is somehow deficient. Or that asking for things personally is wrong. Paul and Peter both write about casting our anxieties upon God (Phil 4:6; 1 Pet 5:6-8)—clearly prayer about our personal circumstances is a good thing to be encouraged. But if that’s all we do, or what constitutes the overwhelming bulk of our time in prayer, then maybe the balance is a bit off.
We very often neglect thanksgiving. I have an exercise I do with my growth groups occasionally; it even works in an open prayer session in church. Because we are generally poor at giving thanks and praise to God, and prefer to move straight to asking for things, we’ll spend time in thanksgiving, and only thanksgiving. So it’s a time of prayer, but the rules are that you can’t ask for anything. Giving thanks for answered prayer and for generous provision, praising the character of God—all permitted and encouraged. It’s quite remarkable how difficult it is to spend more than a few minutes doing this together in a group, despite the vast array of things for which we can be thankful.
Simple solutions are often the best. Why not make a practice of collecting together a variety of prayer points for others (I find my own ones easy to remember), and put them together in one place so you can work through them in prayer? Some people prefer a diary. Others stick the newsletters from mission organizations, campus groups, or evangelists on their fridge/mirror/etc. I put everything in an iPhone app, because I’m a nerd and I always have it with me. The app, PrayerMate, not only catalogues it all but also reminds me to pray on a schedule I define, and works me through the entire list. Do whatever works for you, but do try to keep the horizons of your intercession broader than your own desires.
These are just a selection of the possible untruths concerning prayer that might cross your mind. You may have an entirely different selection of lies that you’re resisting. Whatever the case, we have an extraordinary privilege in prayer to approach the Father in heaven, casting our anxieties on him, confident in his love and care for us because of the one who stands in our defence, Jesus Christ. Let’s not forget that, and let’s keep praising God, giving him thanks in all things, and bringing our lives before him.