3-9 How To Improve Prayer
The Lord in Gethsemane took a long time to pray the simple words: " Father, if ...." . It was long enough for the disciples to fight a losing battle against drowsiness and fall fast asleep (the Greek implies). But how do you pray? With simple, staccato words and phrases like His? Or do you desperately seek for words, any words, just to make it seem you prayed, trying to be like the more mature brethren you hear praying at gatherings? Or after many years of prayer, can I ask, are you just churning out the same old phrases and ideas, with little meaning put into the words...? If the Son of God Himself prayed in such simple terms, surely we ought to likewise. He was and is " harmless" (Heb. 7:26) in His priestly mediation; the same word is translated " simple" in Rom. 16:8. He was an intellectual beyond compare, morally and dialectically He defeated the most cunning cross-questioning of His day; and yet He was a working man surrounded by masses of daily problems. But He was and is " simple" in the sense of single-mindedly committed to His priestly work. We are on earth and God is in Heaven, and therefore our words should be few (Ecc. 5:2). Not few in the sense that we don't pray for very long, but few in terms of their simplicity and directness. The Lord warned us against the complicated prayer forms of the Pharisees; and asked us to mean our words of 'yes' and 'no' rather than use more sophisticated assurances. The heart is deceitful and so wicked we cannot plumb its depths (Jer. 17:9); and yet the pure in heart are blessed. This must surely mean that the " pure" in heart are those who despite the intrinsic self-deception of the human heart, are nonetheless " pure" or single hearted in their prayer and motives and desire to serve God.
Each statement of the apparently simple model prayer needs careful reflection.
He told the disciples in Gethsemane to earnestly pray the simple
saying: " pray not to fail in the test" (Mt. 26:41 cp.
6:13). The prayer that they could gabble mindlessly must be prayed
with intense attention to every phrase.
So believe in prayer being answered that you act and feel
as if it has been answered already. Jeremiah prayed from the dungeon:
"You have heard my voice" (Lam. 3:56)- and yet he begs
God to urgently save him. He doesn't beg God to hear him; he believed
that what he asked was as good as done. God had answered;
although Jeremiah was urging Him to answer in practice.
Don't just pray when you feel the need.
Don't pray out of anxiety alone, but as part of a way of life. Daniel (Dan.
6:10) and David (Ps. 55:17; 119:164) prayed regularly; the incense
(cp. prayer) was offered regularly. Daniel was even willing to forfeit
his life for the sake of showing openly his devotion to this practice.
5 minutes in the morning and at lunch time and 20 minutes at night
ought to be a minimum (plus before meals and the daily readings).
Speaking of his regular morning prayers, David wrote: " In
the morning will I order my prayer unto thee" (Ps. 5:3 RV).
Again there is the suggestion that he planned out ('ordered') his
words before saying them. Even Jesus seems to have prepared His
words before praying them. Consider Jn. 12:27 RVmg: " What
shall I say? Father, save me from this hour?" . But it appears
He decided against praying that.
Say "Amen" at the end of a prayer, out loud. "Amen"
comes from the same Hebrew root as he'min, to believe,
or, more strictly, "to affirm, recognize as valid". Thus
when we read that Abraham "put his trust" in God (Gen.
15:6) we are to understand that he 'said amen' to God's promises.
Maybe we need to reflect for a moment on what we have asked for
from God, which promises of His we have pleaded in our prayer- and
then 'Amen' it.
Don't just pray for yourself.
Prayer can easily become a form of spiritual selfishness. The majority of Bible prayers are for others. God will hear our prayers for others, provided they have a certain modicum of spirituality (James 5:16 cp. Jer. 14:12). If our prayers really can help others' on their salvation road- how we should use this! Remember Lot's deliverance for the sake of Abraham's prayers, whilst he unknowingly went about his daily life in those last hours. Reflect too how the Lord told us: " Pray ye may be accounted worthy to…be stood before the son of man" . Not 'pray for thyself', singular, but for the whole community of the last days.
Think what you are going to ask for in advance
Paul's description of praying " night and day" (1 Thess.
3:9,10) alludes to the sacrifices, prepared and offered " night
and day" (Ex. 30:7,8; Ps. 55:16,17). There was clearly an element
of preparation before offering the prayer, as there was before offering
a sacrifice. Note how Prov. 15:8 likewise parallels sacrifice with
prayer. Prayer ought to be a humbling experience, perhaps alluded
to by the incense, representing prayer, needing to be "beaten
small". Preparation of prayer involves humility. David takes
words of supplication to himself, which as King he must often have
heard from desperate citizens, and uses it in his own prayers to
God: "Save, Lord: let the king hear us when we call... A Psalm
of David" (Ps. 20:9). In this one sees a conscious humility
in how David formulated his prayers.
Make sure what you ask for is what you really want, according to
God's word. Recall how Jeremiah prayed against his Jewish persecutors:
" Give heed to me, O Lord, and hearken to the voice of them
that contend with me (note how he equates their words with his prayer,
as if God sees behaviour of others as prayer to Him concerning us)...they
have digged a pit for my soul...therefore deliver up their children
to the famine, and pour out their blood by the force of the sword;
and let their wives be bereaved of their children, and be widows;
and let their men be put to death; let their young men be slain
by the sword in battle...forgive not their iniquity, neither blot
out their sin from thy sight, but let them be overthrown before
thee" (Jer. 18:18-23). Yet Jeremiah spent much of the book
of Lamentations repeating these phrases, almost every one of them,
and pleading that God would not do this, and would relent
of fulfilling his earlier imprecation against Israel. Like Jeremiah,
we can all too easily pray for what we will later ask to be changed.
David prayed for deliverance from "the evil man", Saul;
he asked that Saul be slain and punished (Ps. 140:1,9,10). But when
this prayer was answered, David wept with the amazing lamentation
over Saul which we have in 2 Sam. 1. It's a lesson to think carefully
about what we're praying for, and imagine our response and situation
if actually the prayer is answered. We need to pray as if every
prayer will be answered, not just expressing our feelings
and immediate desires, as it seems David did in his prayer against
The glory of God must be our overshadowing influence. Hezekiah
so wanted to live longer, and he was given that request. But he
would have probably been better setting his hope on the future Kingdom
and not asking for something which may have cost him his salvation.
Jeremiah had used the phrase “there is nothing to hard for thee”
in his prayer; but the Father responded to him by saying: “Is there
anything too hard for me?” (Jer. 32:17,27). He was quoting Jeremiah’s
prayer back to him, and asking him if he really believed those words
he had used. And many of the words and phrases we pray we do well
to later reflect upon too.
Prayer is a sacrifice; it demands effort. The Jews prayed the afternoon prayer at 3p.m., when the sacrifices were being offered, to make this connection between prayer and sacrifice. Both Ezra (Ezra 9:5) and Daniel (Dan. 9:21) prayed at the time of the evening sacrifice. Clearly enough, prayer isn't something we just do half-heartedly, nor as a mindless duty, nor half asleep at night...it's a sacrifice.
There are of course times of crisis where we pray to God with open eyes, taking just a few seconds to cry out to Him in our time of need. Nehemiah's prayer before the King is an example of this (Neh. 2:4). Because God is pleased that we should turn to Him like this, let's not let all our prayers degenerate to this quick quick, over-and-done level. Prayer is likened to carefully prepared sacrifice, to painstakingly composed incense, beaten small (Ps. 141:2), mixed in just the right proportions. The penalty for not making the incense properly was death. Forethought will precede real prayer. It is an offering to God. And yet I sense our tendency is to rush into prayer, with the feeling that we are righteous simply because we are making the effort to pray at all. Think of Daniel, faced with a death sentence. It would have been my natural reaction to rush off a quick prayer to God, and ask for something dramatic to happen quickly. But Daniel asked that he would be given time to pray; he knew it would have to be serious prayer to save him from the situation, and he knew that involved time and effort (Dan. 2:16).
Try to allow gaps for meditation in between uttering statements in prayer. The Lord must surely have prayed like this when He prayed all night for guidance in choosing the twelve, or when He prayed the same brief words three times, during which time the disciples fell asleep. He prayed for a far longer time than it would take to just speak the words which He said. " Let this cup pass from me" may well have been punctuate by a few minutes between each word. To assist in this practically, perhaps whisper the words of your prayer out loud (this also guards against mind-wandering, the scourge of every prayerful man). Some Psalms seem to merge into God's answer; consider Moses' prayer for Joshua: " There shall no evil befall thee...he shall give his angels charge over thee...because he hath set his love upon me, I will deliver him...I will be with him in trouble" (Ps. 91). The request of Moses for Joshua merged into God's answer. We should come to sense a mutuality in prayer between us and the Father. God is attentive to our words in prayer (Ps. 17:1; Neh. 1:6) as we attend to His words (Prov. 4:1,20 s.w.). Likewise the Hebrew for " gracious" means literally to bow down; it is used both about God graciously bowing down to hear our prayers, and also of us bowing down to pray to Him (2 Chron. 6:37).
Prayer is intensely personal.
We should be saying and expressing things to God which are our most intense, essential, personal feelings. We cannot, therefore, easily use trite, stock phrases in our personal prayers. Note the gramatically needless repetition of the personal pronoun in Mt. 6:6: " When thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father, which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly" . Likewise when reading the Psalms, especially 71, note how many times David addresses God with the personal pronoun: thee, thy, thou…it really is a personal relationship.
True prayer is to be "in secret". There should be an appropriate modesty in speaking about it to others. Consider how Moses spent 40 days in intense intercession for Israel, and succeeded in changing God's mind. But he didn't tell them this for about 37 years, until Moses recounted it to the people at the end of his life in Dt. 9:18.
Tiredeness And Prayer
Have you noticed that we tend to yawn after we start praying? Or have you found that you really start feeing sleepy after beginning your evening prayers? This it seems to me is a very common obstacle amongst us to truly fervent, focused prayer. Because life is so frenetic, our brain is shocked when we do finally stop all the activity and sit still and mentally concentrate with our eyes closed. The brain figures something is wrong, and decides we need oxygen- hence the yawning. Simply be aware of this, and therefore consider making your main prayer at some time other than last thing at night.
Pray for the smallest things
The evidence presented in this chapter notwithstanding, don't be ashamed to pray to the Father for help in the smallest things. This is His will and pleasure for us. And don't be shy to pray for others, in apparently small things. Even the mighty Paul asked the Hebrew believers to pray for him because their prayers would hasten the day of his release (Heb. 13:19). We must pray not to be led into temptation (Mt. 6:13); but when we fall into such temptation (s.w.), count it all joy, James says (1:2). The exercise of praying not to experience those temptations was for our spiritual benefit, and God is willing that it should be so.
Remember that the Lord Jesus is agonizing for you in Heaven, groaning in spirit for your innermost desire to be granted. The language of Romans 8 about His intercession with groanings which cannot be uttered is to be connected with Hebrews 5 speaking of the Lord groaning with strong crying and tears on the cross. The point being that the intensity of His prayer there, struggling for every breath, is the same essential intensity with which He mediates for us now. He died “for us”, and yet right now He appears “before the face of God for us” (Heb. 9:24 RV). Thus there is a connection between His death and His ongoing mediation “for us”. We must struggle with Him, framing and offering our words in the full realization of the agonizing effort He is willing to make to intercede. Remember how Stephen saw the Lord Jesus standing at the right hand of the Heavenly throne, whereas many times in Hebrews we read of how He has sat down there, in contrast to Mosaic priests who stand up. Yet such was the Lord's passion in intercession for Stephen that He stood up from His usually seated position. And this is going on right now, and it will do for you, too, next time you give thanks for a meal in His name, and when you pray tonight. The risen and exalted Lord is spoken of as being shamed, being crucified afresh, as agonizing in prayer for us just as He did on the cross (Rom. 8:24 cp. Heb. 5:7-9). On the cross, He made intercession for us (Is. 53:11,12); but now He ever liveth to make such intercession (Heb. 7:25). There He bore our sins; and yet now He still bears our sins (Is. 53:4-6. 11).
So let's try to avoid giving God the dog-end of our day, drifting off to sleep as we pray. This is a besetting weakness of the majority of us. Without being ostentatious in the eyes of others, try to use a physical position which is conducive to concentration. There are Biblical examples of prayer standing, kneeling, sitting, sitting cross-legged, with hands uplifted... Remember how the Lord told the disciples to rise and pray; He could see that curled up as they were, they were more likely to nod off to sleep than intensely pray (Lk. 22:46). He had already told them to pray (v. 40), and doubtless they had obediently started praying, but had fallen asleep while doing so. " Rise and pray" surely suggests: 'Come on men, I told you to pray, but you can't pray lounging around like that!'. And I would bet many of us need the same words.