How to Pray

If you want to learn to pray, then you can do no better than listen to what Jesus said about prayer. Thankfully Jesus’ first disciples asked him plainly to teach them to pray and his instruction has been written down for us. It’s there for you to read in God’s word today, because God knows that we need help praying and he wants to help us.

Read Luke 11:1-13:

One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.’
He said to them, ‘When you pray, say:

‘“Father,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins,
for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.
And lead us not into temptation.”’

Then Jesus said to them, ‘Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, “Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.” And suppose the one inside answers, “Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.” I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.

‘So I say to you: ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

‘Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’
(Luke 11:1-13, NIV, Anglicised)

The Importance of Prayer

Martyn Lloyd Jones, the famous Welsh preacher, one of the giants of the church in the 20th century, said that “prayer is beyond any question the highest activity of the human soul.”

Prayer is important! We know prayer is important because Jesus prayed. If Jesus, the Son of God, needed to pray, then we definitely need to pray! Jesus made time and space for prayer. It says in Luke, chapter 5:

Yet the news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their illnesses. But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.
(Luke 5:15-16, NIV, Anglicised)

Think of the kind of schedule Jesus had during his ministry travelling around. Think of his work. Imagine the things that Jesus would do in a day. Crowds following him everywhere. Disciples, eager to be taught, who had left everything to follow and depend on him. Teaching to be done. Proclaiming the gospel. Driving out evil spirits. Healing people, setting them free from bondage to injury or disease. He looked at all that work, all of that need and still he withdrew from it to pray. Prayer first.

Now I guarantee you, your job is not more important than the ministry of the Son of God. If he had to make time for prayer, then we definitely need to do that. If the Son of God needed prayer, then how much more must I need it!? Jesus never sinned. Never had to confess sin, never had to seek forgiveness for anything he did. I do. Every day! There’s a whole category of prayer that I need that Jesus didn’t!

We need to pray. Don’t just settle for praying when you’re scared about something or when you come to church, build it into your daily life.

God-Centred Prayer

So the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray, and he does, and we still have that teaching, thank God. And Christians all over the world, throughout the denominations are united in praying the prayer that he taught his disciples to pray.

When Jesus instructed his disciples to pray he gave us a prayer that exalts God and humbles us. Our first request is that God’s name would be made holy. Holy to us, holy in our communities, holy all over the world. We want people to regard God with reverence, awe and worship. 

The requests that we make for ourselves are simple humble requests that remind us of our daily need for simple things and how weak and sinful we are. 

The Lord’s Prayer shows us that good prayer is God-centred prayer. Prayer that exalts God and humbles us. Whatever version of the Lord’s prayer you use — Luke’s or Matthew’s (which has a little more detail), or the liturgical version you most often hear said in church — the focus of this prayer is on God. Hallowed be your name, Father. May your kingdom come. Not me and my name, not my kingdom, not anyone else, but God.

Even when we get to talking about ourselves the requests are simple, humble requests. We don’t pray that we might also be honoured and that our will might also be done. We pray just that we would have enough bread for today, that God would forgive us and protect us so that we can live the kind of life that glorifies him. This is a good prayer because it is a God-centred, God-exalting prayer.

Bad prayer is not God-centred. Bad prayer doesn’t even treat God like God. Bad prayer is the kind of prayer where you start with you and your desires and your will and you decide that you’re going to say the right words, with the right feeling in them, in the right place, and then it’ll work. You’ll get what you want. This is what I call “vending-machine prayer”. We treat God like a vending machine. Walk up, decide what you want, put the right amount in, press the right buttons and get it. And we get angry when it doesn’t work.

This bad kind of prayer people expect to work like magic like some kind of witchcraft. Say the right words, make the right sacrifice, dance the special dance, and you get what you want. But if that is your belief, who are you really trying to put in control? Who is really important if you pray with that sort of prayer? You! You get what you want because you pushed the right buttons, said the right words, went to the right church. That kind of false belief attempts to convince you that you’re in control. 

Compare that to the Lord’s prayer. Father, I am not in control nor do I want to be. May you be honoured, may your will be done. As for me, please give me bread and forgiveness and protection.

The Lord’s Prayer is our model for good prayer.

Persistence

What else does Jesus say about prayer. In verses 5 to 10, Jesus tells a little parable to illustrate the point that we should be persistent in prayer:

Then Jesus said to them, ‘Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, “Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.” And suppose the one inside answers, “Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.” I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.

‘So I say to you: ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
(Luke 11:5-10, NIV, Anglicised)

It’s a strange parable. So are we supposed to just nag God into submission? Is this saying that God doesn’t really want to help us but he will if he has to in order to get rid of us so he can have some peace?! No! Please don’t take that away from this story.

The point is simply this: ask, seek, knock, be persistent. God is not a reluctant neighbour, the whole rest of the Bible argues against that. God is your Father in Christ. 

This story is told to a people living in a culture where hospitality to guests who have arrived was so so important. If you travelled somewhere in this country you didn’t stay at a B&B, you stayed with your cousin or other relative. If someone came to you you were obliged to host them and feed them and if your neighbour needed help you helped them. Because in these communities you had to look out for one another.

So if this happened to you, you absolutely would go knocking on your neighbour’s door in the middle of the night. And you’d keep asking as long as you needed, because to not look after your guest was such a shameful thing. You’d keep asking and asking and asking. And if you’d do that to a reluctant, sleepy, unwilling neighbour, why would you not do it with God. God does not sleep. God is not too busy for you. God always has what you need. God wants you to come to him and ask!

So persevere! Keep asking. You don’t know why things are taking longer, but it’s definitely not because God wants you to go away. God may be telling you to wait. But if you’re sure what you are asking for is good, if it is in accordance with God’s will, then keep asking. That builds faith, because every time you come and ask you are reaffirming your trust in God and your belief that he can help you.

The Good Father

Jesus also encourages his disciples to trust God:

Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’
(Luke 11:11-13, NIV, Anglicised)

Jesus says: “If you then, though you are evil…”. I didn’t always appreciate him, but I  have a great dad. I’m a father myself now and I try to be the best dad I can be. But the best dad in the world is still a sinner, and compared to God they pale in comparison. God is better than our most loving, most wonderful earthly fathers. So we can trust God. Trust that he loves us and will take care of us. Trust that when we ask for a fish he will not give us  a snake. 

There will be times when we will pray and it will sure feel like we got a snake or a scorpion.

“Please, please don’t let it be cancer.” And it’s cancer.

“Please, Father, heal them.” And they die.

And that feels like the worst bite or sting. It feels like venom in your veins when all you wanted was something good. But what Jesus is saying is, no, this, even this, isn’t a snake. This isn’t a scorpion. Even if it feels like it now. God is a good Father and he doesn’t give his children poison. 

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who  have been called according to his purpose.”
(Romans 8:28, NIV, Anglicised)

We are his children, and whatever he sends our way will ultimately be for our good. Although we can’t always see it, God is working for our good, because he is our Father.

No matter how much it hurts, remember that God is good. We don’t know why every horrible thing happens, but God knows. We must trust that he is a good Father, better even than our best, and one day we will rejoice.

Prayer is important, good prayer is God-centered, persistent and trusting. Those are the principles of good prayer, but we must do it. Christians should pray, you cannot live the Christian life without it. You cannot grow in your relationship with God if you do not speak to him. Birds fly, fish swim, Christians pray. It is essential to the life of a disciple of Christ.

So take some time and pray. You can pray short little prayers or spend an hour in prayer with Bible reading and meditation. Pray God-focused prayers with humility, perseverance and trust in the love of God and his power.

Again, I am more than happy to help anyone who needs it in this area.

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