Why should you pray? Does it really do any good? Is there a personal God who actually hears and answers prayer? Is there a special tone of voice you must use to be heard? And why is conversing with God such a bore to the contemporary world? What about it? Can you really "get through" to God today?
THERE is no quicker way to put people to sleep than to say: "Shall we pray?" Remember the last Democratic convention? The chairman was beating the gavel half to death. I mean he was about to destroy the stand. He was trying to say: "Please be quiet everybody. This minister is about to talk to God." But what he really said was: "It's time for prayer. We're going to have 'Reverend' so-and-so...." That chairman had a terrible time quieting those people before the invocation. There were interviews in progress, delegates were running up and down the aisles, some people were sleeping, others were chatting, etc., etc., etc. But, can you imagine the hush that would have fallen over that vast audience if he had said: "Attention, please! Ted Kennedy is on the phone"? Can we get the point?
One sampler of public opinion, an American newsweekly, called prayer "a lost art." The next ten or twenty paragraphs of this article should show you why. A Gallup Poll several years ago revealed that only about 63% of American adults bother to pray very much at all. And of those who do, many just say: "Dear Lord, give me this, give me that and give me the other." They have a bad case of the "gimmes." They always ask for something for themselves. And since they rarely get an answer, some finally just give up altogether after awhile. Sixty-three percent of those interviewed described themselves as persons who pray frequently. But how often "frequently" meant was not defined. That could be like attending church services on Christmas and Easter — in other words twice a year. Those who prayed only occasionally were 25%; seldom 6%; those who never prayed 6%
Parodies on Prayer
Some of the "funniest" jokes you hear are parodies on prayer. And they nearly always tend to belittle God, and man's relationship with his God. One famous comedian painted this scenario: Noah is out in the field. God rumbles and thunders and says, "Noah!" Noah replies, "What do you want?" A little later on the rain starts coming down and Noah says, "You and me, Lord. Just you and me, right?" This illustrates in the vernacular and colloquial language of the day, an attitude about God. We like to bring God down to our size. That is until we're in trouble. Then we know it's time to pray.
Is Prayer Only for the Bad Times?
When a loved one is lying in a hospital bed after a horrible automobile crash, people are very, very sobered. When they are sitting outside in the waiting room not knowing if the injured one is alive or dead, a lot of them are praying. But prayer when you're happy, when you have just drunk a couple of cocktails and have a full stomach, isn't something one normally thinks about. That's why prayer at political conventions doesn't go over very well. Prayer seems to be for the bad times. Prayer is for when you are in desperate need of immediate help. People rarely pray because they are truly thankful, and they certainly don't pray — generally speaking — as a fixed habit. To further illustrate the point, I'd like to quote excerpts from two university students who were interviewed about prayer. They were asked: "Do you pray?" A male graduate in linguistics said: "On occasion, under times of stress. I have no other place to turn. I don't know to whom I'm praying, though. It's nebulous." A male senior in accounting said: "Only before exams. That's the only time I need any help from God." From these examples, I can certainly agree that prayer is a lost art. But, it may be more technically correct to say that it's an art that has never yet been discovered — except in a precious few cases.
Another of these college students, a sophomore, said: "I don't do it [pray] now, no! But I used to pray in the batter's box in high school. I do believe in God, but I just think you have to help yourself. You can't expect too much help from prayer." Prayer, the way people practice it, would seem to be confusing to God — like what must have occurred in World War II. The mothers of sons who faced each other on both sides of the line may have belonged to the same church denomination and presumably both prayed to the same God for their son's protection. Those prayers would seem to have been confusing to God. How would God decide which one of those boys was going to live?
Why We Don't Get the Answers
It's no wonder many people claim they do not pray. They are not sure they are going to get any answers. Maybe they have made a few halfhearted attempts from time to time. Maybe they have heard a few evangelical types talking about prayer. But because they are so confused about the subject, most just don't pray except when in trouble. Of socialized and secularized prayer, we have all kinds and types. We have watered it down into a hollow, empty form. Our prayers at political conventions, civic events, and once in a while even at ball games, have deteriorated into memorized mouthings. Many pastors have actually read their prayers. How could we really expect to receive the answers from such "heartfelt" prayers? I have never in my life noticed in all, the entirety of the Bible where a prayer was read. I don't know of such a read prayer from the beginning of Genesis to the end of Revelation.
Easy to Pray?
An American newsweekly said: "In simpler ages of faith, men found it as natural and normal to pray as to till a field or yoke a brace of oxen." But don't you believe it! There has never been an age in the history of man where people found it easy to pray. The disciples who followed Jesus Christ across the fields of Galilee had to ask: "... Lord, teach us to pray..." (Luke 11:1). People get the idea that everybody back then wore a long robe, mirrored a sick expression, and went around in an attitude of prayer. Not so! But this is a sure truth: Prayer, like good conversation, is one of the lost arts of the 20th century. So why don't we let a man successful at prayer help us discover this lost art?
Jesus Christ of Nazareth talked about prayer — I mean the real thing. Jesus was a praying man. But the difference between Him and most of us is that He consistently got the answers. Notice John 11. Here Jesus prayed at the tomb of Lazarus. He said: "Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me. And I knew that thou hearest me always..." (verses 41-42). This eleven-second prayer brought a man who had been dead four days out of his grave alive and well. Jesus prayed a great deal. And His disciples sometimes knew when He prayed because they saw Him do it. "And he [Jesus] was withdrawn from them [the disciples] about a stone's cast, and kneeled down and prayed" (Luke 22:41). Remember, the disciples had asked: "... Lord, teach us to pray..." (Luke 11:1). They saw His example many times. They knew He was a praying man. They wanted to be like Him — to follow His example. Sometimes Jesus prayed audibly in front of people, especially when He gave thanks before partaking of a meal (Mark 8:6). But most of the time He found a place to pray privately, apart from others, such as in a desert or on a mountain. "And in the morning, rising up a great while before day, he [Jesus] went out, and departed into a solitary place, and there prayed" (Mark 1:35). And once in a while before making a momentous decision, Jesus would spend all night talking to His Father who was in heaven. "And it came to pass in those days, that he [Jesus] went out into a mountain to pray, and continued all nig/1l in prayer to God. And when it was day, he called unto him his disciples: and of them he chose twelve, whom also he named apostles" (Luke 6:12-13), Jesus knew He needed the wisdom of God before choosing the top leaders of the first century Church (James 1:5).
Jesus Taught Others How to Pray
When the disciples asked Jesus to "Teach us to pray," He used just about the same words in the 6th chapter of Matthew. This chapter is part of the section of Matthew's Gospel often termed "the Sermon on the Mount." If anything can be called the epitome of what Jesus believed and taught, it is the Sermon on the Mount. First of all He told them that they had better do it differently than the show-offs in the world. Some people just love to pray in front of others. Certain people were used to praying habitually in public places, and Jesus condemned it. "And when [not ij] thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily [truly] I say unto you, They have their reward [their little moment of vanity]. "But thou, 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" (verses 5-6). Then in the next verse Jesus begins to talk about the proper form of prayer. "But when you pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking" (verse 7). And yet many people memorize their prayers. Notice, too, that Jesus said "when you pray" not "if you pray," thus showing He expected His true followers to be a praying people. Prayer, to Jesus, was not a "rite" or some "spiritual" experience that He forced Himself to do so He could bask in His own awareness of His personal "righteousness." Prayer was not something Jesus flaunted before others as a badge of great spiritual achievement with which He could make others feel spiritually inferior. Prayer was Jesus' very spiritual life-source. It was His way of being continually together, in one mind, one attitude, one purpose, and of one spirit, with His Father. Prayer was something Jesus knew He couldn't live without. He knew His LIFE was at stake — that it depended on contact with His Father in prayer. But few today pray as Jesus did — they seem to treat prayer either as a pseudo-spiritual self-righteous posture before others or as a mumbo-jumbo ritual of some sort which, while necessary to them, is actually taking time away from far more important things they wish they could be doing. These concepts are instilled from childhood. It's like the little girl who said: "God is good, God is love, thank you God for all the things you've done" — humming it to herself. Her mother asked: "Well, Judy, what are you doing?" The little girl replied: "Oh, I'm just trying to memorize that prayer you taught me last night." We teach our little children these phony little prayers. I know we don't mean them to be phony. But, instead of teaching our children like Jesus taught His disciples, using the format He gave, and giving examples right out of the Bible, we want our kids to learn something easy. So we teach them, often before they are old enough to really understand, the "now I lay me down to sleep" stuff. It's no wonder such a prayer is long forgotten along with the broken dolls and rusted railroad engines. So Jesus commands us: "Be not ye therefore like unto them [the ones who use vain repetition]: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him."
"But thou, 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." — Matt. 6:6
"The Lord's Prayer"
Then Jesus began what many think is "the Lord's Prayer." Jesus said: "After this manner therefore pray ye... " (verse 9). Notice the wording. It does not say, "with these words," as millions have interpreted. These few scriptures (verses 9-15) represent one of the favorite parts of the Bible. During World War II, American troops were given tiny little books, one including Psalm 23, "The Lord's Prayer," and a couple of other choice texts. People universally call these few verses "the Lord's Prayer." But it isn't really. It's our prayer — in general outline form; it's the manner and form in which we all ought to pray. It certainly is not any prayer Jesus prayed. He was not praying when He spoke these words. If you want to read the real "Lord's Prayer," turn to John's Gospel and read chapter 17. That was the way Jesus prayed.
The God Family
Let's return to Matthew 6:9. "After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name." Begin your prayer by acknowledging God as your Father and revering His name. The Apostle Paul said: "... I bow my knees [in prayer] unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named" (Eph. 3:14-15). Jesus was called "the first-begotten" of the Father (Heb. 1:6), and the "firstborn from the dead" (Col. 1:18; Rev. 1:5). And since He is "the firstborn among many brethren" (Rom. 8:29), Christ calls Christians His brothers and sisters. The Bible clearly reveals a father-and-son relationship in the God family — with many sons and daughters still on earth — spiritually begotten, but not yet born family members. (If some of these biblical concepts are new to you, please read our free booklet Just What Do You Mean... Born Again? for a full explanation). Some religionists say there is only one member in the God family. They are entitled to their opinion; but, I wonder who they think Jesus was praying to! Remember, when you begin to pray, address God as your Father because He truly IS your spiritual Father if you are a true Christian. (We have another free booklet titled What Is a Real Christian? It shows you the steps necessary to become a true Christian — according to the biblical definition). Jesus then said we should hallow the Father's name. In modern English "Hallowed be thy name" simply means, "Let your name and authority be honored, respected and greatly admired."
Christ continued by instructing us to pray: "Thy Kingdom come" (verse 10). What is God's Kingdom? There are four prerequisites to any kingdom, and the Kingdom of God has all of them: a ruler, subjects, territory and laws. The Apostle Paul wrote: "... Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God..." (I Cor. 15:50). So what did Jesus mean by "thy kingdom come"? Did He mean some kind of watered-down, sanctimonious, pseudo-righteous sentimentality inside our hearts that makes us go through the shopping center thinking nice thoughts? Is the Kingdom of God just a routine ethereal thought that helps you make it through a tough week of overdue bills and a collection agent trying to track you down because you're three months late with a car payment? Is "thy Kingdom come" a desperate prayer? Or is it the whole heart and core of the gospel of Jesus Christ? Your Bible reveals that praying to the Father for His Kingdom to come is asking Him to send a literal governing, ruling Kingdom to this earth — something very concrete and very tangible. (Space simply forbids a further explanation here. Read our booklet on the subject if you want the scriptural details. The title is Just What Do You Mean... Kingdom of God?) Jesus continued: "Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven" (verse 10). That prayer will be automatically answered, in its fullest sense, with the arrival of God's Kingdom on this earth. In the meantime, we should pray that God's purpose with men be worked out here below — all the while urging God to send His Kingdom soon. Then He said for us to ask: "Give us this day our daily bread" (verse 11). "But my God shall supply all your need according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus," wrote the Apostle Paul (Phil. 4:19). All we need do is simply ask (verse 6 and Matt. 7:7-8). "And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors" (Matt. 6:12). Christ said you will only be forgiven in like measure and according to the exact proportion of the forgiveness you are willing to mete out (Luke 6:37-38). "And lead us not into temptation ...." continued Jesus (Matt. 6:13). Take a look at James I, Galatians 5, Ephesians 3 and 4, and Colossians 3. Those chapters will tell you what God says about all the temptations extant in the world. Then you will begin to see what God means when He says you ought to pray: "Lead us not into temptation." "But deliver us from evil [or the "evil one" — Greek]... " (verse 13). The Apostles James and Peter command Christians to "resist the devil" (James4:7; I Peter 5:8-9). Ask God to deliver you from the devil, his satanic cohorts, and all their evil works. "For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen" (verse 13). This is a proper type of closing — pleasing to God. The word "amen" means "so be it." It is not just a "rite" either. It is a fervent word, spoken solemnly, as if saying, in one word, "Father, I really mean every word of this prayer — so, please let it be so!" It's like a quick, mental reaffirmation of the entire prayer that went before, and a positive fervent avowal that you really meant it. (Or, if spoken at the conclusion of the prayer of another, it reflects your solemn agreement with the prayer.) A concluding "amen" is a meaningful part of the prayer — not just an automatic formality mindlessly repeated.
Do As He Did
Jesus Christ of Nazareth was a praying man. During the night watch prior to His death, Christ prayed a tremendous amount of time. The disciples, groggy with sleep, just couldn't seem to stay awake. Jesus said to Peter, on that night when He found them asleep: "What, could ye not watch with me one hour?" (Matt. 26:40.) The next few verses indicate He then spent at least two more long periods in intensive prayer that same night (see verses 41-45). Scripture shows that Christ got the answers. Was there something different about the intensity of His prayers, something different about the conviction and belief He had as compared to ours? I think we know the answer. The Bible makes it very plain and clear that Christians should imitate Christ — live as He lived — do as He did. "For even hereunto were you called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps" (I Pet. 2:21). (See also John 13:14-15; I Cor. 11:1 and I John 2:6.) I have given you Christ's personal prayer examples and His true teachings. God is no respecter of persons (Rom. 2:11). If you will follow Jesus' example and instructions, God will begin to hear and answer your prayers, too. Don't be too proud to pray! The God who gives you every breath of air that comes in and out of your lungs is a God to whom you can pray personally. He will hear and answer if you will do it in faith, and in the manner Jesus instructed (Luke 17:5-6; John 16:23-24). He said: "If you will ask anything in my name, I will do it." He means it. Why put off until tomorrow what you k now you need right now. You know you need it — God is waiting to listen — so go ahead — do it — PRAY!
ADDITIONAL READING The whole Bible — from Genesis to Revelation — is full of the prayers of God's people. Scripture also contains much additional instruction about prayer. A free reprint article on the subject is available "The Answer to Unanswered Prayer."