Christians are supposed to be people who are on good speaking terms with God. They have a direct phone line to heaven that always gets through. They make prayer the cornerstone of their lives. They may be identified by the callouses on their knees. So much for the ideal. In real life, that's not the way it is for most of us. Many nominal Christians never pray at all — unless it's on their deathbed. Many others who do pray consider it an exercise in futility. They find it a boring and laborious experience; they never seem to get through — to get answers. Why is prayer so little tried? Does God have an unlisted number that only a select few are privy to? Is He on a leave of absence? Why is it so rarely rewarding? There are any number of reasons. In this article we will focus on some of the most common causes of frustration — the failure to understand what prayer is and what it is not.
What Prayer Is
Prayer is a heart-to-heart talk with God. It is a conversation between a son or daughter and their Father. It is a hotline to heaven in bad times; a means of fellowship between man and his Creator in good times. It is meaningful and useful. It helps. It works. So why doesn't it work for you? Why can't you get in touch with God when you need Him? One reason could be that you are merely paying lip service to God instead of really praying to Him. One of the most common problems is that many people go through the motions of prayer without really saying anything. They believe they must commune with God by formulas, rituals and stilted language instead of talking to Him in simple, direct conversation. If some people would talk to their friends here on earth in the same way they talk to their Father in heaven, they might see why they never get answers — why prayer seems so meaningless.
What Prayer Is Not
Take an everyday illustration: If you're eating and want someone across the table to pass the bread, you simply say: "Please pass the bread," or words to that effect. But suppose you were to ask a friend to pass the bread in the exact same way many "religious" people ask their heavenly Father for daily bread. Imagine carrying on all person-to-person conversation in the same pattern or style they (and possibly you) use in prayer. What would it sound like? What would be the results? Some would ask for bread and carryon a conversation "by the book." That is, they wouldn't ask in their own words. Instead they would parrot a standard formula memorized from youth. Their whole conversation might consist of nothing but "My dear friend, who art across the table, how do you do?... Please pass the bread. Thank you." The same words might be spoken day after day with a special "stained-glass" voice and a vocabulary loaded with King James English. Others would ask over and over again, believing that it's not only what you say, but how many times you say it that gets the bread passed. Quantity, not quality. They would repeat "Please pass the bread" — 3, 7, 12 or more times with all the fervency and frequency of a xerox machine. Some would be given to emotional outbursts and physical demonstrations. Every time they wanted bread they would sing songs, speak in unknown tongues, fall backwards in their chair, and roll on the floor. The possibilities are endless. People would be lighting candles, burning incense, ringing bells, donning sackcloth, ad infinitum — all in the sincere belief that these things are necessary to get a piece of bread.
From the Heart
Obviously, the whole spectacle is absurd. People don't talk that way — at least not normally. Yet some have the concept that the "normal" way to talk to God demands that you shift your voice box and vocabulary into a different gear. You must rely on formulas and rituals to be heard and answered. But God never intended prayer to be that way at all. He wants us to pray to Him from the heart — not from memory or out of a book. "Pour out your heart before him," exhorted David (Ps. 62:8, RSV used throughout unless otherwise noted). God is weary with "people [who] draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment of men learned by rote [that is, by repetition, or memory]" (Isa. 29:13). Here are some suggestions for cutting out the ritual and rhetoric and getting down to plain talk with God.
Keep it simple and direct. Christ specifically taught against the use of fulsome phrasing, of "windbag worship" in prayer. "And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him" (Matt. 6:7-8). So that His disciples would understand, Christ gave them what has since become known as the "Lord's Prayer" (verses 9-13). Actually, it is just as well to call it the Lord's outline. It is a model of simplicity, directness and brevity. It is an unembellished way of telling your heavenly Father what is on your mind.
Beware of the "give me's" and "do me's." The Lord's outline is also instructive about what to pray. Some people spend most of their prayer requesting God to give them this or do that. But Christ showed we should expand our vision and subject matter beyond ourselves and our own needs. We must learn to give praise and honor to God, acknowledging His power, His goodness and the blessings He gives us. We should pray for the promotion of His purposes — for the fulfillment of the Church's task of preaching the gospel to the world so that the Kingdom may come (Matt. 24:14: "And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, as a testimony to all nations; and then the end will come"). And remember the needs of others. Recall that Christ said "our daily bread." But do forgive and forget other people's shortcomings just exactly as you want God to forgive and forget yours.
Keep it between you and God. "Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.... And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you" (Matthew 6:1, 5-6). Christ wasn't condemning public prayer per se. There is certainly nothing wrong with invocations and benedictions on certain occasions such as church services. Rather, He was condemning exhibitionists who prayed publicly to show others how "spiritual" they were. Don't be a spiritual exhibitionist. Prayer on most occasions is a private, personal matter between you and God. Keep it that way.
Don't confuse feelings with faith. Some try to judge the success of their prayers by their emotions. If they feel good after finishing, it means they had enough "faith" and got through to God. But if they don't reach some sort of emotional peak, they regard their prayer as a failure. Faith is not an emotion! You can't work it up when it comes time to pray. Faith is a gift of God (Eph. 2:8). It is vitally important in conversing with God, but it can't be measured by your emotions. How to use it in prayer is a subject for a future article. For now you can get more information on this vitally important, but frequently misunderstood subject by reading our free booklet What is Faith? This is not to say you should never enjoy praying. Or that you should pray without any emotion. You should talk to God intently and fervently — showing Him you mean what you say. And there is nothing wrong with feeling good about prayer; just don't confuse emotions with faith. But remember, Christians have their off-days too. Most of the time you may feel better for getting things off your mind. But sometimes you may not finish in the best of spirits — particularly during an extremely trying time. But that doesn't mean you didn't get through to God. Don't strive for some emotional "high." Strive to communicate — that's the payoff of prayer.
Make prayer a habit, a top priority in your daily life. The question often comes up: "How much is enough?" "How many times a day should I pray?" There is no explicit "Thus saith the Lord" statement in the Bible about time quotas. Actually, to quibble over how often, and how long, completely misses the whole point of prayer. The real question to ask is: Is there ever a time when a Christian shouldn't pray? "Walking with God" implies talking with Him throughout the day. It means having such a rapport and affinity with God that you can talk to Him at any time of the day or night, in any place, under any circumstances, in any position. You are able to thank Him on the spot for a blessing, or entreat His help in a few seconds during an emergency without bending a knee or uttering a sound. This is what Paul meant when he told Christians to "Pray constantly" (I Thess. 5:17). The mainstay of our spiritual lives, though, should be what could be called "heavy" or "working" sessions — the kind spent on your knees in private. These are the most important, and often the most productive. Most of the time, the bulk of your contact with God in any day will be spent this way. How long these sessions last, and how often you have them, will vary with the problems and questions you have to talk over with God. There are only a few clues in the Bible as to how often or how long men of God prayed. David entreated God three times a day during a period of unusual stress and trouble (Ps. 55:1-17). Daniel made it a habit of praying on his knees three times a day — especially when it was illegal to do so! (Dan. 6:10.) The prophet Samuel once prayed far into the night when the crisis of King Saul's disobedience came to a climax. Jesus Christ prayed all night before choosing His twelve apostles (Luke 6:12). Make working sessions of prayer on your knees a regular part of your life. "Steadfastly maintain the habit of prayer" (Rom. 12:12, Phillips translation). And keep in touch with Him throughout the day — if only for a few seconds or minutes here and there. Be wary of the human tendency to pray too little rather than too much. As in all spiritual matters, "the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak." Don't let events or other interests crowd prayer out of your time schedule, or out of your mind. Build your life around God — not God around your life. It will be the best investment in time and effort you will ever make.
Make it a two-way conversation. It has often been said that the key to good speaking is good listening. For the Christian that means studying the Bible as well as praying. Find out what God has to say to you. Many times people find answers in the pages of the Bible to the problems they have been praying about. For that reason, many like to use their Bibles when they pray — it makes the session a true two-way conversation. Another benefit is that you can learn how to pray better. You can study how various individuals prayed down through the ages and how God responded. Then there are the Psalms — 150 examples of how to praise and entreat God. They are well worth a special, separate study. For help in getting acquainted with God and His Word, write for Read the Book and How to Study the Bible. Don't be in ignorance of the Supreme Being you are talking to. By no means do these suggestions cover all there is to know about the mechanics and methods of prayer. You may find some more helpful to you than others, and come up with useful ideas of your own. Be flexible. Experiment. Maybe your prime time for prayer is the first thing in the morning. Maybe you are a night owl who is more alert in the evening. Some days you may want to spend more time on your personal problems. Other days you may want to concentrate on the needs of the Church, or the problems of others. The important thing is to pray — regularly, candidly and fervently. Get on speaking terms with God — and keep the lines of communication open at all times. Prayer is not an exercise in futility. God will hear. Peter wrote: "Cast all your anxieties on him [God], for he cares about you" (I Pet. 5:7). Knowing that God is concerned about you personally, individually, "Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need" (Heb. 4:16).