13 October 2015

Prayer & Thanksgiving: The Christians Duty - Part 2

STRUGGLING WITH PRAYER

People often struggle with prayer because they feel as though they do not know HOW to pray correctly, and so they steer clear of doing so at all. Or, if they start off having an active prayer life, they may feel as though it is making no difference in their lives

Maybe they are finding it hard to slow down – to quiet their mind for prayer. Maybe they struggle with doubt. Are they being heard? Is God listening to them? These struggles lead to a lifeless prayer life, or a prayerless life.

Let's explore one of the root causes for a weak prayer life, and some ways to break free from it. You would imagine that there were times when the disciples of Jesus had the opportunity to ask their master pretty much any question their heart desired, and we find some examples of those times.

If you had such an opportunity, what might you ask him? They had been through so much and had seen so much - so many miracles. You would think they might ask how to turn water into wine, or how to walk on the water, or raise the dead, or any of the other amazing things they had experienced along the way. But when the time came, they did not inquire about any of those things - but we find in Luke 11:1b that instead they said 



“Lord, teach us to pray.”
Perhaps they knew after seeing so much of the works Jesus had done, that the root to it was an extraordinary prayer life. We have many examples of Jesus praying, and it had to be evident to them that there was a big connection between all that he did, and this active prayer life. Now, before looking at some of the aids in a stronger prayer life, let’s touch on 

HOW NOT TO PRAY

After the disciples had asked their master to instruct them how to pray, we find an account in Matthew, where Jesus explains some instructions that we should all keep in mind:

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 others. Truly, I say to you, they have received 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. (Matt. 6:5-6) (ESV)
So, Jesus first condemns the prayers that are done “like the hypocrites.” The term hypocrisy in the New Testament is taken from a cultural understanding of the time. A hypocrite was one who was in the theater, one who was just “play acting.”

Today we tend to think of it more as someone who lives contrary to their beliefs – or acts contrary to their words. However, at that time, it was referring to someone who was basically acting – or just faking it. So to be a hypocrite was to be fake or phony, something that the Pharisees had made a fine art form out of.

They would stand in public and get attention and admiration through their lofty prayers, but they were only offering empty and fraudulent prayers. Even today, some people who are often required to pray publicly may go through the art of formulating prayer, writing prayers ahead of time, etc. – articulating words into a smooth and fine pattern of spiritual maturity – a maturity that in reality is not in their life.

We may even fall into this act when publicly praying – seeking to sound deeply theological – to appear to those around us to be more spiritual than we really are. For a lot of people, this is why being asked to pray in public is a great fear. We feel inadequate to impress those around us with a great spiritual prayer.

Public prayer is not a time to show off – it should be just as personal, just as real, just as full of life as it would be in your private prayers. You are speaking to God, and NOT just for the benefit and show of those around you. God is not interested in public displays of wisdom, piety or other outward shows of religion – he wants true faithful prayer and outward - true godliness.

Jesus then continues instructing them in the next verse, saying

And — praying — ye may not use vain repetitions like the nations, for they think that in their much speaking they shall be heard,  be ye not therefore like to them, for your Father doth know those things that ye have need of before your asking him (Matt. 6:7-8) (YLT)
Jesus warns against praying like the Gentiles do – with prayers of “vain repetitions.” I switched translations when quoting this verse, because I think the term “vain repetitions” better captures the feel here.

Some translations, like the ESV, state it as “do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do” which is similar, but I feel lacks the punch that “vain repetitions” has. You can heap up empty phrases without ever repeating the same phrase, so it loses the repetition aspect in that case.

The Greek word here is bat-tol-og-eh’-o, and is the only place in Scripture where this term is used - it means to “to repeat the same things over and over, to use many idle words, to babble.” The pagans of the day believed that the repetition of words was like some kind of special incantation, and the more words the better the chances of being heard.

Now when I read this warning as a new Christian – and this is also the story of my wife - it brought to mind the practice of at least one influential religious body that frequently practice the repetition of prayers. Can anyone guess who that might be?

The Roman church is notorious for repetitious prayers, assigning their followers multiples “Hail Marys” or “Our Fathers” as a substitution for any kind of real spirit of repentance. This kind of lifeless, repetitive prayer is not pleasing to the Father at all. You do not need to keep repeating things like a mantra, to get God to respond. You do not need to heap up more and more words in order to get through. As it says, he knows what you want before you ask – so just ask and quit thinking there is some magic mixture of words required.

Now, there are many churches, especially of the Reformed branch, that follow the practice of having the whole congregation recite the Lord ’s Prayer each week during the worship service – should we consider that a vain repetition? Not necessarily, because hopefully you see a vast difference between saying it weekly as a part of the worship service – verses saying it multiple times, over and over, in one sitting.

Most of the churches that use it in the worship service weekly do so as a teaching tool. As the congregation young and old, hear and say it frequently, it builds a pattern of prayer and memorization in their minds.

However, if it becomes just an empty blurting of words by someone in the congregation, with no real thought to what is being said, then yes, it can become as vain and useless as the way it is used by the Roman church. We are not given the Lord’s prayer to use it as a mindless chant, but as a kind of outline for prayer.

That is the main reason many protestant churches have a set liturgy that they do each and every week. The liturgy a church chooses is a consistent tool - it helps to not only keep order - but it instructs the congregation through an expected pattern which coincides with important doctrinal issues, but let’s not get off track with that.

Historically, many protestant denominations held to the singing of Psalms frequently, if not exclusively, in the worship service. This served two main purposes – it was seen as using the actual singing of God’s inspired song book - but it also helped to teach and ingrain Scripture into the mind of people from childhood up. 

Think about it – how many times have you heard a song on the radio – something you knew as a kid but hadn’t really heard much since then - and yet you still know most all of the words? Music is a powerful tool, and when combined with words, has a very interesting way of sticking in our minds for years.

So when you practice a week after week singing of the Psalms for instance - over the years the words put to music become ingrained in our mind - and it becomes a way to almost effortlessly memorize Scripture passage.And since so many of the Psalms are prayers themselves – they would now have an entire system of prayer examples to draw from when needed in their prayers.

Similarly, the Lord’s prayer is working in the same manner, and once it is part of the fabric of our being, it, like the Psalms, can be used as a launching pad for prayer in those times when we might be at a loss for what to pray. 


In the next segment, we'll look at how it can be used to assist your prayer life.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5