How to Pray

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Matthew 6:5-15

Of all the things that Christians do, prayer is the most important, but it is often the least practiced. Last week we considered why Christians pray and why we need to be persistent in praying even when the going is tough. Today we think about what true prayer is and isn’t.

Of all the things that Christians do, prayer is the most important, but it is often the least practiced. Today we begin the first of three special programs on prayer, featuring Words of Hope’s broadcast minister David Bast and former broadcast minister Bill Brownson. Here is David with some opening thoughts on the subject of why Christians should pray and do pray.

Once as Jesus was praying in a certain place, his disciples came up to him and said, “Lord, teach us to pray.” What an impression Jesus’ example must have made on his disciples. They were, most of them, from pious homes and had grown up in an atmosphere of prayer and devotion, but none of them had ever seen anyone pray like Jesus. He would rise a great while before day and go off to pray. He would retreat into the mountains alone and spend a whole night talking with his heavenly father. The disciples must have thought, “How does he do it?” So they asked him, “Lord, teach us to pray.” We need to ask the same thing.

One of our greatest needs, it seems to me, is for instruction in prayer. Alexander Whyte, a brilliant Scottish preacher of the last century, said this:

There is nothing in which we need to take so many lessons as in prayer. There is nothing of which we are so utterly ignorant when we first begin and there is nothing else that we are so bad at all our days.

Many people don’t realize that you have to learn how to pray. Prayer takes instruction and a lot of hard work. Real prayer does not come naturally. It’s the hardest thing in the whole Christian life which is why it’s also the most rare.

It’s much easier to give money than it is to pray. Some people are naturally generous. It’s much easier to discipline one’s self than it is to pray. Some people are born with a strong willpower, and God knows it’s much easier for me to talk about prayer than it is for me to pray. But nobody finds it easy, at least at first. Nobody is naturally good at prayer, I don’t believe. Prayer means talking with the living God, and that’s not an easy thing for any child of Adam and Eve to do. We need to be taught how to pray, and we need to work at learning it.

But before we learn how to pray, let’s take a few moments to think about just what Christian prayer really is. Prayer for Christians is not a psychological technique. It isn’t a process for positive imaging or for managing one’s biofeedback or for self healing through meditation. It has nothing to do with New Age channeling or any other expressions of pagan religion, whether ancient or modern. For Christians prayer is not a subdirectory on the self-help menu. Nor do Christians pray primarily to get things from God to improve our lives or solve our problems. Supplication and intercession are elements of Christian prayer, though not the highest ones.

Praise is the highest form of prayer. We do ask for things in prayer, both for ourselves and others, and for both physical and spiritual need, as Jesus taught us to. “In everything by prayer and supplication,” said the apostle Paul, “with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.”

But the most important reason we pray is not to ask. Prayer is not a lever with which we try to manipulate God into granting our desires and fulfilling all our requests. No, Christian prayer rises out of a relationship with God. As Christians we know that through faith we are united with Christ and thus we become God’s own children.

Prayer is our primary means of communicating with our heavenly Father. That’s why Jesus himself prayed, and prayed so much, setting us the stunning example of his own prayer life. His whole being was dependent upon his Father, and even though he was the Son of God, maybe it’s better to say, because he was the Son of God, he developed his relationship with the Father through the exercise of prayer. Every Christian prays because being a Christian means belonging to God’s family. And prayer is our family time. Do you need a better reason than this?

Christians pray. It’s as simple as that. We may pray badly. We may pray infrequently, but we have to pray. The great Christian leader of the nineteenth century, Bishop J.C. Ryle, put the matter this way: “God has no dumb children.”

Bill Brownson, Words of Hope’s president and broadcast minister emeritus, now joins us as he and David talk about learning how to pray. What’s the best place to start and where to begin in order to develop a life of prayer?

David Bast: You spoke earlier about learning how to pray, and you had to do that yourself. What advice do you give? How can you teach someone how to pray? I suspect that a lot of people would say, “I really want to learn how to pray, and I’m not sure that I do know how to pray, so what are the first steps? How does one begin? Are there principles in learning how to pray? Are there steps to take? How do you give instruction in this? I think of Jesus’ disciples coming to him in Luke 11 and saying, “Lord, teach us to pray.”

Bill Brownson: Yes, that’s a great place to start. And whenever anyone says that to the living Christ, even today, he’s more than ready to teach us. And I think that’s where it starts when we realize that this is something that God gives and that God makes possible. We receive it and learn it from him, and we go to him for help. That’s where it starts.

And the Holy Spirit is the Spirit who is given to stimulate prayer in us, to guide and help us, and to encourage us in our prayers. So I think the way to start, as you are suggesting, is just to go to God and say, “Lord, I really would like to learn how to pray. Will you teach me?”

Well, to start with the Lord’s Prayer is about as good as anything we can do. And when I talk to people about praying, I say, “All right now, when Jesus taught us to pray, the first thing he taught was how to think of God, what to call God, and so when he undertakes to teach them to pray, as his disciples, that’s what they asked. They say, “Lord, as John taught his disciples, you teach us.” In other words, “Teach us to pray like your disciples. Teach us to pray like Christians.” So Jesus is ready to teach them. And the first thing he wants to say is, “Whenever you pray, say Father” which is the Hebrew Aramaic was “Abba.” Whenever you pray, say Abba. Now he’s teaching us by that, I think, that the most important thing in prayer is the one to whom pray, and the more you know God, the more truly you know God, the more your prayer is authentic and rich.

Dave Bast: So he’s not necessarily teaching a form of words here. It’s not that we literally are praying when we start out by saying “Father.”

Bill Brownson: That’s right.

Dave Bast: He saying, “We need to know the living God in this relationship of Father to child, child to Father. Whatever words we use, whatever names we call on him in the Bible (it’s full of names for God), it has to come out of that sense of trust.

Bill Brownson: Yes, saying that the first thing, the first awareness of prayer is God and who God is, what God is like, what his attitude toward us is and this wonderful word “Abba” which is the word Jesus used in his own prayers. It’s interesting when you read the Gospels, you see that every time Jesus prayed, he always used the word “Father.” The one prayer that was different from that was the cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Dave Bast: Do you think that that was something new? That Jesus was really introducing a brand new understanding of prayer with that word?

Bill Brownson: I believe he was. Edershem has a book in which he shows that in all of the inter-testamental period, in all the Jewish liturgy, there never was an instance of Jewish people calling God “Abba.” I mean, the Hebrew word Ahv, Father, was familiar in the Old Testament but Abba, the warm, family, childhood, heart name for God, Abba for the father, only Jesus used that.

Dave Bast: I had such a wonderful experience of this. It was a real grace of God in my life. I was traveling home from the west coast and I had a red-eye flight on a Saturday night, and very early on Sunday morning I was sitting in an airport waiting for my connecting flight and thinking, “You know, I’m going to miss church this morning.” I was tired and kind of feeling sorry for myself. Behind me I heard a family, a father, mother and a little boy, talking to each other. I couldn’t help but start to pick up some of their conversation. They were apparently Israelis. The little boy kept saying, “Abba, where do the planes go?” and “Abba” this and “Abba” that. He was using that word to talk to his father, and at one point he was quiet. He was a real chatterbox and asking about everything that was going on. At one point he paused for a minute and then he said, “Abba, why do you love me so much?” And I thought, “There’s my sermon.” Our Abba loves us. That’s the essence of that relationship, and that’s how we respond and come to him in prayer.

Bill Brownson: Everything in prayer grows out of that because of the way you think of God. You’re aware of what God is like and how he feels toward you. That awareness determines whether you pray at all or if you do pray, how you pray. That’s another principle that I think about, I guess, just about every day. As we believe so we pray. If you believe that God doesn’t exist, obviously you’ll never pray, but if you believe that he exists but he isn’t particularly interested in you, then you won’t have any heart to pray. But if you believe that God is like a marvelously generous father who loves his children immeasurably and delights to do them good, then you will rush into God’s presence, you will pray with joy, pray with affection, pray with confidence, pray with freedom because you are confident in God’s loving intentions toward you.

Dave Bast: What are the next steps if we start with that relationship and even that name for God? Then what?

Bill Brownson: The next words that come in the Lord’s Prayer are the great things that we are to ask. And there are six petitions: “Father, let your name be hallowed. Father, let your kingdom come. Father, let your will be done.” And then, “give us our daily bread, forgive us our sins, don’t lead us into temptation but deliver us from evil.” And I believe it’s very instructive that Jesus taught us to pray about the first things first. He’s teaching us that in all of life the great concerns that are to be on our hearts are the concerns that have to do with God, his will and his kingdom. And the greatest things that we are to pray for, long for and live for are that:

God’s wonderful name will be known and praised, and that his rule will be established in the hearts and lives and societies of people, and that his will will be more and more done in the world.

So here’s the first great principle in our prayers, that we do what Jesus told us to do, and that a “seek first the kingdom of God.”

Dave Bast: Maybe one of the mistakes we make is, after not praying enough, we tend to let it slide. That we do pray when some crisis erupts, when something gets our attention. One of our children gets ill or gets into trouble or our marriage begins to get rocky. So we go to God and immediately start praying about that without ever focusing on the big things before we come with our personal concerns.

Bill Brownson: I think that’s so true. The Lord, knowing that this is our tendency, reminds us that when we ask for our daily bread (which he invites us to do), or when we pray for forgiveness or for help to get out of difficulty, we’re invited to do that. He delights to have us pray about these things. But he wants us to pray about them as those who have first been concerned about the things that matter most.

Dave Bast: It’s almost as if, thinking of the family analogy, a child only wanting to talk to his father when he needs more money, never wanting just to be with him and talk about family concerns. You only ever call dad or call home when you’re in a bind.

Bill Brownson: And your experience with the little boy, I mean that he stops in the midst of all his questions to say, “Abba, why do you love me so much?” I mean, here the focus is not just on what I need but on the father’s heart.

Dave Bast: It’s a real mystery, isn’t it? We ask God that same question. By the way, the father’s answer, (I pricked up my ears) was a very Jewish answer. He said, “Why do you think I love you so much?” He answers a question with another question.

Why does God love us so much? We don’t know why. We just know that he does.

Bill Brownson: Yes, and it’s true, what we’ve been talking about, that life follows prayer. And I think one of the reasons Jesus calls us to be praying about these things is that his prayer sets the tone for the way we live. I mean, if all we ever do is pray about ourselves and our own needs, that’s what continues to be our focus. If we start by saying, “How can God’s name be honored in this world?” and pray for those things, in other words, pray:

That we will be real worshipers and that the church will be purified and renewed so that it will show forth God’s glory, and that the gospel will reach out to people so that people everywhere will know his name and put their trust in him.

When we are praying for those things, for his kingdom to come and his will to be done, our lives tend to be drawn along.

Dave Bast: Yes, another way of saying that, I think, is that you can’t really pray for something without at the same time wanting to be part of the answer to that prayer, to be used by God.

Bill Brownson: It’s so true. When you think about intercession, our prayers for others only have significance if, as we pray them, we are making ourselves available to be part of the answer.

Dave Bast: I think of Jesus’ command to his disciples when he was looking out at the harvest and seeing that as an analogy for the world needing to know about him, he said, “The fields are white unto harvest. The harvest is great but the laborers are few, therefore, and he didn’t say go, he said, “Therefore pray.” But if you pray about that, you will be willing to go as well. It doesn’t work to say, “O Lord, there’s so many people who need to hear the gospel but don’t send me or my children or my grandchildren, especially.”

Bill Brownson: Yes, and the practical things of praying for people who are hungry or poor, if we don’t make some of our bread available or if we don’t share some of our means, there really is no reality to the prayer.

Dave Bast: I remember reading a wonderful quote from a nineteenth-century preacher named Edward Bennett who said, “How do you think God will answer your prayers for those who are hungry? Do you think he’ll turn the stones into bread? And for those who need to hear about him, will he rain down Bibles from heaven? No, but he’ll put it in your heart to do what you can.”

Bill Brownson: Yes, and that’s what’s risky about prayer, that when you really intercede for another person, you put your life on the line. You say, in effect, “God, I’m willing to do anything I can do to see this prayer answered, and that may involve difficulty, it may even involve danger, sacrifice, but that’s Jesus praying for sinful people and then doing the thing that’s most greatly needed by dying for them. He’s the model of what it is really to pray for others.