Who taught you to pray? If you started young you know that, like everything else we do as toddlers, our prayers focus around having our own needs met. “Now I lay me down to sleep…” You remember that prayer. You may have prayed it. Maybe taught your kids or grands to pray it, too. I was looking it over the other day and discovered that of the 30 words in that iconic prayer, eight of them are either I, me, or my. More than one out of four.
Without getting too ensnared in etymological parsing here, we need to be reminded that prayer is not about us – it’s about Him. Most of us have to re-learn how to pray so that we are not asking to get our will accomplished; we pray to get His will accomplished. We don’t attempt to convince God of the viability of our requests, we are making ourselves available so that the grand passions of His heart can be fulfilled.
I wish I had learned earlier to pray better. By “better” I am not suggesting that I wish to be more fluent or grandiose or eloquent. In my seven years of pastoral classwork I never had a class on how to pray. In what to pray for. In how to listen to the heart of God and focus my prayers around His passions. I’m a slow learner; maybe that’s why it took me so long, and I’m still not where I want to be.
I also learned about prayer by going to prayer meeting. Now I want to be very careful here. If I cause some folks discomfort it’s unintentional. It was in a little city church in the northwest that I first learned about prayer requests. What shall we pray about this evening? Who has a request? That was often a prelude to a lengthy time of reciting the woes, the sicknesses, the crises of family, friends and members. I will not digress here to reflect on how close some of those requests came to being a spiritual name for gossip.
Here is my concern: To languish long over a list of needs can take our focus off of God. And prayer is about God. Any special requests you’d like to raise before the Lord this morning/tonight, please raise your hand. Often maybe that’s all we need to say. But I’ve been in more than one gathering where we spent more time describing the needs than we did asking God to meet them. Well, the time is about gone; we’d better pray…
But note the young church model: Assailed as they were by terminal harassment (Acts 4), they came together and we are immediately immersed in five verses of intense praise and worship before they even got around to mentioning the needs they were facing. And then they asked, not for relief for themselves, but for courage to proceed with their mission. Not for a comfortable journey but that God’s agenda might be accomplished.
Is there a place then for bringing specific needs before the throne? Of course. Job prayed for his children, and for his friends. Paul urges us to “bear one another’s burdens.” Scripture is clear. But God can trust us with His best answers when we have been on our faces seeking His sovereign will.