The Christian Experience: Prayer
Communicating with God creates different scenarios for different people. Some people envision entering the throne room of heaven while, for others, the thought of praying in public terrifies them. Many lift eloquent prayers heavenward, while some of us struggle to stay awake during our prayers at the end of a long day. Speaking to God runs the gamut from glorious to nerve-wracking.
But let’s get on the same page. Any time we communicate with anyone in our daily life (our family, co-workers, or random people we encounter) there is usually a reason behind the interactions. There may be a need, instructions to share, or even a kind word to express. The same holds true with God.
But, where do we begin when we pray to the Creator of the Universe? One thing to consider is that we were created to glorify God. Isaiah 43:7 says:
“Every one who is called by My name,
And whom I have created for My glory,
Whom I have formed even whom I have made,” NASB emphasis mine
I am not a theologian, but according to that snippet from Isaiah, surely it’s proper to glorify God when we approach Him.
One reason He deserves to be glorified is His character. Although His attributes are innumerable, Psalm 115:1 reminds us of two important traits:
“Not to us, O Lord, not to us.
But to Thy name give glory
Because of Thy lovingkindness, because of Thy truth.” Emphasis mine
We glorify Him because of His reputation of lovingkindness and truth. Oh, how we need that godly dynamic every time we turn our voices heavenward. Focusing our words on God’s glory and His character is a solid and necessary start. But, wait….Jesus also provides a prayer model for us to use.
Matthew 6:9-15 gives us the following example:
“Our Father who art in heaven,
Hallowed by Thy name,
Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we also
have forgiven our debtors.
And do not lead us into temptation,
But deliver us from evil. [For
Thine is the kingdom, and the
power, and the glory forever.
This blueprint, aka The Lord’s Prayer, provides all the necessary components that help believers pray a God-focused prayer.
-recognizes God as holy
-anticipates His kingdom
-desires His will
-asks for His forgiveness
-asks for His provision
-seeks His protection
-acknowledges His eternal kingdom and His glory
Although this guideline allows for us to insert our petitions, the entire prayer focuses on God in all areas including His mercy and grace “to help at the time of our need”, (Hebrews 4:14-16). It also assures that we allow for His sovereign will, thus setting up a God-focused prayer.
Are we going to pray the perfect prayer every time we approach God? No. But, in spite of our imperfect nature, it’s important not to cross the line into a man-centered prayer. That happens when we go beyond Jesus’ model, fail to glorify God, or forget His character. It is important to note that there times in the Bible when we are encouraged to pray about something that isn’t specifically mentioned in Jesus’ model. For example, Scripture tells us to pray for our enemies, (Matthew 5:43-48, Luke 6:27-36). These biblical instructions do not stray from or contradict The Lord’s Prayer because praying for our enemy’s falls under God’s will and are instructions directly from Jesus.
When we stray from, or add to, the foundational components of a divinely inspired prayer, it becomes man-centered. When that occurs we open up our precious God time to a dangerous portal where our motives will race in at His expense.
What does a man-centered prayer look like? Although they can have a variety of appearances, they can be gimmicky. A gimmicky prayer may have portions of the solid components, but be laced with additional elements not mentioned in the Bible.
One such example comes from a popular book that encourages readers to draw circles. Nowhere does the Bible say to draw circles and stand in them as part of our prayer. Not only does the guy draw a circle and stand it, but he also establishes a defiant tone while inside the circle. The Bible does say we can approach God boldly (Hebrews 4:16), but the action of drawing a circle and the accompanying defiance turns prayer into a man-centered fiasco that places demands on our sovereign God. It also reveals a skewed and selfish motive on our part. No matter how genuine our hearts are, if we are to be bold, it must exist without gimmicks and fall within the context of our HOLY God, HIS will and character, while glorifying HIM.
We don’t always need a gimmick to get us off track. Our motives also become unwittingly selfish when we desire a personal, extra-spiritual “experience” when we pray. Our focus moves to what WE get out of it instead of staying focused on God. We seek benefit for ourselves.
When prayer becomes a tool helping us seek a deeper experience (ie OUR proximity to God, US expecting a conversation, Him showing US His glory) we by-pass Jesus’ example. Our pursuit becomes emotional and makes US the central figure
An emotional prayer experience isn’t always a genuine touch from God. Yes, God can evoke an emotional response, but when “experience” is our starting point, we open the door to an unbiblical and, quite possibly, an unholy encounter. One such example comes via an experience that presented itself in a Bible study I attended years ago. One of our faithful attendees died. A few weeks after her death one of the other ladies entered a trance-like state and proceeded to relay a vision she was having involving the deceased woman. She saw and carried on a conversation with the dearly departed. The scenario included a detailed description of heaven. It was quite an amazing thing to listen to, but this type of activity, no matter how heart-felt it is, is not biblical. And, despite the myriad of believers seeking similar experiences, it not encouraged as part of prayer (or any other part of our faith). (1 Cor 4:6). Effective prayer keeps the focus on God and keeps our motives and emotional desires in check (James 4:1-3).
Man-centered prayer also sets us up for disappointment. An example of this is forgetting to recognize God’s will. Yes, He wants to hear our deepest, sincerest prayer, but when His will isn’t in the equation, it is a blow when the prayer goes unanswered. “But, Mr. Pastor, you told me that if believe what I pray, God will give it to me!” Yes, many pastors, Bible teachers, and authors perpetuate that mistaken belief. Consequently, they have set Christians up for failure in the form of unnecessary disappointment and confusion. Christians who experience unanswered prayer begin to believe their faith is not strong enough. But, worse yet, when God’s will and sovereign character are not part of prayer, we question God from a place of disappointment that, most likely, would not exist had God’s sovereign will been plugged in the petition. A great story of keeping God in the equation is the story in Daniel 3 when Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego faced a fiery furnace because they upset Nebuchaddnezzar, the Babylonian king. They prayed for deliverance, but ultimately left it in the hands of God.
In closing, we need to, periodically, set aside time to assess our prayer life. Are we keeping our prayers God-focused, or are we slowing stepping into the man-centered realm? Even the most sincere hearts are capable of straying from biblically based prayer. Here are a few questions to ask:
- Is my motive God-focused, or am I seeking to benefit or have an experience?
- Am I taking a biblical approach to prayer, or am I adding to the process?
- In the long-term, do I question my faith or God’s character when the answers to my prayers are “no”, or when they are not answered according to my expectation?
It shouldn’t be scary, but it is appropriate to approach prayer with reverence since we are connecting with our holy God. When we focus on God and proceed according to the instructions in His Word, we elevate obedience above experience; we glorify Him, we pray in accordance to His character (not ours) and we embrace His sovereign will.