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Learning How to Pray

Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, "Lord, teach us how to pray, as John taught his disciples." And he said to them, "When you pray, say: "Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation." Luke 11:1-4

Welcome, New Believer! Although this post will be as much for me as it is for you. Next to making a regular habit of Bible study, prayer is something that many Christians struggle with. After all, talking to God is both just as terrifying as that sounds and truly far more simple than we often let ourselves believe. It reminds me of an old hymn that we used to sing in my grandparents' church when I was little:

"What a friend we have in Jesus, All our sins and griefs to bear And what a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer. Oh, what peace we often forfeit. Oh, what needless pain we bear. All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer." - What a Friend We Have in Jesus (Joseph M. Scriven)

This is probably one of the greatest blessings of being a Christian and one of the greatest challenges that each of us faces. In the Old Testament days, God would choose who He spoke to making it pretty special if you were given the opportunity for that conversation.

Noah was called to build the Ark.

Abraham was called to leave his home for a strange and unknown land.

Isaac became heir to the Promise.

Jacob wrestled with God.

Joseph was asked to trust through great suffering.

Moses was called to stand up to Pharoah and lead his people out of slavery.

Joshua was chosen to lead his people into the Promised Land and conquer the enemy nations living there.

The Judges were given power and wisdom to guide their people and rescue them from their enemies by turning them back to God.

Samuel anointed the first Kings of Israel.

Saul failed to listen when God spoke.

David pursued God's heart even after falling into great temptation and sin.

Solomon asked for wisdom and was given far more.

The prophets held the Kings and their people accountable to God and proclaimed His justice and His great plan for mercy.

Zechariah became temporarily dumb because his faith wouldn't let him believe God's promise of a child.

John prepared the way for the coming of God among us.

Mary and Joseph accepted God's plan even when it promised great sacrifice.

Immanuel broke down all the barriers and came for us all!

Sometimes it is very easy to lose the significance of what Jesus was doing by teaching His disciples to pray because of our place looking back through history. Before this, the only way you as a regular person got to talk to God was through a priest when you went to worship and sacrifice in the Temple and before that through the priests serving in the Tabernacle. Even then, one of the priests could only enter the Holy of Holies with great ceremony and reverence once a year to offer sacrifices for the whole people! By coming to live among us Jesus was showing that God's grace is not just for mighty men, prophets, warriors, and kings but that it is for all people. When He died that great curtain tore that separated us from the Holy of Holies that boundary permanently dissolved. Yet, we struggle still to come before our God who is waiting with open arms to hear from His children.

When you pray...

“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. Matthew 6:5-6

Have you ever watched a couple in the middle of a parking lot pick a very loud and explosive fight? Sometimes it seems like they're doing it more for the audience than to sort out any issues that may have genuinely caused the conflict. But when you want to have a real conversation with someone, you carve out time to get together one on one, put the phones down, and really talk. When we talk to God it shouldn't just be because someone else is watching, God wants our sincere and undivided attention just as much if not more than our loved ones do. That isn't to say that there is no place for public prayer or praying together as a church. The Apostles prayed together as the early church came into being and the church continued to pray together for one another, for their missionaries, and for the lost people around them. Still, those prayers were not meant to be great shows of self-righteousness but heartfelt expressions of faith worship to the God they knew would answer.

"And when you pray, 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." Matthew 6:7-8

In Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, He actually goes into the specifics of how we are and are not to pray. Here is His first admonishment: you don't need to use long words or repeat yourself over and over (in some translations you'll see "vain repetitions" instead of "empty phrases"). God knows your heart sometimes all you'll be able to get out is one word or two. Praying, "Help me!" is not less powerful than praying specifically for God to help you pass that test, pay your bills, or for that scary medical test to come back clean. However, you may be thinking now, why pray at all if God already knows what I need? I wrestled with this one for a while too, but I think the best illustration that helped me to understand this is a scene in C.S. Lewis's The Magician's Nephew when Digory, Polly, and Fledge were sent to retrieve fruit from the tree at the center of the walled garden high up in the western mountains. They reach their first camp for the night only to realize that they have not brought any food for the journey...

"I am hungry," said Digory. "Well, tuck in," said Fledge, taking a big mouthful of grass. Then he raised his head, still chewing and with bits of grass sticking out on each side of his mouth like whiskers, and said, "Come on, you two. Don't be shy. There's plenty for us all." "But we can't eat grass," said Digory. "H'm, h'm," said Fledge, speaking with his mouth full. "Well -- H'm -- don't know quite what you'll do then. Very good grass too." Polly and Digory stared at one another in dismay. "Well, I do think someone might have arranged about our meals," said Digory. "I'm sure Aslan would have, if you'd asked him," said Fledge. "Wouldn't he know without being asked?" said Polly. "I've no doubt he would," said the Horse (still with his mouth full). "But I've a sort of idea he likes to be asked."

This brief interaction is maybe an oversimplification of the grander truth that stirs in my mind when I read it, but what it calls into memory is that from the time of our Creation God has been pursuing humankind to be in relationship with them, not because He needs that relationship, but because we need that relationship with Him. Yes, He knows us better than we even know ourselves, but He wants us to ask. He wants us to seek Him!

And he said to them, “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything’? I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs. And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” Luke 11:6-13

That is not to say that God is our personal wish-granter. Rarely does becoming a Christian mean that all your wildest dreams are about to come true; wealth, power, influence, a healthy family, and so on could very well be the opposite of God's plan for you! I'm not saying this to scare you, but because it has been increasingly taught in churches that if you only believe enough or tithe more then your life should be going exactly how you think it should go. Which is not at all true, as a matter of fact, Jesus tells us that we are to expect to have trouble in this life because we belong to Him! Instead, we are to lay up our treasures in Heaven by seeking His Kingdom first and trusting that He will provide all our other needs.

Pray then like this: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your 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 lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Matthew 6:9-13

The veil is torn and He wants us to seek Him, but we are still to come before Him in awe of who He is and what He has done for us! Notice that Jesus doesn't say, "pray exactly these words," in fact, He just got done saying not to use vain repetitions or empty phrases. He said, "pray like this..." Giving honor to God, seeking His Kingdom and glory, asking for our daily needs, confessing our sins and asking forgiveness, and asking for deliverance from spiritual attacks of temptation from the Evil One that we face every day. Another of the greatest examples of this that I've ever heard taught actually comes from the Old Testament in the Book of Daniel when Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are about to be thrown into the fire because they won't worship the idol that the King of Babylon had made of himself.

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” Daniel 3:17-18

What you might miss among the tension and horror of this story the first time you read it is when these brave men say, "But if not,..." They didn't say this because they didn't have enough faith that God could indeed rescue them, they simply had enough humility to know that their rescue might not be part of God's plan. God's plan might have been to call them home right then and their martyrdom still would have been a great witness to their people. What they also knew was that none of those other gods could save them from the fiery furnace and mere survival in the empire of this haughty king was not worth betraying their faith in the One, True God. Thankfully for them, God's plan was to miraculously rescue them from the flames and their rescue caused the King to bow and worship their God instead!

If you're struggling with prayer, my best advice is to practice.

If it helps you to write out your thoughts, then try writing "letters" to God tell Him about how much you love Him, about how grateful you are for your salvation, and how He is transforming your life; tell HIm about your day, did you struggle with temptation? Confess that to Him. Is there a need or a desire that you have? Ask for it with all faith that God will answer for your good and His glory!

As you're growing, in the moments of temptation, consciously remind yourself to ask God to protect you from those temptations and deliver you when you don't feel strong enough to resist on your own.

If it's public praying that gives you anxious hives, start out small with your family. Ask to pray over the food before you eat together. If that even sounds too much, then ask your Mentor or someone you trust to help you practice praying aloud around others, start with just them. I fully believe you will grow and before you know it, praying in a bigger group setting might not seem so terrifying.

There is so much more we could go into on this topic, so if you have more questions or thoughts about learning how to pray, please leave them in the comments or hop over to the forum to start a deeper discussion there. I highly encourage you to find a mentor in the faith, if you haven't already, who can help personally walk you through many of these issues as you grow into a mature believer. This is one journey you were never meant to take alone!

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