Prayer is the most fundamental spiritual act. It is the first spiritual discipline our parents teach us. “Now I lay me down to sleep,” is ubiquitous with childhood. We hold hands around the table and thank God for the meal. Children watch and they learn that there is something special about closing your eyes and talking to God. What is the secret to this important spiritual discipline?
Prayer and Human Nature
My granddaughter is five years old and reminds me on a daily basis that she is a big girl now. Apparently, this means that she doesn’t want anyone bossing her around and she is becoming much more self-conscious.
She no longer wants to be the one to lead prayer at meals. When she was a baby (last year) she insisted on voicing the prayer at every meal. If I started to pray she would interrupt me with her own prayer.
When she was three and just started discovering her ability to pray she would demand that we prayed three to four times at each meal, just so we would all stop our conversation and listen to her. Come to think of it — she’s always been a bit bossy.
Prayer — talking to God — is the most natural of all the spiritual disciplines. When we are children we do it with ease. As we grow older, we become more self-conscious (less self-aware) and we “grow out” of our natural inclination to pray. We become too smart for our own good, and other “more important” or “more pressing” things crowd out our prayers.
Our childhood prayers now seem so … childish. Perhaps that’s why Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” (Mark 10:15).
Prayer is the most natural and instinctive human activities. We have to learn how not to pray.
Jesus and Prayer
The disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray. It’s not that they didn’t know how to pray. They were adult men who had been studying God for many years. Of course, they knew how to pray. They were asking him to teach them to pray the way he prayed. They wanted to be more like him in his prayer life.
Jesus answered with what was called “The Model Prayer,” or “The Lord’s Prayer.” It was actually quite a revolutionary prayer when Jesus taught it. Here are a few things we can learn about how to pray.
1. Be Intimate
Our Father in heaven …” (Matt. 5:9)
Jesus in the original spoken language (Aramaic) most likely used the word “Abba” or “Abiu” for “father.” It was the most intimate word for Father. It meant “Daddy.” Calling God “Daddy” was unheard of in first-century Jewish circles. It was considered too familiar and an affront to a holy God. Jesus was the first to do it.
Jesus had that kind of relationship with his Father. He said, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). Jesus said, “These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me” (John 14:24).
It is no surprise that Jesus as the Son of God would have that kind of relationship with God, the Father. The crazy thing is that he calls us to do the same. He gives us the right to have that same kind of relationship with our heavenly Father. He paved the way for us to have an intimate conversation with God.
The writer of Hebrews explained that we can approach God with confidence because Jesus is our great High Priest (the one who connects us to God). He writes:
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. 16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Heb. 4:15-16).
We can talk to God intimately. Jesus paid the price for that. Don’t waste it.
2. Be Bold
… your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 5:10)
This was a revolutionary and dangerous prayer to pray. The Kingdom that ruled in Jesus’ day was the Roman Empire. There was no other Kingdom. To suggest that another Kingdom should come and rule the earth was considered treasonous.
The first-century Christians whispered this part of the prayer for fear that an informant might be in their midst and overhear it.
Jesus called his disciples to be bold in the face of a world that desperately needed the light. He called them to pray for God’s will to be done in their lives just as he would one day — in the face of a horrible death — pray for God’s will to be done in his life (Matt. 26:39).
Be bold when you pray and always end your prayers asking God to do his will in your life. It is a dangerous prayer to pray. God will always give you the best. It might be a painful journey to God’s best, but that is always where he is taking you (Jer. 29:11).
3. Be Consistent
Give us today our daily bread” (Matt. 5:11)
The point behind this part of the prayer is not so much about having enough to eat as it is about having total dependence on God. The key word is not “bread,” it’s the word “daily.”
This was a not-so-subtle reference to the wilderness experience of the Hebrew people when God would provide manna and quail on a daily basis. Every morning that would wake up and it was there. They were to collect just enough for one day. If they collected extra it would spoil.
In the wilderness, they learned to be completely and totally dependent on God on a daily basis. This is the hardest lesson of prayer.
When you are completely dependent on God you can’t make it through a single day without talking to him.
You can talk to him anywhere and at any time of the day.
I like to pick a phrase that I will repeat to God throughout the day. One phrase I use a lot lately is, “Lord, give me joy.” I will repeat it multiple times throughout the day. Wherever I am — I just throw up a quick prayer to God — “Lord, give me joy.”
This way I am talking to him all the time, even if it’s just for a few seconds. I’m checking in with him. He’s always there. I just want to acknowledge it.
A lot of people say that prayer doesn’t work for them, but the truth is they haven’t given it enough of a chance.
Try praying ten times a day for thirty days. They don’t have to be long prayers. Just say something to God ten times today. Do it for thirty days. See what happens.
4. Be Transparent
… forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who sin against us” (Matt. 5:12).
Here I had to go to the New Living Translation because it used the word “sins” instead of “debts.” This is what Jesus meant — confess your sins to God. He goes on to say “lead us not into temptation …” After you confess your sins, ask God to help you to change course — to avoid the same sin that is killing you.
Confess everything to God. Be real with him. Go ahead. Tell him everything. He already knows. Get it all out. He’s already forgiven you.
You need the ONE PLACE where you can say everything. God is that place. Don’t waste the opportunity.
Jesus spoke freely and honestly with his Father. He let his emotions fly with the Father. Jesus wasn’t afraid to become angry — he didn’t hesitate to cry — he experienced every emotion that you have experienced and he brought all if it to God.
5. Be Thankful
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever” (Matt. 6:13).
This last phrase may have been added later by the early church. It is their desire to express their gratitude to God. I’ll remind you that when they ended the prayer this way they were being persecuted — murdered — for their faith in Jesus.
They learned it from Jesus. When he was being nailed to the cross, he was thankful to God. He talked to God from the cross. I imagine he was praying all the way through it. Even his words, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me” (Matt. 27:46), were a prayer from Psalm 22.
Whatever happens in life — always be grateful to God.
You can’t always control what life throws at you. You can always control how you react to it. You can always be thankful that, no matter what, God is still on his throne and he is still in control of all things.
How to start
- Pick a phrase and pray it to God throughout the day. It can be the same phrase every day for a week.
- Take ten minutes each morning and night to read a small portion of Scripture and talk to God.
- Start small. Don’t beat yourself up for failing. It’s called a “discipline” for a reason. It takes time to get in the habit. Keep going!