by Matthew Holst • May 28, 2015
Your prayer-life is a measure of your spiritual maturity. Just about any decent book on prayer will tell you so. Your prayer lives exposes you to the reality that what is nearest and dearest to your hearts are those things for which you pray the most. It is an inescapable rule. In this respect, your prayer life may betray the public image which you, in turn, portrayed to others. Just a few years back, I became painfully aware that my prayer life was centered on…me. What a shock it was to realize that my prayers were essentially self-serving!
The practice of prayer has fallen on hard times in the church today. There may be many factors producing this rapid downturn in frequency and quality of prayer. Two of the most obvious are the affluence of western society and the lack of deeply spiritual representative prayer in our churches.
The Affect of Affluence
The affluence and relative ease of western culture has relaxed the grip that Scripture should hold on our lives. Our material lives are easier than they were even one hundred years ago: the present relief we have from infant mortality or child labor, from common sicknesses that often resulted in death but are now treatable have lulled us into a false sense of security. The Puritan pastor and theologian John Owen apparently had eleven children, ten of whom died in childhood–the one who didn’t die in childhood died of tuberculosis soon after she had married. Owen’s wife passed away eight years before him. People once knew–even expected–death and serious sickness to be a present reality in their lives, and often it drove them to prayer. They knew what it was to “number their days and gain a heart of wisdom.” (Ps. 90:12) Sadly, it is not so now. As longevity and better quality of life are now expected–even deemed a right–we have been driven from pondering our mortality and eternal realities to filling our lives with less consequential matters–with trivialities. Prayers for health, wealth, success, family, children, friendship, employment, while not illegitimate topics of prayer (3 John 2), are the topics which saturate most Christian prayers today.
The Affect of Prayer in the Worship Service
The dilution of spiritually rich prayer has also been aided and abetted by prayers from the pulpit. The casual manner of many public prayers–where Jesus is merely our best bud and God is little more than a divine handy man–teach the average Christian how not to pray. Awe, transcendence and a sense of holiness in prayer have been replaced with a superficial familiarity with the Almighty. Ministers lead and teach by example and must teach the manner and the content of biblical prayer.
How then should we pray, publicly and privately? Most books on prayer focus on using biblical petitions – this is the what and how of prayer. The what is the content of our prayers, the how is the manner of our prayers. Have we adopted a biblical and God-honoring posture of prayer, or have we adopted an essentially selfish attitude in prayer? What are our priorities in prayer? Are we more concerned with the spiritual realities of our life and the lives of others than with the material? For example, when was the last time you prayed that God would “make you worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (Eph 4:1; and 2 Thess. 1:11); or, that you would be “joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer” (Rom.12:12); or, that “God…would give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had”. (Rom 15:5-6); or, that “the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Rom 15:13); or, “that you will not do anything wrong.” (2 Cor 13:7). Or do ceaselessly give thanks to God for your brethren, remembering them in your prayers? (Eph1:16; Col 1:9); or, do you pray that “you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord” (Col 1:9); or, we could turn to the Psalms – “create in me a clean heart of God, and renew a right spirit within me”(Ps. 51:10); “be merciful to me O God, be merciful to me for in you my soul takes refuge” (Ps 57:1); and “May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us, that your way may be known on earth, your saving power among all nations.” (Ps. 67:1)
The truth is that our prayers are not saturated with Scriptural petitions (which place a great deal of emphasis on our spiritual well-being and little on our material well-being) because we are not saturated with Scripture and its priorities. Resultantly, we often end up praying for the wrong things. Or, perhaps we might better say, we don’t pray for the right things. While praying for material matters is both permissible and necessary, there are more important things in life. We are not here to live our lives for material and physical well-being. We are to be supremely mindful of the life to come. To that end, our prayers ought to focus on those matters that will fit us for eternal life. In short, our spiritual condition is far more important than our material or physical condition.
To help us pursue a spiritually rich prayer life, I want to commend several resources specifically designed to aid us all in our prayer lives. All of them centre on the following idea: we are to pray Scripture. We are to pray the petitions that the writers of Scripture teach us to pray. In doing so, we will have access not to the power of prayer, but the power of your Almighty and loving Father in Heaven who works through the prayers of his people to strengthen, encourage, and shape us into the image of his beloved Son.
D.A. Carson, Praying with Paul, A Call to Spiritual Reformation. – I highly commend Carson’s practical and piercing work into the heart of prayer. The book examines both the theology and practicalities of prayer, engaging in an analysis of Paul’s prayers. This book will change your prayer life.
Terry Johnson, Leading in Worship – While this book is targeted at those who lead worship, the helpful collection of Scriptural prayers which will suit everyone interested in growing in the grace of prayer.
Matthew Henry, Method for Prayer. This is the collection par excellence of biblical passages that may rightly be used in prayer. The book covers every conceivable item of prayer and is of profound use to the Christian.
Timothy Keller, Prayer – This book is an easily-accessible theology and practice of prayer and will serve the reader well.
Samuel Miller, Thoughts on Public Prayer – This unique little book teaches ministers and congregants how to lead others in public prayer. It focuses both on form and content.