The subject of prayer has been one of my interests. There is, in a sense, the perennial question of “How should we pray?” or, as the disciples put it, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1).
How should we relate to God in prayer? Perhaps most Christians could rattle off some standard statement of how we should come to God with confession, praise, petition and intercession. Yet, breaking prayer down into parts doesn’t prove true spiritual understanding, and so often those who can rattle off all the “parts” of prayer in their sleep are greatly deficient in any true spiritual understanding of the nature of prayer. And, lest anyone think different, even those with a better grasp of the proper spiritual heart of prayer so often find themselves at a loss when on their knees. As Scripture says, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will” (Romans 8:26-27) Indeed, anyone would be mistaken to think they might attain the place where prayer would be easy. It is not without reason that we read about striving in prayer (Romans 15:30, NKJV) and wrestling in prayer (Col. 4:12 NIV). Prayer is an effort, a labor which we ought to be faithful (Romans 12:12).
So, even a Christian of maturity and understanding will face struggle in their prayers, because it is real, and they will face times when they know not how they ought to pray. That is life in our imperfect bodies. But there is a big difference between the trials of godly prayer that Scripture makes reference to, and a deficient or downright wrong understanding of, and attitude toward, prayer. It is this latter issue which I would address.
The Bible is rich in prayers, and in those many prayers there is rich teaching. I have wanted to go through the Bible and extract all the prayers and passages on prayer and bring them together for study and examination. Such an act, if completed, would be of book length, and may remain one of those dreams of mine that never comes to be. Here, now, instead of that “complete meal” we’re having just a “crumb of bread” of consideration, but the desire for that larger study springs from the fact that, as prayer ought to form such a large part of the activity in a Christians life, I am intensely interested in what the Bible reveals on this subject.
How ought we to pray?
A lot of people take this as a question of methodology, and so in response to the disciples question they look to Jesus’s words as a teaching of methods and forms. From this mindset people teach the categories of confession, praise, petition, and intercession in prayer . . . or some such. Whatever the case, it is the laws, rules, or methods which govern the proper prayer. Understand the proper formulation, and you’re set to go in your prayer life.
I don’t think recognizing confession, praise, petition, and intercession in prayer is incorrect–those things do exist. But as for constructing those into methodology–no. Contrary to this, what I see the Bible teaching is not a formulation or methodology but rather a teaching of spiritual (for lack of a better word I will say) attitude. It is how the people of the Bible regard God and relate to Him that forms the foundation, the wellspring, from which their prayers arise. The particular words that each man (or woman) of God uses may vary, but at the heart of all the prayers I see one attitude, one view for relating to God. And that is how I look at the prayers in the Bible–not for a formulation, but the demonstration of what our heart’s attitude ought to be in truth and expressed in prayers–for if one is relating to God rightly (understanding who God is, and our relation to Him) then out of such a heart right prayers will naturally overflow.
In that light today I am looking at the prayer of Daniel as recorded in Daniel 9:4-19. I never cease to be inspired and encouraged by this prayer of Daniel. To me, it beautifully expresses how we ought to relate to God, and the hope and confidence in such prayer. We could go over the prayer line by line with lengthy exposition, but to shorten things for today and distill it down somewhat, and break it apart for emphasis, I will present it as such:
O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with all who love him and obey his commands
We have sinned and done wrong. We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws. We have not listened.
Lord, you are righteous.
But this day we are covered with shame because we have sinned against you.
The Lord our God is merciful and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against him.
All Israel has transgressed your law and turned away, refusing to obey you. Therefore the curses and sworn judgments written in the Law of Moses, the servant of God, have been poured out on us, because we have sinned against you.
The LORD our God is righteous in everything he does; yet we have not obeyed him.
Now, O Lord our God, who brought your people out of Egypt with a mighty hand and who made for yourself a name that endures to this day, we have sinned, we have done wrong. O Lord, in keeping with all your righteous acts, turn away your anger and your wrath from Jerusalem, your city, your holy hill. Our sins and the iniquities of our fathers have made Jerusalem and your people an object of scorn to all those around us.
Now, our God, hear the prayers and petitions of your servant. For your sake, O Lord, look with favor on your desolate sanctuary. Give ear, O God, and hear; open your eyes and see the desolation of the city that bears your Name. We do not make requests of you because we are righteous, but because of your great mercy. O Lord, listen! O Lord, forgive! O Lord, hear and act! For your sake, O my God, do not delay, because your city and your people bear your Name.
One could go many directions with this prayer, but in keeping with my stated goal, my focus here is on the attitude expressed. That attitude, and the words which spring from it, completely stands on head the “typical” prayer.
The typical prayer goes something like this: “Dear God, forgive me for the way I sinned today. Heavenly Father, thank you for your many blessings. Lord, I pray that you would work things out that I might get that new car. And, Father, I pray that you would be with Bob in his difficult time.”
Of course the actual content of our prayers varies, and many of them are not that simplistic, but it is the attitude I’m trying to get you to see.
Perhaps even you have observed it before–that common weakness in many to “cover the bases” in our prayers. We know there are the things we’re “supposed to do” so we do it–confess and intercede for others. There are the things we like to do–thank God for how rich and famous He has made us, so we thank Him. And then there are the things we want. And, having appeased God with all the former things, we now present Him with the laundry list of what we want out of the deal.
Obviously that is a crude and harsh caricature, but the point is this: From what heart and attitude do our prayers spring? We like to veil things with nice soundings words and wrap them in the garb of apparent righteousness, but the examination of so many prayers under the harsh light of truth reveals that they spring from the I. They spring from our thoughts about ourselves. I want this, and I want that, and I’m so thankful because I’m feeling so good.
True godly prayer recognizes the right relationship between God and man, (man lives to serve and seek God,) and is God-centered. Such understanding, and application to one’s prayer life, radically changes how one prays. Our purpose, our existence, is to bring praise and glory to God. That is what we should seek. That is what we should desire with our inmost being. But, rather than speaking about this in the abstract, let’s turn our attention back to the prayer of Daniel.
Looking over the prayer, we see Daniel repeatedly declares the character of the Lord (loving, holy, righteous, just) and repeatedly declare the character of himself and his people (sinful, disobedient, rebellious). Daniel doesn’t just say, “We sinned a bit” or “We weren’t up to snuff” but he puts them all collectively lower than dirt. They grossly, completely, and inexcusably rebelled against God. And, God was holy, righteous, and just in bringing the most extreme punishment on them. How many prayers have you opened in such a manner?
People don’t like to dwell on their sin. The attitude is something like, “Yeah, okay, I sinned. It wasn’t right, I’m sorry, forgive me, and let’s get on to more pleasant things.” But why does Daniel dwell on that dirty old past? Because he is concerned about God’s holiness and glory. God is holy, and they have sinned against him and that is a great offense against God which Daniel is concerned about. The focus of Daniel’s concern is God, not himself.
So, having confessed and acknowledged a state lower than dirt with not a leg to stand on, how does Daniel proceed in his prayer? “We do not make requests of you because we are righteous, but because of your great mercy.” And what does Daniel request? The God would have mercy and bless Daniel with a new car, wealth, or fame? No. “For your sake, O Lord, look with favor on your desolate sanctuary. [. . .] O Lord, listen! O Lord, forgive! O Lord, hear and act! For your sake, O my God, do not delay, because your city and your people bear your Name.”
Is that why you pray?
Daniel was concerned about the holiness, glory, and honor of God, and it was for the exaltation of those things that he prayed. His prayer was not I centered, but God centered. Daniel was not concerned about moving God, or manipulating God, to what he wanted. What Daniel desired was that God would act to His own glory. Those who rejoice in God, rejoice when God acts to His own glory.
At issue here is the fundamental orientation of one’s heart. What are you truly seeking and desiring in your prayers? Are you seeking the glory and honor of God in Christ, or, in essence, are you seeking your own exaltation?
Is the heart of your prayer, â€œForgive me, Lord, because I don’t want to face the consequences of what I’ve done,â€ or is it, â€œForgive me Lord, for Christ sake, that the glories of your grace and mercy might be known in me.â€ Is it, â€œBless me Lord, that I might have plenty and live in comfort,â€ or is it, â€œBless me Lord in the blessing of Christ that the world might see Christ in me and give glory and honor to you?â€
I simplify for the purpose of example. The question is, when you pray is it with a self-centered heart, with yourself as the idol of your desires, or is it with a God centered heart? As it says in James 4:3 â€œWhen you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motivesâ€ We ought to see everything through the lens of Christ Jesus, and ask with the motive of his glory, honor, and exaltation.
Having spoken briefly about what I have called the attitude of prayer, I would just very briefly touch on two other issues. The first is confidence in prayer.
Many people struggle with the issue of confidence in prayer. The manifestations and articulations are varied, but a common fear is of not being â€œworthyâ€ to come to God in prayer. Some may be sound enough in their theological understanding to know with their mind that it isn’t the accumulation of their good deeds that makes them worthy to come before God in prayer, and yet many would feel uncomfortable being like Daniel and admitting themselves to being less than the most filthy of dirt. Buried away deep in the sub-conscious remains the thought, But, in that case, I don’t have a leg to stand on before God. And, But, if I’m that raw and filthy, how dare I come to God? Which is, of course, exactly Daniel’s point.
What does all this have to do with confidence in prayer? Because our confidence is not in ourselves. It is in God. Our worthiness is not in ourselves. It is in God. Our relationship to God doesn’t stand or fall by our might. It is God who makes it stand. It is He who has provided, in our weakness, the reconciliation. As Daniel says, â€œWe do not make requests of you because we are righteous, but because of your great mercy.â€
That nails Christian prayer dead center. Our confidence is in God’s love and mercyâ€”who He is, not who we are. What He has done, not what we have done. We don’t make requests of God because we are righteous but because of His great mercyâ€”which has been expressed penultimately in the person and work of Jesus Christ. It is because of the surpassing mercy and grace God has shown in Christ Jesus that we have confidence in prayer. And what great confidence is that! â€œIf God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all–how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen?â€ (Romans 8:31-33) Daniel did not for one minute think he had any confidence for his prayer in himself, and neither should we. We can, and should, be very confident in our prayersâ€”confident, that is, in the person and work of God as expressed in Christ Jesus. As it says elsewhere, â€œThis is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us–whatever we ask–we know that we have what we asked of him.â€
The other issue I would touch on very briefly is that of honesty in prayer. Rather than this being something addressed explicitly in Scripture, I see it as implicit. The cutting edge of honesty is intertwined primarily with confession–honesty being implicit in true confession and it being the area where we least like being completely and utterly honest. While we can’t pull the wool over God’s eyes when it comes to admitting and confessing things we have the rampant tendency to play dishonest games with ourselves.
Honesty, confession, and humility are very much tied together, and they are displayed in Daniel’s confession in his prayer. There was no pretending there that things weren’t so bad. The problem endemic with the lack of such honesty and humility is demonstrated for us in Luke 18:9-14 where we read,
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men–robbers, evildoers, adulterers–or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
There in the Pharisee you have the demonstration of exactly the opposite attitude from that modeled by Daniel. Now, people will loudly acclaim that they don’t pray like that Pharisee, but I think too often we acquit ourselves by taking the parable quite literally and so let ourselves off on a technicality. Let’s not be so quick.
The truth behind that parable is a conviction of the Pharisaical hypocritical sheen of righteousness that we like to put on. Take this example, that I’m sure many (if not all) of us have experienced to some degree: The Bible says we are to pray for those who persecute us. Old Billy at work is giving you a hard timeâ€”he’s a real mean, nasty, troublemaker. So, being aware that the Bible says we are to pray for those who persecute us, every day in your morning prayers you say, â€œGod, bless Old Billy.â€ But in your heart you think, â€œGod, I sure would like it if you dropped a ton of bricks on Old Billy and squashed him flat. Lord, it would just thrill my heart if you roasted him in hellfire, because Old Billy just makes me so mad!â€
Such is the hypocritical nature which prays the right, or righteous, prayer but whose heart is far from it. Who do we think we are fooling? Far better to pray, â€œLord, I’m a wretched sinful man. Though you have shown such great love for me, I’m not showing the same love to Old Billy. Father, my attitude is not right, it is not Christ-like, because I could wish that a ton of bricks would squash Billy flat while you have shown such great forbearance with me. Lord, I am wrong to think and act this way, and it is a sin against you. I repent, and I ask that you would change my attitude that it would be made right to glorify you. And, even though I have such a hostile attitude toward Billy, I pray that in spite of my failures in attitude and deed you would bless Billy in accord with your great love.â€
Honesty in prayer, of course, encompass more than just admitting to our anger and bitter hearts toward fellow men. But in its essence it is the cry, â€œGod, have mercy on me, a sinner. It is saying, â€œLord, I don’t know. I need to be shown.” It is saying, “I want this, but I don’t know that it is right.” It is crying out, “I’m struggling and I don’t feel strong . . .â€ Or whatever. We shy away from being honest in our prayers, because, in our hearts, we shrink from humility. We don’t want to be naked of our own coverings before God, dependent upon Him alone for covering. We prefer to come before God in our best Sunday suit and appear in control. Who wants to appear naked and ashes, crying out how weak and broken we are? But who goes home with God’s good pleasure?
This has been a short look at prayer, and as such has left much out. But perhaps it has stirred your thoughts or called some things back to mind. We have looked at prayer briefly through the context of Daniel’s prayer, but the same spirit of seeking God’s glory and honor in confidence and humility can also be summed up in Jesus prayer as he went up to Jerusalem, his crucifixion approaching. He said,
“The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.
“Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!”
Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.”
So also we ought to love God and seek His glory so completely that we â€œhateâ€ our own lives and rather thank seeking our desires we pray, â€œFather, glorify your name!â€