I was waiting for my knife to be sharpened at a gun shop. I couldn’t help eavesdropping on a conversation between the shop clerk and a customer who was enquiring on how to apply for a gun license. In South Africa we have some of the most intimidating gun control laws in the free world. The process can take over a year. One of the requisite steps is that you must provide a substantiated motivation as to why you want the firearm. The gun shop clerk was coaching the customer on how to craft his motivation using the exact wording that would improve his chances of a positive outcome.
As I was listening to all of this it occurred to me that people are willing to put a lot of effort and thought into making requests that are important to them. But often when people want something from God, they put no thought into how to frame their petitions. They assume God will accept any request, from anyone, in any format.
Well, they would be wrong.
God has very specific ways in which he wants us to communicate with him and make requests. And Jesus coached his disciples on this very topic. In Matthew 6 Jesus provides a template for prayer that has become the most famous and repeated prayer of all time, known as the Disciples’ prayer, the Lord’s prayer, or simply as the “Our Father.” Jesus taught how to pray on two different occasions, in Matthew 6:5-13 and Luke 11:1. And although the two prayers are as similar as fraternal twins, they are not identical twins. The dissimilarities prove that Christ never intended this as a formula or rote prayer. It was a model or pattern for prayer. Of course, it is not wrong to pray it word-for-word, but that was not the intended purpose of the prayer.
Let’s examine some of the wrong ways to pray. Six insights from wrong ways to pray:
1. Disobedience: It is wrong to pray when you are in unrepentant sin.
Proverbs 15:8 The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord, but the prayer of the upright is acceptable to him.
If your prayers are not being answered, take a moment before you pray and consider if there is unrepentant sin in your life you need to confess: greed, drunkenness, discontentment, grumbling, lust, pornography, neglect of service in the church, unfaithfulness in church attendance, lack of faith in God, or hidden hypocrisy of living one way at work and one way at church.
Add confession early in your prayers.
2. Hypocrisy: It is wrong to pray for show.
Matthew 6:5 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.
Sometimes people come to a prayer meeting to show off that they pray, and to show off how they pray.
They seize the prayer meeting as an opportunity to scold others, to gossip, or to curry respect. Some will lapse into an unnatural dialect of Elizabethan English: “Oh Looord, who art ensconced in celestial glory among the cherubim, we beseech thee to bestow thy bounty upon this poor wretched worm…”
It’s not that praying in public is wrong. What’s disgusting to God is praying to be seen by men. If you love to pray in public but not in private, be warned – your prayer is reaching is the ear of man, but not the ear of God.
3. Superstition: It is wrong to put your faith in the power of your actions instead of in the power of God’s action.
Matthew 6:7 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.
Repeating the Lord’s Prayer over and over does not increase its effectiveness. Growing up as a Catholic I was taught to repeat the same prayer 100 times, punctuated by another prayer, and was given a rosary to help me keep count. That’s a practice based on an irrational belief that is not taught or modeled anywhere in Scripture. It’s what Gentiles do because they don’t have a relationship with the father, based on knowledge.
Other forms of superstitious praying include the belief that the timing of the prayer or the location of the prayer increases its effectiveness.
Waking up at 6 am to pray for your friend’s surgery scheduled for 6 am doesn’t amplify your prayer (although it might comfort your friend and help you become more focused, both good side effects of timing your prayer). Traveling to Israel to pray for peace in the Middle East does not make your prayer more effective than those of folks praying the same thing from home.
4. Insincerity: It is wrong to pray what you don’t mean.
Matthew 6:7 And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do,
An insincere prayer is when you don’t really mean what you are praying. You pray it out of habit or without really thinking about what you are saying.
“Bless this food to our bodies,” when you are about to eat an oversized serving of greasy, fatty, fast food that is designed to get you addicted while clogging arteries and in other ways killing you. Do you really mean you want God to miraculously turn the processed gunk into nutritious food? Or are you just pumping out a thoughtless formula phrase from habit?
“Lord provide for my needs, my daily bread,” but you are not willing to work, curb your spending, or avoid debt.
“Lord bless my wife and children,” but you aren’t setting an example of spiritual leadership, honoring your wife, or disciplining your kids in love.
5. Selfishness: It is wrong to pray for your pleasure at the expense of God’s glory.
James 4:3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.
You need to line your motives up with God’s revealed will for you: your spiritual good and his eternal glory.
If you pray for a promotion so you can have more money for a lavish vacation and opulent home, more respect from your colleagues, and more status in society, God will not answer favorably. If, however, you request a promotion so that you can be more effective for the gospel in the workplace, can bless your subordinates with fairness and dignity in the way you treat them, and can give more support to missions, God might well answer this prayer; same prayer, different motive.
If my kid asks for a crayon so she can draw a card for mommy’s birthday, I drop what I’m doing and get her crayons. If she wants to graffiti the walls of her room, I say no. Same request, different motive, which garners a different response.
6. Husbands: It is wrong to pray if you are not honoring your wife.
1 Peter 3:7 Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.
Husbands, if you’ve stopped listening to your wife, if you badmouth her to the guys at the office, or are disrespectful in the tone you use when you speak to her, then know this: your dishonor is causing static that is hindering the reception of your prayers in heaven.
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