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Letters to Carlos: How to pray

How to Pray
by Les Thompson

Dear Carlos,

Thanks again for your letter. It is always so good to hear from you. I enjoyed your stories about your little Carlos and all the joy he is giving you. How true is Psalm 127:3, Children are a gift from the LORD. You also mentioned the struggles you are having with your prayer life and asked for some advice. It is interesting how having children so quickly drives us to our knees.

First let me say that I do not know of another spiritual area that is more difficult than prayer. It is hard for us to truly capture the concept that I, a lowly and fallen human, can really talk to our Creator; the most Holy God. Even more unbelievable is that He listens. It is almost impossible for us to believe that we can actually communicate with God Himself. Even more, He invites us to search for Him, and for the most part, we do so through our prayers.

When Martin Luther’s barber and friend asked him how to pray, Martin Luther responded with a brief treatise published in the spring of 1535 under the title A Simple Way to Pray, for a Good Friend. The following are some of the suggestions Luther gave to his close friend:

Let prayer be the first business of the morning and last in the evening. Do not be sidetracked. Luther writes, “So, a good and attentive barber keeps his thoughts, attention, and eyes on the razor and hair and does not forget how far he has gotten with his shaving or cutting. If he wants to engage into much conversation or let his mind wander or look somewhere else he is likely to cut his customer’s mouth, nose, or even his throat. Thus if anything is to be done well, it requires the full attention of all one’s senses and members. . .” (p. 32-33).

Given that prayer is “man communicating with God” brings two indispensable aspects: (1) we are talking to God; (2) God is talking to us. I think we can practice the first one quite well, but we are deplorable with the second.

For example, go to a prayer meeting in any church and listen to the prayer requests. They are for such things as the kidney of Sister Christina, the liver of Brother Florentino and the back of widow Cecilia, and on and on. If we didn’t know better, we’d conclude God was the health director of a large clinic. In what prayer meeting do you hear requests that have to do with our lack of reverence and respect for God, helping us overcome our persistent selfishness or lack of compassion for others? Or how many prayer meetings have you been to when someone is fervently asking God to show us His glory and majesty in our homes, churches, communities, and country?

Analyzing the kind of praying most of us are engaged in demonstrates that the majority of our prayers are one-directional, asking God to supply our needs without finding out what God wants to say to us. We are so focused on our needs and wants, we rarely want to hear what God wants to communicate with us. While God is indeed concerned about Sister Christina’s kidney and Brother Florentino’s liver, He may be far more concerned about the terrible spiritual condition of Sister Christina’s and Brother Florentino’s hearts. It is absolutely true that we really need to learn how to pray!

A prayer model that Jesus gave us contains at least eleven areas, or different kinds of prayer. Studying them, we find what Luther says is very true: “If we are going to do something well —including prayer— it requires our full attention and we need to use all our senses.” Let’s look at what Christ taught in The Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13):

THE SPIRITUAL PART OF PRAYER:

  1. “Our Father” — come to understand the intimate relationship we have with our eternal and all powerful God. He is truly our “Father” and we are His “children.” We can get close and talk confidently to Him.
  2. “Who is in heaven” — our God, to whom we pray, is in heaven. This earth, then, should not be our main point of interest. To ask Him for something, we should ask, “What is it you want to do?”
  3. “Hallowed be your name” — We need to understand God’s greatness and holiness. He is absolutely perfect and pure. God requires purity and holiness in us: clean hearts.
  4. “Your kingdom come” — We must remember that He is the King and we need to submit everything to Him, always seeking to please Him.
  5. “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” — We are to ask that His will always be perfectly accomplished here on earth just as it always is in heaven.

THE PRACTICAL PART OF OUR PRAYERS:

  1. “Give us today our daily bread.” — After giving our first attention to God and his will, we can then ask Him to supply our daily needs: food, clothes, housing, work, and health.
  2. “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” — We need to ask for grace to forgive those who have hurt or displeased us in the same way the Lord has forgiven us. If we do not, we do not deserve His forgiveness.
  3. “And lead us not into temptation” — We need to ask God for strength to resist the sins that attract and bind us, acknowledging we cannot overcome them on our own.
  4. “But deliver us from the evil one” — We need to ask for His help knowing that the evil one seeks our destruction. In the same way, we need to ask for His help so that we may recognize the difference between good and evil and live in such a way that pleases God.
  5. “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever.” — We finish recognizing that God is the king (not us), that the power to live as we should comes from God (not from us), and that we need to give God all the glory (not any for us), since we are to live for Him not just now, but for all the ages.
  6. “Amen”— “The ‘amen’ is understood like this,” Luther explained to the barber, “We do not finish praying without saying or thinking, ‘Very good, I know for sure that you are the All Powerful God who has heard my prayer.’ This is what it means to say amen.”

As we have come to realize, Carlos, the first five steps that Jesus teaches regarding prayer have to do with God (theological issues), and the last six steps have to do with us (practical issues). We can come to God in prayer not just to look for help with our problems and needs, but to seek God in glorifying our world, our neighborhood, and our personal spiritual development.

A Frenchman, Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), was a great man of prayer. He said, “We must not devote ourselves to prayer once or twice, but frequently, diligently, letting God know the longings of our hearts and letting him hear, at times, the voice of our mouth. This is why it is said, ‘Let your petitions be made known to God,’ (Philippians 4:6) which happens as a result of persistence and diligence in prayer.”

It is interesting to investigate the prayer lives of great men of God. What you will discover is that it is almost impossible to distinguish the difference between their robust theology and their devotion to God. You will see little difference between their heads and their hearts, between their doctrine and their personal godliness, and between their understanding and their prayers. They do not informally nor sentimentally address God; they come to recognize who they really are before a holy God. We can see, for example, one of Anselm’s prayers (1033-1109): “Alas, I am indeed wretched, one of those wretched sons of Eve, separated from God!…Lord, I am so bent I can only look downwards, raise me, that I may look upwards.” Clearly the servants of God were very conscious of the difference between themselves —sinful and finite— and the Great and Just Judge before whom all of us will stand some day.

We also see the importance of the Bible. Through reading and meditation we learn to harmonize our prayers and petitions with the voice and will of God. My father, for example, was a man of prayer. It was one of the aspects I remember most about his spiritual life. He got up faithfully every day very early in the morning and, along with my mother, they prayed for several hours. Then they ate breakfast and began with their daily routines. Many times, out of curiosity, I would get up and listen in as they prayed. I was surprised when my Dad stopped in the middle of his prayer to read the Scriptures. Even more interesting, he would read the Scripture to God. I remember asking myself, “What does the Bible have to do with prayer? And, why is he repeating to God what He Himself has written in the Bible?”

Many years later, when I began to seriously study the Bible, I discovered the answer. To whom am I praying? Who is He? What does He want? What does he expect from me? How can I confidently bring my requests to Him if I don’t know Him? The Bible is where I found answers to all my questions. Without the Bible I do not know who God is nor why He would be interested in me.

We see, for example, the prayer of David, one that we find in Psalm 30. David is very sick to the point of death and he makes this prayer to God: To you, O LORD, I called; to the Lord I cried for mercy (verse 8).

Reading what David says to God in the Psalms, we know that he knew Jehovah. He knew that as his son he had all the rights to ask his father for help. He opened his heart to God and said: “What gain is there in my destruction, in my going down into the pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it proclaim your faithfulness? Hear, O LORD, and be merciful to me; O LORD, be my help” (verses 9-10).

And we see that God gloriously responds because of what David says: You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, that my heart may sing to you and not be silent. O LORD my God, I will give you thanks forever (verses 11-12).

The prayer is not one directional. David did not pray without knowing whether it would be heard. Just like David —because of what he has taught me from the Bible— I can confidently say, “Hear me, oh Lord…you are my helper.” It is through the Bible, explaining who God is and what He is like, that we learn how to pray and trust that He hears me.

I remember a special party I enjoyed when my son, Daniel (who is a pastor), gave me a book called The Doctrine of God, by Dr. John M. Frame. It is a book with more than 800 pages written by a conservative evangelical who has come to know God through the teaching of Scripture. What glory I felt as I totally wrapped myself in this book for many days. Since then I have found myself literally praying without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17) with prayers celebrating the infinite glory, majesty and immeasurable greatness of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

We cannot forget, Carlos, that when Jesus taught us to pray The Lord’s Prayer, the first thing that is underlined is our relationship with the Triune God – our Father. I think if we do not understand who the Father is and how he manages heaven and earth, what meaning will our prayers have? Our prayers, in place of being God-ward, will change to being self-ward.

For me prayer is like a son talking with his father whom he loves very much, sharing the most intimate things on his heart. Here are some of my thoughts on prayer:

  1. You are alone in a room with a closed door talking to God: But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you (Matthew 6:6).
  2. The idea of forming a prayer chain with all the world repeating the same prayer to guarantee that God listens does not inspire me. I think this goes against the spirit of what Christ said: And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words (Matthew 6:7). It is understanding that our Father knows what you need before you ask him (Matthew 6:8). So, it is not necessary to give a lot of details to God. He already knows everything —our effective prayers can be brief.
  3. You are just one man, a poor woman, a small child confidently opening your heart to your Heavenly Father, feeling his loving arms around you and giving his loving answer: You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it (John 14:14).
  4. It is an encounter with other children of God whom together, look for God’s blessing and answer to His promises: They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers (Acts 1:14).
  5. It is a great resource we have when we have serious problems: In my distress I called to the LORD, and he answered me. From the depths of the grave I called for help, and you listened to my cry (Jonah 2:2).

What more can I say, Carlos? When we pray, we can put total confidence in our gracious Heavenly Father. Because we know we have faith that He hears and answers. And if He does not seem to answer, we know that it is because we have asked for something that is not in His plans or whose time has not yet come. I hope these ideas help you.

It is always such a joy to hear from you. I am already looking forward to your next letter.

God bless you richly,
Les Thompson