Why Are Ours So Different?
(from Part 1: "The truth about biblical prayer leads us to ask several questions: Why is ours so different? Does it matter? What can be done?")
Our prayer is so different from those expressed in Scripture for several reasons.
1. We are slaves to "impromptu" prayer. This may sound, at first, to be contradictory. How can you be enslaved -- bound to a pattern -- to something spontaneous? But when we examine the content of our corporate prayer, we find that we are not truly "impromptu" or "spontaneous" at all, but repeat the same content, use the same phrases, echo the same words in all our prayer. While the idea of permitting the Spirit to move and prompt in us "off the cuff" petitions to God is laudable, the reality is that the Spirit is excluded from prayer that is simply repetitious.
2. We are unfamiliar with the prayers of Scripture. The prayers of the Old Testament saints that we find in the historical books, in the Psalms, and in the books of prophecy are recorded as examples for us of both their content and their style. Each prayer reflects the personality and passions of the one praying, yet maintains a godward focus and humble honesty. They recognize specific attributes or acts of God and make specific requests for specific reasons. They assume a mighty God to whom the prayer is made, expect God to respond for his glory, and rejoice to participate in God's plan through prayer. Similarly, the New Testament prayers are replete with references to the promises God made in the Old Testament, acknowledge how he has fulfilled them in the new covenant in Christ, and make specific requests of God based upon our knowledge that he is the promise-keeper.
3. We are unfamiliar with the God to whom we speak. This assessment sounds incredibly harsh. But if we knew the God who miraculously heals us, who graciously sustains us, and who mercifully loves us, would we actually give a typical visitation prayer? If we truly knew the might God -- the consuming fire -- whose awesome presence we invoke to heed our feeble worship, would we actually pray as we do in invocations? If we knew the God who owns the cattle on a thousand hills, who sustains the universe with the word of his power, who provides us with every good gift, would we pray the same way before the offering?
Does it Matter?
Does it matter how we pray in public? Absolutely. We must remember first and foremost that prayer is audience with Almighty God. If we were called upon to give remarks to the President of the United States, before an assembled crowd of citizens and statesman, we would not dare repeat someone else's words, or use content that was painfully familiar to everyone, or "wing it," depending upon our powers of impromptu speech or the spontaneous production of a fertile mind. We would prepare and we would speak with reverence. If we would do so with the President, how much more should we do so with the God who placed him -- and all other earthly rulers -- in his position of power?
The substance of our corporate prayer sets the tone for what is to come. If we use trite appeals for God's mercy over the sick, then our prayer meetings will be little more than lists of the infirm and opportunities for gossip. Banality and familiarity in the invocation establishes the expectation that not much is really going to happen in this worship gathering. Repetition before the offering leads to the impression that this exercise is little more than paying my dues to be a members of the club.
Jesus warned us against using "vain repetition" and attempting to be heard for "our many words." If we pray that way, then our reward is simply what happens on earth. Instead, we should pray with the heavenly reward in mind.
(Coming soon: Part 3, What Can Be Done?)