Honestly, for many people, including a spiritual giant like C.S. Lewis, prayer has been, and remains, a conundrum. How should we pray? The disciples of Jesus asked him to teach them, and he modeled what we call “The Lord’s Prayer.” Short, concise, to the point, covering all the bases, the Lord’s Prayer speaks praise, petition, forgiveness and a call for the will of God. It is infused with trust, and assumes God’s ever-present sovereignty and love. So we often pray that prayer, mumbling the words most often in concert with a crowd of some kind, the words crossing our lips without much thought, like soldiers carrying bundles they think are little more than bedrolls, but are in reality sensitive explosives.
And then there’s the poor fig tree that gets cursed in Matthew 21 and Mark 11. Jesus is hungry and there are no figs on the tree, so Jesus declares that the tree will never bear fruit again, and it withers on the spot. The disciples are amazed–“How did that happen?”–and Jesus says point blank, “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” That’s Mark’s version (Mark 11:24) and Matthew says it like this: ” If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” (Matthew 21:22).
Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane gives us one more picture of prayer that throws our thinking out of kilter when he says he wants one thing, but he’s willing to go with whatever God decides. Luke 22:42 – “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” So Jesus gives God an out, and yields to what God wants. Many take this to be the primary model, especially glad its there because it allows them to pray without much faith, and yet they can still seem as pious as anyone else. How many of us, in effect, end up praying something like, “Help us, or heal so-and-so, but since we know you probably won’t, or can’t, or whatever, do your will, and it will all be fine, whatever.” And those people who we see praying as if something powerful and real was going to happen as a result of the praying, well…we’re pretty sure those folks are just religious crazies.
The Spirit comes into play as well, Paul says, in those times when we don’t know what to pray. He groans to express things we can’t find words for. And Paul prays all kinds of prayers, calls people to be devoted to prayer. And then James implies that we shouldn’t even bother if we doubt, because God is not going to give anything (at least not any wisdom) to those who doubt. Furthermore, James states frankly that the prayer of the righteous man is the kind of prayer you want, because it’s strong and powerful, and that we need to confess our sins to one another in order to keep that healing and powerful righteousness going.
One more passage: Luke 11, after Jesus talks about the Lord’s Prayer, he tells the story of the man who’s asleep, but whose friend comes banging on the door looking for some bread. In a powerful picture of prayer, Jesus says the man gets out of bed and gives his friend what he wants because of the friend’s boldness. So we are to come before the Father with boldness, Jesus teaches.
So how do we pray?
It seems to me that Jesus faith in God was immovable. It must be assumed that Jesus prayer in the Garden is not indicative of a a struggle of faith in his Father. There was no question of what God could do in Jesus mind. God could have removed “the cup.” But we must be careful here, because many of us might wish to say the same thing of our approach to prayer. We, too, know that God can do what we are asking, we just don’t know if He will. But let’s be real. Jesus faith in God was so different in quality that it seems it was different in kind. Jesus’ faith was born of long experience of seeing prayers answered right and left in bold and even theatrical ways. His life was a long line of unbroken obedience. When he prayed “Take this cup from me,” there was not an iota or a whit that wondered if God was able to do it.
I dare say few of us have the faith of Christ as we kneel in prayer.
Having said that, I must confess that own prayer life has been pretty weak-kneed over the years. It seems that the unrelenting position of the NT writers is one of boldness and power and “banging on the door” rather than “hat-in-hand” begging. God’s will is assumed–He will do as He wills–yet “let His children clamor!”
I told the church on Sunday morning it was time to pray as we have never prayed. To open our hearts to what God is doing among his people here. We are heading toward Pentecost, and I am holding on to the way the passage ends in Luke 11.
“Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
Batten down the hatches, boys…