Prayer might be the most fundamental act of the Christian life. It is faith. It is communion. It helps us do the other baseline Christian acts – repentance, good works, forgiveness, love. What an amazing privilege that we can talk to the Creator of the universe! While most of us will never get an audience with a king or the president, who needs to chat with them when we can bypass their celebrity and go straight to the top.
We can talk to God anytime, anywhere, about anything. The veil is torn. The Great High Priest has mediated the conversation. Now we can have back-and-forth communication with God, no sacrifice or clergy necessary.
But if prayer is so essential and good, why do we so often mess it up?
We don’t “mess it up” in the sense that God can’t hear us. It’s not that we don’t talk loud enough. Prayer has nothing to do with our voice, but everything to do with our heart. And God tells us flat-out that even as he hears all prayers, there are prayer problems that get in the way.
Psalm 66:18 says,
If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.
And Jeremiah writes,
Therefore this is what the Lord says: ‘I will bring on them a disaster they cannot escape. Although they cry out to me, I will not listen to them.
There is never a soundproof wall between God and his creation, nor does he ever tune us out such that he can’t hear when our wrong prayers become right, but it’s clear that he sees into our hearts when we pray. Just as dialogue with other people is 10 percent words and 90 percent body language, when we talk with God, our words are far less important than the posture of our souls.
Bad prayers interrupt good communication with God. For many of us, including myself, we don’t even realize when we’re praying badly. We don’t check the condition of our heart and mind as we enter into prayer.
So, to get on track in our prayer life, here are five things to watch out for.
Praying for the wrong things
It’s often said that prayer is a two-way street. It’s interpersonal – listening and reacting. We can actually affect God with our prayers. If we couldn’t, why would we pray?
Our prayers can bring glory to God. They can praise him and please him. They can even affect how he works in the world, leading to miracles and masterpieces that wouldn’t have happened without asking God for them.
But just as the prayers of a righteous person give thanksgiving and honor, prayers against God’s good will and character must disappoint him. If we pray for evil things – another person’s pain or our own selfish gain – what good can it do?
It doesn’t matter how sincerely you pray if you pray against the will of the one who answers prayer. So when you pray, pray for the fruits of the Spirit, for God’s power to be made known, for miracles, for advancement of the kingdom, and for God’s will to be done above our own.
We’ve all heard this during times of group prayer, and most of us have probably fallen into it ourselves. When we pray in community, sometimes we like to use it as a time to talk to others, but make it look like we’re talking to God, as though that excuses anything we say.
Prayer becomes gossip when we tell too many dirty details about our friend’s family issues and excuse it by thinking: Well, just lifting it up to God.
Prayer becomes gossip when we say too much about our friends’ sins, almost like we’re drawing comparisons: Look at all the bad stuff this person did… but here I am praying for their salvation.
Prayer becomes gossip when we criticize people and disguise it as prayer: God, forgive the senator for passing such-and-such a bill or God, you know all these bad things this guy has done — this, this and this — but I ask that you would change his heart.
Prayer becomes gossip when we start to brag, condemn, mock, or try to show we know things that others don’t know. Gossip is bad enough on its own, but it becomes even worse when it corrupts our prayers.
Lying to God
It’s weird to think we are willing to get down on our knees, close our eyes, and cry out to God only to lie to him, but some of us do it on a regular basis.
We probably don’t lie outright. We’re unlikely to tell God we did something we didn’t do, or didn’t do something we did. But we are definitely prone to make our sins look smaller than they are.
Francis Chan talks about this in a sermon about getting real with God. He says sometimes we lie to God because we’re so used to lying to each other. We’re so reluctant to admit guilt to other people, we can’t even admit it to God. We hide so much of who we really are from the world that we think we can hide it from God, too.
Lying to God is really just lying to ourselves. God knows who we really are. He knows what we need to confess and be thankful for, so just do it.
It’s not exactly right to say a prayer “worked” or “didn’t work,” as though it were some kind of machine where you put in prayers and a flattened coin comes out with a cartoon character engraved on it. Prayer is not a computer for which a certain input compels a specific output. But an exchange, a cause and effect, really are happening, and we should expect an answer.
God doesn’t call us to predict the future, but he does tell us to believe when we pray. This is more than just mental gymnastics; it’s more than self-fulfilling prophecies. It’s dependence on another — The Other! It’s admitting God is God. I think a lot of us pray, but don’t really expect anything to happen. We don’t believe the prayers are getting through, or maybe we don’t believe there’s anyone listening.
I’m sure God loves partaking in the prayers of the wondering doubter and the curious seeker, but for those who already know him, he expects us to know the power of prayer as well. If we have assurance of God’s grace and omnipotence, we should also have assurance that he hears our prayers and responds.
This doesn’t mean we should expect an answer according to our own will or in our own timing, but we can and should expect an answer. God is not silent to the prayers of the faithful, nor is he deaf to the pleas of those who believe in his name.
I’m terrible with this one. Maybe a lot of us are. Hypnotized prayers are those prayers we pray and then, 30 seconds later, we couldn’t tell you what we said.
Do you have a prayer routine? For me, I pray intermittently throughout the day, but there are a few specific times that are designated for prayer every day – before meals and before I go to sleep. There are definitely such things as good habits, but I know that these regularly-scheduled prayers have a bad tendency to become meaningless repetition. Day after day, I fall into the same words, the same motions, the same cadence, and the prayer becomes dry. I may not even be consciously repeating a memorized prayer, but that’s what’s happening. I just want to get food in my mouth or my head on the pillow, so I just sputter a few Thank yous and Please be with so-and-sos and Amen.
In my better moments after these prayers, I wonder if it would have been better had I not prayed at all. Was I even thinking about what I was saying? Was I even thinking about God? Did I feel or care about anything I said?
In hypnotized prayers, we miss the sincerity. We would feel bad if, whenever we talked with a friend, we spouted off a stock speech without thinking or listening. Really, it would be hard to even call that a friendship.
When we talk to God, it should be like talking to a friend. It is talking to a friend. That means sincerity and care, sharing and venting and listening. Otherwise, if we’re reciting a string of words without giving a moment’s pause to consider whether or not we mean them, we might as well be reading God nutrition facts. We might as well save our breath for real words.