Letter No. 2: How to Pray

Introduction

The apostle Paul gives the following advice in his first letter to the Thessalonians: pray without ceasing. (5:17) I have to admit that years ago this was one piece of pastoral advice I had no interest in following. I just didn’t enjoy praying. It was an effort for me. I prayed out of a sense of obligation and I was relieved when it was over.

But that all changed when I participated in a Moms In Touch prayer group at Caleb’s elementary school. Moms In Touch is an international group that began twenty-five years ago with a few moms who gathered weekly to pray for their children who attended a California junior high school. Now it has spread to schools all across the country. Prayer time is structured and follows the same pattern week after week. It begins with a verse of Scripture, followed by freely offered praise, thanksgiving, silent confession and, only when everything else has come before, petitions for one’s child and the school.

This structure was a revelation to me. Well, O.K., not at first. I do tend to resist when someone tells me I have to do something a certain way. But soon, the rhythm became liberating as I found myself in joyful communication with God. Prayer stopped being for me a “laundry list” of needs and concerns and a guilty effort. It became something I enjoyed because I felt like I was entering God’s heavenly sanctuary where I could stand in blissful communion with Him. This way of praying is what I want to pass on to Caleb.

If you are looking for a seminar on prayer, you won’t find it in the letter that follows. Nor will you find an argument for why we should pray or a full-blown discussion of how or whether God answers prayer. Great books have been written on those subjects. I leave the dissertations to the experts. Instead, this letter is about the mechanics of prayer: how to get started and how to keep going. My goal is to give Caleb a way to discover the joy of hanging out with God through prayer. From that perspective, who wouldn’t want to “pray without ceasing”?

Dear Caleb,

Prayer is one of those things that everyone agrees is important to do, like eating your vegetables or brushing your teeth before bedtime, yetmost of us don’t really think about prayer until we need something. Then, suddenly, we’re in full battle mode and we’re shooting off prayers left and right: “Dear God, please help me pass this test.” Or, “please don’t let me embarrass myself in front of the class tomorrow.” Or, “please make Grandma well again.”

Many people who pray in this way are like a small child tugging on his mamma’s sleeve, trying to get her attention while she’s talking on the phone: “May I have a cookie, please, please, please?” In a moment of need he is desperate to get God’s attention, but once the crisis has passed God is no longer on his mind.

Let me assure you that if you should end up praying like this, you will still have God’s attention. He is always alert and listening out for you, regardless of the quality of your prayers and the sincerity of your desire to be in contact with him. He is never tied up dealing with someone else’s problems and too busy for yours. In fact, he’s been right by your side all along, completely focused on you, just waiting for you to turn to him, to talk with him. But if prayer is only about tuning in when there’s something you want, or when you’re in trouble, you’re going to miss out on the power that comes from being in continual contact with God.

At its best and fullest, prayer is hanging out with God, all day long, all life long. I’ll be honest with you, that sounds as though it could be kind of boring. But let me tell you about King David’s experience with prayer. You may remember him as the teenager who slew the giant, Goliath, with his slingshot.  If you are not familiar with that story,

David; Dante Gabriel ROSSETTI, 1858-64

check it out in the Old Testament: 1 Samuel, Chapter 17. David became a mighty warrior and the most famous king of Israel. He was also Jesus’ great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather.

We can tell from stories about him in the Bible that David was in contact with God 24/7. In fact, we have a record of many of David’s prayers. They’re called “psalms” and they are found in the Old Testament book by the same name — Psalms. Every night as we sit down to dinner I read one of these aloud to you and Dad. Try reading a few on your own. In many of them David is praising God for His power and might. See especially Psalms 100, 103 (my favorite!), 104, 136, and 147. David also thanks God for what He has done: see Psalms 18, 30, 40, 126. Many times David is pouring out his heart complaining about his enemies or in fear for his life: see Psalms 10, 13, 73, and 77.

I love David’s honesty with God. He doesn’t hold back when he’s scared, resentful or angry. And God isn’t put off by David’s feelings. I get a sense from the stories about David in the Old Testament that God delights in David’s company. I’m sure He delights in our company, too. When you read Psalm 23 you’ll see how confident David was of God’s presence. It’s a good psalm to memorize so that you’ll be confident, too.

In the New Testament we see how Jesus, God’s Son (and King David’s great, great, great, great, great, great, great-grandson) also prayed to God. Like us, he couldn’t see God because he was bound by the same human constraints as you and me while he was living on earth. But we know from what the gospel writers tell us about him that he was hanging out with God through prayer all the time.

Luke writes in Chapter 6 of his gospel that before Jesus picked out his twelve apostles he spent the night praying to God (6:12-16). I bet he was asking God for advice about whom to pick and what to do next. Jesus never made a move without consulting with God. He wanted only to do God’s will in all things and he knew he could not do this unless he was in constant contact with his Father.

One day, after Jesus had finished praying,one of his disciples asked Jesus to teach them all how to pray (Luke 11:1-13). The prayer Jesus taught them, which we call, “The Lord’s Prayer” is one you say every night. It goes like this:

Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever and ever. Amen. (See Matthew 6:9-13 as well as Luke 11:2-4.)

This prayer is a great example for how to construct your prayers so that you’re comfortable hanging out with God.When I started modeling my prayers on it I began to enjoy praying. I now want to pray throughout the day and, whenever I have a bit of free time, read from the Psalms, the prayers of King David.

To help you understand how to construct your prayers along the lines of the Lord’s Prayer, I’m going to divide it into four categories: praise, thanksgiving, confession and petition and give a brief description of each. Then I’ll say more about how I use these categories in my prayers.

The first category is praise. Praise is about recognizing how awesome God is. The first sentence of the Lord’s Prayer begins with a statement of praise: “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed by Thy name.” Praise also concludes the Lord’s Prayer: “For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever and ever.” In effect it means, “You are totally awesome, God. You are in charge and that’s the way it should be.”

The second category, confession, is about telling God the truth – being honest before Him about our sins. In the Lord’s Prayer we say, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” There’s no need to feel ashamed before God (he already knows all about what you’ve done, anyway) and it’s important not to hold anything back. Being truthful brings us closer to God. So just be honest.

The third category,  thanksgiving, is about expressing our gratitude for all that God does for us: His gifts and provisions, as well as His answers to our petitions. We can also be thankful for what God promises to do in the future. In fact, in the Lord’s Prayer we are expressing thanks for something that is on its way, but isn’t fully a part of our lives, yet. When Jesus instructs us to say, “Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” we’re declaring and giving thanks for what God is in the process of making real in our lives.

It’s a good thing to be hopeful and expectant about what God is in the midst of doing. When I give thanks for something I can’t yet see I’m reminding myself that I can count on what God promises, even if I don’t see evidence of it yet. God always delivers on what He promises.

The final category, petition, is about asking for things we, or other people, need. There are several petitions in The Lord’s Prayer. One is about daily necessities: “Give us this day our daily bread”. Another is about protection: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Jesus instructs us to petition God for all that we need. God is our Father and He wants us to talk over our needs, concerns and hopes with Him, just like any earthly father, who truly loves his children, would want. This is what Jesus did with God.

The Lord’s Prayer is a terrific prayer to recite. I often recite it as a conclusion to my own prayers or as a conclusion to a time of prayer with others, like you and Dad and I do when we pray before bedtime. And I think using the categories of praise, confession, thanksgiving and petition, which we find in the Lord’s Prayer, is the best way to frame our own prayers.

Every morning, when I first wake up, I begin praying to God. I’m not even out of bed at this point. I’m not even thinking about what I’m supposed to be doing or accomplishing or hoping for in the day ahead. My first thoughts are directed to God, because I’ve learned that the way to start any day is to begin with prayer – to make hanging out with Him the first and most important part of every day.

I used to think that the first thing I needed to do when I awoke in the morning was to plan my day. Then I discovered (after years and years of making this mistake) that all my planning and worrying only kept me away from God. I was thinking about my problems and not about Him. One day it struck me that this was “idolatry.” My problems got way more of my time and attention than God. In a sense, I was “worshiping” my problems.

This was a big mistake on my part, especially sinceGod is much better than I at planning and solving problems. He’s so good at it because He already knows what my day is going to be like. And He has the power to give me what I need for what’s ahead. So there’s no need to worry. God’s got it covered. All you should do is keep focused on Him.

So, it finally made more sense to me to begin the day, from the moment I open my eyes, by giving Him all my attention. And I keep my focus on Him all day long, so that He can lead me through the day, inspire me to do or say the right thing, and advise me about making the right choices and decisions. When you think about it, why would you want to do these things on your own? Even on my best day I’m never going to see and do things as wisely and as perfectly as God. If you keep your attention on Him, he will constantly give you what you need at every moment. He is our Shepherd, after all. That’s what He tells us in Psalm 23. Trust me, life goes much better when God is leading and you’re following.

So, it all begins with waking up in the morning and turning straight to God. I always begin with praise, just like in the Lord’s Prayer. I praise God for being the Creator of the world and all that is in it, for His power and His might, and for things like parting the Red Sea, bringing down the walls of Jericho, raising Jesus from the dead, His faithfulness and His love, and His gift of new life for all who believe in His Son, Jesus.

I praise the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. I try to remember their mighty deeds in the Bible, or use names or terms the Bible uses for them, like Yahweh, Mighty Counselor, Alpha and Omega, Advocate, Good Shepherd, King of Kings, and Lion of the tribe of Judah. When you read the Bible regularly, you will come across names or terms for God. Try keeping a notebook with your Bible so you can write them down.

I suggest you always begin your prayers with praise because it is a way to remind yourself that, whatever your need or concern, you are, first and foremost, addressing the most powerful Being in the universe, our God, who loves us unconditionally, and for whom nothing is impossible (Luke 1:37). Not only does praise show respect due God, it also is a way of reminding us that we are taking our concerns to the right Person – all the way to the top. He is All-powerful, All-knowing, All-loving and All-forgiving and acts on our behalf. (Isaiah 64:4) These are things we should never forget. Therefore, praise reminds us of just Who God is, in our lives and in the world.

I think praise is best followed by confession. As I said earlier, to confess means to tell the truth. When we confess to God we are telling the truth about ourselves. This used to be very hard for me. I felt very ashamed about the truth: that I had let God down; that I was more interested in myself than in anyone else, especially God; that I wanted some things so badly that I thought about them all the time, forgetting about God; that I had said and done things I shouldn’t have said and done and left other things undone.

But the Bible told me no one is exempt from falling short and everyone is equally undeserving, because of their sins, before God. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he writes:

for we have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (3:23).

But he also writes:

God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. (5:8)

This news gave me courage. It told me the truth about myself: I am a sinner, just like everyone else. It also told me the truth about God: He loves me unconditionally despite my sins. Now I can be honest because I now know I have nothing to fear. I even ask the Holy Spirit to show me if there are sins I’ve left out.

Because I learned I can trust God, I don’t want there to be anything between us anymore, anything that would put up a wall between me and Him. So I’m eager to open up my life and my thoughts and deeds to God and tell the truth. It feels so good to be totally honest with Him – and to feel so understood and loved at the same time. David writes about this in the 139th psalm:

“O Lord, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O Lord.” (Verses 1-3)

So, after praising God, I confess, knowing that He forgives me and is delighted in my truthfulness.

Next, I thank God for all the blessings he’s given me and for His answers to prayers. I don’t do this for His benefit. I do it for my own. God doesn’t need me to be grateful. I need to be grateful, because giving thanks gets me to recognize all the blessings God is constantly heaping on me. In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians he writes about

the riches of God’s grace which he lavishes upon us. (1:7-8)

The word, GRACE, means “free gift.” God is constantly giving us free gifts. In addition to giving us new life through His Son, Jesus, and the promise of eternal life with Him in heaven, He gives us love and forgiveness, and family and friends, and some really terrific teachers and coaches.

Let’s think some more about His many, many blessings: He gives youthe words to say at the right time and the ability to hear and play a beautiful piece of music. He gives you a brand new day, every morning, and a sweet dog to follow you wherever you go. He gives you the opportunity to play sports and your game systems and learn new things in school. He watches over you and provides for your needs. He lets you see the beauty of His creation, from the grand flight of the hawks that circle our neighborhood to the movement of the fish that swim in the lake nearby.

He gives you everything. When you begin to make a point of thanking Him, you get to see how truly blessed by Him you are. Don’t take anything good about your life for granted. God has lovingly bestowed it upon you. It didn’t just happen on its own. In fact, in even the difficult or painful things, God is always working, constantly for good on your behalf (Romans 8:28). As I said in my first letter, try to make a habit of giving thanks throughout the day. That way you’ll feel close to God all day long.

Finally, I talk to God about my concerns and hopes and I ask Him for things on behalf of other people. He wants us to bring Him all our requests. Nothing is too insignificant for God. He wants us to talk to him about whatever is on our heart or weighing heavy upon us. In fact, after Jesus teaches his disciples the Lord’s Prayer, he goes on to tell them about the importance of asking God for the things we need.

I do not hesitate to bring to God my concerns and hopes, but, I always conclude by saying, “Thy will be done.” Jesus himself says this to his Father. By saying this, I am acknowledging that God knows even better than I what I truly need — and if (and when and how) I need it. He wants me to ask – and to keep asking – and He wants me to trust Him. So, I pour out my heart and then I leave things in His hands to do as He thinks best.

There are times when I pray about something over a very long period of time. I keep bringing it up with God, not because I think He didn’t hear me the first time, or that if I plead with Him I’ll get what I’m asking for. Instead, I keep asking because I’ve learned that some things take time, time for other events or people to line up with the plans God has for me, or time for me to discover that I really should be asking for something else.

There is also the possibility I need time to realize He’s answering, just not in the way I wanted. God always answers. He doesn’t always give us what we want, but He always gives us what we need at the time. In making a habit of saying, “Thy will be done,” you are on the way to learning how to recognize His answers.

So this is how I start my day of hanging out with God. The greatest benefit that comes from prayer is the gift of His peace. God’s peace is a sense of well-being which assures you, no matter what is going on in your life or around you, you’re going to be O.K. Here is what Paul says about this:

The peace of God which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:7)

This gift of well-being is real and prayer is the avenue to take to find it.

Here is a summary of the points I’ve made about Prayer over the past few weeks:

  • Prayer is nothing more or less than continually being in God’s presence. I call it hanging out with God.
  • Jesus set the example for us to follow when it comes to prayer. He wanted only to do God’s will and knew he could only accomplish this through continual contact with God.
  • The Lord’s Prayer is the prayer Jesus taught his disciples.
  • Four categories of prayer found in the Lord’s Prayer are: Praise, Confession, Thanksgiving and Petition. It’s a good idea to use these categories in our own prayers.
  • When we hang out with God we receive the blessing of God’s peace.

The Bible gives us some great examples of prayer. I’m closing with one of King David’s finest prayers, found in 2 Samuel 7:18-29:

Then King David went in and sat before the LORD, and he said: 
“Who am I, O Sovereign LORD, and what is my family, that you have brought me this far? And as if this were not enough in your sight, O Sovereign LORD, you have also spoken about the future of the house of your servant. Is this your usual way of dealing with man, O Sovereign LORD ? What more can David say to you? For you know your servant, O Sovereign LORD. For the sake of your word and according to your will, you have done this great thing and made it known to your servant.  How great you are, O Sovereign LORD! There is no one like you, and there is no God but you, as we have heard with our own ears. And who is like your people Israel—the one nation on earth that God went out to redeem as a people for himself, and to make a name for himself, and to perform great and awesome wonders by driving out nations and their gods from before your people, whom you redeemed from Egypt? You have established your people Israel as your very own forever, and you, O LORD, have become their God. And now, LORD God, keep forever the promise you have made concerning your servant and his house. Do as you promised, so that your name will be great forever. Then men will say, ‘The LORD Almighty is God over Israel!’ And the house of your servant David will be established before you. O LORD Almighty, God of Israel, you have revealed this to your servant, saying, ‘I will build a house for you.’ So your servant has found courage to offer you this prayer. O Sovereign LORD, you are God! Your words are trustworthy, and you have promised these good things to your servant. Now be pleased to bless the house of your servant, that it may continue forever in your sight; for you, O Sovereign LORD, have spoken, and with your blessing the house of your servant will be blessed forever.”

Isn’t this a great prayer? I’ve learned a lot about how to pray by studying it. Here is a list of more great prayers in the Bible:

  • Genesis 32:9-32
  • 2 Chronicles 20:5-12
  • Ezra 9:6-15
  • Nehemiah 1:1-11
  • Daniel 9:4-19
  • Acts 4:23-31

Love,

Mom

Discussion Questions for Letter No. 2: How to Pray

  1. Is prayer something you enjoy? Does it come easily to you? Why or Why not?
  2. How would you describe the way you pray?
  3. If prayer is “hanging out with God,” what does that tell you about prayer?
  4. Try reading aloud Psalm 23. What can you learn about prayer from it?
  5. What kinds of things do you think Jesus was praying about with his Father in heaven?
  6. Are you in the habit of praising God? Why or Why not?
  7. Do you feel you can be totally honest with God about your sins? Why or Why not?
  8. What kinds of things to you give thanks for? How often do you do this?
  9. What are your first thoughts when you wake up in the morning? At what point do you think about God?
  10. How does praising God effect our state of mind?
  11. What kinds of things do we praise God for?
  12. Why is it important to confess our sins?
  13. Is there someone you know who enjoys praying? What might you learn from him or her?
  14. How would you explain, in your own words, each of the following categories of prayer?:
    • Praise
    • Confession
    • Thanksgiving
    • Petition
  15. How easy is it for you to leave things in God’s hands? How can modeling our prayers on the Lord’s Prayer help us with this?

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