There seems to be a difference between church prayers and other prayers.
I noticed some time back that there seems to be a difference between church prayers and other prayers. You decide if it is true of your denomination or group; I think it is true of mine. Each group seems to have its own language, little catch phrases that are in for that group. A kind of code message that others don’t understand. Insiders immediately recognize, “He is one of us!” But they all sound different from Bible prayers, which also sound alike.
People who enjoy God are learning to pray as the people in the Bible did.
To check this idea out, I prepared a sample “Baptist prayer”—a kind of conglomeration of all the public prayers I have ever heard. This prayer was never actually prayed, as far as I know, but I took lines that I heard over and over growing up and put them together in one prayer.
Then, I selected some Bible prayers. Nothing unusual about these, as far as Bible prayers go, just ordinary Bible prayers. Then, in a message, I asked the people to listen, and then vote on which they thought I was reading, a Baptist prayer or a Bible prayer. I think you could do the same thing no matter what group you are a part of; you would just have to change the sample, conglomerate prayer.
Let me let you try it here. Do you think I made this prayer up, or got it straight out of the Bible?
Sovereign Lord, you made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them. You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David: ‘Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against his Anointed One.’ Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen. Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.10
Now, really, that one was easy because it has some historical references that give it away. But would you also agree that it has a feel to it that is distinctly Bible? Doesn’t it just sound like a Bible prayer? You may not be sure what that means, but it doesn’t really sound like anything any of your friends would pray.
People who enjoy God are learning to pray like that.
Let’s try another one. Guess if this is a Baptist prayer, or a Bible prayer:
Our Heavenly Father, we thank you for this beautiful day and all the people that are gathered here together. We know that where two or three are gathered in your name, you are in the midst of them. We pray that you would be with us today. Bless our church, oh God we pray, and bless our families, and bless our nation. And forgive us of our many sins. Bless this offering now. Bless the gift and the giver. Be with us as we go our separate ways. In Jesus name, amen.
Now, that is an all-American prayer. Where do you think I got it? From the Bible, or did I make it up? Oh, that was too easy again, let me try it one more time.
“O Lord, God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and obey his commands, Let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel. I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s house, have committed against you. We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses. Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations, But if you return to me and obey my commands, then even if your exiled people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my Name.’ They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great strength and your mighty hand. O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of this your servant and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name. Give your servant success today by granting him favor in the presence of this man.”11
I’ll bet you got it right. Three for three. And I hope you are beginning to see what I mean. There is a feel to Bible prayers that is unique. They have a sound all of their own. I have never heard anyone, in any denomination who prayed and it sounded like this—except for people who enjoyed God, and there are some in every denomination and group. Nehemiah even states that this is the secret to his prayer and the basis of his authority in asking. “O Lord, listen to us,” he says, “because we delight in being your servants.” ( Nehemiah 1:11) Note that he does not say, “Because we have dutifully followed all the details of your law without regard to our emotions.” Rather, he took the higher ground of stating, “We are the ones who love to serve you.”
What is it about Bible prayers that makes them stand out?
Biblical prayers are God-centered in their focus
If my pastors were in prison, I would pray something like this:
Oh, Lord, we are in trouble. Can you believe what has happened? The government has put our pastor in prison. What is this world coming to? Is there any way you can help us? Comfort Peter and John as they are in prison. Be with them. And to think, all they did was heal someone. I just can’t believe this has happened. What are we going to do?
Bible prayers do not focus on what is good for the prayer; they focus on what is good for God.
I contrast this with the way they did pray. Look at verse 29, which is the heart of the prayer’s request, “Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness.” It is noteworthy what is not requested. No request for soft pillows or better food for John and Peter. No. The request is for your servants to speak your word with boldness. They were not asking for what was good for them, they were asking for what was good for God. (Of course, they are one and the same, really. What is good for God is good for God’s servant.)
Why? They knew the truth of Matthew 6:33 “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” They knew that their ultimate joy was in God and the advancement of his kingdom. They knew that as they sought the advancement of God’s kingdom, God should take care of them. They knew that ultimate happiness is in God, in seeking first the advancement of his kingdom.
Nehemiah does the same thing, along with all the other Bible prayers. Note whose interest he is concerned with in verses 10 and 11:
“They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great strength and your mighty hand. O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of this your servant and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name. Give your servant success today by granting him favor in the presence of this man. (Emphasis added)
Nehemiah was not so much making requests on his own behalf, but in behalf of God’s program. “This is your kingdom that is at stake here, God.”
People who enjoy God enjoy praying this kind of God-centered prayer.
They always begin with praise
The first word of the prayer quoted from Acts is an interesting one. It is only used five times in the New Testament to refer to God. Usually, it refers to the masters of slaves. Our word despot comes from this word. The question this raises is, “Why is it used here? Why didn’t the disciples use the more common forms of address for God?”
The NIV correctly translates this word “Sovereign Lord.” Do you see the irony of this in light of their situation? This was a term that Herod and Pontius Pilot used to describe themselves. They saw themselves as the sovereign. But the disciples began their prayer by reminding themselves that God is the true Sovereign one.
This consistent pattern of Biblical prayers is to begin with praise. People who enjoy God begin their prayer with praise. They often focus the adoration of God toward that attribute of God that speaks to their current need.
In other words, if we are going to pray a prayer for healing, we do well to begin by praying, “Jehovah-Rophe, my God who heals, I exalt you because you have revealed yourself to be a God who heals down through the centuries. You are by nature a God who is accustomed to healing. Your name is the God who heals. You delight in healing, and I delight in knowing a God who is eager to help.”
This is exactly what the disciples are doing in beginning their prayer with, “Sovereign Lord.” (By the way, most commentators believe that every word of this prayer may not be included; this is a summary of what was said. It may be that the actual prayer did elaborate some on this.)
We do well to begin our prayers exalting God at the point where his character touches our need.
Occasionally you will hear someone suggest that we should begin our prayers with repentance, to clear the relationship. This makes sense, but it is not what the Bible teaches by example or precept. Psalms 100:4 “Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name.” This verse clearly says that the doorway into a conversation with God is always praise.
This pattern is also followed in Nehemiah. The exiles may have felt abandoned by their God. Nehemiah begins his prayer by exalting God for being a God who does not forget. He is a God who keeps his promise. He is a covenant-keeping God.
Some people start all their prayers the same way. It is better to begin our prayers, not out of habit or vain repetition, but thoughtfully exalting the God we enjoy at the point where his character touches our need.
The prayers of the Bible are God-centered; they pray for the advancement of his Kingdom. They always begin with praise. They also are less individualistic in their tone.
People who enjoy God are learning to begin their prayers with adoration directed to the God of their particular need.
Bible prayers have a cooperate, “We are in it together” mentality
We use the words “I” and “me” in our prayers. Bible prayers use the words, “us” and “we.” There is more than semantics here. They had a much more communal understanding of prayer.
People who enjoy God are learning to enjoy their God in prayer together.
When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he did not say, “My father…” He said pray like this, “Our father.”
When Isaiah confessed his sins he did not confess just his own sins: “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” (Isaiah 6:5) He realized that we tend to compare ourselves with each other and that the whole standard was wrong.
Nehemiah did this same thing in verse six when he said, “I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s house, have committed against you.”
We tend to pray about my needs, my desires, my wants, my perspective. Bible prayers pray from the vantage point of our life together.
Not that we don’t have individual prayers. Jesus also said, Matthew 6:6 “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.” This certainly speaks of a private prayer. But the content of the prayer is usually, “together with all the saints.”
I am not sure we truly care about the other saints as much as they did.
The Bible understands the connectedness of life; we see life as separate. They saw life as ocean; we see islands.
It is significant that when Nehemiah prayed the prayer above, he had never been to the land he is praying for. Yet he felt connected to them. He was some 600 miles away, yet he felt connected.
Prayers of the Bible also felt connected with reference to time and history. It was important to them that their grandchildren’s grandchildren’s grandchildren walked with God and were blessed by God. We are concerned with our kids, and our kids’ kids, and maybe occasionally on a balmy and reflective day at a mountain cabin we might think about our grandkids’ kids, but no further.
They were moved that they were a people that God had blessed two hundred, four hundred, two thousand years earlier. “We are the descendants of Abraham…” By New Testament times this was two thousand years earlier. We think our parents’ generation is out of date and irrelevant to ours.
The summer I wrote this book was one of the wettest summers New Mexico had ever seen. Someone told me we have had ten times the annual average rainfall and the year is only half over. We have also had cooler weather and we did not have our characteristic winds this spring. (Those pictures you see of the dust blowing and tumbleweeds as tall as a car are true!) The weathermen’s explanation is that there is a spot in the Pacific Ocean down near South America that is suddenly warmed for some reason. And this warm spot in the ocean is causing record rain, cool temperature and no wind in New Mexico. My daddy told me it also caused a drought in the Philippines. This world illustrates the connectedness that is part of social networks as well.
That is why phenomenon like homosexuality tend to clump together. It is not just that the gay people find each other; they tend to “reproduce” their lifestyle. If you grew up in a community where everyone was gay there is some likelihood that you would be gay yourself.
The divorce rate is high, in part, because the divorce rate is high. In the back of everyone’s mind is the possibility that they could get a divorce. This idea is put there because nearly everyone has some friends or family who have been through a divorce. Everyone is doing it. So, when my marriage goes through the white water, divorce is not the unthinkable.
When Nehemiah heard that Jerusalem was in trouble, he knew that he was in trouble. He did not think, “That is their problem.” He realized he was connected. The prayers of the Bible generally have this connected perspective.
People who enjoy God realize that they are connected to a family, a church, a community, and a world around them. They do not look at starving children in Africa and say, “That is your problem.” Rather they pray something like this, “Oh God who loves orphans and widows and who has always been the champion of the downtrodden, we realize your word teaches that we are stewards of the earth. We are not doing a very good job with our stewardship. Those hungry children are evidence of our lack of care for this world you have placed in our care. Rescue us from this famine. Bring rain…”
People who enjoy God are concerned about spiritual awakening. Their hearts hunger for a world-wide revival of joy in God. They feel their connectedness with this world and long to see people around them enjoying God as well. They are not smug. You will never find a person who enjoys God secretly, proud of his joy and glad that others have not discovered his secret. Rather people who enjoy God seem to want everyone to share the joy.
People who enjoy God take seriously the need to enter through the door of repentance. There was no other way to the Holy of Holies except to pass by the wash basin of repentance.
Bible prayers go beyond repenting of long lists of actions. They do confess individual sins, but they are always aware that there is something deeper than that. They are not like children who play indoor baseball and then apologize for breaking the lamp. They realize there is a basic sin problem that must be addressed, and they spend most of the repentance dealing with that.
They realize they can either enjoy God or enjoy sin but they cannot do both. They choose not to settle for the puny pleasures of this world.
There is some debate in Christian circles about the exact nature of the current sin problem. Do we have one nature or two? Are there two dogs fighting within us and the one we feed wins? Or, have old things passed away, behold all things become new? ( 2 Corinthians 5:17) The finer points of that debate we will leave to the theologians. The truth is we were radically changed at conversion. Something drastic happened. God took our heart of stone and replaced it with a heart of flesh. (Ezekiel 11:19 , Ezekiel 36:26 , Hebrews 8:10 ) The old man was crucified—not severely wounded—but put to death. Romans 6:6, 7 says this about as clearly as any, “For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—Because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.” The Greek aorist tense of the word crucified indicates a once and for all experience. It is this funeral that makes Christian living possible.
On the other hand, the Bible clearly says we still struggle with something called the flesh. The Bible does not neatly define what was put to death (the old man; old self, NIV) and what we still have with us (the flesh, or “sinful nature” as the NIV translates it). The problem arises when we ask the question, does a believer have one nature or two? If nature corresponds to the old man, then we only have one, for the old one is dead. Every time that phrase is used in the Greek it is used in this aorist tense—past, once-and-for-all. Something died at Calvary and something died when we were converted. But we still struggle with something the Greeks called sarx, normally translated flesh.
And people who enjoy God take very seriously this tendency to sin. They realize they can either enjoy God or enjoy sin but they cannot do both. They choose not to settle for the puny pleasures of this world. They spend as much time repenting about their affections, their desires, their motives, their wants, their lusts, as they do praying about their deeds. Nehemiah said it this way: “We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses.” Isaiah put it like this, (Isaiah 6:5 ) “‘Woe to me!‘ I cried. ‘I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.’” David, after his sin with Bathsheba and confrontation by Nathan, said (Psalms 51:4 ) “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge.”
There is a tone in these prayers that goes deeper than what I have often heard, “Forgive us our many sins, and be with us as we go our separate ways.” That is too easy to say. Repentance without grief, without thought, is a mockery. The Pharisees did that.
Lavish use of scripture
If you would learn to pray as the Bible prays, pray the Bible’s prayers.
You may be wondering, “How could I learn to pray like that?” The answer is simple: study the scripts. Read, reread, study, meditate on, and most of all, pray the prayers of the Bible. We learn by example. If you would learn to pray as the Bible prays, pray the Bible’s prayers. Many of the prayers of the Bible can be employed as-is, with no alteration. You could pray daily for the members of your group Ephesians 1:18 “I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints…” Many of the Psalms can be prayed and sung directly to God. I have often used I Chronicles 29:11-13 in public worship as well as private devotion. “Yours, O Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the majesty and the splendor, for everything in heaven and earth is yours. Yours, O Lord, is the kingdom; you are exalted as head over all. Wealth and honor come from you; you are the ruler of all things. In your hands are strength and power to exalt and give strength to all. Now, our God, we give you thanks, and praise your glorious name.”
The prayers of the Bible often quoted the Bible, and they did not yet even have all of the Bible. Both of the prayers above (Acts and Nehemiah) contain quotes from the Bible. Nehemiah said, “You said if we got in trouble but repented that you would forgive.” This does as much for Nehemiah as it does for God.
We often wonder in our prayers if we are praying for the right things. When we pray Bible prayers, or include verses in our prayers we are nearly assured that we are praying the right things. We could, of course, be taking something out of context or otherwise misinterpreting, but it is still safer than wandering out on our own.
The disciples in Acts 4 said, “God, this is what you said would happen, ‘why do the nations rage…’”. We do well to pray that way, especially with reference to repentance. We do well to say, “God, what I have done proves that what you say about me is true, that I still have the capacity to live in non-faith, not trusting you and doing what you say. What I have done verifies your word is true. But your word also teaches that you have made me to be a saint and have clothed me with the righteousness of Christ. (2 Corinthians 5:21 ) Empower me through your Spirit to live out the identity you have given me. By faith I believe it to be true. Forgive me on the basis of the penalty Christ paid on the cross. Fill me with your Spirit.”
Reading books on prayer can be a great help, but studying and praying the prayers of the Bible is the joy of those who enjoy God.
There is one more thing we can do to learn to pray like those in the Bible prayed: pray.
We can talk about prayer, read about prayer, study prayer until we are weary of it and we will still not learn to pray. We learn to pray by praying.
If we pray this way publicly, it may cause people to notice. Of course, this is not our goal, but it is inevitable. Our goal is not to be seen of men, but to be effective with God and to enjoy a relationship with him. If you want to have a relationship with a person of a different language, you know you will have to learn the language. If they are from a different part of the country, you will still have to learn a number of figures of speech. If we want to know and enjoy God, we do well to learn from the prayers of the Bible.
And the only way to learn to pray is to pray.
I watched an A&E (Arts and Entertainment) special on parachuting once. I was intrigued by it because I have always had a fascination with parachuting, especially free falling. If I had nine lives I would spend a couple jumping out of airplanes. I got to thinking afterwards, you could watch these shows, read books, take courses, talk to parachuters, and still not really know parachuting. The only way is to jump out of the plane.
And the only way to learn to pray is to pray.
10 Acts 4:24-30
11 Nehemiah 1:5-11