During the days of his flesh Jesus called to himself twelve men. He had chosen to pour his life into this band of misfits for over three years. Mark tells us that Jesus went up into a high mountain and called the twelve and ordained them “that they should be with Him and that He might send them out to preach.” Note that their highest priority was that they should be “with Him.” They were called to cultivate an intimate and vital relationship with the Lord Jesus.
As those first disciples traveled the ancient world in the footsteps of the master, they were witnesses to some of the most extraordinary events in history. They watched as Jesus opened the eyes of men born blind. They saw Christ straighten out crooked limbs. They watched as he gave hearing to ears that had never heard a sound. They saw him heal men and women of all manner of diseases. They saw that even the demons were subject to his voice. They even looked on as he raised the dead to life again. Following Jesus in those days was to look upon a veritable parade of miracles.
They also heard him preach the most powerful sermons that the world as ever known. It was said that never a man spake like this man. And then they heard Him pray…
It is interesting that no disciple ever said, “Lord, show us how to raise the dead.” Not one disciple ever said, “Lord, instruct us in the art of sermon delivery.” They never said, “Lord, teach us how to do mighty miracles.” But upon hearing their Lord speak to His Father in heaven, they said, “Lord, teach us to pray.” So he did.
Almost immediately they learned the bitter truth that prayer is hard work. I can identify with that. Having spent most of my life as a believer and all of my adult life as a minister, I must confess that every week I come to God and say, “Lord, I am but a child. Please teach me how to better read your book. Lord, please teach me how to pray.” So I offer these few thoughts, not as one who has attained, but as one who knows the constant struggle of wanting to commune with God aright but feels so clumsy in his feeble attempts at doing so.
We’ve all experienced it. Someone is leading in prayer, during corporate worship or a prayer meeting, and they’re meandering all over the place. Moving without evident rationale from this request to that, while interspersing “uh’s” and tap-dancing on blasphemy by repeatedly inserting God’s name as a place-keeper. You’re hearing plenty of phrases that you’re not sure are biblical and details that you’re not sure are necessary – I mean, doesn’t the Lord know what hospital she’s at, do we really have to remind Him of the address? Then come the personal items – “Please help me…” or “Lord, I confess…” – that make you feel a bit awkward, like you’re eaves-dropping on their private prayer time. Before long, you’re not praying at all, except to ask that your brother would find the “Amen” sooner than later. In order to cut down on the frequency of such foolishness, I write down most of my public prayers. Let me list a few reasons why I do this.
I write Public Prayers because I Believe in the Holy Spirit
I understand that may sound counter-intuitive to some, but I prepare my prayers with the conviction that the Spirit works as I prepare. I’m not sure from where it originated, but many Christians have the idea that God’s Spirit exclusively works in moments of spontaneity. Maybe passages like Luke 12:11 and 21:14-15 have been misconstrued, applying the Lord Jesus’ promise that His disciples would receive answers at the moment of persecution, their opportunity to “bear witness” (Luke 21:13), too broadly.
Suffice it to say, the Lord was not outlining the ordinary means of the Spirit’s work in a congregation’s public worship. I think we can understand the folly of equating spontaneity with spirituality if we just think about what actually happens to us in spontaneous moments. What do we usually do or say when we’re put on the spot? Typically, whatever comes easy. In those moments, we rely on what we already know or what we have memorized. Truth be told, it is in spontaneous moments, especially before others, in which I’m most tempted to offer rote and meaningless prayers, a knee-jerk recitation of a familiar prayer. In unplanned moments, I’m captive to whatever I already know and to pray prayers that D.A. Carson has described as “largely formulaic, liberally larded with cliches that remind us, uncomfortably, of the hypocrites Jesus excoriated” (A Call to Spiritual Reformation, p. 17).
I seek to prayerfully prepare my prayers because I do not want to be captive to formulas or cliches or just whatever comes to my mind. I do not want to be driven by the fear of praying adequately before others as I enter the pulpit. I do not want to pray motivated by that last unsettling comment or criticism I received right before the service began. What I do want to do is actually pray. So beforehand I pray that the Spirit of God might teach me through His Word and guide me in how to intercede on behalf of this congregation, bringing their souls to the throne of grace.
Unfortunately, my sin and stupidity is not excluded from the moment I ascend the platform. But fortunately by God’s grace, the work of God’s Spirit in me is not limited to the moment I am in the pulpit before the congregation. You could say that I write my prayers because I do believe in the powerful working of God’s Spirit at all times and because I don’t believe in my own.
I write public prayers to help keep the prayer Christian.
“God, we just thank You for this opportunity. In Your Name, Amen.” To which God did we just pray? What’s opportunity has He’s given? And in whose name did we pray? A good rule of thumb is that if a Jew or Muslim could’ve prayed it, we probably didn’t pray like a Christian to the Triune God. By preparing and writing-out his prayer, the one leading can help the church pray like Christians.
Christians pray by the power of the Holy Spirit, in the name of the Son, addressing their Father in heaven (Eph 2:18). Take one of Paul’s prayers, for example:
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith (Eph 3:14-17).
If someone leads in a generic “Dear God” prayer, is it biblical or Christian? And will people know the One to whom we’re praying and how it is that we can address Him at all? Will any non-Christians who’re listening-in feel appropriately excluded, understanding that since they’re outside of Christ they cannot pray to this God? By preparing to address our Triune God, I’m better able to lead others to pray sincerely Christian prayers.
As I lead the congregation in prayer, I also have to consider the biblical principle that “all things be done for edification” (1 Cor 14:26). In other words, will they understand what we’re praying and should they be comfortable praying with me? This means that I must be sure that what I lead the congregation to adore of God, what we thank Him for, what we confess, as well as what we ask of Him, is actually consistent with who He’s revealed Himself to be in the Bible. Usually that requires exploring God’s own prayer book, the Bible, beforehand so I can lead Christians in prayers they can pray with a good conscience.
This includes the general topics of our requests, as well. In our congregation, we try focus our intercessions on members of our congregation (1 Thess. 5:17), other local churches (Eph 6:18), governmental authorities (I Tim. 2:1-2), missionaries (Col. 4:3-4), persecuted Christians (Heb. 13:3), along with people-groups unreached by the Gospel (Luke 24:46-47).
In this vein, I try to keep in mind that everything that’s done in public worship, even what I pray, is instructive. Jon Payne has remarked, “through hearing the pastoral prayer Lord’s Day after Lord’s Day, Christians are instructed how to pray. Indeed, the pastoral prayer fosters similar prayers among the congregation” (In the Splendor of Holiness). I need to ask whether I’m praying something that should be repeated in the family worship or private devotions of our members? By preparing a prayer with an open Bible, I feel freer to lead others and even to instruct them how they should pray.
Preparing to pray helps keep the prayer from turning into a public “quiet time.” To be specific, public prayers shouldn’t contain personal pronouns (“I” or “me”) because we’re leading people in prayer, not praying in front of them. This principle is easier to violate when you’re winging it, than when you’ve prepared to lead others in prayer.
I write public prayers to help keep Christians praying.
When a prayer has been prepared, it tends to be more focused, clear, easier to follow, not to mention appropriately brief. If the Lord’s Prayer teaches us anything, it’s that brevity in prayer can be a virtue (Matt 6:7-13; cf. Eccl 5:2). And I’d guess that all Christians can attest to finding it difficult to follow meandering and unnecessarily lengthy prayers. In other words, preparing to pray simply helps other Christians stay focused in prayer. Again, Jon Payne has offered wise counsel on this point:
… the pastoral prayer should be prepared in advance. It should be an element in the worship service that God’s people are looking forward to, not dreading! To be sure, some, due to spiritual coldness, will be averse to the pastoral prayer no matter how it’s done; nevertheless, a rambling, unprepared minister should not be the cause for that aversion.
It’s refreshing and invigorating to be lead in a clear and biblical prayer. In equal measure, it’s quite discouraging and disheartening when prayers are overly-long and hard to follow. Writing-out a prayer is the easiest way to accomplish the former and avoid the latter.
I write public prayers because God wrote a prayer book.
The Bible was not only give to us to reveal God’s Word to man, but also to give us words to bring to God. Just as we teach our children how to speak and address us properly, God has taught us how to speak to Him in the Scripture. You observe this with Jesus’ instruction on prayer to His disciples. After He rebuked empty hypocritical praying(Matt 6:7-8), the Lord did not teach that the opposite of it was spontaneity! Instead, Jesus gave His disciples a script, instructing them to pray “like this” (Matt 6:9-13).
But wouldn’t it be nice to have the definitive book on prayer, one that included both forms of prayers and words to pray, one that could be used in any season of life?
Actually, that sounds like the Psalms.
The Psalms are the prayer and praise book of the Bible. When we read a psalm, we are listening in on an inspired conversation between God and his people. The conversation takes place sometimes in moments of pure delight and other times in extended seasons of crushing despair. Sometimes it is a private conversation: “Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing!” (Psalm 6:2). At other times we hear the raised voices of a glad throng of worshipers: “Oh come, let us sing to the LORD; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!” (Psalm 95:1). In a sense, the Psalms are God’s most comprehensive answer to the request, “Teach us to pray.”
If writing-down prayers is not contrary to God’s understanding of spirituality, then I would suggest that godly people shouldn’t have any hang-ups about it. And as we go to pray, we should probably think about the words that God Himself gave us to pray to Him – and perhaps even write them down, so that we don’t forget them when we pray with others in public.