Spiritual Disciplines, Part 6: What Should We Be Praying About?

The Vital Importance of Personal Discipline
Spiritual Disciplines, Part 1: Is Self-Discipline Unspiritual?
Spiritual Disciplines, Part 2: The Priority of Bible Reading and Meditation
Spiritual Disciplines, Part 3: Bible Reading: Some Practical Suggestions
Spiritual Disciplines, Part 4: What is Biblical Meditation?
Spiritual Disciplines, Part 5: Why Pray?

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In the most recent post in this series, we considered the question of why prayer is essential in the life of a Christian. In this post, we will discuss how Scripture guides and frames our prayers.

How Should We Pray?
It is encouraging to know that we are not the first of Jesus’ disciples to ask this question. It is even more encouraging to know that the Lord himself has given us a straightforward answer to this question. We will look specifically at the elements of the Lord’s prayer in Matthew 6:9-13 in a moment. Before we do, we need to say a word about how to understand Jesus’ instruction on prayer in this text.

Most importantly, Jesus does not intend us to slavishly follow the exact use form of these words; nor does he intend to teach us that we must pray this way every time we pray. Rather, we are being taught to include these vital elements in our prayers and to use these elements to order the priorities of our prayers. I take the Lord’s prayer as instruction to inform our private, set-aside times for prayer, not as a set of rules to be strictly followed every time we breathe out a plea to God.

I believe that Jesus does not intend us to follow the form of these words or pray exactly like this every time we pray for the following four reasons.

(1) Jesus warns us against using rote and thoughtless repetition in Matt 6:7: “”And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words.”

(2) It is most likely that the gospels provide us with two separate occasions when Jesus provided spoke to his disciples on how to pray (Matt 6:9-13; Luke 11:1-4). The slight differences in these two teachings indicate that the exact form of the words is not the issue, but the meaning and priority behind them.

(3) Scripture is replete with examples of prayer, and not all of them follow the exact words or even the structure of the Lord’s prayer. There are many times when we will pray spontaneously and without much planning or prolonged thought, and God commands this kind of prayer. “Call upon me in the day of trouble and I will answer you and you will honor me” (Ps 50:15). David prayed this way: “Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily! Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me” (Psa 31:2)!

(4) Paul often describes his prayers in his letters, and they don’t appear to follow the exact form or structure of the Lord’s Prayer (see Eph 1:16-23; Phil 1:9-11).

The point of Jesus’ teaching here is to help us order our times of set-aside, “closet” prayer (see Matt 6:6) in a way that values the right priorities.

Help from the Lord’s Prayer
In order to mold our hearts into and frame our prayers according to God’s will, it will be helpful to look at each statement in Jesus’ teaching on prayer. Notice that Jesus’ design in this prayer is to rivet our attention on God and his desires before we start talking to God about ourselves and our desires.

Our Father – We first come to God as our Father who loves us and who has made us his child through Jesus Christ. He is no longer our judge (Rom 5:1). He now invites us to fellowship with him, enjoy him, and to ask freely from his infinite abundance (Heb 4:14-16).

Who is in heaven – But our familial warmth is balanced by our recognition that God is holy, transcendent, infinite, and sovereign. He is our Father, yes, but he is also the God of the universe. But this reality shouldn’t produce reluctance; it should promote reverence.

Hallowed by your name – What does it mean when we ask God to make his name “hallowed?” We are simply asking God to do what he set out to do by creating the universe: make his name great. As it turns out, this prayer is not only God-centered, it has a direct effect on our joy.

Your kingdom come – Similarly, if the saints greatest joy is to see God’s name revered and loved throughout the world, it is our joy to see God’s kingdom consummated here on earth. This pray looks forward, ultimately, to God’s kingdom to be established in a new heavens and a new earth (Rev 21:1).

Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven – Pray that God’s will would be increasingly fulfilled on earth, the same way that it is in heaven, where there is perfect fulfillment of his will of desire. This kind of prayer may often cause grief and joy: grief because God’s Word is so easily cast aside by the world (Ps 119:136); joy because we know there is coming a day when God’s will be the sinless pursuit of all people created in his image and recreated in Christ (Rev 21:3).

Give us this day our daily bread – Jesus also teaches us to recognize our dependence on God for our daily physical provision. In our current state of unparalleled abundance in America, we may find it difficult to acknowledge our utter dependence upon God for our daily needs. Nevertheless, Jesus teaches us to ask God—with authenticity—to daily supply us with our necessities. Despite our present abundance, I believe it is still possible to grasp some notion our dependence upon God. Think of it for a moment. In order to sustain your ability to earn a living, God must keep ten thousand variables in place: the greater economy, your present employer’s financial solvency, international markets, your skill and personal capacity to fulfill your role at work, and your personal health (which involves another massive set of variables), are all pieces of an incomprehensible puzzle that must fit just so in order for you to earn your living. Pray for your daily bread.

And forgive us our trespasses – While it is true that we have been judicially forgiven of our sins, it is also the case that in our relationship with God, we must regularly confess the sins we commit against our Father and receive his forgiveness in Christ. When we do, we are promised that we find spiritual cleansing and renewal from our heavenly Father (1 John 1:9).

As we forgive those who trespass against us – It is vital to our prayer lives that we do not store up bitterness toward others. Why? Because, when we allow unrighteous anger to pulse unchecked throughout hearts, God will not hear our prayers. Christ is calling us to come to God in prayer with a good conscience (Hebrews 10:22).

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil – Finally, we must recognize your dependence on God for spiritual deliverance and pray that God would keep you from temptation. We are weak and needy and liable to fall into sin. If God would remove his protection, we would fall into a thousand sins and snares.

How to Pray for Other Believers
Praying for God’s name to be hallowed among the nations, for his will to be done on earth, and for his kingdom to come will include praying specifically for the spiritual growth of Christians and the salvation of unbelievers. Paul is a wonderful example of both.

Paul’s prayers were saturated in Christ-centered concern for other Christians. He prayed that believers would clearly behold the glory of spiritual realities with the eyes of their hearts (Eph 1:18-21). He prayed that believers would experience deep, heart-changing fellowship with God (Eph 3:14-21). He prayed that Christians would grow in their love for one another (Phil 1:9), have a sure grasp of God’s will (Phil 1:10; Col 1:9), possess spiritual wisdom and strength (Col 1:9, 11), be rich in good works (2 Thess 2:11) and consistent in bearing fruit (Phil 1:11; Col 1:10). He wanted other believers to grow in their knowledge of God and please the Lord in every area of their lives (Col 1:10).

Paul also prayed diligently for the salvation of unbelievers. Given the deep anguish that Paul felt for his unbelieving kinfolk, we can be sure that Paul prayed diligently for them and for all the lost. Listen to these words from the apostle:

I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit—that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh….Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved (Rom 10:1 ESV).

Paul’s prayers, then, become an excellent example to us as to how we should pray for our other brothers and sisters in Christ as well as the unbelieving world.

More Instruction on Prayer
But Scripture has more to say about prayer. Given space limitations, I will only list other texts that speak directly to our responsibility to pray.

  • Matt 5:44 – Pray for your enemies and those who persecute you
  • Matt 9:38 – Pray for the Lord to send laborers into the harvest
  • Matt 24:20 – Pray for perseverance during the Tribulation
  • Matt 26:41 – Pray to be protected from temptation
  • 1 Thess 5:17 – Pray without ceasing (Rom 12:12; Eph 6:18; Col 4:2)
  • Phil 4:6-7 – Pray in response to anxiety.
  • 1 Thess 5:25 – Pray for your spiritual leaders (see also 2 Thess 3:1-2; Heb 13:18; 1 Cor 1:11)
  • 1 Tim 2:1ff – Prayer for you national leaders
  • 1 Tim 4:1-5 – Offer prayers of thanksgiving for marriage and food
  • James 5:13 – Pray when you’re suffering
  • James 5:14 – Pray for God to heal others when they are suffering

In all of these endeavors to pray, Jesus encourages us to never give up praying. He spoke parables that were intended specifically to steel our perseverance in prayer (Luke 18:1ff). Elsewhere, we are told to “keep asking, keep seeking, keep knocking (Matt 7:7; Luke 11:9).

Importantly, Jesus tells us often that we are to pray “in faith.” When we pray in faith we believe that (1) God hears us in Christ (John 14:13); and (2) he loves to answer prayer that is in accordance with his will (Matt 7:11; Mark 11:24).

In the next post in this series, I will discuss some practical suggestions for prayer.

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