by Derek Thomas
It is easy to be critical of prayer, particularly the prayers of others. Robert Murray McCheyne’s words are often cited because they remain painfully true: “You wish to humble a man? Ask him about his prayer life.”
Our prayers reveal much about us. Prayers with little or no worship and focusing on our needs (usually health) reveal a distorted, Adamic bent. What they reveal is self-centeredness, what Martin Luther labeled homo in se incurvatus: “man curved in on himself.” Listen to prayers at the church prayer meeting (if one still exists). You will discover that the majority of prayers are “organ recitals”—prayers for someone’s liver, kidney, or heart. Not that we shouldn’t pray for medical issues, but a preoccupation with health is itself a reflection of how little we understand why it is we desire good health. We desire it so that the person we are praying for lives for Jesus Christ.
Prayer is “talking to God” (Graeme Goldsworthy, Prayer and the Knowledge of God, p. 15). Sometimes, perhaps too often, the “talk” is all about us. We’ve all had those annoying conversations that have been entirely one-sided, showing little or no interest in us. It’s all about them—their interests, desires, needs, and complaints. Prayer can get like that: we pour out our woes, become totally self-absorbed, and show no interest in dialogue that involves “listening” to what God has to say. God is patient and, in His grace, He responds. But it shouldn’t be like that. When Jesus taught us to pray, He showed us that prayer begins (and continues) with God: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name” (Matt. 6:9). Take a look at the structure of the Lord’s Prayer, and it will show you that at least half of our praying should be addressed to the praise and worship of God.
Many factors influenced Tertullian when he coined the term personae to represent the threeness of God, but he employed this term primarily because the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit “talk” to each other. They relate personally—to each other and to us. In other words, God communicates with Himself and with His people. It stands to reason, therefore, that prayer should consist of personal communion—talking to God with inquisitiveness as to His nature and His desires, and eagerness to learn about the things that please and displease Him.
The first petition of the Lord’s Prayer, among other things, reminds us that there must be a clearheaded focus on our part on who God is and what God is like. Theologians have reflected on how we come to know God and what it is that we know about Him. The answer has often come in this form: we know very little in answer to the question “What is God?” What we do know (because God has revealed it to us) is in answer to the question “What is God like?” God shows us what He is like by revealing to us His name.
Our minds, whether consciously or subliminally, are (to use John Calvin’s phrase) “idol factories,” constantly succumbing to “I like to think of God as …” formulas, all of which are seriously wrong, conceived by a persistent anti-God bias in our mental, moral, and spiritual systems. To avoid idolatry in prayer, we must begin by reminding ourselves of His name—whether that be God’s covenant name “I AM WHO I AM” or Yahweh (that is, self-existent, self-sustaining, self-determining, everywhere present, and always in control); or, as the Lord’s Prayer wonderfully encapsulates, “Father” (expressive of the newness of the new covenant and the access and status to which the work of our Redeemer has introduced us); or, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (as Jesus Himself disclosed in the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19). When Jesus commissioned His disciples to baptize in the “name” (singular) of “the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” He revealed the impenetrable truth that there is more than one in the one God.
God-centered prayer pauses to reflect on the nature of God, what He is like—His attributes. That, too, is the focus of an account in which God tells Moses His name. The context (Ex. 34) is the nasty business of the golden calf (man’s idol factory at work again). Having cleared up this mess, Moses ascended Sinai again only to be told God’s name once more (Yahweh, Ex. 34:5), but now expanded with an explanation of His nature: “The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, ‘“The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.’” Grace, mercy, and holiness are attributes that God assigns to Himself—holiness being His moral perfection that responds in retribution to lawlessness and ingratitude. God-centered prayer requires a proper knowledge of God in His Trinitarian glory.
Praise the Lord! For it is good to sing praises to our God; for it is pleasant, and a song of praise is fitting. (Ps. 147:1)
God is praiseworthy. Getting that fact under our skin is not as easy as we might think. Self-centered praying (which is a form of idolatry) fails to appreciate that our purpose here on earth is to praise our Creator and Redeemer. Listen to the psalmist as he extols the praiseworthiness of God again and again. The Psalter used to be the basic diet for Christians. Christians sang psalms around the dining room table and in church services on Sunday. Subliminally, the God-centered praise of the book of Psalms became the language of prayer. Since psalm-singing has waned, the rich God-exalting praise that the Psalter represents has waned as well.
J.I. Packer reminds us of the need to distinguish between praise and thanks, and to ensure that we do both:
Prayers of thanks focus to some extent on us. We thank God for particular gifts given to us and others personally, and for general gifts bestowed on all. Praise, on the other hand, focuses directly on God. We praise him for who and what he is. It is the difference between a spouse saying to the other, “You are the most understanding person I know; that’s one reason I love you so much” and “Thanks for the sandwich; I needed it.” (Praying: Finding Our Way Through Duty to Delight, p. 31)
Praising God does not come naturally to us. We must be resolute about it. That’s why Jesus warned His disciples in the preface to the Lord’s Prayer about a religious performance more concerned about outward spectacle and ceremony than inward authenticity and true worship. “Hypocrite” is the term Jesus uses (Matt. 6:5), a term just about as offensive now as it was then. Playacting, pretending to pray, praying without the reality of knowing we are in God’s presence, is a harsh judgment but a true one nevertheless. When we do such things, we are praying to exalt ourselves, not God. It is the self-centeredness that plagues us, that needs to be rooted out and destroyed. Authentic prayer, God-centered prayer, realizes that the promise of prayer is God Himself. Being in the presence of God is the greatest reward of prayer. Godly folk have always relished this:
O Lord, I love the habitation of your house and the place where your glory dwells. (Ps. 26:8)
Blessed is the one you choose and bring near, to dwell in your courts! We shall be satisfied with the goodness of your house, the holiness of your temple (Ps. 65:4)
Do you know anything of this? If not, pursue Him until you find Him.
Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near. (Isa. 55:6)
How can we ensure that our prayers are God-centered? Consider the following five-step strategy:
1. Remind yourself that there is only one God in the universe, and that you are not Him.
2. Adoration comes first, before confession, thanksgiving, or supplication. Worship the Lord in your praying.
3. Read a psalm before you pray, and attempt to emulate what you find: a preoccupation with God in all His multifaceted nature. Find psalms of joy or grief, praise or lament, and note how the psalmist spends time with God, making Him the center of his thoughts and desires.
4. Learn to love God’s names so that saying and repeating them fills you with an inexpressible joy, a reminder of who He is and His covenant faithfulness to you in the gospel of His grace.
5. Learn to “wait” upon the Lord. Watch how the psalmist, “fainting” as he thinks of his own troubles, finds relief by deliberately focusing on the great things God has done:
I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your wonders of old. I will ponder all your work, and meditate on your mighty deeds (Ps. 77:11-12).