How to get good at prayer
In my last blog I quoted Robert Murray McCheyne, who said "A man is what he is on his knees before God, and nothing more." In other words, once you strip away all the pretences, all the props and noise - and you're left alone before God, that's really who you are. That is the true measure of a person. You see, if you make someone's service or ministry -say how they preach or how they pray in public - a measure of who they are before God, then there's a lot of room for bluffing and posturing. But alone, with the door shut, in secret, as Jesus advises us in Matthew 6:6, that's when we really know what our spiritual life is like.
And that's a concern for folk like me. What I'm like on my knees in prayer, brings me up short in every sense. You see I have preached bad sermons – wittered on, not really getting to the point etc. But never before have I started, then forgotten that I was actually preaching. Or failed to get past the first point because of a fly on the window. Yet in prayer, alone before my glorious king and creator..... 'Did I put the rubbish out or did I not? ....Oh sorry God, where was I?' I'm all over the place!
So why are we so bad at prayer?
Well, I don't know if you've noticed, but the God we pray to is invisible. We can not see God. Forgive me for stating the obvious, but it does make a difference.
And although God is all around us, he's way beyond our imaginings. He is bigger than big. God is holy - 'set apart' –he is perfect, his thoughts are not our thoughts, his ways are not our ways.
As fallen and broken human beings, that holiness makes us separate from him. He remains unknown, seemingly out of reach. And that means God can often seem like a stranger to us. A holy stranger.
What do you talk to strangers about?
Not much. You might say 'hello', or make a comment about the weather (esp if you're British). You might even ask for the time or directions. But if you went up to a stranger and said 'I like your coat -can I have it?' I imagine -not having tried it- you're likely to get a less than warm response. So if God is a stranger to you – it follows your prayers will only reach a certain depth and you'll be reluctant to ask, seek or knock on his door for anything.
But many people – of all sorts of religions and spiritualities – would want to respond 'God doesn't need to be a stranger'. There are ways of accessing our holy God and making prayer deeper. The pagans of Jesus' day were one such group. Now, when we think of pagans today we might think of the irreligious, non-church types, but in Jesus' day pagans were very religious people – they would have made regular offerings to their gods, visiting temples. And of course they prayed. God seemed no stranger to them, but I think if you were to sum up the basis for their relationship with God it would be a service provider-client relationship. A landlord – tenant arrangement
What do you talk to your landlord about?
There are many more things, you can talk about with your boss, or your landlord say, than a stranger. Things that directly effect your life. You can negotiate pay, lodge complaints, you can even pay them compliments to keep them sweet and on your side.
Now if that is the basis on which someone relates to God, their prayer life may well look disciplined and regular; they may well pray in a number of different ways using different techniques:
So if it's true that "A person is what he is on his knees before God, and nothing more" A prayer life like this reveals that their underlying goal in prayer is to control their own environment/circumstances. It's a contract relationship with God.
it's a religious approach.
And the alarming thing that Jesus implies in Matthew 6:5-8 is that if that's what our prayers are mainly like, then we need to seriously – and uncomfortably - question whether we are a Christian or whether we're infact a religious pagan. You see uniquely, Christian prayer -the way of prayer that Jesus taught - has an entirely different basis. God is neither a stranger, or our big boss or land lord in the sky.
God is our Father.
The deeper we accept and realise this the better our prayer lives will be. When Jesus taught his disciples to pray he taught them to come as children to their heavenly Father. 'Forget the pagan approach', Jesus says. 'This, then, is how you should pray: Our Father in Heaven, hallowed be your name.'
So let's just think about what a healthy or ideal father-child relationship could look like, recognising that many of will not have experienced it in our lives:
Can you begin to see what a difference having that kind of basis of relationship with God would make to your prayers? Such freedom, such spontaneity, such joy.
The same Jesus who teaches us to pray 'our Father' made it possible for us for him to be our Father. Because of his life, death, resurrection and ascension, by his Holy Spirit, we are adopted as children of God. Complete access. Lavish love towards us.
Just spend a few moments in wonder at that. Let your heart's imagination go wild......go on, do it now......
....it's praying like this that will transform your life, from the inside out.