Prayer Is An Art
Not Everyone Does It Well
Prayer is nothing more and nothing less than conversation. We call it prayer because it is a conversation with God.
Like all conversation it is a means of communicating and it has many styles, settings and purposes.
- Prayer can be light and humorous like everyday chitchat between friends.
Jesus called the disciples friends and James said Abraham was called the friend of God. We readily and easily talk to people we consider our friends.
- It can be very serious and involve private matters.
When a friendship is close we can discuss any personal matter. We reserve very private issues for people we trust completely and God can be trusted. He never divulges your personal problems with others and there are no court orders that can force Him to do so. Admitting your deepest problems to God is cathartic and He never responds with judgment or threat. He patiently stands by us through every failure especially when we keep the conversation open.
- It can be detailed and even documented very much like a journal.
We never think of prayer as something we submit in writing but some people, to clarify their thinking and monitor progress, will actually write out the things they wish to express in prayer keeping track of possible responses when they develop. The people who organize their prayer life in this way know what the answer should look like. Disorganized people may not recognize the answer when it comes.
The object is to discover the mind and will of God not manipulate Him. When important decisions have to be made we must treat our prayers as if they were official communications. Nehemiah took this approach (Nehemiah 1). His initial prayer is recorded and he anticipated what the answer would look like. He needed the kings authority, documented in writing, along with military support for protection. Being an organized man, he probably wrote these things out.
- It can involve legally binding contracts like those we sign to buy houses.
When Abraham complained to God about not having a child yet, God verbally reassured him and then took Abraham through a common procedure used in that day for sealing contract agreements (Genesis 15). Everything in the chapter involved a prayer exchange.
- It can be stimulated by confusion and mixed signals.
Before taking the throne as king, David had to escape the death threat of Saul for several years. It was a confusing time and he often made decisions prayerfully. In the process his men often gave him advice that was very common and not on the right track (1 Samuel 23:2-4 & 30:1-9). His prayer for guidance delivered him from bad advice and confusion.
There is a great lesson to learn here. We absorb the ideas of the people who surround us because we are impressionable not because they are right. When confused, we need help and guidance from someone other than the people who crowd our lives.
Prayer is the best way to manage anxiety, an outgrowth of confusion.
- Prayers can sometimes be repetitive
The Psalms were prayers set to music and in Psalm 136 the phrase “His mercy endures forever” (obviously speaking about God) is repeated 26 times.
- It can be a specialized ministry
In Exodus 17, within days of the Red Sea crossing, Israel was attacked by Amalek. Moses told Joshua to organize an army and engage the battle. While Joshua fought, Moses, Aaron and Hur went up to the top of a nearby hill and prayed (held up the staff). The point is, prayer is not something to impose on every person. Some must do the work of ministry while others pray for it.
- But prayer should never be boringly monotonous.
Jesus actually rebuked those who prayed mechanically.
“And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans…” (Matthew 6:7)
You can repeat yourself occasionally to make a point but it should never be stiflingly ceremonious.
I mention these different types of prayer (and there are more) because we tend to put prayer in a box. Many pray, only with eyes closed or heads bowed and they do it silently, only too themselves.
That describes the most common manner in which people pray.
But prayer, like conversation, is much more versatile than that. A conversation with God can happen at any time and in any posture and for any reason, in any place.
It can be very emotive. It can be full of enquiry. It can be used to negotiate an outcome (Genesis 18:32).
It can be nothing more than just “how are you God, I’m fine.”
It can be done individually and also as a group. In fact, the Bible says when two people agree together in prayer, it will be done for them (Matthew 18:19). This is a very powerful concept. When unity is established between two or more people the thing they pray for will be done.
Prayer can be very spontaneous. In fact, most prayer should be. Could you imagine having conversations with your wife or best friend that are always scripted?
Prayer can take place in any posture or position.
- Some pray best while standing, others while walking or jogging.
- Some pray best while reading their Bible or even some other material.
- Some are stimulated to pray while listening to preaching and others prefer solitude.
Like conversation, it allows for personal expression.
Prayer is a very multi-dimensional word. There is no simple, one line definition or description for prayer. There is no “one-format-fits-all” approach to prayer.
The word “prayer” is used to translate several different words in the Bible and the people who prayed did so in many different positions: standing, kneeling, prostrate, sitting, walking, in battle, eyes closed, eyes open, hands and arms raised and so on.
Prayers were expressed in different ways. Some spoke their prayers, others thought their prayers, others wrote their prayers out (Psalms were prayers put to music) and others included action or drama in their prayers.
In fact, all prayer should be accompanied or followed closely by action of some kind.
Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you… (Matt. 7:7)
We usually think of “Asking” as the praying part and “seeking” and “knocking” as something else. That is wrong. All three are expressions of prayer.
Abraham’s servant is a good example. He was sent to find a wife for Isaac and prayed while actively looking for a proper candidate (Genesis 24:1-21). That constituted seeking but he also included a “knock” in his prayer.
We are encouraged to find answers by doing more than just asking. God also expects us to look for answers (seek) and even use the process of elimination (knock) to isolate the answers of His choice.
The Bible also says, “…The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective” (James 5:16).
“Righteous” does not, however, refer to a super spiritual, “holier than thou” kind of person. It means “right acting” and is as equally practical as it is spiritual.
A right-acting business man is one who has the skill to manage his business well on a daily basis. Knowing he will manage things right (on a practical level), God can easily answer his prayer to bless the business.
A good response to a failing business is to pray for wisdom to run it better. And the question you must ask is not, “Am I doing something sinful?” but “Am I doing something wrong?” The prayer you add to inappropriate action is wasted energy and missed opportunity.
The prayers in the Bible expressed many different attitudes and feelings.
- Some were angry and others were joyous.
- Some praised God and others questioned Him.
- Some prayers were insightful and others expressed confusion.
- Some were full of hate and wished for vengeance while others expressed pity and were full of compassion.
We learn from Psalms that prayer is often a very good way to manage negative emotions. Vent them in prayer! David, in particular, used this approach. He wished all kinds of ill will on his enemies through prayer and was better for it. God doesn’t absorb or act on this negative sentiment and it relieves your emotional distress enough to allow you to think more clearly.
- What should we ask for?
Rather than ask for a million bucks, ask for the resourcefulness to make it and the skill to manage it well. That is a legitimate prayer. We are to pray for guidance not gifts.
“If any person lacks wisdom let him or her ask of God who gives to all liberally and upbraids not.” (James 1:5)
That is a universal promise. All wisdom comes from God, is always God honoring and God makes it available to any person who will employ it, believer and unbeliever alike. In fact, many unbelievers show more wisdom than believers.
But, remember, when you ask for wisdom, God isn’t going to confirm what your existing opinions. He will give you what you desperately need and don’t already know. He may confirm your thoughts but will often change your mind.
- What should people do when they pray?
Anything but sit around and wait for an answer: Ask, seek and knock. Make a list of specific items to pray for. Eliminate items, add items and isolate answers as you go. Prayer is a great way to plan. It keeps you moving forward even when it feels like you are standing still.
- When should people pray?
At all times (1 Thessalonians 5:17). That means prayer should permeate an active life not consume it. It takes attitude to pray properly not time.
Prayer properly offered, integrates seamlessly with who you are and what you are doing now.
One last thought.
Prayers which focus on the future should be well connected to the past. Some things in our past lives worked well. Some things didn’t. Some of our past actions were blessed by God and some fell flat, along with the prayers that accompanied them.
Look for patterns in your past experience and in your past prayers. That can give you direction for the future. Thanking God for the blessed areas in our past helps us recognize where God is taking us now.
We usually think of prayer as forward looking but it should also have hindsight as well. Don’t be so busy looking for the next answer that you don’t connect well with the one you’ve already received.