I feel so unqualified to talk about prayer, because at age 50 I am still a toddler in this area. But I hear many people talk about prayer, and I hear many prayers of students and staff throughout the week, and I would like to discuss two things that make my toes curl:
1. Pray the prayer to receive Christ. I commented, on my own previous post, about the phrase "receive Christ," and you can read my comment if you like. But I can also find no reference, teaching or example of anyone in the New Testament praying in order to receive salvation and become a follower of Christ. Certainly prayer is an important expression of faith, but it scares me that anyone might think that saying a prayer - particularly one repeated after someone else - will save him from hell and fit him for heaven. When we give to prayer the definite article - "the prayer" - are we not saying that this action is what saves us? We might as well add in a few rosary beads and a half dozen Hail Mary's!
An expression of faith that does show up often in the NT is public confession. "If you declare with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved" (Romans 10:9-10). "Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses" (1 Timothy 6:12). If we want to call people to respond to the Gospel in a meeting, would it not be better to have them tell the gathering about their emerging faith in Christ? Instead we tend to give them the impression that repeating the preacher's prayer after him is the magical incantation that transforms them into a Christian!
Again I will say, God's amazing waves of grace will not be held back by our traditions, and people do become genuine followers of Christ at these meetings. But others miss the boat. How many say "the prayer" at every opportunity they are given, just to make sure? How many have said "the prayer" and thought it was enough, only to find themselves slipping quickly back into sin and guilt and frustration, because faith in Christ was not involved?
It makes sense that prayer should be an expression of new faith in Christ, and I am not saying we shouldn't pray with the new believer. But let's understand, and make clear to the young follower of Jesus, that faith in Christ is what saves him, and that prayer is only one expression of that faith, among many others such as telling people and turning from sin and following Jesus.
2. Just. I love the TNIV translation of Jesus' parable in Luke 11: "Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, 'Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have nothing to set before him.' And suppose the one inside answers, 'Don't bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can't get up and give you anything.' I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need" (italics mine).
Wow, approaching God with "shameless audacity"! He invites us to pray boldly, to ask for the things that only he can do, that only he can provide! Then, when he answers, all will know that they have seen God at work.
Fade back a moment and listen to us pray in one of our meetings, long after an exhaustive list of prayer requests: "Lord, would you just work in Francine's heart tonight, just comfort her with your love, just let her know your presence with her..." Beautiful words, but what is with this word "just"? Think I'm exaggerating? Listen to your friends pray next time, and try not to snicker. I bet the average prayer includes the word "just" ten or more times.
Maybe we are trying to be polite with God (is this a Canadian thing, or do Americans use this word too??). Maybe we don't want to ask too much. It seems to me that we think the addition of the word "just" makes our prayers more heart-felt and passionate. I'm glad that God listens to our hearts and not just our words! Because to me, the insertion of the word "just" to every plea is a far cry from "shameless audacity." Imagine that night we ran out of bread: "Uh, neighbor, just a loaf or two of bread for my friends, if you don't mind! If you could just bring it down I'll be on my way. Sorry for the inconvenience." Not in Jesus' story. I imagine the man banging on his neighbor's door, waking half the neighborhood, overcoming his neighbor's protests with his insistence. I am quite sure he didn't say the word "just" even once.
Oh, it is hard to break this habit, and if you can use the word "just" in a shamelessly audacious manner, please go for it. But Jesus has invited us to tell it to him straight, to be clear, specific and to the point, and I think we should take him up on that. A favorite poem to illustrate:
Lord, I crawled
across the barrenness
with my empty cup,
any small drop
I had known you better
I’d have come
running with a bucket.
Nancy Spielberg, Decision Magazine, Billy Graham Assoc., November 1974