“One of His disciples said to Him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray.’” Luke 11:1b
A Presbyterian from the rural south went to New York City during Christmas vacation to visit some of his relatives. On Sunday they went to church together, and since his relatives were Catholic, they went to a Catholic church. Now that Presbyterian just could not understand the mass! The prayers were in Latin. Priests wore fancy robes. The church smelled of incense and had more ornaments in it than a Christmas tree has on it. After the service the Presbyterian went by to shake hands with the priest at the front door. He introduced himself as a Presbyterian visitor; the priest welcomed him, and asked if he had any questions. Well, that southerner did, and he asked, “Do I understand it right, that when one of your children sins he comes and confesses it to you and you forgive him?” The priest said, “That’s right.” ‘Well,” the Presbyterian went on, “Who do you go to when you sin?” The priest looked surprised, assured the man that he tried to live a spotless life, and admitted that priests confessed their sins to and were forgiven by the bishop. “Well then, who does the bishop go to?” Persisted the Presbyterian. By now the priest was getting a little irritated. He was falling behind in handshakes there at the door, so he blurted out, “Bishops go to the Cardinals for forgiveness!” “And who do Cardinals go to?” “The Pope!” “Well, who does he see when he sins?” Exasperated, the priest cried out, “The Pope never sins! He is infallible! But if he ever was to sin, he is in direct contact with the Lord!” Well, that settled the matter for the southerner. He folded his arms, cocked his head and said, “Well, the Pope must be a Presbyterian!”
Jesus Christ teaches that we are all in direct contact with the Lord when we pray. Christ teaches His disciples to pray directly to the Father in the Lord’s Prayer. He said, “When you pray, say, Our Father…” Luke uses the Greek word “Abba” for “father.” It is best translated as “daddy.” In other words, Jesus is teaching us that we are in direct contact with God. We can be as familiar with God as a son is with his father. When we pray to God we can say, “Our Daddy…” St. Paul picks up on this truth as well. In Ephesians 3:12 Paul wrote, “We have boldness and confidence of access” to God in Jesus Christ.
Since we have direct contact with God what should we say when we talk to Him? How does one pray? Christ Jesus is best qualified to answer these questions, so let us follow Him around in Scripture and hear His teaching on prayer.
Praise The Lord!
Jesus, in the Lord’s Prayer, taught His disciples to first praise God. He said, “When you pray, say, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name” (Mt. 6:9). This is simply an ascription of praise. It is saying, “God, our Father, you are in heaven, you are over all and you are Holy and worthy of praise!”
The dictionary defines praise as, “A confirmation and due acknowledgment of the great and wonderful excellences and perfections that are in God.” And did you know that much of your Bible is praise? That is correct. The prophets praise God for His justice. Job praises God while hurting. The Psalmist, while viewing nature, cries out, “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is Thy name in all the earth!” (Ps. 8:1). The angels praise God in Luke and in Revelation. And in Acts Paul praises God from prison. If we are honest, I am quite certain most of us would have to admit that unlike the Scriptures our prayers seldom include very much praise.
Too often we only pray when we need something. We treat God like some sort of divine bellhop. “Do this. Do that. Carry this. Take that away. Bring me this!” But we should not pray to God only because we want Him to do something. He is God! He is the Creator, the Sustainer, and the Heir of the universe. And that alone makes Him worthy of our praise!
After a week of revival services in a small town a little lady named Hallie was seen walking down the street carrying a bucket of water and a crowbar. Most people in town thought Hallie was a bit crazy anyway, and a lot of folks called out to her, “Hey, Hallie! Where are you going with that bucket of water and that crowbar? Hallie answered, “I’m going to tear up heaven with this bar, and put out the fires of Hell with this water. Then people will have to praise God because He is God and not because of what He can do for them!” Well, maybe Hallie has more sense than she is given credit for. God is God. And that alone makes Him worthy of our praise!
Do you remember Jacob in the Bible? He married Leah. And together they had a son called Judah. Now “Judah” is a Hebrew name which means “praise.” In other words, they named their son, “Praise.”
Judah became the head of one of the twelve tribes of Israel. And later, during the Exodus, Moses constructed the tent of worship in the wilderness and God instructed each of the twelve tribes of Israel to camp around the tent. Now you need to know that there was only one doorway into that tent meeting, and God commanded that Judah’s tribe camp in front of the entrance. In other words, Praise stands at the entrance into the Lord’s presence. This is what Psalm 100 teaches as well. It says, “Enter… His courts with praise!” This is why we first praise God as a church when we worship together. It is our entrance into God’s presence. We do not worship Him because He is going to do something. We praise Him first because He is God and that alone makes Him worthy of our praise.
When you practice your own private prayers you may want to begin with praise prayer. It could take the form of a hymn where you sing, “O for a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer’s praise.” It could take the form of a Psalm where you acclaim, “Praise the Lord, O my soul, all that is within me praise His Holy name!” Or it can take form in your very own words. You can also praise God in all circumstances, and not just when things are going your way. When you are depressed there is no better tonic for your spirit than to praise the Lord. The same is true of defeat, fear, frustration, hardship, pain, and confusion. Praise carries you into God’s presence. It lifts your spirits right up to God’s throne. It carries you right to His doorstep.
Lord, Have Mercy On Me, A Sinner!
A second way Jesus teaches that we should pray is found also in the Lord’s prayer. He said to pray, “Our Father… forgive us our debts.” Here Jesus is showing us that at least part of our prayer time should be spent in the confessing of our sins. Remember Christ’s story of the Pharisee and the Publican? (Luke 18:9). “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself. ‘God, I thank Thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’” Then Jesus says, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other.” Right here in black and white from the pages of Scripture is the Lord’s insistence that we see ourselves not as we think we are, or as others say we are, but as God says we are. And that is sinful. The Bible says, “All (Christians included) have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). “Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins” (Ecc. 7:20). And God insists that we recognize our sins and confess them to Him.
It is the job of the Holy Spirit to point out our sins. Jesus said of the Spirit, “He will convince the world of sin” (John 16:8). As you live your life in Christ you are certain to find the Spirit bringing to your consciousness some specific sin. He will not overwhelm you by revealing too many of your sins at one time. That would crush you! But He will do it little by little so you can handle it. He may convict you of a lusty mind. He may point out a gossiping tongue, a critical spirit or an unjust business habit. And when He does convict you of that sin God expects you to come to Him with repentance. He expects you to confess that sin asking for forgiveness and release from bondage to that habit of sin.
Believe me, dear people, there is great therapy in confessional prayer. It is a form of prayer that strips our guilt away and clears our consciences. It is a form of prayer that acknowledges our brokenness and takes us to the Divine Healer. It is a form of prayer that breaks the sin habit and makes character a habit. It is healing therapy for broken people. It brings life. It was David’s prayer of confession in Psalm 32 and 51 that restored him after an adulterous affair with Bathsheba. It was the thief of the cross’ prayer that comforted him with the hope of paradise. It was Isaiah’s prayer of confession in Isaiah 6 that was followed by his commissioning as a prophet. And it will be our prayers of confession as well that bring us nearer to God, that make us more Christ-like, and that equip us to serve the Lord.
During World War I ace fighter pilots used to fly airplanes constructed out of wire, cloth and wood. Occasionally a pilot flying through the sky would hear a gnawing sound coming from the back of the plane. It was a dreaded sound. He knew it was a rat that had somehow crawled into his grounded aircraft and was now eating away at the cloth and the wood. If he ate through a cable the pilot would loose control of his plane and crash. So quickly he would execute a procedure known as “taking the rat up.” The pilot would simply climb for all the altitude he could get, and since rats cannot breathe thin air, the rat would die and the plane be saved. Now, our confessional prayers work something like that. When we find a “rat” in our lives, some sin that threatens to hurt us or destroy us, we should take it up to God in prayer. Sin cannot exist in God’s presence. His holiness destroys it.
If you have a sin the Holy Spirit is convicting you of, go to God in prayer. Bare your feelings to Him. Be completely honest with Him. Open your life up before His eyes. Pray with the Psalmist, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any wicked way in me” (Ps. 139). Then expose the sin directly before God. Admit that you have done it. Blush over it in God’s presence. I tell you that if you pray like that you will either stop the sin our you will stop the prayer!
Thank The Lord!
Moving on from praise prayer and prayers of confession we find Jesus teaching yet another form of prayer. Though one doesn’t find it in the Lord’s Prayer, it is thanksgiving. Do you recall how Christ healed ten men of Leprosy? Ten unclean and no place to go. Ten men cleansed as white as snow! Yet only one returned to give God thanks. And God, sorely disappointed, said, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the other nine?” Here Jesus is reminding us to spend at least part of our conversation with God in thanksgiving. He is counseling us to be like the one leper who, finding himself clean, returned to say, “Thank you.”
It is thanksgiving prayer that reminds us of our blessings and acknowledges God as our source of blessing. It is thanks prayer that keeps us from sins of grumbling, complaining, and cynicism. It is thanks prayer that builds gratitude, pleasantness, and loyalty into our character. It is thanks prayer that turns our whining into whistling.
Have you ever heard these complaints? A store clerk says, “I have to work so hard. No one’s job is as hard as mine!” A man in the living room of his fine home grumbles, “This profession isn’t what it used to be. You can’t make any money anymore!” When it rains people say, “What a messy day.” When the sun shines they say, “It’s too hot.” And when it is cool they say, “It’s too dry!” There’s a little poem worth knowing that can teach us all to count our blessings. It goes like this.
“Today upon a bus, I saw a lovely maid with golden hair; I envied her— she seemed so gay— and I wished I were as fair. When suddenly she rose to leave, I saw her hobble down the aisle; she had one foot and wore a crutch, but as she passed, a smile. Oh, God, forgive me when I whine; I have two feet— the world is mine.
And then I stopped to buy some sweets. The lad who sold them had such charm. I talked with him— he said to me: “It’s nice to talk with folks like you. You see,” he said, “I’m blind.” Oh, God, forgive me when I whine; I have two eyes— the world is mine.
Then walking down the street, I saw a child with eyes of blue. He stood and watched the others play; it seemed he knew not what to do. I stopped for a moment, then I said: “Why don’t you join the others, dear?” He looked ahead without a word, and then I knew, he could not hear. Oh, God, forgive me when I whine; I have two ears— the world is mine!
With feet to take me where I’d go, with eyes to see the sunset’s glow, with ears to hear what I would know, Oh, God, forgive me when I whine; I’m blessed, indeed! The world is mine!
There is a family that believes in practicing thanksgiving to the exclusion of whining. But they do not just observe thanksgiving once a year like most people. Anytime they have something that they are greatly thankful for they plan a feast, invite others over, and have a regular thanksgiving supper. In the past year they have had seven thanksgivings for such things as a college graduation, a new grandchild, a successful operation, and a new puppy. You too may want to follow their example. If you keep a prayer list, go back frequently and examine it to see where the yes-answered prayers are. Next pray, “Lord, you have given us so much. Give one thing more, a grateful heart.” Then very simply thank the Lord for sharing His strength with you when you wanted to quit. Thank Him for helping you to show someone close to you that you care. Thank Him for giving you the words to say when your son turned his back. Thank the Lord for allowing you to talk with Him as a friend. Thank Him for bringing you the courage to mention Jesus to a friend. And, yes, thank Him for bringing you comfort when mother went to be with Him in heaven.
You have no doubt seen that there are many moods of prayer. There is praise. There is confession. And there is also thanksgiving. Sometimes I think prayer is rather like driving a car with a manuel gear shift. Just as there are different gears in a car so there are different gears in prayer. No one drives a car without shifting gears. That would be an abuse. Different road conditions and speeds demand different gears. Prayer is like that too. It is an abuse of prayer to pray one way all of the time. It is abuse to pray only when you need something!
We start off our prayers with praise. First gear! We shift into confessional prayer. Second gear! Now we are really beginning to get going. So we shift again into thanks prayer. Third gear! And like Jesus said, we are really talking to “our Father.”
Right now, let us experiment with these three forms of prayer. First, let us stand, raise both our hands high, and in our own words silently praise the Lord. (Pause). Next, let us be seated or kneel and pray confessionally. With your eyes shut, silently ask the Holy Spirit to point out a sin in your life. “Take the rat up” to God. Admit it is there. Blush over it in His presence, and ask His forgiveness. (Pause). Finally, let us thank the Lord. Out loud, right now, say what you are thankful for. “Lord, you have given us so much! Give one thing more, a grateful heart!”
Lord, teach me to talk with you. Give me words of praise, words of confession and thanksgiving. Let me learn the therapy of each of these prayers. For Christ’s sake. Amen.
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