by Daniel Lowry
What would happen if we examined our practice of prayer in light of the Scriptures? In his book, Pentecostalization: The Evolution of Baptists in Africa, Randy Arnett shares an anecdote about a pastor who did just that. The pastor said:
“I studied prayer in the Bible. I set myself to study it. What did I do? I took simply the great men of prayer in the Bible—Abraham, Moses, Elijah. When I studied all that, I saw their common traits. Not one of them [prayed] as we do in our churches today. I came to other examples, for example, the Lord Jesus.”(p.160)
Arnett goes on to explain that this pastor and his church changed the way they prayed based on their examination of how godly persons of the Bible prayed. So, to evaluate our practice of prayer, consider these 5 things: 3 “Dont’s” and 2 “Do’s”.
1. Don’t pray like a hypocrite
The 1st half of Matthew 6 deals with 2 kinds of people: those who do religious things to be seen doing them, and those who truly interact with God; hypocrites, and those who are genuine. One of the examples Jesus gives of the hypocrite is those who “…love to pray standing in synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men.” (Mt. 6:5) Perhaps you have attended church services in which each voice tries to be heard over the others during a group prayer time. Or perhaps you yourself have, at times, chosen your words in prayer more to impress those listening than to actually communicate with God. This is unacceptable in the Lord’s church.
2. Don’t pray like a pagan
In the same discourse, Jesus also says, “…do not babble on like pagans, for they think that by their many words they will be heard.” (Mt. 6:7) We can see this principle in 1 Kings 18:16-40 in the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal atop Mount Carmel. In it we see 2 very distinct methods of prayer. In the first, a group of people gathers together and prays fervently, loudly, lifting up their voices together for hours. They claim the power of blood and do all they can to move the heart of the one to whom they pray. The second approach consists of a single prayer 2sentences long. It simply makes a request and leaves it at that. Which one did God honor? It was the second! The first was the prayer of pagan priests. Endlessly repeating (or shouting) our requests because we think our prayers will thus be heard is not Christian. It is a pagan practice. It is the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. It is many of our Baptist Churches.
3. Don’t imitate the sons of Sceva
I find it very common in churches that prayers are full of phrases like “blood of Jesus” or “name of Jesus” as though saying those phrases is powerful in and of itself. This seems similar to the sons of Sceva in Acts 19, who decided to imitate Paul and claim the name of Jesus in their own attempts to cast out demons. Their attempt ended poorly. (The demon-possessed man beat them all naked and chased them away bleeding.) What happened? They claimed the name of Jesus and His power against the demon! This account demands that we never use the name of Jesus or phrases like “the blood of Jesus” as power charms. When Jesus instructs us to pray in His name, he does not mean “insert my name in your prayers as a key to unlock my power.” To pray in the name of Jesus is to pray with faith in Him. It is to pray in the conscious awareness that I come to the throne not by my own authority or right, but by the authority of Jesus—not in my own name, but in the name of Christ.
We could look at numerous examples of God-honoring prayer throughout the Scripture, but let’s stick with the examples we’ve already introduced: Elijah and Jesus. Both men exhibit the practical outworking of avoiding the Dont’s above.
4. Pray like Elijah at Mount Carmel
Mount Carmel, Elijah prayed a very simple prayer. He didn’t repeat his requests
over and over. He simply presented his request to God, acknowledging his desire
for the Lord Himself to receive glory, and then waited for the Lord to answer.
To many, this prayer would seem weak compared to the “powerful,”
“passionate” prayers of the prophets of Baal. The lesson is this: we cannot and
must not seek to impress God by our many words or the way in which we speak
5. Pray like Jesus
Jesus neither prayed to be seen, nor did he heap up repeated phrases and “powerful” words. He spoke to the Father and stated his requests with faith and a concern for the Father’s glory. In John 11, Jesus prays “Father, I thank You that You have heard Me. I knew that You always hear Me, but I say this for the benefit of the people standing here, so they may believe that You sent Me.” Jesus believed that any time he prayed, God heard him. He knew that he didn’t need to shout or repeat phrases over and over or claim power in some way. He knew the Father listened.
We cannot hope to see the Lord’s power in response to our prayers if we pray like hypocrites and pagans. We will receive nothing from our grasping at power if we think power comes by our phrases and prayer formulations. But if we, in both belief and practice, follow the biblical example of prayer, then we can be certain that the Lord hears us and will act according to his will.
Daniel Lowry serves as a professor at Kenya Baptist Theological College outside Nairobi, Kenya, where his focus has been teaching Old Testament courses. Prior to this Daniel served as Pastor of New Castle First Baptist Church in Kentucky for 8 years. He holds a BA in Sociology from Louisiana College, and a Master of Divinity with an emphasis on biblical languages and theological studies from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Daniel and his wife, Kristen, have been married for 4 years and have 2 children: Serafina and Ebenezer.