I couldn’t sleep. It was the middle of the day, so one might think, of course I can’t sleep. I’m not meant to when the sun’s still up. But this was the middle of day three – day three of less than five hours of sleep. Day three of falling asleep about 2 hours later than I do on average, only to wake up at 3:30 in the morning, tossing and turning.
I was lying on my parents’ couch trying to nap. I was certain sleep would come quickly. I mean, I was so tired could barely think; walking was exhausting. Surely when my head hit the pillow and I closed my eyes, I would soon slip into unconsciousness.
But instead of heavy eyes closing, it felt as though the weights were pulling my eyes open. My muscles tensed involuntarily. I felt I couldn’t make my body meet the cradling of the cushions; it was almost as though I hovered a few millimeters above its surface and I had to consciously ground my feet, my knees, my hips, my shoulders, and my head to the couch rather than just effortlessly sink in.
Rest was not to be found.
My mind couldn’t form words, but if someone were to translate what it was communicating, it would sound much like Psalm 6:
“I am weary with my moaning;Psalm 6:6-7
every night I flood my bed with tears;
I drench my couch with my weeping.
My eye wastes away because of grief;
it grows weak because of all my foes.”
My brother, one of my most trusted friends, someone who I know will receive my emotions with understanding every time, arrived to my parents’ house. I got up, tears welling up in my eyes. It wasn’t from joy of seeing him, although I was very happy to see him. It was from having someone there whose presence allowed my weakness and vulnerability to reveal itself without shame.
Without words, I hugged him, my head in his shoulder, and lost control, sobbing. He didn’t ask any questions. He didn’t know why I was crying. He just hugged me back, sincerely. And I finally felt the tension searing through my body begin to release.
How Our Prayers Ought To Look?
When we think or talk about prayer, a couple problems can easily come up:
- How do I make sure I’m praying the right way?
- If God knows what I’m going to say, why bother praying?
To answer the first question, we immediately think of the frameworks we’ve been given for prayer – The Lord’s Prayer from Scripture, or another common one, ACTS (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication). There are also the Psalms, prewritten prayers like Valley of Vision, and more. And these are wonderful, edifying resources.
But a mistake we cannot make is turning any of these – even the Lord’s Prayer – into required prayer structures. That is, we cannot call someone’s prayer “wrong” because it doesn’t perfectly match what seems to be “right”. Keep in mind, these “right” prayers were written and given generally, applicable to all, so they cannot be applied as imperatives on the daily, private prayers of the individual.
Have you heard people say to use the Psalms as templates for prayer because, “they communicate deep hurt but end in praise?” It is as though that order is the only appropriate one if we have pain to communicate. And, there seems to be this unspoken perception that the depth of pain communicated in such psalms is the acceptable amount with which to come to God.
If that’s the case, let’s examine some psalms, beginning with Psalm 77, written by Asaph.
“I cry aloud to God,Psalm 77:1-4
aloud to God, and he will hear me.
In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord;
in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying;
my soul refuses to be comforted.
When I remember God, I moan;
when I meditate, my spirit faints. Selah
You hold my eyelids open;
I am so troubled that I cannot speak.”
Consider what he’s saying in this introduction. “My soul refuses to be comforted.” Asaph, don’t you have faith? Don’t you know who this God is? You are not comforted because you are refusing to be. You can control emotions and stop resisting comfort.
“When I remember God, I moan.” Asaph, are you implying that God is a burden to you?
“You hold my eyelids open; I am so troubled that I cannot speak.” You accuse God of inflicting you with your lack of sleep?
Now, this Psalm does end in beautiful trust. “Your way was through the sea, your path through the great waters; yet your footprints were unseen.” (Psalm 77:19.) Still, the point here is we must recognize the intensity of the pain and the hurt he feels in relationship with God as a result of his suffering – and that “unacceptable” expressions were not withheld.
Next, let’s look at the last verses of Psalm 39:
“Hear my prayer, O Lord,Psalm 39:12-13
and give ear to my cry;
hold not your peace at my tears!
For I am a sojourner with you,
a guest, like all my fathers.
Look away from me, that I may smile again,
before I depart and am no more!”
David here tells God to leave him alone so he can have peace on his deathbed. This is how the psalm ends. It doesn’t fit very nicely into our ACTS or outline sometimes drawn from the Lord’s Prayer.
How We Ought To Pray
Let’s talk about the Lord’s prayer, using the account in Matthew.
“And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then like this:Matthew 6:7-13
‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.’”
Right away, we see Jesus give us a warning to not give phrases or prewritten prayers a status they are not meant to have, as though they grant our prayers an extra measure of righteousness, making for a quick pass right to the ear of God. Should we use these prayers, we must ensure they are not empty – that is, recited for recitation’s sake. Such tools are wonderful for when words are gone but our hearts are bursting with need for communion with the Lord. Prewritten prayers are not intended to be rules we follow, but aids that spur us on.
Next, Jesus cuts to our second question by acknowledging it openly: “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”
And yet, Jesus continues by encouraging His followers to ask for daily bread. What is going on here?
The key is in these words: “Our Father.”
Prayer Through Divinity
Let’s visit another prayer from Jesus to get an idea of what this means for our prayers.
“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.”John 17:20-23
In this High Priestly Prayer offered from the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus states something remarkable in several ways but summed up here: “I in them and you in me.” There is a oneness with Christ that we who are in Him are granted, and the oneness with Christ draws us directly into relationship with the Father.
Consider, believer: your union with Christ grants you His righteousness, His glory, and His Sonship (Romans 8:15-17).
Jesus is the firstborn of all creation, our older brother in whose pattern we follow for the life He has granted us. In our mystical union with Christ, we too can come to our Father and boldly communicate what our suffering hearts desire. And through the power of the Holy Spirit within us, we can come to a place where our human desires are submitted to the will of the Father, as we will see next: “Nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will.”
Prayer Through Humanity
So let’s go to His other prayer in the garden and see how He approaches His (now our) Father.
“And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, ‘My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.’”Matthew 26:39
“Father, take this away.” He boldly asks God from a place of despairing sorrow (see verse 38), to change His plan if at all possible. His humanity pleaded for what He knew His divinity could not allow. (This can bring a perception of conflict within the Trinity. For more on this, click here.)
So is it wrong to pray for what is not in God’s plan? No. In the event of a plane crash headed for certain death, would it be wrong to pray for lives to be spared? Absolutely not. (Hopefully, we would also pray to die well and that souls would be saved, but prayers like these come with time and spiritual maturity and so we cannot burden young believers to pray this way in order to be accepted.) Knowing that the Christ Himself pleaded for what He knew was not in the plan, we find grace to express our desire for impossibilities before our Father.
What these psalms and Jesus show us is something that separates YHWH from all other gods. He does not require us to come with rituals to earn His favor like Allah. He does not require us to ascend a mountain to be heard like Greek deities. Nor does He expect us to shed our conflicting desires and pain in order to enter some transcendent oneness with Him, like Buddhism.
Instead, in this fully divine, infinite, omnipotent, holy Being, we have a Father. The difference between our God and other gods is relationship, and more specifically, that our God is interested in having one with us.
(Shame on those of us who try and make God out to be merely holy, wrathful, and nearly unapproachable like Zeus in our preaching of His nature, when a part of what sets Him apart – what makes Him holy – is His extension of relationship to us.)
“What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”Luke 11:11-13
Our Father delights in our obedience, but hates heartless duty (Hosea 6:6; Psalm 51:16-17).
He condescends to us (Psalm 116:2; Philippians 2:5-7).
And most importantly, as illustrated by the Psalms and by Christ Himself, He accepts our prayers in our present, honest states of mind. In fact, He wants them.
So is there wrong prayer? The Bible gives insight into what prayers are unacceptable, but the parameters are really quite narrow. We can sum them up here: religious words void of sincerity, prayer for things that directly oppose His will for us (praying for sinful desires or for sinful actions to be blessed), prayer that is in reality just praise of self (Luke 18:9-14), prayers offered with blatant ignorance of our own rebellion (1 Peter 3:7, Matthew 6:14), and prayer as a performance (Matthew 6:5-6).
Simply put, dishonesty. A lack of integrity. Prayers made to a god of our own design, and not the God that is.
So, Child of the Father, made one with Christ by faith, through the power of the Holy Spirit, pour out your heart to the Lord.
Pour Out Your Heart To The Lord
At the beginning of this post, I shared a personal story about my brother being a human example of this freedom to approach God without filter, without fear of rejection for what I was experiencing. How much more would the love displayed in this earthly relationship be surpassed by what God offers to us in Himself?
When He already knows our frame is dust and sees with perfect clarity the depth of our hearts, do we really think we can lead God to believe we “have it together” when we approach Him? Do we not think it grieves Him to see us come with washed faces and pristine words when moments ago He saw us falling apart?
As Jesus says, God “knows what you need before you ask him.” The purpose of prayer, then, is communion with our Father. It is pursuing deeper oneness. It is learning how rich His love is by coming to learn how graciously and fully we are received every time we approach. It is being conformed into the likeness of Christ and our wills aligned to His own.
How do we connect with people, beyond interests and values? Through communication. We exchange words, ideas, we see how the other responds and what tones they use. This completes the person in our minds. In communing with God, we experience His presence, how He handles us, and how He responds to us. We see that the promises He makes in His word are true, that He is who He says He is. Prayer is the communication that reveals to us the reality of His character. It connects the head to the heart; it brings the distant concepts in close.
So it is essential not only that we pray, but that we realize what prayer is, the purpose it serves, and to Whom we are praying – our Father, who gave us the breath of life.
But some theologians capture this better than I:
“We must lay before him what is in us; not what ought to be in us.”C.S. Lewis
“I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God. It changes me.”
“It is mirrored in familial relationships in this world. Those of you who are mothers or fathers have certainly had the experience, if you know very well what’s going on in your children’s mind, you don’t need to probe. You can see, you can observe it as a parent. You know more from your experience than they do. Sometimes you take the child aside and you say, ‘Tell me about it. Tell me what’s happening here.’ you know very well what’s happening. You know it better than they know it. But you’re giving that child now an opportunity to relate to you and to relate it – isn’t it interesting we use the word ‘relate’ sometimes as a verb that means ‘to tell’?
And yet we also mean it as a personal relationship. You say, ‘Speak to me, pour it out, bounce it off me, talk to me,’ and you invite the child to inform you of what you already know. And so, our Heavenly Father gives us the opportunity to come into His presence, to have a private audience with Him, to set before Him those things that we feel like we need. He knows before we come what we’re going to say, but it is for our benefit and our good that we have the opportunity to speak with Him.”R.C. Sproul (source)
So, how ought we to pray? Constantly, earnestly, presently, boldly – aided by the word and responsive to the presence of its Author.
(And you will find that the more you pray, the more naturally praise, adoration, thanksgiving will roll off the tongue, even in the midst of suffering, because you see with more clarity Who you are expressing your suffering to.)
I’ll leave you with some reminders of the nature of your Father:
“He is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” (Psalm 34:18)
“You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle.” (Psalm 56:8)
“Cast your burdens upon the Lord, for He cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:7)