How do we prepare to pray to God? An obvious answer emerges from the request that the disciples of Jesus made: “Lord, teach us to pray…” (Luke 11:1). We may learn from reading the words of the prayer Jesus taught them on that occasion, or its close parallel that is recorded as part of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapter 6. That prayer, which people call the Lord’s Prayer, or the Model Prayer, or the Our Father, praises God, recognizes his authority, confesses sin, asks for forgiveness, and requests provision of daily survival needs. Jesus, and later several biblical writers, gave instruction on how to pray.
Various biblical passages suggest that organizing praise and petitions is only part of preparing to pray. They suggest that before we pray, we must reform our lives if we expect God to receive our prayer and our praise. An analogy: A group of Soldiers surrounded by attacking enemies, broadcasts a plea for help on a radio frequency that is not the one they have been instructed to use to contact their higher headquarters. They call for fire, but friendly forces do not hear their call.
Isaiah’s prophecy in the biblical book that bears his name begins with a message from God: God’s people do not know him; they do not understand what he wants (See Isaiah 1:1-4). God states that their many sacrifices fail to impress him; their offerings are futile; “incense is an abomination” to him (verses 10-13). He refuses to hear their prayers:
“When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:15-17).
They have used the wrong signals when communicating with God. Soldiers may wear their uniforms precisely, clean their weapons and equipment well, but if they fail to follow instructions on how to communicate in times of crisis, those disciplined preparations will fail if they are attacked by an overwhelming force.
Echoes of God’s warning to Israel resound through the teachings of Jesus and other passages in the New Testament in admonitions to disciples of Christ:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers” (Jesus speaking in Matthew 7:21-23).
“If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:26-27).
Praise, precise formal worship, and even prayer mean nothing if they do not flow from a heart that is tuned to the will of God, that is motivated by love for Him and for other people. God calls through Isaiah for his people to purify their hearts. These verse in Isaiah are addressed to Israel as God’s own people; they are not spoken to pagans. He calls on them to wash themselves and make themselves clean, not in a ritual cleansing but in the redirection of their hearts to his priorities and to the care of the helpless. To be sure, God still wanted these members of his covenant community to observe the cleansings and to offer sacrifices, but those acts meant nothing if worshipers then conducted dishonest business practices, refused to help the poor, and questioned the authority of God’s word.
David’s prayer in Psalm 51 includes a section that illustrates the kind of worship and prayer longed for by God in Isaiah 1:
“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit” (Psalm 51:10-12).